Rector’s Chronicle: December 2013

Dearly Beloved in Christ,

Advent is upon us, and in New York City that means Holiday-Christmas decorations have been up on Fifth Avenue since Halloween. The counterbalance to this earliness is the sight of Christmas trees out on the curb on the First Day of Christmas – Christmas Day itself. The other day, Father Austin commented, “If we can just hold the line at Halloween, we can perhaps keep it from starting on Labor Day.” Well. At Saint Thomas, we’ll do our best to observe the holy season of Advent in anticipation of Christ’s Nativity, and then the Twelve Days of Christmas before the Epiphany on January 6.


About 1,700 years ago the Church settled on December 25 as Jesus’ birth date for the Christian Year. It seized upon the pagan feast of Natalis Solis Invictus, which among other things marked the lengthening of the light at the winter solstice. The Church appropriated this feast for the Nativity of Christ, baptizing it and reasoning that the Lord’s Incarnation was the beginning of the lengthening of the light of the Sun of Righteousness. So our feast of Christmas began by rubbing shoulders with secular or pagan festivals. Some writers of Antiquity complained that the new rising Christian movement was weakening the Roman Empire and that before long the old gods of Rome would be pushed out. The Emperor Constantine the Great, whose mother Helena was a devout Christian, had already ascribed his military ascendancy to the throne to a vision he had of the cross of Christ; and he had issued an Edict of Toleration for the formerly persecuted faith. Christianity now enjoyed imperial favor, and the celebration of Christmas adorned the Church’s new position.[1]

One very good effect of Christmas in modern times has been the increased American Jewish observance of Hanukkah, which celebrates the victory of Judas Maccabeus over the pagan tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BC. Antiochus was a king in one of the Hellenistic empires stemming from the conquests of Alexander the Great. He had ordered an altar to Zeus built in the Jerusalem Temple and had swine sacrificed on the Jewish altar. Hanukkah, or the Feast of Lights, celebrates the cleansing and dedication of the temple – it is the Feast of Dedication referenced in St. John 10:22-23 when Jesus walked in the temple in winter. You may find the original Hanukkah story in I Maccabees, chapters 1-4, in the Apocrypha. It is not only a Jewish feast; it is an important antecedent to the time of Christ.

By no means are all modern developments with regard to Christmas reason to lament, O tempora, O mores! [2] The Centennial observance of our Church building has shed light on the influence of the twentieth century on the way the Church celebrates Christmas – a very good influence indeed. This past September we had our parish Hymn-Sing, featuring hymns that were sung a century ago in 1913. Douglas Robbe did good research from leaflets a century ago. The surprise: not one Christmas hymn from that year would be familiar to us today.[3] The twentieth century has made all the difference. What happened?

The fact is, Christmas as we know and love it is largely the product of the great English choral foundations – collegiate chapels such as King’s College, Cambridge, and great churches such as Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. Particularly through the development and ensuing popularity of the services of Nine Lessons and Carols led by Boris Ord and David Willcocks at Kings, the beautiful carols, hymns and anthems we cherish made their way across the Atlantic and around the world – thanks in no small measure to recordings.

Before the twentieth century, Protestantism, deeply influenced by its puritan strain, regarded Christmas with suspicion as “popish.” In the nineteenth century, the Oxford and Anglo-Catholic movements promoted the liturgical celebration of Christmas. Pioneering hymnals such as Hymns Ancient and Modern brought the hymnody promoted by English High Churchmen to the pews; but this did not reach the United States and the Episcopal Church’s hymnal until our Hymnal 1916, which was only a beginning. Hymnal 1940 and Hymnal 1982 fully adopted the work of Anglo-Catholic musicians and hymnologists. It is hard to believe, but in 1913 they did not sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Come All Ye Faithful at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue.

What Saint Thomas has now is in many people’s opinion as good as it gets for Christmas music and liturgy. But we are deeply indebted to the Church of England’s great choral foundations, which we both emulate and rival, for this wonderful repertoire. Indeed, Dr. Scott spent the first half of his life immersed in and directing those choirs before coming to Saint Thomas.


By all accounts, Barry Lewis’s lecture on November 14, “Midtown Manhattan: Mirror of an Ever-Changing City,” was a hit, notable for its enthusiasm, humor, and historical insight on Saint Thomas’s neighborhood a century ago. More is coming, just around the corner of the New Year:

1) John Scott will give a lecture on T. Tertius Noble on Friday, January 24, at 6:30 pm. A reception follows the lecture. The year 1913 not only saw the beginning of worship in our glorious new (and fourth) church building. It also saw the arrival of Dr. Noble as our Organist and Choirmaster, secured by our Eighth Rector Ernest Stires and his Warden Charles Steele. The three then worked together to found Saint Thomas Choir School six years later in 1919.

2) Playwright and Parishioner Lucky Gold has written a splendid play, Redeem the Time, for the building’s centennial. It begins with the goodbye party for Dr. Stires, who is leaving Saint Thomas to become Bishop of Long Island in 1925. The play has flash-backs from that poignant moment to the struggles over funding and locating Saint Thomas’s fourth church building after the catastrophic fire of 1905. The play will be performed in a read-through on Friday, February 21, at 7 pm, followed by a reception. This is not to be missed.

I take this opportunity to thank Will Andersen for his hard work on the archival displays in the Parish House living room featuring the various stages of the rebuilding after the great fire. Will, Fran Blouin and Judith Moore have done an outstanding professional job organizing the parish archives and making known and accessible much vital information from our history.


