Why We Stay Away

As the parish priest closes a Sunday, he replays in his mind the faces from the morning. He strives to remember the names of the visitors, the dates that quickly given about coming medical procedures, and he tries to forget any petty verbal jab or passive-aggressive confrontation. He also reflects on the faces he didn’t see. How many Sundays has it been since they were here? Are they traveling? Are they ill? Is something wrong?

The cut of a blade that is double-edged never heals. We should not be distracted by those who aren’t there at the expense of those who are; we know this. Yet we are also troubled by the stern admonition of the prophets and Our Lord himself who was quick to leave the 99 and snatch from certain danger the 1. We are not operating a commercial enterprise, needing the patronage of consumers happy consumers and yet, we are.  

The percentage of those who have received the faith from a previous generation is declining faster than even the most pessimistic cares to admit. The fastest growing faith is no faith at all. The church’s response? Give them what they want. But what do they want? They don’t know. Therein lies the catch. No matter what new thing we offer, the returns will, ultimately, continue to diminish.

Nearly 200 years ago, Blessed John Henry Newman asked the exact same question.

“Does it not seem a plain nature instinct,” he asked, “that every one should seek his own good? What then is meant by this unwillingness to come for the greatest of goods, life; an unwillingness, which, guided by the light of Scripture and by experience, we can confidently affirm to prevail at this day as widely and as fully as in the age which Christ said it?”

The Scriptural context to which Newman refers is John 5.40, “Ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life.” The context of his comments is from a homily preached (date unknown) on the First Sunday after Easter, as every priest knows, both liturgically and numerically, as Low Sunday.

Newman is a brilliant thinker; this we know. He was unique even among intellectual luminaries of his company. His gift for perception as a pastor, however, often goes unnoticed. He continues to develop the problem:

“Here is no question of a comparison of good with good. We cannot account for this unconcern about Christ’s gift, by alleging that we have a sufficient treasure in our hands already, and therefore are not interested by the news of a greater. Far from it; for is not the world continually taking away its own gifts, whatever they are? And does it not thereby bring home to us, does it not importunately press upon us, and weary us with the lesson of its own nothingness? Do we not confess that eternal life is the best of all conceivable gifts, before which none other deserve to be mentioned? Yet we live to the world”

 There is nothing new under the sun. The temptation, of course, is to give more information. How often have priests heard this from devoted lay leaders and how often have we spoken these words ourselves? If they just understood what the Church expects, they would come. If they just knew what the parish expenses were, they would give. If they just understood how rampant (fill in the social ill), they would serve. But that is not the answer. Rabbi Edwin Friedman would call this the Fallacy of Expertise. The answer is not simply more information.

Newman beat us to it. “And others fancy that if the doctrines of the Gospel were set before them in a forcible or persuasive manner, this would serve as a means of rousing them to an habitual sense of their true state. But ignorance is not the true cause why men will not come to Christ.”

To be clear, we are not given permission to judge hearts, for we can’t. We have no business declaring what is a weed and what is wheat. We are called to do the only thing we can do, acknowledge the presence or the absence of fruit. The fruit of the faithful Christian, Newman articulates, is the longing for and reception of the Blessed Sacrament. In his homily, he does not seek to condemn any soul, rather he does the only thing he can: acknowledge the presence or absence of the Christian. To downplay the importance of mass attendance is to reject any serious trust in the Sacramental Presence of Jesus Christ. Priests want their people in mass not because they receive a certificate from the bishop or a financial bonus from the vestry. We know that when we are at mass, we are in His Presence.  

“If then a man does not seek Him where He is, there is no profit in seeking Him where He is not. What is the good of sitting at home seeking Him, when His Presence is in the holy Eucharist?”

Having said that, Newman makes his case and it is a pill that does not go down easily. “The true reason why people will not come to this Holy Communion is this – they do not wish to lead religious lives.”

He anticipates the next objection that there are other reasons why Christians avoid mass, “Allow as much as we will for proper distrust of themselves, reasonable awe, the burden of past sin, imperfect knowledge, and other causes, still after all there is in most cases a reluctance to bear, or at least to pledge themselves to bear, Christ’s yoke; a reluctance to give up the service of sin once for all; a lingering love of their own ease, of their own will, of indolence, of carnal habits, of the good opinion of men whom they do not respect; a distrust of their perseverance in holy resolves, grounded on a misgiving about their present sincerity. This is why men will not come to Christ for life; they know that He will not impart Himself to them, unless they consent to devote themselves to Him.” 

Here Newman makes an interesting move. As harsh as it might be to hear for all readers, it is worth reading for he tells the truth. We are content in our brokenness. We are lazy and undisciplined. We think we are doing just fine, thank you very much.

“They may be told of their Lord’s love for them, His self-denying mercy when on earth, His free gifts, and His long suffering since; they will not be influenced; and why? Because the fault is in their heart; they do not like God’s service. They know full well what they would have, if they might choose. Christ is said to have done all things for us; “Far from it,” say they, “He is not a Mediator suited to our case. Give life, give holiness, give truth, give a Savior to deliver from sin; this is not enough: no, we want a Savior to deliver in sin…We want to do nothing at all, and then the gift will be free indeed. If our hearts must be changed to fit us for heaven, let them be changed, only let us have no trouble in the work ourselves…Let Christ suffer, but be it ours to rejoice only. What we wish is, to be at ease; we wish to have thing our own way; we wish to enjoy both this world and the next; we wish to be happy all at once. If the Gospel promises this, we accept it; but if not, it is but a bondage, it has no persuasiveness, it will receive no acceptance from us.””

Granted, Newman paints with a broad stroke, but the resulting picture is detailed enough to be recognizable. And how is the Church complicit in this? How are we not? Stream online, no need to come. No confession during Easter, who sins anyway? Churches are closing, the building doesn’t matter. Communion before baptism? Sure! Cohabitation before marriage, why not? Creed is offensive? We don’t ask you to check your brain at the door.

Blessed John Henry Newman, ora pro nobis.

