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KALCHEIM: The unlikely religious radicals

I challenge anybody to find a single church in Berkshire County that still uses the old King James Version of r he Bible.

New York — A fortnight ago was the beginning of what Christians regard as the season of Lent, the time of penitence and self-denial, in which such disciplines as the giving up chocolate or alcohol for the six weeks preceding Easter are widely practiced. This is all meant as a sort of spiritual training so as to better celebrate, and appreciate the joys of Easter and the commemoration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. All of it began on Ash Wednesday, on which I attended one of the most beautiful services I ever witnessed, at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church on 5th Avenue and 53rd Street in New York. It is, of course, true that St. Thomas has a world-renowned choir of men and boys to aid their liturgy, but I had heard good church choirs sing before. What I had hardly ever seen or heard was a church so radical in its embrace of traditional liturgy and music, even to the point of open defiance of the Episcopal Church’s stated polices. It is indeed hopeful that there are some people, at least, who reject the cult of newness, ugliness, and moral and aesthetic relativism that has swept the western world.

In its conservatism, it was, paradoxically, the most radical church service I had ever seen, in this day and age, when to be cautious and circumspect is to be swept along by the all-consuming cult of novelty for novelty’s sake, invented, probably sometime in the 1960s, by a self-righteous bunch of ideologues who insisted — and still insist — that there is no such thing as good or bad, true of false, beauty and ugliness, objectively understood, but only my good and bad, my beauty and ugliness, my truth and falsehood. There is, however, one thing that retained some objective value to these people who so destroyed our culture over the last 50 years, and that is that the new is always, and without exception, better than the old.

St. Thomas is the only church in which I have attended a service where all bible lessons are read from the Authorized (“King James”) Version, that glorious touchstone of the English language, for more than 400 hundred years, which has been surreptitiously replaced, in nearly all Christian churches, beneath the all-too charitable eyes of parishioners, who themselves privately admit that they rather prefer the King James version, archaisms and all. Yet I challenge anybody to find a single church in Berkshire County that still uses the old King James Version.

St. Thomas, in New York is also the only Episcopal Church I have ever visited which, acting deliberately against the stated policy of their higher-ups, tries to pretend as if the heartless 1979 modernizing revision of the American Book of Common Prayer never happened, and instead stocks its pews with versions of the 1928 Prayer Book, which contains almost all the essential language of the celebrated 1662 English Book of Common Prayer, itself only a slight revision of the 1549 book drafted by Thomas Cramner, Henry VIII’s last Archbishop of Canterbury. Only the words spoken at St. Thomas, despite what church-goers may fancy, are in fact the same words which their ancestors have prayed for centuries. Most of us who go to church these days have to be content with the un-poetic inventions of a cabal of self-righteous 1970s church reformers who would probably have bulldozed half the Gothic cathedrals in Europe in favor of brutal concrete blocks, if they had got they way. Anybody used to the serviceable, though palpably uninspiring language of our modern liturgy — and the Episcopal Church’s modernization is slight compared to what most other Churches engaged in — would have been balled over by beauty of the prayers recited at St. Thomas on Ash Wednesday. And it was not only a question of style. There are also immensely heartfelt, poetic passages of spiritual meditation that have simply been axed from our modern liturgies all together. One excellent example is the prayer at Holy Communion: On behalf of the congregation the priest, addressing God, says “we offer and present unto thee, ourselves, our souls and our bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee, humbly beseeching thee, that all we, who are partakers of this holy communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction.” Much to soppy, I suppose, for the relativist destroyers.

If I seem to be obsessing over a minute subject to those readers who are not believing Christians, I would say that the wanton destruction of liturgical beauty in our Churches, which almost nobody except the secreted higher-ups ever asked for, is symptomatic of a larger trend of cultural decline that goes largely unopposed, because the very people whose conservative temperament prevents them from openly opposing authority, in the way St. Thomas has done, are the very people most opposed to the direction in which our culture is headed. Yet, to try to conserve some of good and beautiful things that have been passed down to us, over the ages, in today’s world, is to be radical. And it is in this environment, in which those who might once have seemed the most unlikely radicals, the well-healed, well-dressed old-New York-looking parishioners at St. Thomas, along with their richly-frocked clergymen, are in fact the most radical of all. I say, God bless them.

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