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Copernicus & Kepler, Episcopal Saints

Maria said, “We’re not the center of the universe!”


Today is the Feast of Copernicus and Kepler, Astronomers, and already we’re seeing some reaction.

Michael Poteet, a Presbyterian member of the Daily Office congregation, writes, “Is today actually a feast day for these two astronomers on the Episcopal calendar? I think that is marvelous!”

And Maria L. Evans, a stalwart laywoman from Missouri, adds this: “I totally dig that they are on the calendar. Where else but the Episcopal church do we put people on the saints calendar that point out, ‘Guess what? The universe doesn’t revolve around us!'”

(I had to tell Maria this known fact: the universe revolves around the Subdeacon’s new granddaughter. Her name is Hadley, and she’s got more hair than Clint does.)

But there’s a bigger point to be made here, which I will now divulge to you (free of charge): Yes, it is marvelous and wonderful that we have a Copernicus and Kepler Day; and no, there is nowhere else but The Episcopal Church where you will find any feast days of scientists.

Episcopalians feel easy around scientists. We have a few in our congregations, and they help us remember that the quest for knowledge is 100% God-Approved™.

(I should get a graphic made up for that; I’d stamp it on all kinds of things. And people; I’d tell my pals Letha and Maria that they’re 100%… no, wait; 99%, Maria, but that’s still pretty good.)

It’s part of the genius of The Episcopal Church that we mix freely with scientists and artists, bankers and queers; housewives, grandbabies, bakers and cops.

Other churches get their panties in a knot over evolution; we look at them like sideshow freaks, because they are.

I mean, we don’t want to disturb the poor dears, because everyone’s entitled to their opinion; but please, Louise, grow up.

This attitude, though (we’re superior, and we know it), can cause other kinds of problems. The Christian life is one of humility – Jesus was executed on a tree like a common criminal – and you don’t want to go in that bathroom after the Queen of England’s been there; you just don’t.

A century ago, at the height of British imperialism and American Manifest Destiny – long before we had a calendar of saints that included scientists – the Church was infected with the virus of triumphalism; that “we’re just better than you are, so we’ll naturally win.”

The Rev. Canon Elizabeth Kaeton preached about this years ago; “Christian triumphalism has been the energy that has marred our missionary efforts around the globe and in all ages. Consider what we have done to the Native Americans in this country – from the time of Columbus to the time of the great Western Migration. …. Just read Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible to get a sense of the effects of Christian triumphalism.”

However, the criticism of triumphalism itself leads to more problems; we get stifled about the very thing that Mother Kaeton tells us to be worried about. As a result, we don’t do evangelism at all.

We know we’ve got the best theology in the whole entire universe; but we’re afraid to say so, because it isn’t polite, and there isn’t any arguing about what we did to the Indians.

But we didn’t do it; that was somebody’s great-great grandpa, not us.

I’m glad for Mother Kaeton, but I don’t like our paralysis.

We’ve been through the thesis, then the antithesis, but we’ve never arrived at a synthesis. Superior Theology –> You’re Not So Hot, Pal –> (silence).

And I don’t suppose I’ll be able to get us there either, but I shall try. (No charge!)

What Maria asked was right; “Where else but the Episcopal Church?”

The answer is: nowhere else. If you want science and art under one godly roof, come to ours. It’s our exclusive product.

(We don’t trademark it, though; other churches are free to borrow everything we do, and we deeply wish they would.)

Someone, a group of people on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, came up with the idea of commemorating Copernicus and Kepler as saints, and we are enriched by this. Copernicus was a priest; nobody remembers that anymore, but it’s a fact. He was the nephew of the Bishop of Warmia. He believed in Jesus Christ and all the stars above.

If TEC had its act together (a very big if, since we never get our act together, because of the stupid way we elect our Presiding Bishop) – if we ever did, we’d open St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette, Indiana, the home of Purdue University, for a gigantic celebration of scientists.

We’d put ads in the paper, and we’d invite Ei-ichi Negishi to give the sermon. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year and lives three miles away!

I suspect the church would be packed. Because the scientific community has a great need for its faith to be acknowledged; for its constructive contributions to society to be recognized, as the Christian sideshow freaks will never do.

“Packed” is how Episcopal churches are supposed to be.

But we don’t do it, because we’ve never arrived at a synthesis that says, Liturgize everything you do.

Liturgize everything we are. We’re scientists and artists, we’re homeless and queer; we’re all of you, and you are us.


We’ve Forgotten How to Rogate
A week ago, Anglican churches across the world observed, on some tiny level, Rogation Days. They happen every year in the last weeks before Pentecost.

My websites made a fairly big deal about Rogation Days, with headlines, photographs and artwork. It was another example of the Vicar peeing into the wind, because no one paid that much attention, but gee. If I ruled the world it would be a different place!

