American Aristocracy: Gods of Copley Square – Centerpiece 6
Trinity Church compelled Copley Square, of which more later. But it was the idea behind Trinity Chancel that compelled the design of Trinity Church. That process began on March 12, 1872 when architect H. H. Richardson opened the letter from Trinity’s Building Committee inviting him to compete and at once turned it over and sketched on the letter’s back his first thoughts for what would become almost the minute it was completed the most famous church in America. In Living Architecture, James F. O’Gorman, our foremost Richardson scholar today, calls these sketches with his customary acuteness, “ideograms,” of “the original act of architectural creation . . . Through all subsequent changes,” he declares, “the basic schema jotted down on the back of the letter remained the guiding idea of the design.”
Richardson at once concluded, so O’Gorman reports, of the committee’s letter, that “the program called for an auditorium, a vessel in which to carry Brooks’s voice.” Thus of the two ideograms – one showing “a long nave . . . and the other a Greek cross” – the architect, because for him what stood out according to O’Gorman was the Committee’s “proscription against columns . . . opted for the modified Greek cross as the more suitable to the demands of a preaching hall.” It’s all so obvious – Brooks being famously the country’s leading preacher, Richardson’s thought process seems to follow as a matter of course. O’Gorman does not need to detail the sketches. But the scholar who did detail them, Ann Jensen Adams for Art Bulletin, read Richardson’s mind very differently, describing:
a Greek Cross plan to which [Richardson] added a semi-circular east end as he shortened the transepts . Over this sketch he drew an altar at the edge of the crossing, and noted 90 degrees, indicating the width in feet from transept end to transept end, the maximum dimension permitted by the site. Th[is] . . . plan is nearly identical to the plan of the church as dedicated five years later.” And it points to Phillips Brooks’s invariable practice: for years Trinity’s rector refused the vestry’s urging he hire an assistant, replying according to his first one, Leverett Bradley , “I didn’t want one. I liked to read (ie.,officiate at) the service myself.
It was as officiant at the liturgy, not only or primarily as preacher, it was from his altar and prie-dieu, not just from a pulpit, that Brooks’s voice needed to “carry” to his flock. Indeed, it was because Brooks was very alert to what he called “the effect of a largely constructed liturgy like ours, constantly used, and tried to keep himself “alive to familiar words . . . [and] to give them force” that Brooks manner of presiding at the Eucharist and Daily Office attracted the same sort of adoring (and often uncritical) praise as his preaching. His first biographer insisted that Phillips Brooks put “into his utterances of creed and litany . . . such a wealth of personal consecration that a person who should hear that and nothing more [ie.the sermon] would remember the thrilling experience all his days.”
Because the officiant more than the preacher was the focus, altar, not pulpit, was controlling. In fact, no pulpit appeared in either of Richardson’s sketches. Only the altar was shown. One of the competition drawings Richardson submitted to the Building Committee, discovered by Adams, did show a pulpit, but as clearly secondary, off to the extreme southern side of the Chancel, while not only is the altar in the center of the apse – Henry-Russell Hitchock would later note Richardson had pushed it back from the edge of the apse to its center at Brooks’s direction – but a presider’s chair (bishop’s throne?) is located directly on axis and behind the altar and facing the people; Trinity was not at all an auditorium, but was endowed with a startlingly proto-Liturgical Movement chancel a generation ahead of when that European-American historical movement of the early 20th-century dawned on American ecclesiastical architecture.
Finally, the plans published of the new church at the time of its consecration in 1877 in American Architect on 3 February show again a decisively prominent altar – now marked as traditionally altars are with an elaborate cross – set in the center of the chancel, with no pulpit or preaching platform of any kind , which any student of Phillips Brooks also recognizes at once as also characteristic of Trinity’s rector, who all along refused to have a pulpit at Trinity until more than a decade after its consecration, and then only, William Lawrence tells us, because of “poor acoustics.” Brooks preferred a very plain, small, inconspicuous preaching lectern, rather like a music stand, which he brought with him from Philadelphia and positioned next to and forward from his seat and prei deu on the south side of the Chancel. You can see this relatively tiny, inconsequential feature if you look very carefully to the left of the altar in the photograph which heads this month’s essay.
