Monday, July 27, 2015

Interview with Regina Magazine

For anyone who's stumbled upon my site thanks to the interview recently featured on Regina Magazine (here), welcome! Our daughter's first birthday is coming up this week, so I'm mostly occupied with that, but I hope to have another post whipped up by Friday. In the meantime, please feel free to sift through articles in the backlog, such as the ones I've highlighted on the right-hand column. See you soon!

Also, be sure to "like" Modern Medievalism's Facebook page. It's the easiest way to see when I've made a post and share it with your friends. I also sometimes make posts there that are too short or unworthy of writing full-fledged articles here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Anglican Ordinariate and the gift of sacral English worship


Two weeks ago, I wrote my impressions of an Ordinariate community I visited for Sunday Mass. For some reason, that article ended up being one of the most widely shared pieces I've ever done; so much that when I came to see Blessed John Henry Newman's sister community in Mount Airy (a northwest section of Philadelphia) this past Sunday, at least three people there recognized me as the Modern Medievalist.

To the people of Saint Michael's consternation, I won't do a full-fledged review because there's not too much I could add which hasn't already been said for Newman. This community, which is slightly larger than Newman, was formed a couple years earlier. The two groups share the same priest and organist. Most of the liturgical practices are the same, though I observed that Saint Michael's omits the sign of peace and adds the Last Gospel at the end of Mass. As at Newman, everyone uses their "The Hymnals" to full effect. I was a tad surprised when we used a recessional hymn set to the Old Hundredth (I believe it was "All People That on Earth Do Dwell"); I don't remember singing anything to that tune since I was in my mother's Seventh-day Adventist church. 



The community borrows the parish church of Holy Cross, a sturdy stone building in the Gothic revival style. I wasn't able to find anything online about its history, but it fits in surprisingly well with the Gothic churches of the old Protestant establishment. That is to say, there isn't any of that Continental/Baroque fru-fru when you step inside. Everything from the reredos, to the confessional booths, to the wonderful, wooden crossbeam ceiling falls in sync with the Gothic revival and Pugin's "true principles of Christian architecture". They even remembered to paint the doors red. The edifice is marred only by (as you could expect) an unsightly marble freestanding altar that must have been placed there following Vatican II.


Saint Michael's isn't the only community to borrow this church. As I later discovered, Holy Cross is now also home to two other nearby parishes whose churches have closed down. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been hemorrhaging since the Council, and paired with sexual abuse lawsuits, has been obliged to shut down scores (hundreds?) of churches over the past few years. This is a foretaste of what's in store for Catholic dioceses around the country, even the so-called healthy ones in the Midwest. I suspect even with all the consolidating, these churches are merely forestalling the inevitable. The institutional Church's lack of willpower to pass the faith on to the next generation will cause even Holy Cross, now home to three parishes and an Ordinariate community, to be shuttered or turned into apartment space before I bite the dust.

I chatted with virtually every member of the community in the basement after Mass, hearing their stories and struggles. As at Newman, nearly all were former Episcopals. I learned that the founding members originally came from an Episcopal church called Saint James the Less. That parish actually separated from the Episcopal Church over a decade ago and finally lost a bid against the Episcopal Diocese to keep their property in 2006. They had floated adrift for a time until 2012, when they were received into the Catholic Church and their leader was ordained as a Catholic priest. I hope the current pontiff hasn't been giving them too much buyer's remorse.


Looking back, the most valuable thing I learned about this entire visit was that people who drive long distances to church for a specific liturgy or community (and here, I mainly have some, though thankfully by no means all traditional Latin Mass groups in mind) have no excuse for being standoffish and disinterested in newcomers. The usual excuse is that Latin Massers are cranky because they drive a long way and spend most of their lives besieged by modernists or whatever other negative influences there might be out there. Which is true, but at Saint Michael's, I talked to an elderly woman who drives over a hundred miles each way to make it to this church, and she still made a point to say hello to us and personally pour us coffee. Quite a few members drive in from other states. These people had to endure the realization that something was horribly wrong with their previous church, leave that sect and all their property behind, and float in limbo for years until arriving home in the Catholic Church, still to be treated like second-class citizens among many parties in the hierarchy and elsewhere.... and despite all that, it's not too much of an obstacle to make a visitor feel welcome.

Confessional booths

At last, let's ask ourselves: why does the Ordinariate even matter to those of us non-Anglicans or Episcopals? And what does this have to do with your theme of Modern Medievalism?

The Personal Ordinariate and other Anglican Use communities are among the only people in the Catholic Church willing to give English-speaking people beautiful worship in a common, though sacralized, tongue. While I certainly prefer the traditional Latin Mass and maintaining the use of Latin in the western liturgy as far as possible, I need to make an uncomfortable reality check for fellow "traddies": no one else cares. We can't revive Latin the way that Jews were able to bring Hebrew back from the dead and make it the functional language of an entire country because, frankly, they just care about it more than we do. Hebrew in Israel comes from a culture which, since its beginning, insisted that all young men learn the rudiments of the ancient tongue as a rite of passage into adulthood. Could a man dare call himself a rabbi without having learned Hebrew? Could a Muslim call himself an imam or Islamic scholar without even bothering to read the Koran in Arabic?

But a Christian priest isn't really the equivalent of a rabbi or imam, is he? The latter two are scholars and interpreters of their holy books, but they're not priests. The Christian priest could be a scholar as well, but for most of Church history, the average parish priest presumed no such role. They trained to offer the sacrifice of the Mass and celebrate the sacraments. The priest's job is chiefly a sacramental one. And so, it sufficed for so many centuries for priests to be trained to fulfill their vocations by rote memorization or reading prayers from a book. This shouldn't imply that most medieval country priests could actually compose letters in Latin or freely translate verses from Scripture on demand. No, the priest needed to know his Latin only enough to "say the black, do the red". Most priests in these Middle Ages weren't even authorized to preach sermons or hear confessions. Those pastoral duties, which we now take for granted, were formerly assigned to specialists.


The Protestant Reformation, of course, challenged the old expectations of a priest's duty to his flock and found them wanting. Guildsmen in Germany, for instance, took to suing their chaplains for not providing them with "evangelical" sermons; the priests cited their contractual obligations, which only ever expected them to offer Masses and prayers at the appointed times (the Office). Yet the people of northern Europe decided it was no longer good enough. Entire nations revolted against the Latin Mass and all it stood for. In those kingdoms which remained faithful, seminaries were established to reform the clergy into a body of scholarly professionals that could go toe-to-toe against the likes of "Dr. Luther" and his followers. Latin was taught in these institutions to bolster their defenses. And yet, it never really left seminary grounds. There was never a concerted effort to make the study of Latin a universal precept for all young men; even for altar servers and choristers, their parts were learned by rote or reading, but without much emphasis on understanding or translating. Meanwhile, the common people grew further and further apart from the liturgy and the culture that built it until, finally, in the 1960's, Pope Paul VI and nearly all the bishops in the world said goodbye to the Latin Mass with nary a peep of protest from either clergy or congregation; not even in Italy itself! It was almost as though a few non-Catholic intellectuals, writers, and classical musicians were more perturbed by the jettisoning of nearly two thousand years of tradition than the faithful themselves.

We can walk away from Vatican II with one of three conclusions: either,

a.) the gates of hell prevailed against the Church after all;
b.) Paul VI wasn't a true pope, and the real Church is actually in hiding, or;
c.) Latin was never really that important to begin with.