His brush isn’t only for the nominal. He rightfully warns those who are present every Sunday. How casual are we at the altar? Do we even think about what is happening and Who is Present? Newman doesn’t worry about those who worry about their unworthiness in receiving communion. It’s those who aren’t worried who are in danger of an unworthy reception.

Postcommunion is just as dangerous. My portrait emerges from this stroke. How quickly does my mind leave the Sacramental sphere after I receive the Host? How quick is my tongue? How fast to my thoughts turn to cynicism?

 Newman doesn’t give a simple answer to the problem. That’s something we would try to do. The remedy is the Holy Spirit, of whom we can neither command nor coerce. He leads us, we do not lead him. Yet we can deny him. We can minimize him. We can mock him. We do all of that by rejecting the power and necessity of a religious life.

It is the Holy Spirit who warms the most frozen of hearts. It is the Holy Spirit who comforts and heals. It is the Holy Spirit who brings us the Sacramental Presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

At the close of Sunday, the priest should not make the day’s attendance all about him. While he can drive people from Church, it is the Holy Spirit who draws them to Church. He is wise to understand the difference.

Nothing to do but adore | March 11, 2019

Before the Blessed Sacrament, we have nothing to do but adore.

The First Sunday in Lent is a marathon; it always is: 3 masses, the Great Litany in Procession, and finally Evensong and Benediction. All on a day with one less hour. It is work and, as we are often reminded, that’s what the word liturgy means. But prayer and work are not mutually exclusive. One can pray while remembering what to say and do and what comes next. What can adore Our Lord while keeping an eye on the acolyte who might be getting faint while kneeling; but it does take some mental and spiritual discipline.

Before the Blessed Sacrament, however, we have nothing to do but adore. I long for Sundays when Benediction ends the cycle of prayer. It is one of the few times where everyone is still. The choir is not looking at music. I am not looking at the missal. The congregation is not fumbling through a bulletin or Prayer Book. We are all on our knees gazing upon the mystery that is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. 

I used to be conscious about the duration of silence between O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo. Not anymore. I now collapse in it. I welcome the smoke to blur everything around me so my thoughts can be only on He who is before me.

Our minds are like computers. We can’t just pull the plug to shut it down. Well, we can, but it’s not wise. It takes a process to quiet the thoughts and the dialogue and the anxiety. I can fell the mental programs shut down. During Psalm 53, I feel the process beginning. Psalm 54 I’m starting to let go of my post-mortem of the morning. At Psalm 55, I am paying attention to the words. By the Magnificat, I am no longer looking at my watch. When we come to O Salutaris, there’s no other place I’d rather be. At the Divine Praises, I am truly praising the Divine.

Am I tired? Yes, but it the most satisfied way. Am I anxious? Not now. I have nothing to do but adore.

Stations of the Cross, March 8, 2019

I always begin Stations of the Cross the same way I begin the Rosary - with dread. 14 stations. 5 mysteries. This is not going to be quick. Yet, every time, every time, they end the same - I don’t want to stop.

For the first Friday in Lent, I was stunned that nearly 20 came for Evening Prayer and Stations. Usually the number begins to creep up as we approach Holy Week, but it’s never started this strong. I do hope it continues. I was pleased that a young parishioner brought 2 kids she was babysitting. I brought my 3 kids. They now know this is their Lenten discipline! People familiar and never-before-seen were there. This is my constant hymn to anyone who will listen - people are hungry for devotion and prayer.

Since Stations are a devotion, everyone does them differently. This year we are using the text from the Anglican Service Book including the verses from Stabat Mater between the stations. Our house practice is to have volunteers read the devotion between the versicles and responses (I read those and the prayer for each station). It is moving to hear these words in different voices from all ages.

Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019

I look forward to Lent the way I used to look forward to football season. The anticipation energizes me. I enjoy the preparation. Most of all, I love it because the season demands something from me. Every season of the Church, properly observed, makes demands on us. These demands aren’t for the sake of themselves; by demanding more from us, the Church prepares us for a deeper experience of the Mystery of Faith. Ascetic comes from the Greek meaning exercise. Perhaps this is why I look forward to Lent they I way I used to welcome football – it is intense, and rewarding, spiritual exercise.

I am not unlike many a young (ish), male, Anglo-Catholic, embracing the traditional disciplines and practices of our faith the way other young (ish) men embrace the Marine Corps. We enter the journey expecting to be forged in the fire of prayer, devotions, liturgies, self-denial, etc. We also know that few will join us, making it even more appealing. We are the Few. The Proud. The Marines with Maniples. As such, we fight the temptation to make Lent more about what we are giving up than why we are giving it up. We can get competitive with one another and social media doesn’t help. All of it, rooted in pious intentions, quickly devolves into narcissism, completely betraying the Ash Wednesday Gospel of Matthew 6.

Last year I asked my Oblate Director (I’m a Benedictine Oblate with St John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota) what I should do to make my Lent really austere. Tell me what you do, I asked. Give me the full monastic routine. I imagined hair shirts and a diet of cabbage water. My Director reminded me of what St Benedict wrote in the Rule: the life of a monk should always have a Lenten character. There are no heroic special rules during Lent. We should increase our diligence in these practices and add something sacrificial to them, but we should not distill 345 days of laxity into 40 days of super intense Christianity. That’s the spiritual equivalent of a crash diet. It might work for a short time, but we’ll be back where we were in no time, or maybe even further away from the heart of faith.

So for me, my Lenten discipline is slightly different from the rest of year. For food, I continue meat abstinence of Fridays and I restrict calories. I’ve been on a restrictive diet since January, so there’s no real change during Lent. I will certainly add Stations of the Cross to my Fridays and other devotions. I need to examine my calendar and make more time for silence, reading for the sake of reading (and not preparing for some parish duty), writing, and Eucharistic Adoration.

On Ash Wednesday, I was happy. Lent had arrived and I was ready for some discipline to tame my unruly will and my wayward thoughts and habits. I was ready for the promise of a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ. But Lent is a long season. I prayed that I would cooperate with the Holy Spirit.