(I’m not sure I want you to rule the world, uhkay? But Maria can, or Letha. We’d have a really good world if Stephanie or Leonardo were in charge.)


St. Michael’s, Bunwell, England, 1967; priest, acolytes, congregation and band pause to bless a stream on their procession around the parish boundaries. (Bunwell Heritage Group)

“Rogation” is an ancient word for a parade of blessing. Here’s what you do: get the priest and the acolytes all dolled up, plus a brass band if you’ve got one, then set them all out to make a parade around the neighborhood, throwing holy water everywhere you go. “Rogate” the parish boundaries; march and have a good time. Bless the labs and coffee shops and everything in between.

In olden days (imagine an English village before the Industrial Age), you’d bless the town and all the countryside. (You want good weather for this, which may be why you have it in the month of May.) You bless the farm fields; sprinkle water over them so the little plants will grow. Say a prayer; God give us this day our daily bread. You bless the work, of the farmer and the shopkeeper; you bless the trees and birds and streams.

Bless everything for miles around; people would come out for this, because they need and want the blessing. They all join the parade.

Before you say this is a pipe dream, no one will do this anymore, just wishful thinking, consider: we do not really like the way we’re living.

We need more blessings; we need to know that God cares, and have someone say (a whole group of people, the Church) this is good; this is holy.

Whatever work you do, we bless it. We honor you for doing it. We’re calling you important, for three days every year.

I would like to see Episcopal churches make rogations wherever they are. Great big cities, country towns, hospitals and war zones: Blessed be God in your work.

Now I’ll sum this up. We celebrate astronomers today. We celebrate scientists and science itself, Those Few Things We Actually Know.

We do so because our God is a God who Knows Things. The Source of Knowing; the Creator of this wonderful, mysterious place we live in.

He likes it when we make discoveries. He cheers; “Hey, Moses, they finally found that one!”

(She also likes it when we learn that she’s not male. Or female.)

The Church that celebrates this God of knowing and creating has a slightly better knowledge than the Churches of the small God, the one who’s bitter and violent and tight.

Episcopalians of the Brave Josh World must be the first to confess our sinfulness; we’ve been involved in one genocide after another, from Indians to Black folk to people with AIDS.

We’re all inclined to be bitter and violent and mean. So admit it, tell the truth. “Oh Lord, We’re So Fucked Up.™”

THEN: go and bless the labs. The kitchens, the factories, the fields, an occasional whorehouse; they need blessing too, and they’re more faithful than we are. (Come off it, we’re all whores here.)

Bless the banks; bless the legislative chambers. Bless the trenches and the guys who dig in the dirt to build a road you’ll use and never think about. Sprinkle holy water everywhere.

Down with anti-science. Down with triumphalism. Up with humble blessing wherever we go.

Though it’s true that we don’t live in English villages anymore, and most of the world never did: it’s also true that the enormous liturgical and spiritual resources of reformed catholicism contain riches we do not use, but easily could, and demonstrably should. The Blessing of Animals on St. Francis’ Day is the perfect model; every dog and cat and parakeet lover for miles around wants her little ones blessed, because it helps her express how much she loves those creatures.

We should do the same blessings with nurses, doctors, dentists on Miss Nightingale Day; with soldiers, cops and emergency workers on the Feast of Cornelius the Centurion. We could be blessing the whole world, and we’re not; why not?

Teachers and schoolchildren; authors, artists and musicians; farmers and gardeners need holy water, which we just happen to have.

If we would liturgize the everyday experience of office workers, our churches would be packed. So let’s do it; bring Good News.++

Me too, Pops?

5 Responses

  1. THAT! Wow (and me name was mentioned too)! Thanks for the parading of our blessings…I like it, I subscribe to it (hardhitting or subtle let the overture begin)…did you know, DYK, thank Mother Amelia is a member of a group of Epsicopalian/Anglican Clergy who are Scientists? They actually meet up and Amelia+ attended in England last year (if I recall me recalls correctly)…surely you must delve into this factoid as it adds another jewel to our crown of crowns. May I cross post some of the above? I really like it…un gran abrazo, Leonardo

  2. Leonardo, I will happily live in your world.

  3. Josh, I bounced over here from Leonardo’s blog. What a great post. It happens that I’ve been reading a biography of Kepler and studying some of his works. He is indeed worthy of being honored in our calendar of saints, not only because of his amazing scientific accomplishments, but also on account of his deep piety, his spiritual courage, and his cosmological thought relating the findings of science to the divine order. He was a devout Lutheran who at times was under extreme pressure to convert to Catholicism in order to maintain his professional position and even the right to live where he lived, but he stood his ground (and paid the price). At the same time he cultivated warm friendships and collegial relationships with Roman Catholics, advocated tolerance and love toward those of other persuasions, and decried the terrible religious warfare that was sweeping across Europe. I could go on and on about him. In any case, I think I’ll try to stir up some interest in my own parish (which is across the street from a major research university!) in doing a special Copernicus & Kepler service next year. I LOVE your idea of liturgizing everything and blessing every corner of our world.