A sounds flippant, but I know of, and have personally spoken to more than a handful of old-timers who gave up being Catholic altogether because they believed all of the liturgical and social changes that followed the Council proved that the Church was no longer the infallible institution it had spent so long cultivating itself as. B is, of course, the "sedevacantist" option. But for the rest of us, we have to concede with C to some degree or another. Therefore, if Latin was never absolutely integral to Catholic worship, then traditional Catholics are doing outsiders a disservice by insisting such things as "only the Latin Mass matters", "Mass in the vernacular is displeasing to God", or "if you want to pray in the vernacular, go to the Novus Ordo". These dichotomies make the great the enemy of the good, and when the dust has settled, no one wins except the devil.

Latin isn't analogous to Hebrew for Jews and Arabic for Muslims because traditional Christians aren't "people of the book". Scripture is just one, not the sole source of revelation. The Latin liturgy is worth preserving because it represents a nearly two-thousand year tradition in the West... but it's not worth making an idol of, and certainly not posing as an obstacle to conversion or a barrier to entry. This is where the Anglican tradition comes in. Whereas the Catholic Church went directly from Latin to the most plebeian, uninspiring form of English it could concoct (and I understand the Church's translations of the Mass to nearly all other languages are just as bad, if not worse), as though it held back from total mediocrity solely by the pains of canon law rather than any real sense of reverence, the Church of England, at least, had a real interest in using its native language to uplift its flock as far as possible. Cranmer was, if a heretic, still also one of the greatest wordsmiths in the history of English; his version of the Lord's Prayer persisted even in English-speaking Catholics' private prayers and survived in the Novus Ordo Mass as a sole anachronism of sacral prose in a sea of contemporized banality. The King James Bible sounded antiquated even in 1611, for it was composed not for absolute fidelity to the text, but to sound beautiful when read from the pulpit or during the liturgy.

Holy Cross is one of the only western churches I've seen with Greek, rather than Latin lettering over the entrance.
Today, the Catholic Church has a crisis of ugliness and irreverence in her worship. The traditional Latin Mass, despite its resurgence in recent years, will unfortunately never be restored as the normative rite because Pope Paul VI already drove the last nail in the coffin by forever breaching us from the continuity of earlier Christian civilization. It's like that butler in the PBS documentary on Highclere Castle who prides himself on setting the Earl of Carnarvon's table exactly as his predecessors had done for so many generations: because he knows that as soon as he lets standards slip, the tradition will be gone forever. Now, in 2015, we have a generation of younger people who can see past the foolishness of the hippie Masses, clown Masses, and other "experimentations" of the later 20th century and yearn for a serious approach to God, but most will never get past the hurdle of a Mass entirely in Latin. We would have better luck rebuilding the Roman Empire first.

Fortunately, the Ordinariate can show us another way. It shows that we can have God-centered worship facing the altar together. We can take the Gospel seriously, adore the Blessed Sacrament, and sing to the Lord all in a sacral English that commands awe and respect, yet is accessible enough for the seeker or long-lapsed Catholic unexpectedly walking through the door one Sunday. By the time our prelates figure out how sensible (how English!) a model this is, it'll be too late for all but a sliver of what the Church once was; but at least the Ordinariate communities, who by then will boast some of the largest and most faithful congregations around, will be able to say, "we knew we were on to something good all along. Now, would you like to join us for some coffee after Mass?"

A view of the neighborhood around the church

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Latin Mass in Pennsylvania's capital


Last weekend, we sojourned out to central Pennsylvania to visit my grandmother-in-law, so while we were out there, we thought it would be a good idea to visit the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter's (FSSP's) chapel in Harrisburg for Sunday Mass.

The chapel of Saint Lawrence is situated beside the muddy--err, mighty Susquehanna River, as well as the foot of a grand avenue leading up to the steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building. The Capitol looks quite magnificent from the outside (when President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated it in 1906, he called it "the handsomest building I ever saw"), and I intend to visit it the next time we're in the city. It bewilders me that Madame, a lifelong Pennsylvanian, hasn't yet done her duty as a loyal citizen of the Commonwealth and toured the place. (A native Texan wouldn't dare dream of reaching their 20's without visiting the State Capitol building in Austin.)

Pennsylvania's Capitol complex is so big, in fact, that the Commonwealth bought up the old Saint Lawrence, a parish church built by a German Catholic community, and demolished it for expansions. The current Saint Lawrence was finished in 1918 in the same Gothic style as its predecessor, but as far as I can tell, was never returned to parish status. It became a chapel for the nearby cathedral of the Harrisburg diocese. Over the years, that old German community fizzled out and the chapel collected dust until 2005, when the bishop that year gave the building to the FSSP. Unofficially, I've read that the primary motive was mostly to allow the diocese to compete with an independent priest in York rather than for altruism, but I can't confirm it. Whatever the reasons were, the Fraternity has made good use of the property and placed the old Latin Mass right in the middle of a busy metropolis; a refreshing change from the usual state of affairs, where bishops or the laws of economics sentence Latin Mass communities to death by suburbia.

Wonderful iconography around the Mary altar.
We arrived early enough for me to take a look around the building. The church appeared to be a sturdy Gothic edifice of plaster and stone, and filled with stained-glass, altarpieces, and all the other usual furnishings that we've apparently forgotten how to make over the last century. My only gripes were with the floor tiling which looked like those you'd find in an old Pizza Hut, and the small sanctuary; though, to be fair, even ugly tiling is better than the carpeting I got used to at so many Latin Masses in Texas, and virtually no Catholic parish in America has a properly sized sanctuary with a chancel. As I studied the architecture, the congregation was praying the Rosary, and a few were in line for confessions. It wasn't packed to standing room only, but all the pews were respectably filled out with few gaps in between. Throw in a bunch of lace veils, and it was like stepping back into a Catholicism that virtually no longer exists, even though these sights and sounds were still the norm within my mother-in-law's memory.

Yes, these signs are here for a reason!
At 10, sung Mass begun with the priest and servers processing from the front door of the church to a processional hymn from the Collegeville Hymnal. As with most other Catholic churches in our country, hymnody wasn't one of the more cherished traditions here, so only a few people actually sang. With that done, the celebrating priest began the Asperges and Mass flawlessly. The choir, an all-male schola of five or six guys, made all the responses alone. Though I knew they existed, this was the first time I actually attended Mass with an entirely silent congregation (save for the ones at Clear Creek Abbey, an unusual circumstance). Even at the diocesan TLM where I lived previously, where the vast majority of people weren't much interested in singing the Ordinary of the Mass as a congregation, you could still squeeze some et cum spiritu tuo's out of them. Even the basic responses at Saint Lawrence, though, were sung by the schola alone, albeit done well. They also sang the complete Missa Orbis Factor, even the Gloria, and all the minor propers according to the full melodies in the Liber Usualis.

To be honest, I spent the greater part of Mass in the narthex holding our daughter, who was by far the noisiest person there. From what I could tell going in and out, though, Mass proceeded just as you would expect from a society of priests dedicated to preserving the traditional liturgy; no funny business whatsoever. Another priest, not the celebrant, preached the homily. The substance was a solid, hold-no-punches tour of the errors of religious liberty and the French Revolution, probably timed to precede France's annual celebration of that jailbreak in 1789; perhaps so punchy and replete with quotes going back to Pope Pius VII that one who wasn't already well-formed in the Church's traditional teachings would lose a tooth. I didn't have the heart to ask my mother-in-law, who Madame dragged out with us (and hadn't even attended a TLM since Vatican II), what she thought of the homily afterward. In fact, if such homilies are a normal occurrence at this chapel, I'm surprised the bishop still allows them to operate at all.