There were seven liturgies and devotions on the first day of Lent. Seven times I day do I praise thee: Morning and Evening Prayer, Shrine Prayers, Rosary, and 3 masses – 8:30am, 12:00pm, and 6:00pm. I have such a good group of servers and faithful volunteers and I must brag (can I do that?) on my parish. They must know by now that the 6pm mass is going to be long. I can’t do a major celebration in under 90 minutes. And yet, they came. Ash Wednesday is always a curious day in terms of attendance. Other than Christmas and Easter, it is the single largest non-Sunday attendance day of the year. We were the same at 8:30am (21), down a fair amount at 12:00pm (83), and up at 6:00pm (157). 261 people on a Wednesday is 81% of our average Sunday attendance. I imagine that many parishes have a similar percentage.

Just before the noon mass, I walked to the narthex to check with the ushers. As I approached the narthex door, I could see through the glass a man that I had met two weeks earlier. I have coffee at Starbucks with our divinity school intern, Luke, every Monday morning after mass. Two Mondays ago, a man noticed my cassock and started a conversation. I have seen him at various coffee shops over the years. He’s clearly a character and makes the rounds, making his presence known wherever he goes. He asked which church I was attached to and told me he is formerly of the Italian mafia and hasn’t been to church in years. I told him Lent was coming and now was the time. He brushed it off and talked about his time in Vietnam and various other stories. At the end of the conversation he did, however, ask for a card. I found one and wrote the times of the Ash Wednesday masses and gave it to him, never expecting him to actually come. To my shock, he did. Thankfully, I remembered his name and he embraced me in the narthex. Later, I was told that he never did enter the church. He stayed in the narthex for about 20 minutes and left. I imagine that was the first time he had been in a church in decades and the narthex was as far he could go that time. Maybe the next time he will make it to a pew. Who knows? A few weeks after that he might make it to the confessional. And after that? The altar.


This is one of the reasons why I am not in favor of “Ashes-to-Go” (I’m not going to make the argument against it here; frankly, I’m not sure anyone is interested!). After mass, a simple lunch of tomato bisque and broccoli with some of the altar party. This would be my meal for the day. I would augment with a protein shake in the morning and one before bed. Instead of Ashes-to-Go, I did Ashes-on-the-Go and went to the hospital to visit a parishioner who specifically requested the imposition of ashes. We did a shortened version of the liturgy in the hospital room and I imposed ashes on his head. “Remember, O man, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return,” has a different meaning for an octogenarian in the hospital. Another hospital visit and then back to the church for Evening Prayer, Shrine Prayers, Rosary, and the final mass.

After the final mass and I was asked to explain Ash Wednesday to our overflow homeless shelter guests. I did, and imposed ashes on two guests. It’s the closest I ever come to Ashes-to-Go, but I will argue the comparison is weak. I walked through the door at home just before 9pm, 14 hours after I had left. If I wanted a rigorous Lent, the first day didn’t disappoint.

Thoughts on division, etc.


Boxers always hug at the end of the bout. At least, every one I’ve seen. It’s the most remarkable thing. For weeks, the two boxers have been verbally attacking one another, declaring their dominance, and otherwise making their hatred of the other person known. Who hasn’t seen the weigh-in as the boxers stand toe to toe, staring each other down, and daring the other person to start the fight a day early.  The fight itself is brutal. They are cut, bleeding, and frequently hit the canvas. Real damage is being done to their brains and bodies.

But when the fight is over – they hug.

I assume it’s because they have nothing left in them. They both are wounded, exhausted, and after so many rounds, they end the fight with a different perspective and respect for the other. That’s not to say one didn’t win and one didn’t lose; but they hug. And at least from my perspective, it looks completely genuine.

I will not comment on the substance of the issues at the United Methodist Conference yesterday. I will not for at least two reasons: first, I used to be United Methodist. I left in 2004 and have made it my policy to never comment on the church that raised me and brought me to faith. I’m afraid that would be poor form. Secondly, we – American Christians – aren’t ready to have a conversation about the substantive issues at the General Conference or General Conventions or General Synods. I’m happy to have conversations, but not online. It is very, very hard to embrace online.

We are the boxers. If we aren’t in the ring bloodying each other, we are outside making our points or staring the other down. When we are wounded enough, exhausted enough, humiliated enough, we might have a different enough perspective and respect to embrace.

I will, however, offer these observations about the debate, not only at the United Methodist Conference but, again, General Convention and General Synod.

·      There is a disturbing ecclesiology emerging that is identifies the Church as merely a bureaucratic and therefore, ineffective, mess. Nadia Bolz-Weber dangerously advised her twitter followers to not conflate God and the Church. This theology is making the Church the antithesis of God and not Christ’s Bride.

·      Along with the first point, the Holy Spirit seems to be invoked when we are victorious. If our perspective is not, it’s corruption, etc. Both sides, I think, are guilty of this. As a divided Christendom, it is hard to discern the Holy Spirit. Our own General Conventions from 2000-2006 (3 conventions) contradicted itself again and again. The Holy Spirit does not sow confusion.

·      I appreciate the appeal to evangelism to younger generations, but I think it is dangerous, whatever the issue, to say the Church should adopt a certain position just because millennials, or anyone else, wants it. I’m actually surprised this keeps coming up. Traditionalists and Progressives (whatever term we should use) should be nervous about this.

·      I need to say this carefully, because there is zero snark behind it. The number of letters behind LGBT keeps growing. I don’t always know what they are. Now, certainly, I need to do my homework, no argument. That’s not my point. My point is, we are confusing issues. Theologically, I think there is profound difference between sexual attraction and gender identity. One, of course, may disagree, but where is the theological literature on it? Maybe it’s there, but I haven’t seen it.

·      We’ve dropped the ball on human sexuality. Full stop. Our inability to address it theologically and charitably as led to division, the MeToo movement, Robert Kraft, etc. We are arguing over symptoms and refuse to acknowledge the pathology.

·      Traditionalists need to do a better job articulating their theological position (on every issue). As a traditionalist, I do not recognize the arguments that others make that are supposed to summarize my position. I think that is my fault.

