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Mrs. Babbington Banker’s Revenge; or, the Bishop Who Couldn’t Shut Up

church_lady

Dana Carvey, “Saturday Night Live.”

It was November 3, 1968, and the Bishop moved from his episcopal chair to the pulpit as the people finished reciting the Apostles’ Creed.

It was a familiar time in a familiar place; Holy Trinity Church in one of the lesser cities of the diocese, a Morning Prayer parish and former pro-cathedral back in the distant mists of time, before everything got consolidated in the state capital.

It was a familiar duty: confirming a class of nine and receiving three others, two from the Roman church, one from a vaguely fundamentalist background. The Bishop enjoyed confirmations, as they were signs of church growth and one of the few things he alone could do—although as he grew older, he rather wished he didn’t have to drive so far to conduct them. Still, the people of Holy Trinity were always glad to see him; the ladies had a big reception planned afterwards, nominally for the confirmands but really for him, because he only showed up once a year with his unique props, the cope and miter, crozier and purple shirt. The ladies of Holy Trinity liked making a big to-do over him, and who was he to say no?

He stood in the pulpit and repeated the familiar saying with which he began every sermon, if only because he could always remember it once he got going: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”

Well, amen. The people sat down and marveled at his wondrous cope. Only a few kids wondered why he didn’t put an “S” at the end of always, while a white-haired man started thumbing through the 39 Articles at the back of the book.

Thus A. Herriman Butterworth IV began his standard confirmation sermon, as the people waited expectantly to receive the Word from a rare personage from the City.

He tried, at informal times, to charm people into calling him “Herri, rhymes with sherry,” because it was much less regal-sounding and besides it suggested wine; and if the poor clucks called him “Harry” by mistake, he didn’t bat an eye. They were probably Baptists in an earlier life.

He gazed down at them; the pulpit had only a single step, but the chancel was three steps above them and he was six feet tall, an essential quality those days in a bishop. It was his job to loom over them, and he couldn’t help being so tall. He surveyed ladies in dark hats, lawyers and bankers in pressed suits, even a hippie or two scattered about, students or potheads or both, but part of the “broad church” and the “younger generation,” so they were allowed in too. A 30ish redheaded woman a few pews back wore a black lace mantilla; he smiled benevolently at her.

Then all of a sudden he forgot what he was going to say.

He couldn’t remember his confirmation sermon. He had given it a hundred times but he couldn’t remember a word of it. He stared at them blankly, but they didn’t know his sermon either.

One of the pleasures of being a Bishop is that you can say the same sermon over and over and no one knows the difference. You still get paid regardless.

But he had no idea how it began, what it said or how it ended. He was apparently losing his mind.

They looked at him expectantly; he was supposed to say something. A lawyer in a near pew coughed.

Half-panicked, he said, “I think I’m dying, and this church probably is too.”

Four hundred jaws dropped. The old man with the 39 Articles asked his wife, “What’d he say?”

“He’s crying, or buying, I’m really not sure.”

Herri knew he had their attention, at least, but what was he going to say next? He had no idea.

“Two days from now we will have an election,” he began, “and some people say it will be decisive for our nation’s history.

“I suspect that they may be right.

“We have three presidential candidates; a Republican who says we need law and order; a Democrat, part of the current administration, who seems less than sure about continuing our war in Vietnam. And the third man is a defender of racial segregation, which some people say is the only way to ensure peace in this country.”

Herri looked at the people; some of the ladies, at least, were trying to give him looks of encouragement, once he stopped being tongue-tied.

“I will not tell you how to vote,” he said, “but I will tell you what to expect regardless of how you vote.

“A great change is coming, I believe, though I may not be here to see it.” The ladies all got stricken looks, and the older men frowned. “Some days I feel my health is all right, and other days I feel in pain.

“I know what this portends; we all do. I am getting older; my body is not what it once was. Indeed, we are all mortal persons here; and as I get closer to death, I must say I’m strengthened by the great promise of the Resurrection in Christ.”

Ladies nodded; they were now on his side. Many of the men kept frowning, and a longhaired hippie in the back leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees to try and hear him.