The beautiful, but small, sanctuary.
After the last Gospel, the priest and servers exited the church to another English hymn. This time, I made sure to grab a hymnal and turn to the right page, even with baby in tow, but again, not too many other singers. There was, however, still a fundamental difference between how the recessional hymn was treated here versus my old diocesan TLM community back home. In San Antonio, everyone starts filing out as soon as the priest passes the last pew while the choir alone sings two verses of the hymn. There's not even a pretense of trying. But in Harrisburg, although only a few people bothered singing, everyone still stayed standing in their places until all four verses were done. There was, at least, a respect for the hymn's place.

Servers putting the sanctuary in order after Mass.
Following the thanksgiving prayers and so on, I took a few pictures of the church and followed the congregation to the basement, where a farewell reception was being held for their outgoing chaplain, the same one who celebrated Mass. Other than the priests themselves, the people weren't very chatty with newcomers, so I only got to ask two laypeople about the church's history. The schola director actually looked about the same age as me, and I learned he started singing chant around the same time I did. We talked a bit about music, I had a dessert or two, then headed out.

Look at this excellent wooden ceiling!
In leaving, I realized the most unusual thing of all about this community, compared to other TLM venues: there were no female choir members. Usually, the music for sung Masses is provided by a mixed choir of adult men and women (more women than not), or a choir mostly of women augmented by a small men's schola for the proper chants. Although I'm a big proponent of congregational singing, I thought on my way out that perhaps the reason this church was content to leave all the singing to the schola was because the all-male responses, combined with the reverberation from the stone walls and non-carpeted floor, gave the sacred music a strong air of the monastic. I can't say I blame them for not wanting to "ruin" it, at least.


It's not every day that you see even the organ's pipes adorned in Gothic at an American Catholic church.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Who made the first résumé?

Settling into a wholly new area, as I have, presents a host of challenges, such as figuring out what a "hoagie" is (a northeastern term for a sub sandwich), remembering that it's not always legal to turn right on a red light, and being careful not to run over Amish buggies. (I just looked up why you never see Amish people ride on horseback. It's apparently considered immodest; I actually see the rationale behind that.) Fortunately, I can at last dispense with the southern pretense of asking of how your day is, because as you and I both know, no one actually cares.

I recently crossed off another item on the to-do list: I finally gave in to corporate America and created a profile on LinkedIn. I'll be honest, even to those prospective employers out there who are, even now, scanning my blog for reasons not to hire me, that I find the entire site's philosophy irksome, not least because of all the articles I had to read in order to "maximize my hireability". Add a picture to increase your chances of being clicked on by 14 times. Make sure you're smiling, but don't look too happy. A slight scrinching of the eyes is best. See that your chosen photo features you alone; this isn't Facebook, and we wouldn't want to think you have anything to live for beyond the company. 


Perhaps I'm too skeptical of my fellow man to be a hiring manager, because I don't understand why they wouldn't see right past all the corporate jargon, e.g. résumé fluff:
-Whenever I look at someone's page, if their job title has the word "engineer" but isn't preceded by "electrical", "mechanical", or "petroleum", my mind instantly replaces it with "lackey". 

-I mentally cross out all instances of the word "professional" (for instance, LinkedIn's default headline for me was "education management professional"), no matter the context. No one would sign up for a LinkedIn account in the first place if they didn't imagine themselves to be a "professional" of some sort or another. Would you rather describe yourself as amateur?

-If you "think outside the box", you're actually well within the box and just don't know it.

-Everyone's likelihood of getting a job is directly proportional to how many obfuscating words with Greek or Latin roots they can use to make their past jobs positions and deeds accomplishments look more important than they really were. All these "innovative" thinkers with their "solutions" for "managing multiple projects" makes me want to take up Anglo-Saxon to cast these foreign loan words out of our tongue and speak in full barbarian from here on out. But in the meantime, at least it looks like there is some use for all the fancy book-learnin' in that classical liberal arts degree, after all.
Anyway, feel free to email me if you want to add me to LinkedIn. Or, if you find me on the site directly, be sure to say it's because you read my blog.


And now, to where I meant to start: as I off-handedly mention somewhere on my LinkedIn profile, "Did you know, for instance, that the first person to use something akin to a résumé as we know it was Leonardo da Vinci?" It was more a cross between a résumé and a cover letter, but it's true nonetheless. When our favorite ninja turtle was but 30 years of age, he wrote to Ludovico Sforza, Regent (and later, Duke) of Milan in the hope of getting a job. What's interesting is that, although he had already accomplished more in many disciplines in 1482 than most of us get around to in our whole lifetimes, Leonardo's letter only references his artistic acumen in passing, at the end:

"I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may."

The rest of the letter focuses on what Leonardo could do for the Sforzas as a military engineer and inventor of weapons of moderate destruction. Here's the full piece in translation:

    Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.

    1. I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

    2. I know how, when a place is besieged, to take the water out of the trenches, and make endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.

    3. If, by reason of the height of the banks, or the strength of the place and its position, it is impossible, when besieging a place, to avail oneself of the plan of bombardment, I have methods for destroying every rock or other fortress, even if it were founded on a rock, etc.

    4. Again, I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these I can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.

    5. And if the fight should be at sea I have kinds of many machines most efficient for offense and defense; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes.

    6. I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise, to reach a designated spot, even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river.

    7. I will make covered chariots, safe and unattackable, which, entering among the enemy with their artillery, there is no body of men so great but they would break them. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.

    8. In case of need I will make big guns, mortars, and light ordnance of fine and useful forms, out of the common type.

    9. Where the operation of bombardment might fail, I would contrive catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offense and defense.

    10. In times of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.

    11. I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.

    Again, the bronze horse may be taken in hand, which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honor of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

    And if any of the above-named things seem to anyone to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency - to whom I comment myself with the utmost humility, etc.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Same-sex unions and interracial marriage: does one really follow from the other?

The only "anti" people of interest in any debate are invariably Amerifats with ill-fitting clothes and redneck accents. True story.
Nothing wakes me up from my usual break-of-day stupor like reading an article as insidiously misleading as the Weekly Sift's "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to Be a Bigot". Until today, I judiciously refrained from directly commenting upon last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage because I didn't think I could contribute anything to that debate beyond what I had already said in "Why Oklahoma's House Bill 1125 should make everyone happy (or equally mad)" last March; that anything further would be merely agitprop or preaching to the choir.

The Modern Medievalist as Hollywood villain.
Of course, what you and I both know is that, at least for the foreseeable future, history will not look back kindly on those who have resented the idea of same-sex marriage as anything other than a constitutional right that naturally follows the path of social progress. The Onion, that most truthful of media outlets (and I say that completely unironically), published the headline "Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito Suddenly Realize They Will Be Villains In Oscar-Winning Movie One Day" back in 2013! I add to it my own prediction that Thomas will be played by a white actor to more easily categorize the forces of good and evil into, pardon the pun, black-and-white terms. My only consolation is that, when the said movie premieres, I won't have to watch myself caricatured onscreen by the next generation's Keanu Reeves because I, as a "homoskeptic" who is neither a redneck nor above the age of 50, will be written out of the accepted narrative entirely.

Up to this point, the author of the offending Sift article will nod his head in agreement. In his comparison of today's great gay debate to yesterday's controversy over interracial marriage and racial equality, Doug Muder isn't interested in the cross-burning Klansmen, the white trash throwing hot coffee and screaming obscenities at black patrons occupying a lunch counter, or other such extreme outliers of their day. He's speaking of the "sedate and thoughtful people who were not aware of hating anyone", the bigots who were wholly rational in their opposition to otherness and who were doomed to be forgotten by history because, most likely, they were our grandparents: in Muder's words, "The thoughtful, intellectual, devout defenders of an unjust status quo are forgotten, because their memory embarrasses their heirs."