In fact, the Building Committee’s proscription against columns had to do with the fact that an officiant at an altar needs to be seen and heard as much as a preacher at a pulpit, and nothing in the Committee’s letter privileges one aspect of Brooks’s appearing over the other, or contradicts the clear evidence of the drawings, which do privilege the altar, and thus the liturgy. Nor, once read, does the letter contradict any of this. It is remarkably short: about the church as opposed to the parish house, it consists of only four sentences and reads in full: “it is desired to seat on the floor 1000 persons and 350 in the [galleries]. No columns. Well lighted, warmed and ventilated with good acoustic qualities. Robing Room and Organ on either side of Chancel.”
That’s it. Conscious perhaps of the need to defend Richardson’s having seemed at first to jump to conclusions, O’Gorman cites Trinity’s consecration sermon by Alexander Vinton, who did remark on how “no obtrusive columns to impede the preacher’s power” were a part of the plan. But when read in its entirety, Vinton’s sermon, like the Building Committee’s letter, and like the competition and final published plans, focuses not on preaching but on the sacrament of the altar: “we come to the place where He is invisibly enshrined. We approach the sacrament . . . We wait for [Christ] in worship and meet Him as He comes.” There is no longer any confusion as to what is the controlling idea of Trinity Church.
Not so, however, in subsequent scholarship. The earliest, Marianna Van Rennsaeler’s, in the 1880s, was particularly wide of the mark. Trinity’s was “too large a chancel for a very ‘low church service,’” she wrote. (Architectural as opposed to church historians always make that mistake about Brooks, who was neither a Low nor a High but a Broad or modernist Churchman.) Henry-Russell Hitchcock also echoed this view, writing in 1936 that the “large choir and apse were . . . not particularly useful.” Clearly neither of the two worshiped regularly at Trinity Church! Nor did the work of either indicate any familiarity at all with the Liturgical Movement principles that as we shall see so informed Phillips Brooks’s thoughts about his chancel. Most strikingly, Hitchcock did not know or chose to ignore the testimony of prominent church figures about the enormous liturgical success of Trinity Chancel. Consider Alexander Allen’s analysis in his biography of 1900:
The huge semi-circuar apse . . . dedicated to the sole purpose of the administration of the Lord’s Supper . . . [was] a departure from ecclesiastical traditions marked and even glaring and gave to Trinity Church a distinctive character . . . . Those who have witnessed the feast of the Lord’s Supper in Trinity Church . . . must feel there had been no failure . . . A communion service at Trinity Church became one of the most impressive of religious spectacles anywhere to be witnessed . . . To the influence of this service a young Japanese student confessed that he owed his conversion to Christianity.
Indeed, not just Allen, but three of Brooks’s early biographers, all church officials, took this view, in contrast to the two early architectural critics. William Lawrence hymned Brooks’s chancel exuberantly – he called it “a daring enterprise.” So too did Brooks biographer Raymond Allbright, who finally in 1961 declared that “the building was to be free of all obstacles so that worshipers everywhere could clearly see and hear the reading and the preaching of the word, and also see as well well as participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. . . . The wide semi-circular apse was to have a free-standing altar.” Again, the liturgical readings and the altar service, not the sermon, was privileged.
What is really hardest to excuse in Hitchcock’s case particularly is that he did not familiarize himself with contemporary sources, which show that at first architecture critics took the same view as church officials, suggesting later architectural historians were responsible for the pivotal mischaracterizing of Trinity’s original chancel and altar that has persisted to this day. Of these contemporary reports, perhaps two examples will suffice:
The first actually precedes the church’s completion. In the August 1, 1873 issue of Architectural Sketch Book, a very early perspective and section of Trinity’s chancel and crossing was published – so early the four great piers of the crossing are still of dressed stone and connected by arches of the same material – which documents that a chancel focused on a free-standing altar (called an “altar” in the accompanying text) in an islanded Sanctuary surrounded by an altar rail, and with no Choir, and no pulpit, was planned as of that very early date. And in the paragraph describing the perspective occurs this sentence: “[The Nave] piers which carry the clerestory [are] built sufficiently distant from the side walls to allow space for passing so as not to obstruct the view of the chancel from the pews.”[Emphasis added.]