Our long-time and distinguished Headmaster of Saint Thomas Choir School, Gordon H. Clem, died after a long illness on September 29. You can reference Mr. Clem’s memorial service and my sermon for him, “H is for Headmaster” elsewhere on the website; I needn’t repeat what is written there, but I wanted to make mention of Gordon’s passing in this Rector’s Chronicle. Gordon served Saint Thomas for forty years, 1955-1995, first as a teacher and then, beginning in 1967, as Headmaster. He was a fixture of Saint Thomas’s life and a powerful exemplar and mentor for the students of the Choir School. Fittingly, his name is on the school cornerstone, where is carved “Gordon Clem House.”


Vestryman Colin Fergus has just rotated off the Vestry after serving eight years – two years of the unexpired term of Warden Kenneth Koen in addition to two three-year terms of his own. We owe Colin a great debt of thanks for his service on many fronts, but above all, he has been instrumental in the success of the Every Member Canvass. At meeting after meeting, not only of the Vestry but of the Canvass and Development Committee, Colin has prompted, prodded, encouraged, and cheered us all on. He has helped transform the entire atmosphere of our fund raising – making it a joy to be part of. He certainly has put spring in the Rector’s step. Colin and Hope Preminger were the Co-Chairs of our Capital Campaign, 2008-2010. For this, and for many other gifts of generosity, hospitality and service, from his home to the Soup Kitchen, thank you Colin.


That’s EMC for Every Member Canvass 2014. For the first time in our history we passed the $1 million mark for pledges before Thanksgiving Day. And we are ahead, as of this writing, in the number of pledging units. Thank the Lord, and thanks to all of you who have pledged to support our beloved Saint Thomas. My hope, as I put it on Commitment Sunday (Christ the King), is that we reach $2 million and 1000 pledging units. That’s a big leap. It may take a few more years. But that is what financial health looks like, by which I mean not drawing down too much on our invested funds for our general operating budget. We have come a long way, and this is reason for rejoicing.


We will soon announce some events early next year for the presentation of the plans for the organ. I am excited about what we have to show and tell the congregation. There will be opportunities as well to “buy a pipe” in the new organ, from tiny to enormous in size. I want to dedicate my last semester at Saint Thomas to looking forward to this great development in our mission of sacred music.


In my September Chronicle I reported much on Anthony Trollope, and I have read some more since then. The Way We Live Now blends American enterprise with British class consciousness, mixing in a big dose of greed, or in Charles Dickens’ memorable phrase, “the stupendous power of money.” And there is love, together with the still small voice of integrity. It is still the way we live, now; and well worth reading. My other Trollope read was Clergymen of the Church of England. This is nonfiction and reads like a multiple-part article in, say, The New Yorker magazine a century and more ago. The chapters deal with Bishops, Deans, (Country) Parsons (with life-tenure freeholds), Town Incumbents, Curates, and — Liberals. Trollope loves his Church of England. His taste is for the old high-and-dry clergy, like Archdeacon Grantly in the Barchester series. But he allows considerable respect for the effects of the Oxford Movement, and some more grudging respect for a few Evangelicals (however, Obadiah Slope and Bishop and Mrs. Proudie seem to be dominant here). Trollope sees necessary reform coming, but he fears many unintended consequences. For one, he worries that the day is coming when the clergy will no longer be gentlemen. The late Dean Michael Mayne of Westminster Abbey has written a splendid introduction to the reprint.

And I did slog my way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, having been told by people more well-read than I that it is one of the greatest Victorian novels. So I forced my way through. There are unforgettable characters – Bulstrode, the pious Evangelical with his ill-gotten gains and guilty conscience; Lydgate, the reforming physician who marries, catastrophically, a vain, superficially charming and pretty young woman whose selfishness destroys him; and Dorothy (“Do-Do”), a glorious creature resembling Saint Teresa of Avila for force of character and Christian conviction who marries, at last, for true love – and wins. The object of her love is himself most worthy. I accept that Middlemarch is great, but for me it was a slog. I prefer Eliot’s Silas Marner, which my generation read in school and which I am enjoying rereading: a miser learns love from a foundling and how to live again after being crushed by damnable religious self-righteousness and false witness.

I’m a third of the way through former Vestryman Jon Meacham’s 2012 biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. One of my favorite people, the author has me interested in one of my un-favorite Founding Fathers.[4] The key is realizing Jefferson was an excellent practitioner of politics and thereby one of our most successful presidents. As usual, Meacham’s scholarship is thorough, his judgment convincing, and his writing clear and brisk.


I conclude where I began, with Christmas, but now to the heart of the matter. May our dear Jesus, our God and Savior, bless each of you as you celebrate his Birth. May he fill you with the joy of his Gospel, which is the greatest gift of all.

Faithfully your Priest and Rector,

Andrew C. Mead


[1]Father Austin holds to a contrary view pushed by his late liturgics professor, Thomas Talley, namely that the early Christians settled on December 25 by working nine months forward from March 25, the presumed date of Jesus’ death. The date that great figures left the world was anciently taken to be the date they entered; hence Annunciation on March 25 with birth following nine months later. So this argument goes. It does attract, and it works better for you if you live in the southern hemisphere. It is mentioned by St. Augustine, but it remains a minority view. See The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Third Edition 1997), “Christmas,” pp 335-336.

[2] A Roman lament, “Oh the times! Oh the customs!”

[3] We discovered a similar fact about Easter hymns a century ago at Saint Thomas – but I will deal with that Centennial mystery in my Lenten Chronicle.

[4] My favorite Founder is President Abraham Lincoln who, four-score and seven years and 600,000 Civil War casualties after The Declaration of Independence, gave Jefferson’s lofty statements about human rights and freedom a new birth and preserved the Union against the nullification and secession of the slave-power.