·      I’m not sure two theological integrities can exist without formal structure. A Church cannot declare an issue to be an imperative of justice and at the same time allow for conscientious dissent. It doesn’t make sense and continues to isolate and divide.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired and a bit wounded. But I don’t think we’re tired enough. Yet.

The Biretta


In what has to be one of the best lines in all of cinema (at least for traditionally minded priests, a niche market for sure), in the movie Skyfall, James Bond appraises his paramour in a state of nature and declares, “I like you better without your beretta.” Her ironic response, “I feel naked without it.”

Of course, by beretta, James Bond was referring to a firearm that she was previously concealing under her dress, but the homophone is perfect. Clergy donning birettas, the square cap with three raised horns and often a tuft in the middle, are often viewed as displays of curiosity, confusion, and comedy. “You look so much better without it,” we may hear. True as that statement may be, we feel naked without it. 

The biretta is often a flashpoint for reaction. As a part of clerical dress, it does not enjoy ubiquitous use or appreciation.  It is viewed as a party badge, a flag that is waved to state without words something about the person wearing it. Some may see it as an ecclesiastical version of the MAGA (Make American Great Again) hat worn by supporters of President Donald Trump; worn only by arch-traditionalists who wish to enshrine a state of permanent clericalism on the church. The controversy is not the hat; it is the perceived message. The message often takes on another layer when Anglican clergy place it upon their heads. Birettas, many are told, belong to the domain of the Roman Catholic Church and any use by non-Roman clergy is a not-so-subtle sign of potential fifth-column subversion.

Symbols, wearable or not, are by nature open to interpretation. That is what gives them their power. What is a party badge for one person may be object of pure function. The story of the biretta contains both perspectives. Recovering its story and its potential as a symbol, will be edifying to the one who wears it and to the one who used to snicker at it.

Why do we cover our heads in the first place? When I was younger, I would wear a hat as either a part of a uniform (baseball hat), to cover unwashed hair, or purely as a fashion statement. In other words, I would wear a hat for the sake of games, greasy hair, or girls.  All of these have a practical application, per se, but wearing at hat in these situations would hardly be considered essential.  But for many, head coverings are. They are essential for safety from falling objects or the heat of the sun. In years past, the need to cover one’s head was even more essential. For one, everyone spent time outside. In addition, keeping one’s head protected was to keep one’s head attached to their body. From these practical necessities, customs and social graces developed.

I once read that knights were instructed to remove their helmets in the presence of their lord, or king? Why? To remove one’s helmet is to expose your neck, thereby presenting yourself as vulnerable.

From at least the days of the Roman Empire, brides would wear a veil on their wedding day. The veil represented the married state. Matrons would be covered with a mantle of modesty and virgins would not.

Could these examples shed light as to why it is now (or at least was once) normative for men to remove their hats indoors and why it is appropriate, or in some cases preferred, that women wear hats indoors? A gentleman would never wear at hat in church on Easter Day. A woman most certainly would.

We see this also in I Corinthians 11.2-16, a passage not without controversy.  St Paul instructed men to uncover their heads while praying while admonishing the women to keep theirs covered. Recently, Cambridge professor Bruce Winter has shed new light on the enigmatic parts of this text. He argues that in first century Roman society, a class of “new wives” emerged. These wives went against traditional expressions of matronly life and were noted for promiscuous activity. Professor Winter presents St Paul’s instructions regarding head covering against this backdrop, suggesting that to uncover one’s head at prayer would give the impression that Christian women were identifying themselves with the “new wives” of Roman society, something that would hurt their witness and way of life. Again the point is made: what we place on heads, or not place on our heads, conveys a message.

In the Roman Empire, hairstyle also helped differentiate one class from another, particularly a slave from a master. Roman slaves were commanded to shave their heads to convey the obvious and clear sign – they were under the yoke of another.  To shave their heads, they would seek the services of the tonsor, or barber. In the late seventh century, this symbol of slavery would be baptized for use among the clergy. To indicate that that they are putting themselves under the yoke of Jesus Christ, those receiving Holy Orders would have their heads shaved; they would received their tonsure. The introduction of the tonsure will lead to the introduction to the cap.

It is extraordinary how much heat leaves from the head, at least 10%. If you are bald, the awareness of heat loss is amplified. Covering the head, even just a bit, makes a difference. The tonsure exposed the bare heads of clergy and monks and they needed protection from the cold. We take for granted the luxury of sewing machines, cheap fabric, even cheaper labor, and modern production techniques. If are heads are cold, we can quickly remedy the problem with a five minute stop and at any clothing store and purchase any variety of hats and scarves. If you made your own clothes, however, or depended upon a local tailor or seamstress with limited resources, how would a person cover their head? The most practical and economical way would be to cover the head with a part of cloak or tunic. Enter the hood. The hood would often consist of a long piece of fabric that the cleric could wrap around his head, almost like a turban. One imagines the function was not dissimilar to a person with long hair wrapping their head with a towel to dry it. Fashion is often hard to chart. When things go in and out of style aren’t always identifiable by precise moments. We do know that in fashion, what was once practical has a tendency to become ornamental. If you own a pair of Levi’s blue jeans, do you put a pocket watch in the pocket designed for it? Virtually no one does, but no authentic pair of jeans comes without that pocket.

The hood on the cloak became ornamental, just like the hood on a cope is ornamental. You can tell it’s a hood, but you can’t pull it over your head. The fabric, or liripipe, was more ornamental than functional. Incidentally, since all universities at this time were populated by clerics, the development of academic and clerical wear follows the same path. The hood, in its various forms, later becomes the academic hood. Take a look at your hood from graduation. Do you notice a vestigial piece at the end that looks like a liripie? From this long piece of fabric also comes the clerical scarf or tippet.

The form of the head covering had changed but the need for its function remained. Instead of a covering attached to a cloak, beginning in the 11th century the head was now covered by a separate garment, the pileus.