The second, in American Architect on February 17th of 1877, the year of Trinity’s consecration, was equally clear, focusing on the “the disposition of the floor, entirely unencumbered by pillars, gathering the whole congregation within near reach of the officiating clergyman’s voice; the unusual size of the chancel, which is sixty feet deep and fifty wide, the communion-table being encircled by the rail, to allow a large number to receive communion at once [emphasis added]”
It is only fair to record that H. Barbara Weinberg, the leading authority on Trinity’s iconography, has always taken this view, not scanting preaching but privileging worship overall and seeing in the Greek cross plan “a suitable setting for worship. The broad area beneath the tower and the short arms of the Greek cross plan provided an open space for the congregation, unobstructed by pillars or other obstacles to sight. Participating in the sacrament was better encouraged by bringing the communion table close to the transept as in the practice of the early church.” .
Finally J.B. Bullen, in Byzantium Rediscovered, goes so far as to somewhat mock today’s widely-accepted view, arguing that ” the interior . . . held up by four large supports, part columns, part pillars . . . clustered so tightly that they appear almost flat, like those of San Marco . . . is open, ostensibly to communicate the voice of the incumbent, Phillips Brooks, but it also gives the interior an unusual and strongly Byzantine quality.” Not quite a preaching hall.
The closest one can come today to the experience of Brooks’s and Richardson’s original setting for Trinity’s altar is to visit the Abbey Room at the Boston Public Library across Copley Square. Trinity Chancel fell somewhat short of the Abbey Room’s glories because Edwin Austin Abbey completed his library murals and John La Farge did not finish his in Trinity Chancel, where only the decoration between and just under the seven great windows was completed and not the projected great processional frieze beneath them. A part of that frieze did end up (doubtless at Phillips Brooks’s urging when it was clear no donor was going to come forward in Boston) in the Church of the Incarnation in New York of which Brooks’s brother Arthur was rector. But the visitor to Trinity will not only find the Abbey Room a more convenient companion to Trinity Chancel but a more complete immersion in the aesthetic of Phillips Brooks’s various artistic and literary heroes.
Abbey, an American expatriate artist who lived and worked in England, neighbor at one time to Francis Lathrop (he of Trinity’s own Madonna), was, according to Erica Hirshler’s article on the Abbey murals in Studies in Medievalism (Volume 6) very much influenced by Burne-Jones. His relationship with that artist is unclear, but with William Morris Abbey became a good friend. It was for Morris that Burne-Jones designed a notable series of six tapestries on the subject of the Grail quest, while Morris was also involved in the celebrated Arthurian murals, including a Grail sequence, painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti at the Oxford Union.
What makes the Abbey Room so intimately related aesthetically and iconographically with the first Trinity Chancel is the subject of its murals, The Quest of the Holy Grail, murals which rank with Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” and Richard Wagner’s Parsifal as by wide consent the three most eloquent expressions of this Arthurian legend of the ‘after-life’, as it were, of the Eucharistic cup of the Last Supper in the Western imagination. Indeed, Abbey’s research included long periods of study on the Continent during which he made pilgrimages to many Romanesque churches in France and also to Bayreuth, where he heard Parsifal.