“With luck I will be with you for some time,” Herri said. “That’s my hope, because coming to Holy Trinity, and seeing you all again, is one of the joys that keep me going. I am equally happy about this fine class of confirmands, whose affirmation of faith inspires us all today. As they stand with Jesus, let us all do so too.”

Mrs. Babbington Banker, the richest woman in the parish (though the worst gossip), gave him a firm nod. She proudly advised visitors her toilet flushed vanilla ice cream—and don’t you dare call her “Babs.”

Still, the Bishop couldn’t remember a word of his sermon.

“All I can do as I come to the end of my life is to try to be a witness to what I have seen; and as your bishop, to communicate something like a voice of prophecy. I must admit I’m not very good at it; but as my time grows shorter, I do see things on the horizon which perhaps you need to know about.” Herri was now winging it entirely, all on his own, as he hadn’t been since seminary. He grasped the arms of the pulpit so he didn’t fall down.

“There will come a time,” he said, “when this church, and others like it in the diocese, will no longer be all white.”

Mrs. Babbington Banker looked him a dagger. He decided not to catch her eye anymore.

“This is already happening in the state capital,” he told them. “A few parishes have always had Afro-Americans, especially in the central city, and now some are appearing in the suburbs as well.”

“This is a good thing!” he insisted, leaning forward. “Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight; and it’s not just a children’s song in Sunday School.”

Most of the ladies in the church blinked at him, and stayed attentive. The hippie in the back pumped his fist and said, “Yes!” loud enough for several people to hear. Everyone else pretended to ignore him.

“Our churches will become, gradually over time, a bit less segregated, a bit more integrated. And I for one think that’s a good thing. Meanwhile we need to prepare for it. We need to learn to welcome the stranger.” He actually scowled at them, which was never before part of his episcopal performance. “If you need chapter and verse on welcoming the stranger, I can supply.”

He stepped back a second; this was actually going halfway well, but he had no idea what he’d say next. He was either caught up in the Spirit or going insane.

The Bishop in him figured it was insanity, but the little Christian part he’d never let die encouraged him.

He loved that tiny Christian part, he really did. He tried to grasp it closer.

“Concomitant with all this, we will see a major change in the status of women in our church.” It was a college town, and all the professors approved his using a four-syllable word. Big words keep out the riff-raff.

“I believe,” he said, completely terrified, “that someday soon, a woman will stand at your altar,” he pointed at it, “as an ordained Episcopal priest.”

The Spirit or the insanity overtook him from here on out; the church was hushed. He went on, “And when a female postulant, otherwise qualified, with a master of divinity from an approved and accredited seminary, presents herself for ordination, I will lay my hands on her, just as I will do to these confirmands here today.”

The confirmands gaped at each other in confusion, and the riot, if it was going to happen, would break out now; but they were Episcopalians, so they sat quietly and uncomfortably in their pews.

“I have come to believe, after many decades of prayer, that our Church has unjustly suppressed the ministry of women, despite their incredible faithfulness in service to us all, and without whom we could not function.”

The head of the Altar Guild was wide open to what he was saying—and so was her teenaged daughter.

“Consider my visit today,” he continued, “whom has it affected the most? Your rector, Fr. Whittington de Calliope, fourth son of the Viscount, has been gracious as always, knowing this is my day to pop in and visit and soon disappear. Consider these confirmands, on whom I will lay my hands and later issue certificates; this is a one-time event for them. But the women of this parish, who have kept it going through every financial crisis you’ve ever had, will soon lay out tea and cakes, cheese and bread, berries and sweets, all because some guy in a funny collar and a weird shirt and a pointy hat bothered to drive here, some sixty miles in the sunshine, to recognize your Christianity and and to affirm you as part of the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ. Everywhere I go, women wait on me; is it not time that I should wait on them?

“I tell you from my heart,” he said, “I intend to wait on them.”

Applause broke out, but it was only a distinct minority.