  4. Mary Clara, thank you for giving us this story of Dr. Kepler. I didn’t mention this, but part of the liturgy I sketched out above must include story-telling; that is, why we are celebrating these two fellows out of all the scientists who have ever lived.

    Episcopalians use (and I depend on) a book called Holy Women, Holy Men, which contains brief mentions of the lives of the saints. This amounts to a page per day. What you wrote here expands our knowledge of Kepler’s faith, character, travails and work. Galileo was famously hauled before the Inquisition for publishing his discoveries, but Kepler and Copernicus are less well known today.

    Now let us think about what it’s like to be part of a congregation that gets to tell and hear their story, in a service praising God. We would recite their careers, hit the highlights of their discoveries, and remind each other why all this still matters. In the process, we would be telling each other about the scientific method, affirming that it’s important; that the pursuit of facts and data require both brains and courage, because if the world doesn’t like what you come up with, you’ll be ignored or punished. Thus the heroes and heroines of science are those who persist in their commitment to the truth.

    In the process of telling all this, we’ll also be saying to everyone present, everyone at your major research university that’s right across the street: we value what you do. We don’t necessarily know it or understand it, but we love that you think about these questions we don’t think or know about; we love that you are trying to understand our world a little more precisely.

    “Now stand right there and we’ll throw holy water on you, which will only get you slightly damp and doesn’t hurt.”

    “Let us bless the Department of Chemistry – the College of Pharmacal Sciences – the Medical School – the Mathematicians – even Economics (the Dismal One). We praise you and bless your holy Name!”

    You’d walk out of that church with a spring in your step. And you’d be slightly more able to perform your job tomorrow, which might in the course of time allow you to get that paper written.

    If I were conducting this liturgy in Josh’s Brave New World, I would have reserved seats for departmental secretaries too; for post-docs and grad students and undergrads; for the parents who send us those students and pay for them to acquire knowledge. I’d set up temporary icons of the leading lights in the field (and no, I wouldn’t care if this one was Jewish or that one was atheist or she was New Thought Unity, because there’s only one Creator who’s really not to blame that Dr. So-and-so was a bit deluded on that particular point).

    I think your proposed service would help us, and change us a little, and lead to other celebrations. (Maybe my friend Stephen will finally finish his degree!)

    The point of rogation is this: we don’t wait for all the farmers and shopkeepers in the village to come to us; we come to them. And we offer our fancy water and blessing to all, knowing that there are some who don’t believe in That Religious Nonsense. Water makes the crops grow and no one turns it down.

    My final thought: any church can do this, but there is something strange and wonderful in the Episcopal ethos which makes us uniquely capable of it, and which has to do with Establishment in the old country. We get a glimpse of this at the National Cathedral, which was chartered by Congress and built on the highest hill in Washington to be the nation’s church; the site of many state occasions, from President Ford’s funeral to President Obama’s inauguration. It’s our Episcopal cathedral, but it’s also the nation’s church.

    Henry the 8th was bloody awful, but with the immense help of his daughter Elizabeth and many others, he succeeded in creating a church for the whole nation. This means we have to and want to be the church of all the people, from whatever station. That’s an incredible gift and legacy. We belong to the shopkeepers, bankers and queers.

    Everyone in England owns their parish church. Everyone in the land is entitled to be baptized and buried by their vicar.

    The USA is the home of denominationalism; churches have divided and subdivided on an unparalleled scale. “WE think YOU got that wrong. So we’re going over here to set up our own separate church, the very existence of which will tell you every day that we’re right and you’re wrong.”

    But there’s one church in this independent country that inherited that legacy; one church for one land. Rich, poor, high, low, male, female.

    We’re not superior for being smarter than anyone else, or more faithful, or better in any way. One of the unnoticed changes this new calendar’s brought in is that for the first time in Anglican history, a Lutheran like Kepler we confess to be a saint of God.

    When we sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, we say our faith out loud:

    And one was a doctor,
    and one was a queen,
    and one was a shepherdess on the green;
    they were all of them saints of God—and I mean,
    God helping, to be one too.

    josh and Lesbia Scott

  5. […]    Processie rond de parochiegrenzen, bij een beekje om het te zegenen     (St. Michael’s, Bunwell, Engeland, 1967, zie ook hier)  […]

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