I would even go so far as to agree with Muder that he builds a strong case against the idea of social conservatism itself. The word "conservative" inherently suggests a desire to preserve the status quo. The trouble with that for someone concerned with the capital-T Truth above all is that, if the social mores of, say, 1950's America were bankrupt (and they were), then today's conservative is merely yesterday's liberal, and conservatism is really part of the problem. The Modern Medievalist's goal here has always been to analyze problems with a mind to the greater picture of western history, thereby liberating ourselves from the prison of seeing everything in terms of the past ten, thirty, or even three hundred years. 

So, let's get down to business: is the right for a man to wed another man, or a woman to wed another woman, truly on the same continuum of social progress and conservative resistance as was interracial marriage, civil rights for people of color, or even slavery itself? Muder wants us to believe so, and in all honesty, that version will win the day. But for those interested in the facts of history, this simply isn't the case; and while I have no qualm with drawing from my own Christian worldview to make the case if I feel it necessary, a simple outlining of facts suffices below.

First, why did the United States have laws against interracial marriage to begin with? Was it an established doctrine of Christianity? Was it even a latent prejudice that always existed in western society, backed up by out-of-context prooftexts from holy writ? In truth, the opposition to miscegeny is of a much later vintage; even an innovation in the greater story of the west. In 1944, the California Law Review journal published an excellent essay on "Statutory Prohibitions Against Interracial Marriage", which you may read for yourself here. The comment eruditely points out that "at common law there was no ban on interracial marriage". The first laws against interracial marriage in the entire English-speaking world didn't come about until 1661 in Maryland.

Saint Maurice as patron of the Holy Roman (German) Empire, complete with imperial flag!
Let me make this as clear as possible: laws against interracial marriage did not exist in medieval Christendom. They had to be invented, and even then, only two full centuries after the re-introduction of slavery in the west. I assure you as well that their late arrival isn't merely because there were no black people in medieval Europe, because there were, even if they were few and far between. But common law, the body of English jurisprudence which the United States inherited, had no place for either slavery or bans on interracial marriage. Lord Mansfield, one of the greatest judges in the history of Anglo/American law, is attributed with saying "the air of England is too pure for any slave to breathe". In any case, Mansfield's ruling in Somerset vs Stewart (1772) was that slavery had no basis in common law, nor had Parliament or any other body ever legalized it in the realm. On the contrary, in 1102, the church synod of Westminster, convened under Saint Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, explicitly outlawed the slave trade as inconsistent with Christianity: "Let no man, for the future, presume to carry on the wicked trade of selling men in markets, like brute beasts." The consequence of Somerset vs Stewart was that all 15,000 slaves in England and Wales at that time were to be immediately emancipated, though its effect on the other domains of the British Empire was uncertain.

Muder's article admits that in our own country's debate over slavery, there was a split among the churches between abolitionists in the north and slavery apologists in the south; but is that in any way comparable to that of liberal and conservative Christians today over same-sex unions? Liberals will concede that 50 years ago, it was unimaginable for any church, even the Unitarian Universalists, to endorse same-sex marriage. By contrast, Christians were divided over the morality of slavery from the very moment in 1493 when Christopher Columbus brought men from Hispaniola back to Spain in chains, beginning the triangular trade. Reflect, for a moment, how extreme it must have been for Queen Isabella, of all people; who had grown up in a culture of intermittent warfare against the Moors for over five centuries--more closely resembling the nightmare of George R.R. Martin's Westeros than the comparably idyllic kingdom of England--who led her realm in the final act of the reconquista, the capture of Granada, just two years prior, and accepted that there were conditions in which Moors on the losing side of war who also refused to convert to Christianity could be enslaved; nevertheless rejected Columbus's gift of native American slaves and had him return them to their homes in the West Indies in 1498, on the basis that the the natives too were now citizens of Castile and immune to enslavement.


From there, Christian outrage against the slave trade continued with Dominican friars such as Bartolomé de las Casas returning from the plantations of the new world with one horror story after the next, demanding immediate reform and recognition of native Americans as humans with equal rights and dignity as Spaniards. These theologians and moral authorities persuaded Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (whose rule also included the Spanish Empire), to pass the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians in 1542. The Leyes Nuevas abolished slavery in the Spanish colonies and provided for the gradual abolition of the encomienda system. Unfortunately, they stood in the way of profit, spurring plantation owners to open revolt against the viceroys and royal agents; as a result, the laws ultimately had little lasting effect. With the passing of time, slavery had become a "new normal".

Another hundred years would need to go by in order for laws against interracial marriage to even be conceived. Unlike the Spanish Empire, where miscegenation was widely practiced and accepted from the beginning, the English colonists in north America gradually came to see skin color as the most useful differentiator between "free" and "slave". Even in Virginia's earliest days at Jamestown, the first twenty black laborers who arrived in 1619 were regarded only as indentured servants because English law acknowledged no slavery. They joined one thousand white indentured servants on equal terms. 

1662 was a watershed moment for the institution of slavery as we know it in America. In direct contradiction to the received common law, Virginia passed a law whereby the children of slaves would take on the mother's condition in law, not the father's (common law does just the opposite). In this, fathers were now lifted from the past obligation of regarding their slave-born children as free.... and since most sexual affairs between slave and free were, by far, between free men and enslaved women, this ensured the perpetuation of slavery among mixed-race children. Again, a "new normal" had been attained, which was important to keep up by the passage of laws against interracial marriage that would have seemed nonsensical in any other place and time in the course of Christian civilization. By the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, slavery was so entrenched in the culture and economy that any talk of abolition threatened to abort the Union.

Still, people like Muder would mistake the widespread acceptance of slavery for an endorsement by the tenets of the Christian faith. One might even be tempted to see the abolitionists of the north as the forefathers of our generation's gay-friendly Christian denominations (such as the modern Episcopal Church), who also happen to be concentrated in the north today. Appearances can be deceiving; for just as the Democratic Party was once the party of slavery and the "solid south", so too was the north, not the south, the hub of fundamentalist Christianity. 

Now, naturally, even the mildest and least committed of 19th century Christians could easily come off as zealots if they were transplanted to the year 2015. But in broad strokes, Americans of the antebellum South had a more lax approach to their religion than their Yankee counterparts. It was a genteel kind of religion which, as in Europe, played its part in the ceremony of statecraft but was awkward at the parlor and dinner table. The religious justifications for slavery in the South, in other words, were very much a liberal view to accommodate the spirit of the times and counter the firebrand arguments against it by the "fundamentalists" of the north. Compare the secular, freespirited lyrics of Dixie ("There's buckwheat cakes and Injun batter,/Makes you fat or a little fatter") to the apocalyptic militancy of the Battle Hymn of the Republic ("Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored"). 




When I look at our present time, I see, among the most ardent, secular supporters of same-sex unions a kind of evangelical zeal that's very distinctly American and would make our Puritan forefathers in Massachusetts Bay proud, though perhaps for entirely different reasons. Here, their fight for "LGBT equality" has taken on the form of a crusade with corporate sponsorships, banners of war, and a sustained media campaign, wholly unrecognizable from the ways in which gay marriage has been legalized with more of an apathetic shrug in the nations of Europe (France being, as always, an odd exception). And, of course, one can't escape the irony that gay marriage is still couched in the ethics of a Christian framework: we speak of a man's right to wed another, singular man, not two or three. 

