A Flour-Barrel Altar and the Mission of the Church

A Homily for the

175th Anniversary Celebration of the first Episcopal worship in Madison

July 29, 2013

This afternoon, I immersed myself in Madison’s early history, trying to get some feel for what it was like to live here in the late 1830s. I also hoped to get some sense of the people who organized the first Episcopal worship service that we commemorate this evening. Madison in 1838 was still a very small town. In the winter of 1837 and 1838, there may have been no more than a few dozen people living here. More came in the spring of 1838 as the territorial capitol was being built, land speculation taking place, and people moving here to seek their fortunes. But still the little store that became for a day “First Episcopal Church of Madison”—as eyewitness Simeon Mills later called it—could probably accommodate most of Madison’s population. It was a quite simple affair, with benches made out of planks, and empty flour barrel serving as the base for the altar.

The service was occasioned by the arrival of missionary Bishop Jackson Kemper who was seeking to reach out to whites on the frontier. He was travelling from Prairie du Chien to Green Bay, where congregations, or at least ministries, had already been established.

As I read these accounts, I wondered what those who were at that service imagined for the future of the church in Madison? Did they hope to see a building like Grace on the corner of Capitol Square? Did they imagine that one day there would be not one but four parishes in Madison, in addition to the Campus Ministry?

As I’ve thought about the last 175 years, I suspect that the place we are today as a church and a society would be incomprehensible, unimaginable to past generations of our fellow Episcopalians. All of us worship in buildings that were built by previous generations, with an eye to the possibility of growth and expansion. Those who built our churches were building for institutional stability and permanence. They were building for the future, for us, and we are both heirs and stewards of their efforts.

But what strikes me more than all of that is the image of that first worship service with benches made of planks and a flour-barrel altar and a bunch of reverend gentlemen (as Mills labeled them) unable to pitch a tune. Oh, and the store was still not complete. One side was open to the street. The space and the service were simple and makeshift. None of it would have pleased our theological, liturgical or aesthetic sensibilities.

What unites us with those who gathered 175 years ago? Well the very same things that unite us across the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion—the fact that we have bishops and our common liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer. While there are many differences between tonight’s liturgy and most contemporary Episcopal services, the Eucharistic prayer itself is found almost word for word in Rite One of our BCP. We share one more thing, across the centuries and across the world, our common faith in Jesus Christ.

I like that image of a half-built store with plank benches and a flour-barrel altar. I like it because it reminds us not of who we are or where we have been, but it calls us forward into new ways of being church and religious community.

In the gospel we heard, those familiar words from the Great Commission, we are reminded of who Jesus calls us to be and where Jesus calls us to go.

Our buildings, our institutions, our identity, are all very comfortable things. Even the prayer book and hymnal are like security blankets. The language of the liturgy, the familiar hymns wash over us, reassure us that our worship and our church are stable and permanent things. We know we are called to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, but for most of us, clergy and laity, that means tending to ourselves, our worship, our buildings, our fellow members. We hope that visitors will make their way to our services, and that if they make it through our red doors once, that they will return. We hope they will do that, so that they can become members of the choir, or altar guild, or even vestry, and let us rest.

But Jesus calls us out into the world, to proclaim the gospel in all nations, to make disciples. He has sent us out to share the good news of God’s love on street corners, in cafes, and, yes, in storefronts, and social media. Jesus has not called us to build institutions, or staff committees, however important that may be. He has not called us to tend to our selves and our needs. He calls us to go out into all the nations.

Miranda and Paula have just returned from Tanzania and I’m sure they will have much to share about their time there, the church there, and how we can connect. But mission is not just about distant lands and places. Mission begins on the other side of the doors of our churches. Mission begins when we come to terms with the reality that we are increasingly living in a secular, post-Christian culture. That’s more true here in Madison than in many other places in Wisconsin or across the country.

We are again living on a frontier. The institutions, even the way of life that seemed to be so stable and certain a few decades ago are increasingly fragile, often broken. That’s true of our political system. That’s true of our sense of being a civic community, of sharing a set of common values and purpose. It’s true of our economy that is increasingly rigged so the wealthy become wealthier. It’s true of our churches, especially the Episcopal Church, that has lost the central place it held in American culture and society for so many years. It’s true of our churches even though Grace continues to occupy a prominent space on Capitol Square.