Beginning in the 14th century, the pileus, developed into an expression of the individuality of the cleric and/or academic. As there were no rules to its composition, tailors were given the freedom (and the money) to make them taller and more elaborate, especially in the universities. The pileus was now the pileus rotundus!

The size and shape of the pileus rotundus was increasingly expensive to assemble. It required several pieces of fabric and proved cost prohibitive. In the 14th century, a cap maker changed the pileus market by sewing four pieces of fabric together instead of seven or eight. Half the fabric also meant a significant reduction in cost, which of course, meant a significant increase in popularity. The four pieces of fabric introduced two changes. First, the shape is now square and not round. Second, the seams formed the shape of a cross. Now we have what looks more like what is now called the Canterbury Cap.

It has been observed that on the Continent, Europeans would build their cathedrals for height and in England they built their cathedrals for length. Something similar happened with the pileus. In England, the trend went horizontal, making the cross seams longer. In order to do this, cardboard was added to stiffen the cap, later developing into the mortar board cap, once virtually everyone has worn at high school graduation. On the Continent, the direction of the cap went vertical. The seams were highlighted with height, developing into what we now know as the biretta.

What started as a practical move to provide cover and warmth for a tonsure, a sign of obedience to Jesus Christ, developed into a mark of fashion among both clergy and especially academics. It was still used as a part of clerical dress but after the English Reformation, it became a party badge, a symbol of one’s theological and ecclesiological allegiance. The English viewed the biretta a sign of popery and therefore preferred the square cap. However, the Puritans also viewed the square cap as a sign of popery. In every case, what one puts on their end conveys a message.

Why would an Anglican priest wear a European biretta and not a more English square cap? In many ways the biretta is a party badge. It is a vestigial part of clerical wear that is worn out of tradition and devotion. It does say that tradition is important, not for its own sake but to hand down ageless truths. There are other reasons, however. Practically, the biretta is far easier to wear than the square cap. The raised seams (blades) are functional in quickly removing and replacing it on the head. There are only three blades with the middle blade on the right. The cleric can put the cap on correctly without having to look. The other reason is that the biretta is associated only with the church. There is much to be said for sights, smells, sounds, and tastes that exclusive to the experience of worship. It trains our body to be open to prayer even when our minds and hearts are not ready. The tradition of sacred music, liturgical poetry, incense, and the visual arts are so vitally important in Christian formation. This includes the vestments of the clergy. The square cap now dominates in the academy in the form of the bonnet or mortarboard. If a priest were to wear it, it would be more difficult practically and it would be confusing visually. Is he wearing this because he has a degree or because he is a priest? Academics wear their headgear to distinguish themselves as degree holders; masters of their fields. The biretta does show one is in Holy Orders, but the attention it draws is a different sort. This attention is older than the introduction of the pileus in the 11th century.

In Exodus 28 we see the divine instructions for the dress of the priests. In verse 37, we are given the description of the turban that is to go on Aaron:

36 “And you shall make a plate of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ 37 And you shall fasten it on the turban by a lace of blue; it shall be on the front of the turban. 38 It shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take upon himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering which the people of Israel hallow as their holy gifts; it shall always be upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.

In the Talmud (Zevahchim 88b:6) there is an interesting interpretation on the turban of the high priest.

The tunic atones for bloodshed, as it is stated with regard to the brothers of Joseph after they plotted to kill him: “And they killed a goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood” (Genesis 37:31). The trousers atone for forbidden sexual relations, as it is stated with regard to fashioning the priestly vestments: “And you shall make them linen trousers to cover the flesh of their nakedness”(Exodus 28:42). The mitre atones for the arrogant. From where is this derived? Rabbi Ḥanina says: It is logical that an item that is placed at an elevation, i.e., on the head of a priest, shall come and atone for the sin of an elevated heart.


The Talmud says the head covering atones for arrogance. When the priest wears the head covering, he should remember the sins of conceit. Children never cease to poke fun at the biretta. It does not frame the face, it is tall, asymmetrical, and has a large pompom on top of it. One does not don the biretta and walk out of the sacristy thinking, “handsome.” For the priest, it adds an element of humility. He may be ridiculed for it; but he endures it for the sake of Christ.

Further in Exodus 28, Aaron is told make headdresses for his sons, for beauty and glory. In the case of the biretta, the beauty and glory is God’s and not the one who wears it. In a time where clergy are wearing skinny jeans and designer clothes to look fashionable and draw attention to themselves, or at least their physique or taste, the biretta does the opposite.

The 11th edition of Ritual Notes advises “the norms of good breeding and social etiquette” in wearing the biretta. It is worn outside with the cassock, usually within the vicinity of the church. One does not go grocery shopping whilst wearing it. Inside the church, it is worn in procession by the Sacred Ministers: priest, deacon, and subdeacon who are serving at the altar. Other clergy who are “in choir” hold the biretta. It is worn while seated and it is traditional to wear it while giving absolution at confession as a sign of juridical power. Contrast the custom to English judges who, to this day, put on a black cap when pronouncing a death sentence. Priests wearing the biretta in absolution are pronouncing a sentence of life.  

I once heard a say that the main reason one wears the biretta is so he can take it off. That sounds nonsensical. One wears a hat to wear the hat. In the case of the biretta, however, part of its purpose is to call attention to when it is not worn.

It is not worn during the following times and places. It is not worn at or near the altar. It is removed when saluting other clergy who are in choir. It is not worn during processions of the Blessed Sacrament. It is removed whenever the Holy Name of Jesus is said.

This, perhaps, is the most significant part of wearing the biretta – taking it off at the Holy Name. Over time, bowing the head at the name of Jesus because an involuntary devotion. Removing the biretta at the Holy Name is a reminder for all to bow their heads. When this is done regularly, two things will emerge: the people will pay more attention to the readings and sermon and they will develop a devotion to the Holy Name. They will hear differently Philippians 2.9-11:

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.