Nonetheless, to compare conservative resistance to same-sex unions in 2015 as being somehow on par with attitudes to racial equality in 1965 or slavery in 1865 is intellectually dishonest and absurd. Interracial marriage was regularly practiced in areas of medieval Europe, such as Moorish Spain, where cultures and ethnicities collided. The people of Malta, where the Knights Hospitaller made their headquarters and turned it into a bastion of Christian resistance to Ottoman incursions in Europe, were descended from miscegeny between Italians and Arabs. Same-sex unions or even the desire to establish them, on the other hand, have no precedent whatsoever in western history, even in those societies such as ancient Athens where homosexuality was widespread. No, Muder's "new normal", to the historian, is much more aptly compared to the social changes, the "new normals", that led to the re-establishment of slavery and the creation of new classifications of people, backed by the interests of commerce above all else, at the end of Europe's Middle Ages. Unfortunately, even though a column on Slate, of all places, has made a critical distinction between the two, this uncomfortable conclusion will not be permitted in polite company within a few years, if it even is now. The only thing I ask is this: to all you casting directors out there, if you absolutely must cast someone to play as me in the role of Rational Homoskeptic #4 for your upcoming, Oscar award-winning biopic on Obergefell v. Hodges and the triumph of marriage equality for all, I think Benedict Cumberbatch would be a good fit if you can't get Rufus Sewell or James Frain. I'll even take Keanu. Just, whatever you do, don't choose Rob Schneider just because you saw him on a list of half-Asian actors and he was the cheapest option. Then I would be forced to write a bad review for your movie.


P.S. Earlier this week, I published an article for Independence Day on English liberty and common law, which is of some relevance to today's discussion and which you may read here: English liberty: the tradition of rebellion, America as it could have been, and America as it should be.


P.P.S. The article I linked to on interracial marriage laws from the California Law Review early in this article was published just a few years before Perez vs. Sharp (1948), where the California Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in that state. Interestingly, one of the arguments used to strike the laws down was that they infringed upon the couple's First Amendment freedom of religion. The couple, a black man and Mexican woman, were both Catholic. Since the Catholic Church was willing to witness their marriage complete with Mass, the miscegenation laws were deemed to impede their right to marry in the Church. Bet no one saw that coming.


P.P.P.S. In one of the comments to Muder's article, someone shared this thought-provoking op-ed titled A Really, Really, Really Long Post About Gay Marriage That Does Not, In The End, Support One Side Or The Other By Jane Galt. I recommend it if you still have time after reading everything else up to this point.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Some old time religion: the lives of ex-Episcopal refugees on the Main Line


It so happens that the nearest sane place for us to go to church on Sundays in our new home is with a tiny new Ordinariate community named after Blessed John Henry Newman. In 2012, following the publication of Pope Benedict XVI's Anglicanorum Coetibus, the Catholic Church established a nationwide entity throughout the United States called the "Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter" for the purpose of allowing former Episcopalians and Anglicans to convert to the Catholic faith while keeping their congregations intact and ordaining their clergymen, even if they are married men, as Catholic priests. This little fellowship on the Main Line (a collection of small townships west of Philadelphia, where we now live), numbering maybe 25 souls or so, is one of the first fruits of Benedict's labors. More on that in a moment.


Assisting at Mass

We arrived late, so I can only recount my experience at Mass from the Gospel onward. Mass was celebrated at the church of Our Lady of the Assumption, a standard Roman Catholic parish borrowed by the Newman Fellowship for evening worship. Assumption, with its handsome Gothic exterior of stone, was built in the 1920's to serve the immigrant Italian railroad workers of the time. (I also spotted an Italian-American newsletter in the narthex.) The interior is a bit too Continental for my taste, what with the rosy-cheeked frescoes, though I feel bad even mentioning it since, given the state of Catholic architecture elsewhere in this area, it's like complaining about one's steak being overcooked in the midst of a famine.

When I walked in, a greeter handed me a service order, an insert for the Sunday's readings and prayer intentions, and an ominous red hardcover book titled only "The Hymnal". This was the first sign that I was walking into a slightly different world than I was used to. Though a Protestant convert myself and a member, on and off, of an Anglican Use Catholic parish for nearly ten years, I've never been a member of the Episcopal Church. My former parish draws heavily from this hymnal, but they print the verse texts directly onto disposable bulletins, so this was the first time I've ever had the Hymnal of 1940 in hand. The book's reputation did precede it, though. I knew it was the definitive hymnal in Episcopal-dom for forty years until political correctness struck in the '80s and the Hymnal of 1982 was issued. Flipping through its pages, I saw many hymns I had never heard of and probably never will. 


The homily was quite solid. The priest, who I understand was only ordained in the Catholic Church a few years ago himself, had the air of a learned divine of the Scriptures. (I have never once gone to Mass at a mainstream Catholic parish and heard words like "concomitant" used in a homily, as it was yesterday.) His puffy white beard reminded me of the time I met Dr. Rowan Williams, the previous "archbishop" of Canterbury. I hope to one day learn why Anglican ministers have an affinity for facial hair.

We recited the Creed in the sacral English I grew used to at my old Anglican Use parish in San Antonio, Texas. The whole order of Mass was almost entirely the same as Our Lady of the Atonement's use of Rite I in the Book of Divine Worship, but I'm not sure what the Ordinariate's variant is properly called. It's essentially an adaptation of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, re-ordered to more closely follow the Roman Mass and with the Roman Canon. In other words, you respond to "The Lord be with you" with "and with thy spirit", say that the Son "shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead" in the Creed, and begin the confession with "Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men, we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against Thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly Thy wrath and indignation against us". 

About half of the liturgy was recited and half sung. I was told later that it would be fully sung if the choir were not out for summer break. There was still an organist to accompany the hymns. During the Offertory rite, everyone in the paltry congregation of 15 or 20 dutifully whipped out their The Hymnals and turned to the page noted on the signboard without any prompting whatsoever, singing every verse (a few also attempting harmony, it seemed). For Madame, who says she has managed to never attend a Protestant service her entire life, this must surely have been a bizarre sight. You see, elsewhere in American Catholic-dom, including most traditional Latin Mass communities I've visited, hymnody is foisted upon an uninterested and unwilling congregation with predictable results: either a cantor must stand in the sanctuary to whip a few dedicated parishioners into action with exaggerated hand gestures Mussolini would be proud of, or else the hymnals are used only by the choir and otherwise left to collect dust in the pew racks as a testament to the sentiment, "at least we tried". For most cradle Catholics, to see more than a handful of the most devout in the pews actually sing from the hymnals is unfathomable.

On the right, the hymn chosen for the Offertory rite. On the left, Chesterton's "O God of Earth and Altar", which, though a spectacular hymn written by one our most celebrated convert authors, I've never actually seen in a Catholic hymnal.

The priest sung the Preface and the people sang the Sanctus to a tune I was unfamiliar with. The priest proceeded with consecrating the sacred species using the Roman Canon, and Mass proceeded almost entirely the same as at Our Lady of the Atonement back in Texas. Communion was distributed to all while kneeling along an altar rail. The priest left the sanctuary only to bring the Sacrament to an elderly lady in the pew before me, and the young man assisting her (a dutiful grandson, perhaps) knelt in adoration as the priest approached. Madame commented to me later at how odd it was to see people receiving in the hand even while kneeling, since in Catholic churches, it's usually entirely one way (standing and in the hand) or the other (kneeling and on the tongue). I don't know how prevalent hand Communion is among the Piskies, but in my very limited experience at Episcopal churches, it seems the idea of queueing up in a single file line to receive Communion while standing never caught on, even among those who don't even pretend to have any belief in the Real Presence. I still don't understand how or why it was adopted universally almost overnight in Catholic-dom after Vatican II.