“The Holy Grail exists in the borderland between orthodox [Catholic] doctrine and lay devotion, and it reflects the religious enthusiasm for relics, and for the Eucharist as the living relic of Christ and the object of intense desire and adoration,” Arthurian expert Richard Barber explains in The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (Harvard University Press, 2005). And while this is not the place to explore what he calls “the vision of the real presence in the Eucharist which is ecstatically described in the Lancelot-Grail, ” or the significance of the fact that “the knights who are privileged to see the Grail are never certain of what they see until the final scenes . . . until . . . Christ himself explains the identity of the Grail and one of its symbolic meanings, as the centre of the ritual of the Eucharist,” Barber’s book is a good place to do so, “the relation of Grail and Eucharist . . . [being] a crucial key to the romances” in his words.
Indeed, although the Abbey Room celebrates what can only be called Christian mythology, it is important to register that art’s attempt here is to penetrate the meaning, not only of a symbol, the Grail, the culture of the great Christian Sacrament, but of what to a believing Christian in the Catholic tradition has been perhaps best put by the Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor, who once famously interrupted Robert Lowell at a dinner party in the outer reaches of the Boston city-state, when others argued for the importance of the Eucharistic symbol, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
Our discussion here last time of Trinity Church in the context of those two literary historians (and very observant traditional Christians in the Catholic tradition), C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien comes at once to mind. “The veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so opaque to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin or permeable,” Lewis wrote in Letters to Malcolm, of the sacrament where “a hand from the hidden country not only touches my soul but my body.”
It was even thinner for Tolkien. It is significant that Abbey’s imagery is exactly Tolkien’s, the one visual, the other literary. Kathleen Foster writes of Abbey’s Grail murals, that their “sheer romantic beauty” mean that “intuitively – without guidebook – [they] impress the viewer with a sense of high ideals and noble sacrifices, brave deeds and mysterious supernatural forces;” while the master of Middle-Earth, in a missive to his son Michael, writes of “the one great thing thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament . . . . There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”
This is, of course, in so many ways Phillip Brooks’s world, the reason there is a Phillips Brooks House for social programs at Harvard to this day. “The Grail,” Foster reports in her article in the catalog of the 1973 Yale exhibition on Abbey, “has been described as the most popular mural cycle in America” at the time it was created and for some time thereafter. “At one time no undergraduate room at Harvard, Yale or Princeton, was complete without large framed photographs of one or more of the details of [Abbey’s Boston Library] composition.”
The connections between the theological and the chilvaric were made in a thousand different ways in all those dorm rooms, of course, by men for whom it is not too much to say Phillips Brooks was a hero. But although Trinity’s rector sometimes spoke in traditional theological terms of the Eucharist, as when in one sermon he observed that “the idea of the feeding of the soul upon the flesh of Christ . . .[is] filled with memories of the agony in which his flesh was offered,” that sort of language was not what made Trinity Church in Brooks’s day a great pilgrimage shrine or Copley Square a great transatlantic religious mecca. What did was passages like this by Brooks the clear-headed, idealistic Brahmin-practical “coach,” if you will, as well as thinker, who could unite, finally, ‘true-believers’ and ‘do-gooders.’
The Lord’s Supper, the right and need of everyman to feed on God . . . This [is the] Christian Church around the Christian feast. There is no other rallying point for all the good activity and worthy hopes of man. Think how it would be, if some morning all the men, women and children in this city who mean well, from the reformer meaning to meet some giant evil at the peril of his life, to the schoolboy meaning to learn his days lesson with all his strength, were to meet in a great host at the table of the Lord, and own themselves his children, and claim the strength of his bread and wine, and then go out with calm, strong, earnest faces to their work. How the Communion Service would lift up its voice and sing itself in triumph, the great anthem of a dedicated human life. That, nothing less than that, is the real Holy Communion of the Church of the Living God.
In the original version of this memorable homily — “The Church of the Living God” – Trinity’s rector exults even more fully in, as he puts it, “the power of the great Christian Sacrament . . . to be that rallying place.” But in the version I quote from above he goes into more detail about what precisely the sacrament does: “Look at the simplicity of this great mysterious feast of the Lord’s Supper . . . Religion, spiritual life, faith, vision, worship, they must want to go deeper, want to grow purer, but to be all of these they must be larger. They must all comprehend that there is . . . no activity of man which may not be the door, and into which and through which cannot enter that power of God . . . There is some such largeness of faith and strength that comes to us,” Brooks writes, “as we bow at our Lord’s table.”