We are too casual with names. With our casualness, comes the dangerous sin of presumption. We presume an intimacy with others and with our casualness, we presume with God. The Holy Name was given to us to revere and respect as the Name of our Salvation; it is the Name of our hope. It’s not an expletive. Removing the biretta at the Holy Name promotes a certain kind of Christian chivalry. Some may view it as anachronistic of a medieval court, but there is great find virtue in this practice. It promotes discipline of the tongue and reverence in speech. It also inculcates an automatic response to the Holy Name. In all the words that we have chosen to use for God and for each other, surely this is a good thing. The biretta, simply by itself, is a protest against vulgarity.

The biretta is a statement. It reminds the priest that, even if the tonsure has been abolished, he is a joyful slave to Jesus Christ. It’s a statement of humility, to purposefully wear something that looks so strange. It’s a statement of reverence in an age of license and ugliness.

Many may like their priest better without their biretta. But they would, and should, feel naked without it.

Read more:
Robinson, N.F., The Pileus Quadratus: An enquiry into the relation of the priest’s square cap to the common academical catercap and to the judicial corner-cap

Hargrave, Seamus Addison., The Church and the Trencher: An examination into How England’s Changing Theology and Church Have Influenced the Evolution and Design of the Square Cap Causing its Use as Academic Attire

Winter, Bruce. Roman Wives, Roman Widows

I Care, January 25, 2019

I can’t imagine being interviewed virtually every day. On top of that I can’t imagine the ambient stress of not knowing the motivations of the interviewer and the purpose of the subsequent publication. Furthermore, I can’t imagine having a position of such responsibility that my words will be reported to nearly 100 million people who are (somewhat) vested in my words. In other words, I can’t imagine being the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It is with due recognition of my ignorance of his burden that I bring up a recent interview in the Spectator. When asked about Anglican priests who convert to the Roman Catholic Church (commonly referred to as “swimming the Tiber”), he responded with a seemingly flippant, “Who cares?” He went on to say that he is happy for those who respond to God’s call and that the Roman Catholic Church is a source of great inspiration. I think I know what he meant and I think we should receive it with charity. But I think it also needs to be said, 

I care.  

It should be self-evident that I have great affection for the Roman Catholic Church. Not only great affection, but I also have great solidarity. The same is also true for the Orthodox Church. I am a convert to Anglicanism, which means I made a conscious choice after prayer, study, and exploration. I was received in the Anglican Communion because I am convinced it is a part of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. I am convinced, intellectually and not simply sentimentally, of the historic catholicity of her order and sacraments. I am convinced, intellectually and not simply emotionally, of the validity of my priesthood as a catholic priesthood. To join the Roman Catholic Church is to say none of this is true. I would probably be happier in Rome, but I would also be a liar. One cannot say they are embracing the Truth if they must first tell a lie. The moment, the moment, I am convinced I am no longer a catholic priest, I will stop saying “mass.” My conscience would demand it. 

I care because if I don’t, it would be an implicit denial of what Christ has given us.

This morning, on the Conversion of St Paul, I sat in my stall before Morning Prayer and read 1 Timothy. I have a devotion to Timothy as he is the patron of my parish and we are celebrating our patronal feast this weekend. After his greeting, the very first thing St Paul says to St Timothy is:

I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. (1 Timothy 1.3-4)

I am not a Pauline scholar, but I wonder: was Timothy wanting to leave? Did he want to find greener and more hospitable pastures for his ministry? Did he have frequent correspondence with his spiritual father about crossing the Bosporus or some other metaphorical body of water?

I urge you, as I did before, to stay. I care.

If I believe that I belong to the catholic Church and that I am a catholic priest, leaving a place of unsound teaching and inhospitable structures would be abandonment. I am not making judgments on those who have left.  I have friends-in-the-flesh and friends-on-Facebook who have dried off the Thames for the waters of the Tiber. Two of my friends-in-the-flesh, incidentally, have returned to Anglicanism; one in his forties and one nearly twice that age. If an Anglican priest truly feels called to Rome, they must acknowledge their ordination was absolutely null and utterly void. If that is the case, their departure would be an act of duty and I would applaud it. If not, I urge you to remain in Ephesus or wherever you are.

We need to care.

Fr. Arthur Tooth

Fr. Arthur Tooth

Reading 1 Timothy was a helpful reminder of the truth in Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Our forebears, even from the beginning, have fought the same struggles we face with doctrine, order, secularism, etc. Anglo-Catholics know this and we even take pride in the fidelity and resistance found in our Victorian heroes. This past Tuesday, Anglo-Catholic social media was alive with remembrances of Fr. Arthur Tooth, who was imprisoned 142 years to the day due to ritualistic practices. His crime? He used incense, vestments, and (gasp) candles; things that most every Anglican parish has tucked away in their sacristy cupboards.

In our generation we are more likely to be imprisoned or deposed based on rituals we won’t do. Theological conviction will be dismissed as antithetical to justice and traditional practices will be viewed as ecclesiastical MAGA hats, even as we rent our clothes pleading our cause.  The spiritual masters call on us to embrace humiliations, so much more easier said than done. We will be misunderstood and misinterpreted. Heaven knows we’ve misunderstood and misinterpreted others. But let’s give our people a witness of charity and prayer that will force skeptics to re-examine our words and the reasons behind them.

These are the things you must insist on and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4.11-12)

If you care, I urge you, remain. If you remain, I urge you to care.

Pusey, Mackonochie, and Tooth: all disciplined for teaching and practicing the Catholic Faith.

Pusey, Mackonochie, and Tooth: all disciplined for teaching and practicing the Catholic Faith.

Protest, January 20-21


This morning Facebook reminded me that on this day two years ago I wrote:

I've participated in one organized protest in my life. The issue that I was passionate about was quickly associated with comments and feelings for which I was not passionate, and I left. For me, that's the tricky thing about protests and marches.

I’m not against protests and/or marches. I believe they have a place and a purpose and are sometimes, necessary. When I joined a protest a few years ago, it was a pro-life protest. I am not constantly vocal about a pro-life ethic, because often people will immediately stop listening and start shouting. Because I believe the sanctity of every human life is essential to sound Christian theology, I need to be in conversation with as many people as possible. However, I began to wonder if I was being a coward, so I went to a protest.