Still, the meaning was not lost on him. “These changes I foresee, all of them necessary, all of them willed by God above, will not pass easily among us. There will be defections,” he declared, eying them sharply, “there will be people who threaten to take their money elsewhere. And they’ll do it. Make no mistake whatsoever; they’ll claim we drove them out, when all we did was to ask them to love the little children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, male and female in his sight.”

This was nowhere near his confirmation sermon. Maybe he needed to see a doctor.

“We will lose members,” he said. “It’s sad, but it will happen—and we’ll miss them terribly. All of a sudden this parish, accustomed to giving its rector a deserved raise, to repairing the roof, to buying new organ pipes and premium toilet tissue, will find it doesn’t have the money, because Mr. Pifflesnot objects to Negroes, and Countess Newfund of Coalsmoke will not receive the Body and Blood from a woman. Believe me, these changes will be devastating.”

The five-year-old boy in him loved getting away with saying Pifflesnot in church. This could get very dangerous. Steam started escaping from Babs’s ears, and the vapors around her did not smell vanilla.

“In short, my friends, we are about to enter a period where the Episcopal Church of your youth—the Establishment church, the prestigious and wealthy church, the presidents’ church, the lawyers’ and bankers’ church, the businessman’s church—becomes to some the pariah church.

“Don’t think this won’t affect you. You’ll wonder for yourselves, is this church dying? Where are the donations? Where are the volunteers? Where are the people who used to fill these pews?”

He sighed; he didn’t want to preside over the devastation of his diocese. If he was dying, maybe that was good, if it spared him the responsibility of administering a bankruptcy.

He tried to summon the Spirit for a peroration to this disaster; he felt okay, but it was time to wind it up. He had a rule; sermons should never last more than eight minutes.

“My friends, the worst is yet to come, I haven’t even told you about it. I’m reluctant to mention it on this day we all should celebrate the public professions of our converts and children. If I have harmed their day I am truly in the wrong.

“But there is the matter of homosexuals in the Church. And nothing in all the changes I’ve described will drive away more people than those who think, because of our Bible, that homosexuals are particularly damned.

“They are not,” he said. “I don’t even know how I know that, but they are not. They are loved like all the children, red and yellow, black and white. All are precious in his sight. Jesus loved the homosexuals of the world.”

The hippie in the back wasn’t sure what he thought about this, but he listened. An Episcopal bishop was a queer?

The Bishop concluded, “We are about to move from accusations that we are the Republican Party at prayer, to claims that we are the Democratic Party at prayer, to slanders that we are the Atheist Party and the anti-Christ. This is what we have to look forward to.

“But,” he said, “would you trade your prestige and your wealth and your influence for greater faith? A greater ministry? A closer walk with God? Will you choose that, instead of popularity and legitimacy and wealth and prestige?

“That is the question we must ask and answer. I assure you, I promise you, as I approach the Gates of Heaven myself, greater faith is your reward if you will open up to all the people.

“I don’t see it all clearly. But I do see this, if dimly. What God is doing is a Re-formation, the likes of which we’ve never seen.

“We will be less English, and more American. We will become more international.

“We will become less Protestant and more Catholic. Even today, a strong movement is afoot in our church with Prayer Book revision. That work is only begun and preliminary, but we will eventually see every Episcopal Church in America embrace the Holy Communion of our Lord’s Body and Blood as the principal Sunday service—just as it should be, and just as it always was for the first 1500 years of Christianity.

“Let the people be nurtured and fed, washed in the Blood and grown by the bones of the Body of Christ. As your Bishop I must tell you, the Communion of our Lord’s Supper, and not the Divine Office of Morning Prayer, is the suitable service on a day like today, when we welcome our converts, and every Sunday.

“Consider this: only once in his life, on the night he was betrayed, did Jesus say ‘DO THIS in remembrance of me.’

“He didn’t say ‘recite psalms and canticles and have an inoffensive sermon.’ He said ‘DO THIS.’

“Who are we, not to do what he told us to do? ‘DO THIS,’ even if it makes you afraid.

