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.

Blessings and Bedbugs, January 8-9, 2019


My sacristy (priests’ sacristy) is below the church in the undercroft. When I enter the building, I step into the St Michael the Archangel Law Enforcement Chapel. We’ve had this chapel for, gosh, 3 years now? There is a keypad outside the door and law enforcement officers have 24/7 access to the chapel and kitchenette that we keep stocked with snacks and drinks. Most importantly, they have access to clean and safe restrooms.  A while ago, I offered St Michael pendants to any officer that wanted one. The requests have been dormant for a while, but I always check the sign-up sheet on the bulletin board. Sometime during Monday night, the 38th officer requested a St Michael pendant. I do hope they feel angelic protection as they serve. God bless them all. Especially this week, which has been particularly hard with law enforcement assignations.

After Morning Prayer and Mass (memorial of Harriet Bedell), I administered the sacrament of unction to a parishioner who was having surgery that day. A quick cup of coffee was in order, followed by the weekly staff meeting. At staff meeting we discussed the fact that we may have a bedbug issue in the parish hall as a result of our overflow homeless shelter. Yet again, bedbug removal was never covered in seminary. In fact, as I look over these blog posts, not much of what I do was! More on bedbugs later. At 11:30, I drove to a local business to bless it. Several parishioners have taken up my offer to bless their homes/businesses during Epiphany. Cotta, purple stole, holy water, book, check – all ready to go.  I don’t have a good blessing for a business, so I adapted the traditional house blessing for the business, changing “all who dwell therein” to “all who work therein.”

After the blessing, I ran home for a very quick bite to eat and an even quicker to trip to the gym during the lunch break and was back at church in an hour. I had some writing to do as the president of the Society of King Charles the Martyr and other administrative duties. At 4pm, I met with a parishioner who was interested in starting a parish nurse ministry in the parish – the ideas were all spectacular and the need is so great. I love it when the Spirit moves within folks and they bring these ideas. I love it even more when they offer to lead and support a new work. We are at our best in terms of ministry when we equip our people to share their own gifts in the service of the Lord.

The day ended with Evening Prayer and Shrine Prayers.

Wednesday was a mess.

Morning Prayer and Mass (memorial of Julia Chester Emery) with a large congregation for 8:15 (10). As soon as mass was over, I met a member of the pest control company with her dog, whose only job in life is to sniff out bedbugs. Extraordinary! Who knew? Unfortunately, the dog had sniffed out more than one bug. When I was a little boy, my mother would tuck me in the bed, and say, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!”  I assumed these were mythical creatures that mothers created because they could make a rhyme. Nope. They are real and in the words of the little girl in Poltergeist, “They’re here.” Decisions had to be made quickly. The parish dinner was clearly off. Fortunately, I had prepared for this contingency the day before. The bigger question was whether we should cancel formation, too.

I made some rapid consultation with staff and parish leaders and composed an email to the parish cancelling formation and programs for the night until we can have the parish hall treated. To my great delight, no one called or emailed in a panic. I received a couple of reasonable questions, but that was it.

Bedbugs or no bedbugs, the day must go on. Bible Study at 10:30 followed by the noon mass with unction. I was in a bit of a funk in the afternoon due to an exchange with a parishioner, but was encouraged both inwardly and outwardly to push through and move on. Good advice. There is a fine line, I think, between letting things roll off your back and having a callous and hardened heart. I strive for the former but worry about the latter.

I knew I would be gone the next day, so I had to get all of Thursday’s work done Wednesday afternoon. Sunday will be a big day – guest preacher, 3 masses, and Evensong and Benediction. There was much to write and even more to print.

Thankfully, the neighbors didn’t call the police.

Thankfully, the neighbors didn’t call the police.

At 4:45, we said Evening Prayer, Shrine Prayers, and ended the day with the rosary. I was worried many would still come to dinner and formation because a) not everyone gets our emails and b) those who do don’t always ready them. I donned my saturno and cloak and waited for anyone to arrive and share the news about the cancellation. I may be accused of loving ancient and esoteric things, and I do, but these items are perfect for warmth.