We are on a frontier, and the path forward for us is as uncertain as it was for those who set out to make new lives for themselves in the Wisconsin territory 175 years ago. The old certainties are gone. We can’t expect that if we package our worship and ministries in just the right way, that people will join us and our churches will grow. It’s not a matter of worship style, or marketing, or finding the perfect curriculum for Christian formation. In our society, many people have stopped looking for a church home. Many who are seeking meaning in life have no notion that they might find such meaning in Christian community. They don’t know the vocabulary, they don’t know the rules, they can’t imagine themselves embraced by God’s love in the body of Christ.

That’s the frontier on which we live, the future that we face. Jesus calls us forward into that future, to do his work in the world, to reach out and do what Christians have done for nearly two thousand years, to make disciples, to baptize, to teach. What that might look like, is anyone’s guess. What the Episcopal Church might look like in Madison in 50 or 100, or 175 years, is beyond my imagination. But if I had to guess, I would wager that it would look more like that storefront in which we began 175 years ago, than the church in which we worship tonight.

On that frontier, in that uncertain future, Jesus promises to be with us, always, even to the end of the age. Thanks be to God.


The first Episcopal worship in Madison, WI (July 29, 1838)

and the third sermon ever in Dane County!

Two accounts have been widely disseminated. One is of an eyewitness, Simeon Mills, who also was co-owner of the store in which the service took place. His wife took over leadership of the music after the “reverend gentlemen” failed to pitch a tune, and also hosted Bishop Kemper and other guests at dinner between the services.

In the summer of 1838, Mr. John Catlin and myself, having rather outgrown our little log store, 14 x 16 feet on the ground, undertook the erection of a metropolitan building eighteen feet front, thirty-two feet deep and one and a half stories high, in which to open out our general assortment. We had so far progressed with the work as to have the building inclosed and the lower floor laid, but without doors and windows, when one Saturday was made notable by the arrival of the Rt. Rev. Bishop Kemper, the Rev. Mr. Cadle, later of Green Bay, and the Rev. Mr. Grier, of Galena, Ill.

It must not for one moment be imagined that such an arrival in our little community was not the event of the season, that must be duly noticed and improved. It could not be truthfully said that Mr. Catlin and myself opened our new store for religious services, for the front was already open, and, by the introduction of a few boards and blocks of wood for seats, and an empty flour barrel turned bottom end up and covered with a table spread for a desk, the First Episcopal Church of Madison, of sufficient capacity to accommodate the entire population, was complete and ready for dedication on the morrow by the Bishop of the Northwest.

The morning of the second Sunday of July 1838, was bright and warm, and the condition of our improvised church was no uncomfortable feature of the morning service. The people assembled, and the service was commenced at the appropriate time, but “as it was in the beginning,” when no man was found to till the ground, so it was now; when the hymn was given out, no man was found to “pitch the tune” and lead in singing. One of the reverend gentlemen and some others tried their hands and throats, and piped away awhile, but finally gave up in despair, when Mrs. Mills volunteered to lead the choir, and helped out that part of the service, as the Bishop was afterward pleased to express it, “with marked ability.” The discourse was given by the Bishop, and was the third sermon ever preached in Dane County.

Service being over, under the direction of Mrs. Mills, who always took the lead in the family in all religious matters, the reverend gentleman, Mr. Catlin and a few other friends were escorted to our house and a banquet spread of everything choice that the market and the house could afford, the Bishop meanwhile making himself and the little circle merry at the expense of a reverend brother by imitating his style and effort to pitch a tune and lead in singing, and advised the employment of the hostess to give him a few lessons in music.

It is just possible that at our little dinner the courses were not as numerous or the viands as costly or abundant as may have been set before the Bishop in after years, but it was our best, and at all events they were not sent away empty. It was an occasion never forgotten, and was the subject of a pleasant remark as we sometimes met in the downward journey of life. Simeon Mills, recorded in A History of Dane County, Wisconsin, 1880

And from Bishop Kemper:

“A store partly built was comfortably prepared for us, and we had two services at nine and two; in the morning a full attendance and a goodly number all day united in the service.” From the Diaries of Bishop Jackson Kemper, date July 29, 1838

Mills recollection that it occurred “on the second Sunday in July” was written long after the event and is contradicted by Bishop Kemper’s diary.