“Doubtless the decision to ‘DO THIS’ will drive out more Protestants too. We’ll hate to see them go, but we don’t have a choice about ‘DO THIS.’ Jesus couldn’t have been more clear.

“For one thousand, five hundred and twenty odd years, the only Sunday service Christians ever knew was ‘DO THIS.’

“Do we really care to say we know better? Do we believe that psalms and canticles and lessons are an acceptable substitute? Did some prelate come down from the City and repeal ‘DO THIS?’

“No, and no, and no. So let me tell you, someday soon, every parish in this diocese and every parish in this Church is going to ‘DO THIS.’ We have no choice. It’s a positive direction. Jesus never uttered imperatives, only once in his life, but when he did, it was ‘DO THIS.’ And so we shall.

“The Protestants won’t like it—and I’m a Protestant. The Protestants among you are the most prosperous, the most influential. They promote a Protestant Work Ethic, that if you conform and discriminate and congratulate people just like you and go to church on Sunday, while forgetting Jesus the six other days of the week, God will reward you with riches. That is their excuse for exploiting their resources. That is their excuse for stealing from workers. That is their excuse for polluting the environment. That is their excuse for robbing you blind.” He leaned forward. “They’ve even convinced themselves they shit ice cream.”

The hippie busted out in laughter, while Mrs. Babbington Banker whipped on her mink coat.

“But there’s no way around ‘DO THIS,’ and so we’ll do it,” he declared. “We may get a million things wrong in the coming years, and we probably will. But I promise you, we will ‘DO THIS.'”

He backed up a little. “The new Prayer Book is many years off, but the change is set in motion. Every scholar, every liturgist, every historian agrees: as glorious as the Morning Prayer can be, what Jesus said was ‘DO THIS.’ And so we shall, and let the chips fall where they may.

“Now I must leave you, having told you the truth about our joint future. I’m dying; maybe that’s what has allowed me to say these shocking things. I didn’t plan this; it just happened.

“But my friends, my beloved ones, I swear as I stand here before you that if you will keep the faith, if you will cling to the Cross, if you will believe in the answers you already get when you pray, if you will ‘DO THIS’: the coming age will be the best time ever to be an Episcopalian.

“You will be reviled, but you will turn the other cheek. You will be hated, but you’ll return love. You will be crucified, but you will rise again.

“We’re about to enter the most faithful time in the American Church’s history. Many will have questions; some will return after periods of great doubt; we’ll see more battered people, and hungry people, and despairing people. It won’t always be pretty. It may get pretty ugly.

“But if you will ‘DO THIS,’ it will all be blessed and praised and sanctified. And ladies,” he said,” thank you for keeping us going; you are the leaders of our faith. You are our priests; you are our faith-healers. You are Martha and Mary, the worker and the giver. You are the Magdalene, whom we now know financed the whole operation.

“Select one among you, and if I have hands, let me touch her briefly, as I will touch these boys and girls, men and women today. All it takes is a touch, because our God is one who acts out ritual in public so he can be seen.

“I received grace when I was touched, and the only reason I’m still alive is to touch you.”

With that, he didn’t know what else to say, so he crossed himself and went back to his throne. Its wood was hard without a cushion, and it gave him a pain in the butt.

Afterwards, as they shook hands in the vestibule with the departures, the rector said, “You need a coadjutor, Herri.”

“I do,” Herri smiled, “but it won’t be you.”

On the first day it was legal, January 1, 1977, a woman was ordained priest in his diocese. He was too sick to perform it, but he thanked God it got done.

Two bishops later, a woman showed up and the people said Hallelujah. She was blonde, with breasts and everything; no hiding those under a cope and miter. The hippie in the back, very gray now, was the first to applaud; she was pretty, he rather liked blondes, and when she said ‘DO THIS,’ he did it.

Mrs. Babbington Banker finally kicked the bucket at 99, and had to endure having her aged face projected on 17 TV screens all over a concrete auditorium, while many in attendance bought Starbucks in the lobby and texted. Nobody ‘DID THIS,’ since Dr. Dobson never mentioned it, and a Latin Gay janitor disinfected ice cream for the minimum wage.++

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