This second version appears as the Introduction to Helps to the Holy Communion from the Writings of Phillips Brooks, which is surely of all the books issued by Brooks’s publisher, E. P. Dutton of New York, the least known. Yet perusing it, I am reminded of the editorial in, of all places, The New York Evening Post, quoted by Allen, that really comes closest to catching hold of the essence of the great church builder of Copley Square, who therein was lauded in the wake of an 1870 sermon at Grace Church, New York City, as preaching “the humanity of Channing with the creed of Jeremy Taylor and striking at the shirks and shams of our day with the dashing pluck and the full blood of Martin Luther.” Many saw Channing in Brooks and still see Luther; Taylor, the third of his heroes, few saw in him then or, indeed, now.
The creed of Jeremy Taylor? Much evidence points to it being key to Phillips Brooks’s Eucharistic thinking particularly. Taylor was notably the protege of that legendary High Churchman , Archbishop Laud, of whom not a lot would be said in the cloisters of Trinity Church in the usual way. Evelyn Underhill, on the other hand, wrote of Laud and company: “under the religious leaders of the Caroline Church – Lancelot Andrews, Laud, Jeremy Taylor and their associates – that sober but Catholic English tradition . . . survived the disaster of the Puritan dominance and subsequent periods of reaction and of indifference, and is now recognized as the classic norm of Anglican worship . . . The faithful remnant of worshiping souls never failed the English Church; and from Lancelot Andrews to Simeon and Pusey these kept alight the secret fire of sacrificial worship.” Brooks kept it alight too! He wrote to a Trinity parishioner according to Allen who was absenting herself from the altar because of ‘doubts’ — warning her with something like grandeur not to give up “the simple act by which His servants in all times have called themselves His.”
Another more contemporary influence reinforced Taylor’s impact on Brooks’s eucharistic thinking: the man Trinity’s rector thought so much of he always urged converts to eschew reading church history and instead to study his lectures on the Book of Common Prayer — Frederick Dennison Maurice, who held as ‘high’ a view of the sacrament of the altar as Taylor. As Bernard Markwell has pointed out in The Anglican Left,”like the Tractarians, Maurice believed in the ‘Real Presence’ in the sacrament of Communion,” insisting that “the words of institution [“This is my body”/”This is my blood”]be taken literally [and] that there is a real, objective presence of Christ [in the sacrament] that does not depend on the faith of the communicant, although faith is the means by which the real, objective presence is perceived.”
Phillips Brooks, in fact, following what would become his usual and very disarming approach to such matters. For example,he who never even as bishop wore on the street any ecclesiastical garb, including clericals of any kind, which would have infuriated the Unitarian Boston’s ruling class, nevertheless never hesitated to declare that he was not only the Minister and Rector of Trinity Church but first and foremost a priest of the Church.. Nothing is more characteristic of Brooks than that when it was proposed he become president of Columbia University, Trinity’s rector in 1888 unburdened himself to a friend: “Dear Huntington . . . . I have had to write him [the originator of the idea] that it must not be. My only ambition is to be a ‘Parish Priest.’ I am not much of a P. P.., but as a college president I should be still less . . . . So leave me here, and let another hold the college scepter.”
His most perceptive contemporaries were far from disagreeing, be they admiring or not. We have already touched on Alice Stone Blackwell’s aside that Brooks seemed to her “an unctuous priest.” On the other side of the matter, the well-known Congregationalist leader and Harper’s editor, Lyman Abbott, in his Silhouettes of My Contemporaries, had a better report to make. In that book, which was critical enough that Abbott pronounced Lincoln Brooks’s superior as an orator – one of the few to do so – Abbott made the somewhat startling admission that he “at first intended to entitle a chapter on Brooks, ‘A Catholic Priest,’ [but a] wise friend advised me to change the title.” Nonetheless, he insisted, “if a priest is one who by his conduct of public worship interprets the unspoken experience of a silent congregation to themselves by speaking for them to a listening Father, than Phillips Brooks was pre-eminently a Catholic priest.”