School for the Lord's Service, January 7, 2019

Today we ended the Prologue of St Benedict’s Holy Rule. 

Therefore we must establish a school of the Lord’s service; in founding which we hope to ordain nothing that is harsh or burdensome. But if, for good reason, for the amendment of evil habit or the preservation of charity, there be some strictness of discipline, do not at once be dismayed and run away from the way of salvation, of which the entrance must needs be narrow. But, as we progress in our monastic life and faith, our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments; so that, never abandoning his rule but persevering in his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers also of his kingdom. Amen.

Is this not the mission of the parish and the local priest as the parochial abbot? I might etch this sentence in the bricks outside: If, for good reason, for the amendment of evil habit or the preservation of charity, there be some strictness of discipline, do not at once be dismayed and run from the way of salvation. Yes! These disciplines of which I write and strive to keep are gifts to keep all of us in charity and to facilitate the amendment of evil habits. This is why we stifled yawns during Morning Prayer and popped our knees during mass as we knelt in adoration.

This is why I scheduled four housing blessings throughout the day and sat in the confessional for an hour. All of these things are done so we may be partakers of Christ’s kingdom.

This is important for me, especially, to remember. It is too easy to get bogged down in administrative and personnel minutia. All important, no doubt, but those things support the school of the Lord’s service instead of being served by it.

When I checked the mail in the afternoon, I found a letter addressed to “Resident.” Oh boy. When I opened it, I discovered two tracts pleading that I give my life to Jesus Christ. In fairness to the sender, they didn’t know this was a church (although I doubt that would have changed anything!). I don’t fault their intention, which I think is sincere. They want me, as the resident, to know the love of Jesus Christ. But I think there is a better way. Instead of spam in the mailbox, why not a school for the Lord’s service? Why not engage with the difficult and important questions of the day? Why not offer the perspective of faith, which has access to perspectives no other discipline has?

When I put the tracts back on my desk, they fell beside my choice from yesterday’s Holy Doodle. The person (I think it was a child) lifted a quote from my sermon: Jesus Christ is not just the King of the Jews; he is the King of all. There is hope for the Church, if we keep her a school for the Lord’s service.

After my weekly meeting with my two wardens, Evening Prayer, Shrine Prayers (today’s intention was for the choir), and my standing liturgical meeting. As the Epiphany Proclamation reminded us yesterday – Lent is less than two months away.

Chalk up another Epiphany, January 4-6, 2019

O tempora! O mores! I should have known no one uses chalk anymore. Preschoolers haul their iPads into nursery school and 3rd graders are using smart boards. Gone are the overhead projectors and gone are the blackboards, relegated to the dust heap of analog learning. I went to three different stores over Friday and Saturday looking for ordinary, run-of-the-mill white chalk for Epiphany. I found boxes and boxes of fat, multi-colored chalk. Neon green doesn’t quite have the same dignity, or visibility, on a residential lintel.

I was able to scrounge together a few boxes and I broke the chalk into smaller pieces, hoping to have enough for the houses needing a blessing. I had to include a couple boxes of colored chalk, out of necessity. Imagine my delight and surprise when I arrived early on Sunday to discover that all the chalk was white. An Epiphany miracle! I’m sure this will one day be up there with the story of the dogwood and poinsettia.

I love the tradition of hallowing the chalk. If you spend enough time researching its origins, you’ll find vague references to Middle-Europe and the Middle Ages. I like the tradition as it reminds us that faith is domestic. It’s not confined to the church on Sunday mornings only. It should be practiced at home and, among families, there needs to be adult leadership declaring that this is a home under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And it’s one of those arcane traditions that add to the mystery of our faith. By learning the chalk formula (20+C+M+B+19) children learn the names of the Magi, a little bit of Latin, and they contemplate what it means for Christ’s blessing to be upon us.

Epiphany on a Sunday was…different. I’m so used to keeping it as a feast during the week and at night that it felt strange celebrating the Epiphany 3 times in one day. The church was packed, nearly 400, which are about 75 more than average. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the new year and many were making the effort to start 2019 off faithfully. I did observe the gym was packed that afternoon, too, perhaps for the same reason? Whatever the reason, it was glorious to see so many. 400 people also means a couple hundred cell phones, which went off in unison due to an Amber Alert during the first lesson at the 9am low mass. Oddly, mine did not go off. It sounded like a fire alarm (“we’re not even using incense!”).