I want to be a part of a voice that affirms the sanctity of every human being, including the dignity of women who are placed in difficult positions. I do not wish to presume to speak for women or their difficulties, but to speak for the baby and advocate for their life. I want to be a part of a voice that doesn’t run away from nuance and casuistry and employs reason, compassion, and the consistent teaching of the Church to inform our decisions in those difficult cases. I want to be a part of a voice that acknowledges exceptions, but does not wish to elevate those exceptions to the rule. I want to be part of a voice that does not demean or shame or bully. I want to be a part of a voice for life.

It’s hard (not impossible) for a voice like this to speak in a crowd.

I left the protest because many of the voices around me began to diverge from the voice I wanted to speak for me. It began with good intentions, I’m sure, but started to devolve due to emotion and the anonymity of the crowd. Whatever voice I wanted to offer that day, I knew I would associated with those that were the loudest.

This is why I get nervous when the church joins protests (starting our own is another matter). Whatever the just and noble reason for joining, it may become a part of a voice that is not noble, just, or Christian. We need to be careful. When members of our own diocese protested in our state capital over low teacher pay, their photos included signs from other protesters that were vulgar and promoted positions that should not be endorsed by the church. It’s hard to hear a voice about teacher pay when it’s included in a larger and louder chorus.

I think that part of our crisis in the church is that we haven’t always spoken with a clear, articulate voice on struggles and issues that we face. As cathartic as they may be, tweets and signs don’t always help. Unfortunately, we are reluctant to listen to anything longer than 140 characters – signs or tweets. I’m grateful you’ve stuck around for these 3,000 characters.

On my newsfeed this morning, I’m reading about Roman Catholic high school students, a Native American elder, Black Hebrew Israelites, etc. I don’t know what happened and, apparently, I’m not alone. It does seem to me that that there were a lot of voices and I’m not sure what was being said.

I have to wonder what it was like to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, without iPhones and Twitter and live streaming. What would it have been like to sing songs for the edification and encouragement of those who were gathered, instead of a global internet audience? I can’t know and will never know because that time and age has passed. Was it easier to have one unified voice because you had to be together in order to be heard? When we protest now, are we more concerned with getting praise within our own constituency than participating in a conversation that might bring about real transformation?

I don’t know. These are just questions.

PS: Sunday’s homily for those who are interested.

Consecrated, January 11-17

 I have allowed the past week to scoot by without making the time to reflect in writing on the day. Too much has happened to recap the whole week: a guest preacher to be entertained last weekend, bedbugs in the church, ice storm, two house blessings, men’s gathering, Bible Study, finance conversations, Priest and a Rabbi, dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria!

I sometimes feel like Jacob wrestling with an angel when it comes to my relationship with my schedule. Just when I feel like I might be getting the upper hand, my socket is pulled out of joint and I’m again at a disadvantage. The difference is Jacob was wrestling an angel of the Lord; wrestling with our schedules is more a bout with the demonic. Sometimes we are just in demand. The nature of our work or lives makes it so. But more times than not, we are just poor at making our schedules submit to our will. We like to be busy and we like to be in demand; it makes us feel like we are needed and have worth. We do, of course, but that worth is found in Christ and not the calendar. I’m preaching to myself. Can I rise a bit earlier? Can I eliminate a few more minutes of idle time? Do I schedule rest?

One of the highlights for this past week was the 64th anniversary of the consecration of the first St Timothy’s Church, now used as our chapel. The date of January 16 is not seared in the memory of the parish and I didn’t know it was the consecration anniversary until we found the Sentence of Consecration hidden away in an ancient filling cabinet. There are no consecration crosses on the walls or memories of celebrating the anniversary. 

The “new” Prayer Book does not give a liturgy for the anniversary of a church’s consecration (the 79 BCP does have propers, but not a stand-alone liturgy), save a Litany of Thanksgiving for the Church that could be incorporated in a celebration. Since the church was consecrated according to the 1928 Prayer Book, it seemed meet and right to celebrate the anniversary with the same and from the original missal used in 1955. Two things struck me from both the Sentence of Consecration and the propers from the 1928 Prayer Book. 

First, there was the use of the word “branch” in describing the Episcopal Church. Anglo-Catholics have long promoted the “branch” theory in our ecclesiology, namely that Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church has three branches: Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican. That part isn’t new. The Diocese of North Carolina has Anglo-Catholic roots, but I somehow doubt that was the piety of the bishop in 1955.

Fast-forward sixty plus years and the unofficial tagline for the Episcopal Church is the “Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” I love Bishop Curry and I’ve never said otherwise, publicly or privately, but I’m not a fan of this slogan. What works rhetorically in sermons does not always translate well into marketing. While it does not necessarily differ from the branch theory espoused by my ilk, here’s what I don’t like about it: it’s a little too provincial (why not the Anglican branch?) and the Jesus Movement is not descriptive. What does that mean? We have the four notes of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. That is descriptive and prophetic. We are, and are called to remain, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.


Listen to the old language of Bishop Penick:

on this Sixteenth Day of January, in the Year of our Lord 1955, being the Second Sunday after Epiphany, in the presence of divers of the Clergy, and of a public congregation, in accordance with the provisions of that Branch of Christ's Catholic and Apostolic Church here on earth now known and legally designated as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and in the Diocese of North Carolina, consecrated and set apart


The second thing that hit me was how much of the anniversary propers were focused on the transformation of the people. The first lesson was from 1 Peter 2: Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious. The second lesson was from Matthew’s version of the cleansing of the Temple: you have made my house a den of thieves (n.b., the same readings are in the 79BCP for the anniversary of a consecration).

In the Sentence of Consecration, Bishop Penick wrote

And We do hereby pronounce and declare the same to be from this time forth set apart from all unhallowed, worldy and common uses, and dedicated to the Worship and Service of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, for the Administration of His Holy Sacraments, for the Reading of His Holy Word, and for the performance of all Holy Offices, agreeably to the terms of the Covenant of Grace in our Lord Jesus Christ, and according to the provisions of that Branch of His Holy Catholic Church, afore-mentioned.