During the recessional hymn, I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of traddies cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. Since it was the day after Independence, we turned to page 100-something to sing The Star Spangled Banner; and not just the usual ballgame anthem, but even the second verse that no one below the age of 80 ever knew existed. Despite being a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, I'm of the camp that singing the national anthem at church is a major faux pas at the least, though I concede that it never sounded better in my whole life than with an organ accompaniment. I'm not sure if this was a glimpse into the remnant of the old northeastern WASP establishment; the Main Line is an area with a venerable old Episcopal or Presbyterian church every mile, and you don't have to drive far from here to see posh prep schools on every corner; or if I just live in a bubble and singing the national anthem after Mass is normal in the rest of the American Catholic world, too. 


After-Mass refreshments

Like any other proper church, there were refreshments in the form of lemonade and pastries waiting for us in the hall after Mass. The priest was among the first to talk to us, and from there, we ended up gabbing with most of the congregants for an hour or more. They were exceedingly friendly and even started offering to help me find a job in the area. Mostly, I asked about the members' conversion stories or how the community came to be. Merely mentioning having come from Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio seemed to confer instant street cred. It turned out that my old pastor had visited them some time ago, was something of a minor celebrity among their ranks. Being former parishioners of his was probably akin to saying we once had dinner with Peter O'Toole.


It slowly dawned on me that we were likely the most senior Catholics in the room, priest not excepted. Nearly everyone was a new convert from the Church of the Good Shepherd, a property of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia). The following recap of their story, as gleamed in these after-Mass chats, is sure to be lacking and may err in one or two small points, but here is how I understand it: Good Shepherd was once a crown jewel of the Anglo-Catholic sphere of Episcopalianism in the Main Line. Relations between this parish and the Diocese began straining since the '70s when the Episcopal Church at large began ordaining women into the clergy, and have only gotten worse since then. A few of the members pointed to the Episcopal Church's latest moves in favor of same-sex unions as a shining example of why they're glad they left. At any rate, their rector, after a decade-long lawsuit and loss against the Diocese, eventually came to the conclusion that the only way forward was to seek union with the (Roman) Catholic Church under the provisions given by Pope Benedict XVI.

It must have been a humbling experience for the rector since I learned that, though he been conferred the status of bishop by the TAC (Traditional Anglican Communion, a breakaway group), Rome decided neither to recognize any of his orders as valid nor place him as a candidate for ordination as a Catholic priest (at least at present); he decided to proceed with his conversion to the Catholic faith as a layman, anyway. The priest who celebrated Mass when I visited had been ordained for another Ordinariate community in Philadelphia, Saint Michael the Archangel's, just a few years ago, and was doing double-duty for Blessed John Henry Newman as well on Sunday evenings.

I was even more inspired when listening to the lay faithful here, who were mostly older folks, about their conversions. It was easy for me to decide to join the Catholic faith at 18, when one naturally begins to question the boundaries placed before them their whole lives. To be a lifelong Episcopalian since the Eisenhower Administration and then, in the latter years of one's life, decide to pack up and move to Catholicism without even a church building to call your own, must be a wrenching experience. Most seemed to believe that, even though the congregation that stayed behind at Good Shepherd was even smaller than they were and are doomed to bankruptcy and closure in a matter of years, the Newman Community's chances of buying their old property back were slim to none. "The Diocese would sooner sell the church to Muslims or turn it into apartment space!", one exclaimed. I hope I didn't discourage that gentleman when I remarked that most Catholic dioceses are prone to doing the same thing when faced with offers by groups like the Society of Saint Pius X.


On the way out, I mused that, despite the bleakness of the situation, it could just be the beginning of a bright new future for them. I wasn't alive yet during my old parish's foundation in the early '80s, but I imagine Our Lady of the Atonement wasn't much different when it first started, either. Today, that parish is not a ragtag band of ex-Anglican refugees, but rather has four very well-attended Masses every Sunday in a splendid church building, a full K-12 parochial school, a wide range of spiritual and musical events throughout the year, and all sorts of active ministries in the larger Catholic community.

I look forward to visiting other churches in the Philadelphia area, such as Saint Michael's (the other Ordinariate community), the traditional Latin Mass communities, perhaps a few Eastern-rite churches, and posting my thoughts on those as I see fit.


Saturday, July 4, 2015

English liberty: the tradition of rebellion, America as it could have been, and America as it should be

This young, bastard-born upstart from the West Indies, who detested slavery and upheld aristocratic principles, is in danger of being wiped out of our currency. He also features heavily in today's entry.

Dear friends,

We've just finished the long haul from Texas, relocating to a small township outside of Philadelphia, that once great city and first capital of these United States. Here in our new home, the hour grows late, everyone else is fast asleep for the moment, and my restless mind turns to the recent incidents in Charleston and Washington DC, the story of this nation's founding, and where to go from here.

I've always subscribed to an idea that vexes my friends on both the traditionalist and progressivist poles of the political spectrum (that is, those who believe the American Revolution was a mistake, and those who believe it didn't go far enough): that our declaration of independence from mother England, whatever path it ultimately put us on, wasn't meant to be a clean break from the rest of western civilization, a radical experiment in democracy, or the earth-shattering new beginning that we, and apparently people of other nations, have convinced ourselves it was. No, I've understood it to merely be another chapter in the story of English government; part of a tradition that extends back to the Anglo-Saxon age of our mother country's history. 


The "Saxon Myth"

Those of you who are enthusiasts of early American history know that mine is hardly an original idea: indeed, most of the Founding Fathers believed it to one degree or another. In short, it's the belief that the Saxons of early medieval England (prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066) were a fiercely independent people that jealously guarded their liberties. Their tribal leaders regularly convened at the Witenagemot, which secured the common law of the realm, elected their kings, and even deposed them as needed. Even after the Conquest, the Saxon tradition ultimately prevailed by bringing King John to heel in 1215, forcing him to sign Magna Carta. And, of course, the witenagemot of old formed the foundation for its spiritual successor in the Norman age: Parliament.

Is this a rather rose-tinted mythological view of Saxon history? Probably, but no worse than any other nation. Is it an oversimplification of English history? Certainly. Does it fit a narrative of Anglo-Saxon racial supremacy? It can, but that's beyond the scope of my post and my intention here. What matters is that the founders of the United States believed it, and that key characteristics of their revolution fit with past events in English history. This yearning for independence by looking into our tribal past can easily be understood if you consider how popular Vikings have been in the past few years. Aside from the obvious, namely the History Channel series Vikings and movies such as The 13th Warrior and Pathfinder, fantasy variants of the Vikings have been a hit in video games such as Skyrim and The Witcher 3. Don't forget the Norse mythology latent in Thor (my favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films). 

Festivals like Burning Man and shows like Vikings are, more or less, the modern incarnation of the "Saxon myth".
Likewise, many of the founders saw themselves as part of a continuum reaching back to proud, free-roaming Saxon settlers, whose rights have been continually trampled upon by foreign kings from William the Conqueror/the Bastard to George III (George III's family, the House of Hanover, and most of the princesses they preferred to intermarry with, were Germans). Thomas Jefferson, for one, didn't even stop at merely studying Saxon history in the hope of better understanding English common law; he even learned the ancient Anglo-Saxon language and proposed it as part of the standard curriculum at the University of Virginia, on par with the Greek and Latin tongues that laid the cornerstone of the west. Jefferson also went so far as to propose that Saxon heroes Hengest and Horsa, forefathers of the Anglo-Saxon people and legendary founders of the Kingdom of Kent, appear on the reverse of the Great Seal.


