Religion in America
by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— One of my favorite characters to poke fun at is . . . Mary. She’s a rugged individualist operating in an often politically correct and conforming world. Such a species is disappearing fast in America and it’s amusing to consider the humor of not quite fitting into the mentality de jour.
Like most people, Mary doesn’t like change. First, her government took a gigantic jibe to the left, her “retirement” was rudely interrupted, and then her dear Colonial Virginia church changed. “Creeping Romanism,” she called it, or “High Church,” arrived about eight years ago with her new priest. He referred to himself as “Father.” What? What? Mary’s father had passed away years ago.
Her Episcopal Church, of course, home to both sides of the “Great Divide,” has components of both “Low” and “High” church. It’s a blend of Roman roots and Protestant traditions. It so notoriously originated when Henry VIII bolted from Rome when he wanted a new wife and the Pope wouldn’t grant a divorce. Lo and behold, Anglicans were born. God bless them, every one.
When Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, became queen, she introduced tolerance with Catholics and Protestants coming together in the Book of Common Prayer.
Great idea except Mary, much to no one’s great surprise, is Low Church. She sees God in the eyes of a dog which is very Low Church, indeed. And whether she’s very tolerant or not, may be answered by the simple fact that when she tried to address the new rector as “Father,” the word caught in her most tolerant throat—like a bone.
There was immediate scurry over what to call the new priest. Some settled in on “Father” and others simply used his first name. A few settled on “Padre” feeling this title safe since it’s used for military chaplains. (Not to suggest such pressing religious matters might ever instigate battle.)
Next, snatches of Latin chants cropped up in the service. At first Mary thought the priest was mumbling, but then it hit her . . . Latin. The classic language she had succeeded in eluding all her life had finally knocked on her door. At the time, she was only 63.
Changes were offered slowly in order not to over-agitate the tolerant (deemed exceedingly dangerous in religious circles). Bells started ringing during Communion signifying the presence of God and not a fire in the sacristy as Mary had thought. She wondered when she first heard the alarm whether she should vacate the church immediately?
Ah, East meets West but can the twain ever meet? She took to introduction of incense with varying degrees of “challenged tolerance.” Her worst response was an eruption of cough, as if she were about to die, but to no avail. On high holy days incense was dispensed without mercy.
Holy water came next. First dispensed with the aid of a brass instrument the priest flung across the congregation, and then in the form of a basin at the narthex that parishioners could dip their fingers into and genuflect before entering the church.
Next, flickering red lights from candles offered opportunity to say a prayer for a departed loved one. There was bowing and genuflection, and it struck Mary some worshippers were so busy moving their hands at just the right moment that she wondered if she were attending an auction? No? Oh well. One must learn the right moment to curtsy and cross, tricks you can bet Mary hasn’t yet mastered.
By now a crucifix hung on the colonial wall and a hanging eternal light over the altar beamed a holy shade of red. There was a large candle in memory of the dearly departed. No life-size statue of the Virgin Mary has yet been placed in the sanctuary, but sightings of Our Lady (not to be confused with our columnist) have been made in the chapel along with kneeling pads and such rites as Disposition of Ashes, Washing of Feet and Stations of the Cross.
But take heart ye of sturdy Protestant stock, there is not yet one confessional booth in sight. (But there is a life-size statue in living color of Jesus hanging on a wall in the parish house. Not even the Baptists have that.)
Yet, Mary feels the presence of God, not in holy water and incense, but in sunlight streaming through the church window, walking through the church cemetery and stopping before her father’s headstone, holding a fallen baby bird in her hand, or listening to Bach.
The beauty of the Episcopal Church is tolerance. It invites both low and high church to come together. This sounds good but is it practical? One must feel comfortable in church.
Perhaps in the end it is merely a cerebral challenge for Mary? For doesn’t the Sermon on the Mount, the Christian idea of love and forgiveness, unite all of faith into one church?