 The declaration that the church should be set apart from all “unhallowed, wordly and common uses, and dedicated to the Worship and Service of Almighty God” isn’t just for the building – it’s also for the people. Buildings are vitally important. Yes, church buildings can be made into idols if we aren’t careful, but let’s be careful and get off the narrative that the future of the Church is outside the building. This space is set apart and stands consecrated for the express purpose of setting apart and consecrating ordinary things for holy use – water, bread, wine, and me. And you.  

with Rabbi Mark Cohn

with Rabbi Mark Cohn

Last night at Priest and a Rabbi, a gentleman (and I don’t know him) approached me afterwards and pointed to an image that I had handed out where the mass is connected to the Crucifixion. He believed we should use the image of Jesus as Good Shepherd instead of the image of Jesus as Crucified. I reminded him that the conversation was about what we are remembering and making present in the mass, and he doubled down on the image of Jesus as Good Shepherd, “because Jesus was all about social justice.”

Jesus was about justice, but that justice emerges from holiness. The Sermon on the Mount wasn’t against governments but against the wicked platform of the soul.  Without the Church – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – and without the Sacraments and Prayers, how is one’s soul to be transformed?

Christine and Brian, January 10, 2019


Blessed William Laud. For the life of me, I don’t understand why General Convention is ok with William Laud on the kalendar but not King Charles I.


Morning Prayer and Mass (American Missal) was for William Laud. As soon as mass was over, I prepared a full kit to take to South Carolina, grabbed a cup of coffee, and hit the road.  I was travelling to South Carolina to visit and say mass at the home of Brian and Christine.

I have permission to share this story. What a day.

I don’t remember exactly when Brian and Christine came to St Timothy’s, tempus fugit. She has a Canadian Anglican/Coptic Orthodox background. He was a mathematician at Wake Forest. I’m not sure I’ve had the pleasure of a more kind, supportive, and faithful young couple.

I remember distinctly her first pregnancy. It was during the first lesson at Maundy Thursday when I noticed she had slipped out, looking ill. A few minutes later she returned, looking tired, but gave an assuring nod to her husband. In the back of my mind I suspected that evening she was having morning sickness. I was right.

Yesterday she told me that she didn’t have the easiest time conceiving and she was struggling with this. She said one day in mass I said that if you want to encounter Jesus Christ you can find him in two places: in the mass and in the hearts of those who love him. So she started coming to daily mass and building community and that, according to her, made all the difference. This was the first time I had heard this background.

The delivery of her first child was complicated and so were the first few months after. It seemed she just couldn’t catch a break. Brian took a teaching job at College in South Carolina and we were all sad to see them move, but were happy for the new opportunities awaiting them. We like to say we all will keep in touch, but I was particularly deficient in doing so.

She got pregnant again, praise God, and had a baby boy. However, during the delivery the doctors discovered cancer and it was advanced. This precious woman is just in her 30s. I have talked to her off and on, but not frequently and have been absolutely astounded at her peace, courage, and faith. She is not ignorant of the prognosis and she is not wasting a single moment with pity or despair. I’m certain – certain – there are moments of doubt and despair, maybe even prolonged ones, she wouldn’t be human otherwise, but those very much seem to be the exception and not the rule of her life.

Over Christmas she asked if Fr John Roberts and I would visit them. John was a wonderful member of our staff before he was ordained and a part of their story.  John and I took this request seriously and quickly made arrangements to meet at their home (he’s now in another diocese).


It’s not a short drive and I arrived at their home just before noon. Their little girl met me at the door with a drawing and a bracelet with bells. I did not bring sanctus bells with me and I wondered if I could shake my wrist during the elevation! John arrived literally two minutes after me. Even though we are only a few hours away from each other, I haven’t seen John since I preached his ordination the year before. It was a reunion for everyone.

I said mass in their living room. I don’t see the reason why we can’t say full-on masses in people’s homes. I brought all that I needed without skimping: crucifix, chalice, wine, water, hosts, missal, and a full set of vestments. Packing an altar is a challenge so I pulled together two tv trays and did the best I could.

I need to interrupt the story of Brian and Christine for a liturgical comment. I said mass the way I always do. Ad orientem, full vestments, and full ceremonial. Yes, some things were different, because the space was different, but that was the only reason. I think it is more awkward to change the mass in someone’s home than it is to do the whole bit they way one would normally and traditionally do it.


The children are young, 5 and 2 ½. They have never had a mass said in their living room – who has? It was exciting and strange and I was an invader in their space. Ad orientem made it easier. It made the tv trays less awkward and it made the movements of the children irrelevant. The little boy would walk up to the side and peer in to what I was doing. I kept saying the prayers. He wasn’t irreverent and he wasn’t bothering me. Had I tried to face them and focus on eye contact, their movements would have felt to everyone like rudeness and an interruption. Our conversation was with God. Instead of an interruption, their movements were legitimate exploration. My plea to priests: don’t just bring a stole – bring everything. Let the family know that this is the same mass as in the church. Say mass the way you would at the cathedral. For the home you are in, is.

I said mass and Fr John anointed the whole family. It was beautiful. The readings, for William Laud, were hard: accept sufferings and hardships. But I quickly realized, this is what this faithful family is doing and this is the good news for them. Their sufferings are not in vain. They are, in God’s mystery, bringing them closer to him. I left with them the crucifix I brought for the mass.

After mass, we had a lunch that felt like a scene from A Christmas Carol and John and I were ghosts of Christmas Present; there was so much food. We talked about life, faith, and death. Never have I been more inspired. Dear reader, pray for Brian and Christine. Pray for them and pray that you may have this kind of faith. I am.

I left their home at 2pm and arrived back the church just before Evening Prayer. After Shrine Prayers I went back to the office and worked until 6:15, responding to emails, etc., still thinking about Christine and Brian and still so very thankful for the day. I was asked to bring comfort to them and they brought immense comfort to me.