A tradition of rebellion


I make no claims to the validity of the Saxon myth in all its points, but the American Revolution certainly couldn't have happened without concrete precedents going back to the High Middle Ages. On its 800th anniversary this year, I wouldn't dare fail to mention the significance of Magna Carta. It's a document no one who mentions it has actually read, and it didn't even work the first time it was issued, other than as a hit list for King John to conveniently refer to when hunting down rebels the moment the barons had their guard down. Most of Magna Carta's clauses deal with issues between the king and the barons that have no relevance today, such as forest rights. The Charter's authors, though, did take the time to set down a few everlasting principles which give it lasting relevance to our own time. First, it established the liberty of the English church:

"First, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable".
Not surprising, since the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (whose other lasting legacy was in creating the chapter-and-verse numbering system used in the Bible today), was one of the leaders of the rebellion. He, and other rebel leaders, were concerned about the king's increasing control over the Church, especially in the appointments for bishops. Not long before, John's father, Henry II, appointed his own chancellor, Thomas Becket, as archbishop of Canterbury, in the hope of reining the Church in to his will. King Henry VIII notably ran roughshod over this first clause throughout his reign to little protest. Saint Thomas More, the pre-eminent lawyer and statesman of his day,  and John Aske (a leader of the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace) both cited Magna Carta's protection of the English church when put on trial for treason. Both were executed. Later English thinkers interpreted this clause exactly the opposite way; where More and Aske saw it as a guarantee against the Protestant Reformation, Edward Coke argued it protected the Church of England from the interference of Rome and the pope.

"For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court."
Fleecing criminals was (and still is, though unjustly) a tried-and-true way of generating extra revenue for officers of the law. The abuses of excessive fines and bail were no less a problem in medieval England, and the common law continually tried to protect citizens from it, right up to the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ("Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed"). That clause itself was lifted from England's own 1689 Bill of Rights, whereby Parliament forbade excessive bails and fines "as their ancestors in like cases have usually done", nearly verbatim.

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."
It may surprise those of us who live in the U.S, the UK, and other lands formerly influenced by the British Empire that people who are charged with serious crimes even in developed non-common law countries like France aren't necessarily entitled to a jury trial, or even expect one.

The most lasting legacy of Magna Carta, though, other than legitimizing the idea of a "just rebellion" in the first place, is probably the very act of setting laws, which were formerly unspoken but understood to all, to parchment. For this reason, Americans celebrate the signing of Magna Carta even more than the British themselves. In no other country on earth is there such a dedication to the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura, the teaching of doctrine by the written words of the Bible alone. It's no coincidence that Americans also venerate their founding documents with a nearly equal fervor, and even the most liberal and irreligious among us quote the Constitution as though it were a sacred text. You'll even find that the monument at Runnymede, where King John set his seal to the Charter, was erected not by any English organization, but by the American Bar Association! It's fitting that a surviving copy of Magna Carta can be found, preserved behind glass, very near the Declaration of Independence and Constitution at the National Archives in Washington DC.


America as it could have been

Up to now, I've probably sounded more like a neo-conservative talking head, or perhaps a Whiggish historian, than the Modern Medievalist you've come to know and love. Fear not, for here's the twist: the error of our founding generation was not in taking up arms against the king, for English history is replete with instances of armed rebellion both for good and ill: the Barons' Wars, the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the English Civil War, the so-called "Glorious Revolution", and the Jacobite uprisings, to name a few. The problem is that, in the absence of a king or anyone willing and able to step up to the plate, the founders had to create a new order from wholecloth. And, without men of equal vision to succeed them in future generations, the republic was bound to be torn apart by lesser minds and disintegrate into something wholly unrecognizable from what they had first established.

The victors of the American Revolutionary War were at an awkward place in 1783, following the evacuation of the last British troops from Manhattan. "What now?" was surely the question on everyone's minds. If history had played out on these shores as it did throughout most of Europe, the officers of the Continental Army would have proclaimed General Washington as king. I'm sure that if Washington were even remotely interested in ruling; in "picking up the Ring", as Isildur did in Tolkien's saga; the reign of George I would have been widely accepted throughout the colonies. Instead, he was content to play the part of the classsical Roman hero, Cincinnatus, resigning all his power once the war was done and returning to his farm. In Washington's absence, lesser men quibbled and quarreled over a fractious young republic until he was called back to service to be the figurehead of the Constitutional Convention (and, of course, first President under the new government).

Even before the evacuation of the British, a few of Washington's closest officers in the Army, including Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton, announced the formation of a brotherhood to foster maintain the ties of fellowship between officers of the Continental Army well after they would hang up their sabers. In a nod to that icon of Roman virtue (and not a little to their own commander-in-chief), it was dubbed the Society of the Cincinnati. General Washington was naturally President-General of the Society for life; a feat he earned well before becoming President of the United States. The Society's founding principles were these:

"An incessant attention to preserve inviolate those exalted rights and liberties of human nature, for which they have fought and bled, and without which the high rank of a rational being is a curse instead of a blessing.
"An unalterable determination to promote and cherish, between the respective States, that union and national honor so essentially necessary to their happiness, and the future dignity of the American empire.
"To render permanent the cordial affection subsisting among the officers. This spirit will dictate brotherly kindness in all things, and particularly extend to the most substantial acts of beneficence, according to the ability of the Society, towards those officers and their families who unfortunately may be under the necessity of receiving it."


Rules of membership were exclusive: not only did one have to be a commissioned officer, he also had to serve in the Continental Army or Navy for at least three years, or until death for a posthumous membership. Most patriots who had taken up arms against the British were enlisted soldiers or officers of the various state and regional militia, and thus were never eligible. In short, a Cincinnatus was a gentleman, not just any rabblerouser with a musket.

An officer did not, however, have to be American. In addition to the thirteen society branches for each colony, a fourteenth was established for the Kingdom of France. As soon as our compatriots in King Louis XVI's army and navy heard word of the Society, they flooded Washington's mailing address with applications for membership, treating it like a highly coveted order of chivalry; they called it l'Ordre de Cincinnatus; with Washington as its grandmaster. The Society's badge of membership, a golden eagle suspended from a ribbon of blue and white, was to forever commemorate the friendship of these two nations: blue for the Continental Army, white for royal France. While American members modestly refrained from wearing their eagles anywhere save Independence Day, official Cincinnati meetings, or the occasional portrait, King Louis authorized the Cincinnati eagle as one of only two foreign decorations allowed at the court of Versailles (the other being the medieval Order of the Golden Fleece). The golden eagles were proudly worn by the French and other foreign notables on their court uniforms alongside badges such as the cross of the chivalric Order of Saint Louis... and were likewise collected as trophies off the corpses of aristocrats by the mob during the Reign of Terror a few years later.

The most controversial aspect of the Society in America by far was its method of continuation: membership was to be passed down to the eldest heir by primogeniture. No original member of the Society could be represented by any more than one descendant at a time. If the member died without issue, his claim could be passed on to a younger brother or that brother's eldest son, and so on. This one clause fueled America's first tinfoil hat conspiracy craze. Newspapers across the thirteen states decried the Cincinnati as a new aristocracy. Despite numbering among the men who fought for independence with blood, gratitude for the officers' service was in short supply. The Rhode Island state legislature went so far as to ban any Society members from holding public office. 