I blessed chalk at all three masses and the Epiphany Proclamation was sung at 11am (not by me, mercifully). Another old tradition that I’m glad we preserve. Hard to believe that Lent is just two months away and even at that, it’s a late Lent.

Lay Eucharistic Minister training.

Lay Eucharistic Minister training.

After the 3rd mass, we trained new and refreshed current Lay Eucharistic Ministers. We spent a good deal of time talking about Eucharistic theology and piety and why this matters so much. Administering communion is, on paper, a rather straightforward affair but in practice, it can be anything but. We also have a rising practice of communion on the tongue, which I encourage. It’s easier, more sanitary, and puts the communicant in a place of holy vulnerability and reception. Bread of Heaven, feed me!

The afternoon was spent at the gym where I ran (not literally) into three parishioners and the grocery store, where I ran into one. Tuesday marks the 18th anniversary of my first date with my wife. 18 years ago, I prepared chicken on a George Foreman grill, a green bean casserole, brown-n-serve rolls, and a Pepperidge Farm cake. Fine dining back the day. My skills have, thankfully, developed since then but I did prepare all the same things – but not on the George Foreman grill! 

Evening Prayer from the St Stephen’s Office with prayers of thanksgiving for the 39th anniversary of my baptism.

Disarmed, January 3, 2019

Every morning before I leave the house, I turn off the house alarm. The ritual is involuntary. I punch in the code and habitually sing along with the voice coming from the keypad, “Disarmed, ready to arm.” Sometimes I wonder if the voice is coming from somewhere other than the keypad. Is from the Holy Spirit? “You are disarmed, but you are quick to rearm; be alert.” Or is it from Satan, “You are disarmed, you better rearm! Be alert.”

We are all quick to rearm. If we let our guard down and entertain vulnerability, we quickly discover this is a risk and have learned to allow these episodes infrequently and with caution. If I enter the house and turn the alarm off while the door is still open, the message changes: “Disarmed, not ready to arm.” If a door is open, the alarm is not armed. If it is closed, it is.

If Balaam’s ass can speak truth, then why not ADT?

Morning Prayer and Mass for the Christmas Feria. The first lessons have been from a very challenging 1 John. So much packed into so few words.

After mass, coffee and eggs, and then the morning was spent preparing the weekly newsletter and bulletin. So much of my role as parish priest is of storyteller. I’m called to tell the story of Jesus Christ. In doing so, I need to tell the story of the Church and our local mission. It’s not so much “announcements,” as it is Good News. This is what the Church is called to do and this is how we are striving to live this out in Winston-Salem. Of course, all of this is told so a story may be told of the lives of the faithful – this is how Jesus Christ, through the work of the Church, has brought new life, hope, and restoration to me. Sometimes the details of the story are clear, “Overflow Homeless Shelter Sign-Ups.” And sometimes, they are not, “Finance Commission Meeting.” Both tell a story of God’s provision and promise, but some are easier to understand than others.

After lunch I spent a little bit of time doing some study on the history of the biretta. My upcoming adult formation series will be on the spirituality of the mass in ten objects. I found some fascinating reflections in the Talmud and an old paper from The Ecclesiologist. I think – I hope – it will be far more interesting than one might assume.

I also spent some time planning the logistics for a visiting preacher next weekend. He’s a seminarian flying down from New York to spend the weekend with us and will preach on the Baptism of Our Lord and assist me at Evensong and Benediction. Over the weekend, he’ll see the city, the parish, and our shelter.

Some pastoral care was in order for the afternoon, including calling an elderly parishioner who moved away years ago and is in the hospital. I’m grateful for family members keeping us in the loop, even though members may be hours away. It is far easier to provide pastoral care when families participate in that care.


A large congregation of 9 met me for Evening Prayer. Luke, our divinity school intern, is now back from Christmas holiday. He led Shrine Prayers as I had to depart early to pick my daughter up from basketball practice.