That’s what Sunday morning was all about, which found its corollary in Brooks own definition of “sanctuary,” the islanded part of his chancel wherein his altar stood. It certainly was true that at Morning Prayer the congregation was so large it spilled into the chancel, people sitting on the chancel steps and on the cushions of the rail that protected the sanctuary and its altar, but within the sanctuary no one but the officiating priest was ever seen, sanctuary of which Brooks spoke thusly: “We must remind ourselves what it is that the word ‘sanctuary’ means. It is a place made sacred by the realized presence of God. The architecture and decoration . . . of the holy of hollies in the Jewish temple were not what made its awfulness. It was that Jehovah was there. There he shone in the Shekinah . . . There he forgave sins . . . bestowed His blessing. We need not go into the question of how this was related to His universal presence . . . It is of his manifested and felt presence that we are speaking.”
Brooks, it must be remembered, was the son of a convert, and – Monica-like – his mother had according to Allen “one consuming desire to see [her son] kneeling at the Holy Communion.” How deep his response went – and how differently too – was evident in the syllabus of Brooks’s annual series of four weekly lectures on the Christian life, wherein his Eucharistic teaching stands out and in Brooks’s characteristic practical way. The syllabus: “Baptism – the enrollment; Catechism – the Instructions; Confirmation – Marching Orders; and Communion – life in the field.”
Finally, Brooks’s most heartfelt Eucharistic teaching came in his little known but superb ordination sermon – “The Priesthood” – which appears in the biography of the man who finally impressed Brooks enough to make him his assistant, Leverett Bradley: (quoth Brooks, “when I met Bradley I did want him.”)
Always, Trinity’s rector sought to banish “the old sacerdotal idea of substitution [that he thought had] not,” he complained, entirely “died away,” with respect to the priesthood. Noting in this ordination sermon that “she [the Church] sets apart certain words which only the priest’s lips must utter in the church, – her declaration of absolution and her most solemn benediction,” – he insisted the “consecrated priest,” “the separate and ordered priesthood of the church” (as opposed to the priesthood of all believers) was rightly characterized, not for being substitutionary, but for its representativeness: “the [ordained] priest is the representative man, the man who represents . . . not the ordinary habits, the familiar outside of human life, but its inmost secrets, its hidden but not unlost meaning.”
It all blew up in Brooks’s face, of course, starting on day one, at Trinity’s consecration liturgy in 1877, when it became unmistakably clear that Trinity Church was not going to be just about or even primarily about preaching, but about what Phillip Brooks was wont to call “the great Christian sacrament.” 25 years subsequent to the consecration, at a Requiem Eucharist for Brooks in 1903, the matter was still in the language of the day “something of a sensation.” And not just in church circles: From The Literary Digest. March 7, 1903:
When the Rev. Dr Edward Everett Hale partook of the communion on the occasion of the recent service held in Trinity Church, Boston, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the death of Phillips Brooks, it was hardly expected that his action would arouse any special attention or comment. He has taken communion in the same church before, at the invitation of Bishop Brooks himself [as have] other prominent Unitarians . . . In view of these facts, a charge of sacrilege brought against Dr Hale by the High Church Episcopal organ, The Living Church, has created something of a sensation.
Evidently, it was news to Middle Westerners that Hale, a Unitarian after all, “openly denie[d] the Deity . . . of Jesus Christ.” That was not, however, the sort of thing Phillips Brooks , himself a strong believer in the Incarnation, would ever have quizzed a distinguished divine of another religious tradition about; certainly not his friend and colleague Hale, Chaplain of the US Senate, author of “The Man Without a Country” and Minister of the South Congregational Church at Newbury and Exeter streets, itself happy to have a Unitarian pastor! Nor distressed I’m sure that it was widely known that their pastor was “was fond of coming to Trinity Church on Sunday mornings for early Communion before he entered on his own services.” Everyone’s journey, so to speak, was their own for Phillips Brooks.