Perhaps they had good reason to fear the Cincinnati's influence. A sizable portion of all the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, perhaps a third, wore the golden eagle. One could even go so far as to argue that the Cincinnati's charter, made up of a general society governing thirteen state societies (plus France), gave the Founders the inspiration for the federalist system. A few adventuring members hoped to settle the Ohio Territory as a haven for veterans, naming the chief settlement Cincinnati and proposing to parcel out land based on rank in the Army; I forget the exact amounts they discussed, but imagine a lieutenant scoring 50 acres, 200 for a colonel, and a private forest or three for a general officer. As history would have it, none of the conspiracy theorists' fears came to pass. After Washington's death, the office of President-General passed on to Alexander Hamilton. After the fateful duel with Burr, the next President-General, Charles Pinckworth Coteney, lost his bid for the presidency of the United States to James Madison. After Monroe, no Cincinnatus has been elected President since, although the Society actually continues alive and well as this nation's premier hereditary society today.  

A Society of the Cincinnati membership certificate

America as it should be



After writing about half of today's entry, I took some time this morning to go forth into the city of brotherly love to visit Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted and signed. I also took a quick tour through the National Constitution Center down the street, a learning museum more-or-less built for the local kids to go on field trips through and hopefully take a modicum of interest in how the government is supposed to work. I actually rather enjoyed it, in spite of myself and the glaring new exhibit on gay marriage, as though the issue were on par with "of course blacks are 5/5ths of a person". The Center helped me reflect on over two centuries of American political history and come to a conclusion here of what we got right, and what went horribly wrong. I'll start with the latter.

Virtually everyone acknowledges that the fathers at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were deeply divided on the form the new government should take, or even that there was anything wrong with the Articles of Confederation in the first place. To appease all the states into ratifying, they had to make compromises on issues that seem patently absurd today, the representation of slaves in the census being only the most obvious of many.

On June 18, Alexander Hamilton made a counter-proposal to the more famous New Jersey and Virginia plans. His was a system closely mimicking the very authority he and his compatriots just overthrew: the British parliamentary government. For several hours, Hamilton laid out on the floor a plan whereby the upper house, the Senate, would have the greater share of power and hold their offices for life. The President would be elected for life so long as he maintained "good behavior" and have absolute veto power over all proposed laws. The central government would even be responsible for choosing governors for each of the states, all who have strong veto powers like the President's. These authorities would be more like the King, Lords, and Commons in Westminster, just with a slightly bourgeois twist.

It's said that the other delegates listened intently and even applauded Hamilton for the level of care and consideration he gave to the plan... but then quietly tabled it as a wholly unreasonable solution that would never earn the approval of their countrymen back home. In other words, many of the delegates; gentlemen, professionals, veteran officers, and scholars learned in the history of western civilization; silently agreed that in a more ideal world, government would be administered by optimates, a natural elite of the best men, unbeholden to the whims of the mob. There's no shortage of quotes from the Founders on the perils of democracy, such as Madison's in Federalist Papers No. 10: "Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths".

Charles Carroll, the sole Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the wealthiest man in the colonies, was perhaps the most aristocratic of all. He, like John Adams and many other founders, defended limiting the vote to men of property because of "the designs of selfish men, who are busy every where striving to throw all power into the hands of the very lowest of the People in order that they may be their masters from the abused confidence which the People has place[d] in them". Such a reasoning appears hopelessly classist and irrelevant in our century, yet was rooted in the examples of history; namely, the fear that America would follow Athens and Rome in voting themselves into bankruptcy for the sake of winning one more election.

I'd hardly sound a call for returning the vote solely to propertied white males, but merely invite you to look at what we now have. Before, it was gauche for a man to whore himself by openly campaigning for office. Perhaps it was just an act that a candidate in those early years would send his underlings out to garner votes while remaining at home or going about his usual business, then make himself out to "reservedly accept" the burden of office in the event of a win. But appearances do matter. Now, we have the very things Washington warned against in his farewell address: politicians driven by the need to win elections and uphold a party line, rather than leaders who can act independently and forge a legacy without heed to the sharks nipping at his heels. When the Democrats are in power, the Republicans rail against populist demagogues destroying the fabric of society. If it's the Republicans in charge, then the Democrats fear being held back by ignorant rednecks. The truth is even worse: that we now enjoy the worst of both worlds all at the same time.

All that said, I had, just barely, a glimmer of hope after my walk through the Constitution Center. After my affirmation of the elitist sentiments of Hamilton, Carroll, and other men of the founders' generation, you might be surprised that I'm also somewhat sympathetic to the opposite view. Especially after the recent massacre in Charleston and the ensuing burnings of black churches as though it were the 1950's all over again, I have a deep admiration, and am even perplexed, by the unending patience and forgiveness of the black communities in the South after continued offenses. It confuses me to this day, for instance, why, after the murderers of Emmett Till in 1955 openly admitted to the deed after their acquittal in an interview, that whole buses full of black Chicagoans didn't roll down to Money, Mississippi and burn the entire town to the ground. If I were a black American, I'd instinctively lean closer to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King: that peace in our time is impossible, that not only the Stars and Bars but even the Stars and Stripes should be torn down, and that there should be no compromise with a government whose houses in Washington are literally built on the backs of black slave labor. Let the entire city be razed to the ground and built anew.

And yet, as I sat through the initial presentation on the Constitution, which was given by a kindly black woman, and thought about how completely we are now able to divorce that founding document from the milieu of those Anglo-descended men who first authored it (after all, how many people today actually describe themselves as English-Americans rather than merely a bland "white"?), I do have to credit the Founders with one thing, at least: that valuing English liberty need not require actually being English.

One of John Adams's most quoted statements goes, "our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other". A free society based on English common law demands respect for the mores and sentiments whence it came. Why, for instance, does the rest of the western world think Americans are "gun nuts"? On the continent of medieval Europe, the bearing of arms was generally restricted to the elite warrior class, the knighthood. In a society where there is a tremendous gulf in any sense of social responsibility between the upper and lower classes, whether it be the rabble of pre-revolutionary France or the vast number of perpetually drunk young men in Putin's Russia today, an armed populace is more prone to crimes of passion than any meaningful resistance to a tyrannical regime. The English, on the other hand, maintained a tradition of a right, even a duty, of commoners (yeomen) to bear arms all the way back to the Saxon age. In England, the universal militias of yeoman archers were regularly used as a means of securing peace in the realm. Perhaps Henry VIII's one failure to impose his will during his entire reign was in his toothless attempts to restrict the ownership and use of early firelock arms among the commons.

Today, we can see that the right to bear arms in our society is easily abused and in danger of abolition when the social responsibilities that come with ownership (a "well-maintained militia", for one) is neglected. Whether it's the daily black-on-black violence in inner city Philadelphia or shooting sprees by disturbed young white guys in South Carolina or Colorado, both share an ignorance or disrespect for the culture of English liberty whence that right came. And the gun controversy is simply the easiest example for me to draw here; you can fill in the blanks with your own issue of choice.

The Modern Medievalist's solution, therefore, is simple. I come not to advocate re-entry to the UK, fixing the republic by a patented 12-step process that will cost you only ninety-nine installments of $999.99, telling you to vote for Bernie in 2016, or that the world will end in 2017 on the centennial of the Fatima apparitions if county clerks don't stop issuing marriage licenses to gays. Just do this: study the history of our political forebears in England and beyond. Understand the principles behind common law. Debate the meaning of natural law if you must, but at least let's agree that it stands for something more than "don't tell me how to freedom!"

I have to admit that I doubt even doing all the above will be enough to save America from a fate like Greece's or a second revolution. But I do believe that even if the United States must someday cease to exist, future generations can profit by appreciating and implementing the traditions of English liberty tested and proven throughout the centuries.... and it need not take a single Anglo-descended man to achieve it.

The last stop on today's journey: Alexander Hamilton's statue at the Constitution Center, Philadelphia.