Another historical tidbit that I came across this afternoon. According to a Milwaukee newspaper article from 1898, Grace Church (completed in 1858) was reputed to be the first stone Episcopal Church west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Preparing for the future by studying the past: Jackson Kemper, the last Beguine, and the future of Christianity

In an earlier life, I was a historian and although I am reluctant to enter any battles about the inherent virtues of studying the humanities nor inclined to argue for the study of history on instrumental grounds, there are times when even a brief foray into history can provide useful perspective from which to study current problems.

So it was this week. I was trying to write about the shape of the future church, to help clarify some work we’d done in strategic planning on the diocesan level. At various points in that process, we had alluded to Jackson Kemper and the missionary impulse that founded the Diocese of Milwaukee. As I prepared to write, I turned to a history of the Episcopal Church and to a history of the diocese. A superficial read of relevant chapters of both works was eye-opening. Typical church histories of the mid-twentieth century are largely stories of institutions–the formation of dioceses, the founding of parishes and other institutions, the inevitable personality struggles between competing egos and competing visions, and the biographies of the “great men.” In the stories I was reading, I learned about failures–failed missions, failed schools, failed ministries. I read of heroic efforts by clergy and laity preparing the ground and planting seeds that bore fruit decades later.

I wondered what readers fifty years ago would have made of those histories. How would they have interpreted them? No doubt there would have been some sense of failures and missed opportunities, but from the perspective of a thriving church and diocese in mid-century, the end of the story was clear–thriving institutions and vital ministries that reflected the bustle of the post-war boom in America.

Fifty years later, I had a very different reaction. Not just because of the different way history is written today (I’m more curious about those lay people, and especially lay women, than the bishops and priests; I’m more interested in the lived religion than in the bricks and mortar, more interested in the edges, the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, the interplay of religion and social forces).

As we stand at the edge of a frontier as vast and unknown as the one Jackson Kemper entered in the 1830s and 1840s, I’m interested in the forms that ministry and mission will take on that frontier. Kemper and others of his generation had a clear sense of what the church should look like. When they established a parish or school, they built edifices that reflected those ideas–solid, sacred buildings of wood, brick, and stone. They built institutions that were meant to serve those churches and schools and were meant to convey a sense of the sacred, of dignity, and of permanence.

The institutional histories tell the stories of those buildings, the ministries and people that inhabited them. But often the most interesting stories are of those institutions that failed, efforts that came to nothing or transformed into something quite different than the original intent, like the quasi-monastic community that founded Nashotah House and moved on to Minnesota.

I was reminded of this narrative of success and failure again this morning when I read an article about the death of the last Beguine. A relic of the Middle Ages, at one time communities of Beguines thrived in the towns of what is now Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Rhine area. They weren’t quite nuns; they didn’t take vows but lived in community, praying, working, passing in and out of their houses. Some of the great spiritual writing of Medieval Christianity are products of the Beguines.  The Church frowned on them, worried about them, and over the centuries sought to force them into more traditional and typical forms of monastic life. They survived through the centuries, a relic of an earlier age and probably not particularly relevant to either the religious lives or the cultures of the communities in which they lived, certainly not after the seventeenth century.

The story of the last Beguine, those episcopal histories I read, were all stories of institutions, stories of success and failure, growth and decline. They teach us important lessons about adapting to cultural contexts and the willingness to experiment. They also teach us about the problems of institutions, the inherent tendency to try to preserve them when they may no longer be needed or wanted.

I would draw two lessons from these stories. 1) the importance of adaptability. The decline of the beguines was only in part due to official resistance. In the long run, changes in society made their very creative response to a particular set of cultural crises basically irrelevant. 2) the impermanence of institutions. Our solid buildings are deceptive and stifle our creativity and the Spirit’s creativity.

Where is the spirit blowing today? Will we have the courage to let it lead us into the future, or will we stay behind the walls of our dying institutions and become the last Episcopalians?