She’s been wanting to try Chinese food, so I took her to my favorite Chinese place where we both had a generous helping of Mongolian beef. I’ll be on the lookout for my fortune. If you need my address, let me know.


Asculta, January 2, 2019

St Benedict, from the west facade of Norwich Cathedral, clearly modeled after me.

St Benedict, from the west facade of Norwich Cathedral, clearly modeled after me.

Asculta O fili. Listen my son.

Thus begins the Holy Rule of St Benedict, which we read all the way through three times a year in the parish at Evening Prayer. On January 1 we begin again. In his prologue, St Benedict talks about different kinds of monks. He contrasts the monks that float from place to place looking for what suits them with the monks that are rooted in stability. While the ascetic heroes of monasticism may be the hermits who fight temptation and the devil all by themselves in the wilderness, most of us cannot do it that way. We need the support of a community and the stability of a Rule of Life.

Like everyone, I get wander lust. I am grateful for the tethers of prayer that keep me grounded, especially on the marathon that is Wednesday.

Morning Prayer, Mass for the Christmas Feria, Bible Study at 10:30, and mass again with unction at noon. In between I had time to speak to someone who had questions about confession. I’ve been ramping up my rhetoric on confession lately, as I am convinced more than ever this is what we need. I have come to learn that if someone keeps asking about confession, they are more compelled to confess than curious about the practice. The more opportunities for the conversation, the more likely they will act on that compulsion.

After mass, I worked on the chalk blessing cards for Epiphany on Sunday and started to work on a revamped employee handbook; not something I was looking forward to but something I have been needing to do for some time. Working in a church is so different from working anywhere else. In full disclosure, I’ve never worked anywhere else (not really) but it doesn’t take too many conversations with those who work in other fields to discover that, while they are some commonalities, we are really talking about different universes. Therefore the employee handbook must be different from the one used at the local corporation. It’s a bit more work in that I can’t simply cut and paste. Oh that I could!

Mid-afternoon was spent with my Wardens in our weekly meeting. Evening Prayer followed and then Shrine Prayers, and the Rosary. I was so pleased to have a seminarian join us for all three. It’s strange thing, really, to see this man who is now half through his first year of seminary. When I came to this parish, he was barely a teenager (he may not have even been one). I joked with him after Evening Prayer and asked when the last time he said Rite I Evening Prayer was. “The last time I was here,” he said with no joy. Such a shame, and he agrees, that many/most seminaries aren’t training their students to know the full breath of Prayer Book spirituality and practice. Sure Rite I isn’t en vogue by seminary professors, but when these students go to their first parish, the first time they will ever experience a Rite I burial is when they do one! So many parishes have their first mass of the day as quiet Rite I liturgy for the older folks who cut their faithful teeth on the 1928 Prayer Book. What about them? I don’t know why seminaries don’t teach how to use every tool in the toolbox. When they enter the parish, they may never have to use this or that, but at least they know how.  

I couldn’t tell you the last time I said mass versus populum and I certainly couldn’t tell you the last time I used Enriching Our Worship or Prayer C – but I have. As soon as I was ordained priest, the nuns of the Order of St Helena had me saying mass every Tuesday morning at the convent. I was given all sorts of prayers to say. When in Rome…. I can’t imagine ever using them again, but they are in my toolbox.


I was pleased our seminarian stayed for Rosary, it was another first. I even took a picture to document it, doubtful his seminary friends would believe it! The rosary? In an Episcopal Church? Surely not! They might be surprised.

Not too long ago a parishioner told me how important the rosary was during an MRI. I’ve never had one and can’t imagine that claustrophobic hell. What helped take their mind off the enclosed terror was to recite the rosary. God gave us an organic rosary with ten fingers and it’s easy to do.

After rosary, about 25 of us went Christmas caroling around the neighborhood and to a retirement home where some of our parishioners live. I can’t imagine the confusion of people on January 2 hearing a crowd walking down the street singing Angels we have heard on high, but it is, as you know, still Christmas.

After a long day, I finished Broken on my BritBox. The last scene on the final episode got to me. Watch it.