Saintly Shenanigans

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The Bishop and the Abbess: Sammy and Hildy square off February 21, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — revwaf @ 4:34 pm

So on we plod toward the Saintly Sixteen!  The bottom right bracket was filled in yesterday by Oscar Romero’s sending Elizabeth Ann Seton packing — but come on, really, did she even have a chance???  This means Oscar will be taking on Lucy.  Too bad we can’t place little wagers because if we did I’d wager that Romero will sweep Lucy in the next round, thus vindicating John the B.   Today’s match-up may be a bit more of a nail-biter; strong cases can be equally made for Samuel Seabury and Hilda of Whitby.  And wonder of wonders, neither one is a martyr!

Samuel Seabury stained glass window at All Saints, Fort Lauderdale. Hey! That’s in our diocese! Who knew?

Samuel Seabury:  was the first bishop and second Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church.  Born in 1729, he grew up in Connecticut and studied theology at Yale.  He moved to Edinburgh to study medicine, going on to be ordained deacon, then priest, in England.  Returning to the Colonies, Seabury served as rector of several churches in New Jersey and New York.  Before and during the Revolutionary War, Seabury remained a staunch loyalist.  After the Revolution, however, Seabury became loyal to the new government.

He moved back to Connecticut where, a few years later, he was elected bishop.   But there was one “slight” hitch:  without any bishops on this side of The Pond to consecrate him, he had to go to England in search of episcopal (that’s “bishop-y”) hands to be laid on him.  Back in not-so-jolly England he was not met with warm hands, but rather– as Gomer Pyle used to say, “suh-prize, suh-prize, suh-PRIZE”–  with a  cold shoulder.  The official reason was something about Seabury’s not being able to swear allegiance to the king being now an, ahem, American.  But I suspect it had more to do with political noses being out of joint (oh doesn’t it just always…).

Ever ones to stick it to the English, a group of Scottish bishops who refused to recognize the authority of George III (“Non-juring bishops” is the buzz phrase we had to remember on pop quizzes back in seminary) said “come on up, Sammy boy, we’ll take a wee dram o’single malt and then take care ‘a  ye!”  So he was consecrated bishop by the affable Scotsmen with a not-too-hidden agenda and could now go back to the US and ordain priests and deacons.  The Brits, fearing a way too lovey-dovey-toward-Scotland attitude springing up in the American church eventually conceded the inevitable and consecrated the second US bishop (William White) so now the newly-named Episcopal Church could go on its merry way ordaining deacons and priests, and consecrating bishops as we saw fit.  We have even saw fit to consecrate  — gasp!– women bishops  (something the CofE has yet to do…).

Samuel Seabury’s legacy also includes contributions to the first American Book of Common Prayer (1789).  He brought a strong commitment to the Eucharist as well as an understanding that the Eucharist should be the main service of the week.  It took much of the rest of the church another almost 200 years to catch up with him, but I’m delighted that even back in my own old mid-Atlantic stomping grounds you will no longer find Morning Prayer (Rite I of course)  on Pentecost because it happens to be the 3rd Sunday of the month…

Samuel Seabury went home to God in 1796.  We Episcopalians owe him a lot.

The ruins of Hilda’s abbey at Whitby. This is about how close I came to it when on sabbatical with my then 11 and 6 year old kids. We got there just as it closed and then had trouble finding a place to stay, settling on a somewhat sketchy B&B. My kids don’t have good memories of Whitby…

Hilda of Whitby was born in 614 and raised in the Northumbrian (northeast England) court of King Edwin after she was orphaned.  Along with the rest of his court, Hilda was baptized on Easter, 627.  We know nothing about Hilda from the time of her baptism until she was 33 years old.  What we do know of her comes the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English.

We pick up the Hilda thread at age 33 when she is already, presumably, a nun.  She has answered Aidan of Lindsifarne’s call to return to Northumbria.  Having learned the traditions of Celtic monasticism, Hilda eventually founded an abbey/monastery at Whitby on the rugged coast of the North Sea.  The communal life of the abbey was conducted in the Celtic style, focusing less on hierarchy and more on community.  Those abbeys were co-ed:  men and women, whose roles were not as rigidly delineated as in other church eras, lived separately in small houses but worked and worshiped together.  Hilda was by no means the only female leader of such a community back in the day.  As many others did, the community of Hilda’s Whitby abbey lived by the Celtic values of holding goods and property in common, focusing on the Christian virtues of peace, charity, study of the Bible, good works and hospitality.  Hilda herself was known as a skilled administrator, highly energetic and a woman of great wisdom; kings sought her out for advice.

In 664, King Oswiu called for a synod, the first of its kind in the British Isles, to be held at Whitby.  By that time Britain was characterized by two forms of Christianity:  the Celtic and the Roman.  Oswiu saw the need to settle two particular issues:  the method for establishing the yearly date of Easter and the style of the “tonsure” (the bald spot in a monk’s hairdo).  As often happens with “small issues,”  these actually carried a far deeper level of meaning  (remember the first great schism in the church took place over adding – or not – the word “and” to the Nicene Creed: “…the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and (or not) the Son…”).

In the end, the Roman side won, thus setting the  course for the British Isles eventually to become part of the hierarchical structure of the Roman church.  Until… — but that’s another story for another day.

Celtic Spirituality never really went away, it continued just under the surface of so much of British/Scottish/Welsh/Irish spirituality for centuries.  I for one don’t believe it’s an accident that so much mystical literature comes from these Isles (think of elves and leprechauns, King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and most recently Harry Potter).  I for one rejoice that our Celtic underpinnings  have now re-emerged with such overt vigor in a time when we so clearly need a spiritual emphasis on community, the goodness of creation, and the preservation of the natural world.

Musings: Before I reacquainted myself with Samuel Seabury and Abbess Hilda I was sure I would be voting for Samuel.  I have had a grudge against Hilda for a long time.  Don’t get me wrong, there is so much about her that I love:  her strength, energy, wisdom and her embodiment of the Celtic values I so cherish.  My grudge came not from her personally but rather from the outcome of the Synod, which for many years I held Hilda personally responsible.  I have often wondered what would have happened if the Celtic way ultimately “won out” over the Roman and since, I had to blame somebody, I blamed Hilda.  I saw the Roman victory as her being the victim of her own generously hospitable nature.  The one committed to hospitality always makes the guest feel at home and have the last word.  In my ruminations I would even go so far as to mentally call Hilda a pushover, thinking that she had let the people with the Roman viewpoint just walk all over her!

But in preparing today’s Shenanigans post, I have reassessed my hardline view.  Can the blame really be Hilda’s?  She wasn’t the one who ultimately acquiesced to the Roman view after all; she was one of many who attended that Synod.  And how often when we make a small compromise (for surely the date of Easter and the shape of a monk’s bald spot must have seemed small at the time) do we have an inkling of what it will eventually lead to?   No, I’ve been grossly unfair to Hilda over the years and so I have decided she’s getting my vote today.   Besides, she’s the only Celtic saint in this year’s Madness.  Samuel, thank you that we now have our own American bishops (it would be tedious to have to  keep schlepping people off to Scotland to be consecrated) and a huge thank you for your emphasis on Eucharist, but I’m casting my vote with Hilda this time.  Besides, if she advances, I can vicariously have a grudge match against the Ignatius who defeated the Ignatius I voted for!

To vote, go here


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