Monday, March 22, 2010

The Feast Of James DeKoven

A growing trend in the Episcopal Church is "innovative liturgy". In my curiosity, I attended a conference by that title of couple of years ago. [In my line of work, it's important to be "hep".] There, I learned that the liturgical traditions of the Church were a burden and unimportant in the life of the congregation, that having a loose, extemporaneous feel to the liturgy was preferable, and that the celebrant should wander around the altar and sanctuary with a facial expression like that I once saw on a surfer in Barbados after he had been hit on the head with a coconut.

So what I took away from this experience was that, save for the coconut expression, the best liturgy for Episcopalians is that of the Congregationalists. Personally, I've found that there are a great many things that one may do with liturgy that work, as long as the congregation understands why one is doing those things. That's something I learned from today's subject.

If you have ever travelled eastbound through Middletown on Route 66 [not the fabled one that begins, or ends, at the Santa Monica Pier, but the more prosaic namesake that laces across the Nutmeg State] and have come to a stop at the intersection of Route 9, there is a house that sits on the right side of the road named DeKoven House. You may note that there is an historic plaque on it that cannot, alas, be easily read from the road. That's a pity, because it is significant in the life of one of the most important Episcopalians in our ecclesial history.

Connecticut's James DeKoven was born in 1831 to a prominent maritime family and ordained at the age of 24. His early service to the Church was as a professor at Nashotah House, an Episcopal Church seminary in the wilds of 19th century Wisconsin. Later, he would also serve as Warden of Racine College, an Episcopal college on the frontier.

What makes DeKoven special, at least in the eyes of clergy such as your rector and the shrinking number of his compatriots in liturgy and theology, is that he was a champion and theological apologist for those who believe that the more intentional the Celebration of the Holy Communion, the more purposeful its experience and result.

For example, DeKoven emphasized the "real presence" of the Christ in the bread and wine, not in some superstitious sense, but as an obvious reaction to the teachings of the New Testament. To highlight this understanding, DeKoven resurrected for the American Episcopal Church practices such as bowing, kneeling, the use of candles, the making of the sign of the cross, and the "manual acts" engaged by the celebrating clergy [as seen every Sunday behind the altar at Christ Church].

Naturally, true innovation is so prized in institutions that DeKoven was labeled a "ritualist", slandered a dozen different ways for his "Romish" practices, and twice denied the office of bishop, despite having been elected such by the Dioceses of Wisconsin and Illinois, respectively. That notion of respecting the dignity of every human being can be a fickle thing.

However, his liturgical theology carried with it a logic and, not to be discounted, great ability to use non-verbal imagery to carry those understandings that are beyond words. Hence, he is recognized on this day for his contribution to our common life and, like many of the true innovators of the Church, his providential avoidance of the limitations of the office of bishop.

He died at the age of 48, after teaching that day's classes at Racine College.

Almighty and everlasting God, the source and perfection of all virtues, who didst inspire thy servant James de Koven to do what is right and to preach what is true: Grant that all ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may afford to thy faithful people, by word and example, the knowledge of thy grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.