In 1877 there had been trouble even in the Holy City however. Brooks was a very Broad Churchman. But he was also by the record of both of his biographers a strict canonist. And he managed to be both at the same time but always saying no, as it were, to himself, and yes to everyone else. Never did a clergyman other than in Episcopal orders preach in Trinity Church. Brooks thought it, biographer Allbright asserts, “against the law of the Church.” But there was no canon about where he could preach, and Phillips Brooks preached everywhere he could, in all sorts of unlikely places, including revivalist meetings when invited!
Furthermore, when at Trinity’s consecration liturgy Brooks cheerfully invited all the non Episcopal clergy present to receive the sacrament, he was entirely within his rights. In fact he was following the well known lead, approved by a ruling of the Archbishop of Canterbury about the rubric in question – intended to encourage confirmation of Anglicans not exclude non-Anglicans – of his friend Dean Stanley of Westminster Abbey, who had done the same thing there; with the support, be it added, of Fredrick Dennison Maurice, Brooks’s hero.
In Boston, moreover, Brooks’s act aroused mostly praise. We forget today that Anglicans were once as exclusive and off-putting as conservative Roman Catholics still are. But it was one of Brooks’s tasks to give the Episcopal Church more confidence. From the Inquirer, a Unitarian journal of the day: “the [Episcopal]] dignitaries who invited the liberal [ie.,the Unitarian] clergy to partake of the sacrament did what was for them a generous thing; . . . they forgot for a moment their ecclesiaticism, the stringency of their dogma, the exclusiveness of their institution, the anathema of creed”.
“To try to entice passers-by to the altar of the Lord with the familiar but feeble odor of a cup of tea,” Brooks warned of parish work generally, was never going to work; certainly it wasn’t going to work in Copley Square! The fact that he made the point in his Yale Lectures on Preaching was especially delicious. The fact was that the pulpit was the means, not the end. The altar was the end.
The role of the altar in the life of the Episcopal Church in Brooks’s day can perhaps best be grasped by consulting Brooks’s beloved Book of Common Prayer (the 1789 Book still then in use) – reproductions of which are easily accessed online – which gives the clue to the attitude of Trinity’s rector. It is perhaps nowhere better stated than in the Office for the Institution of Ministers by their Bishops, both sides of which exchange by the end of his life Brooks knew well.
“All the clergy present stand in the Chancel or Choir except the Bishop . . . who shall go within the rails of the altar; the [lay] wardens standing to their right and left of the altar without the rails . .. the Bishop shall next read the letter of installation . . . . [in which the Bishop grants “license and authority to perform the office of a priest
in the parish . . . with full power to perform every act of sacerdotal function”]. The Senior Warden . . . presents the keys of the church . . . .Then shall the Institutor [the Bishop] receive the Incumbent within the rails of the altar . . . .The instituted Minister shall kneel at the altar to present his supplication. The instituted minister shall proceed with the Communion Service and to administer the holy Eucharist to his congregation.” That supplication, furthermore, was both eloquent and pointed, the minister declaiming publicly that “the Lord hath ordained that they who serve at the altar should live by the things belonging to the altar.
What altar? That was the response of more than one of Phillips Brooks’s admirers on both sides of the tug-of-war. Which is to say what is and what is not an altar? It was a question that in Anglicanism would wait until 1987 to be settled. That year the Church of England’s Court of Ecclesiastical Causes, confronted with a magnificent new stone altar designed by the modernist sculptor, Henry Moore, in a Wren church in London, an altar some thought resembled noting so much as a Camembert cheese, ruled that a liturgical table – an altar – was a “horizontal surface raised above the ground.” Solomonic indeed. But too late for Phillips Brooks.
Thus as recently as in 1979, for instance, a history and guide published by Trinity Church, informed visitors that “in 1877, when Trinity Church was dedicated, the chancel had no cross and no altar,” though as a matter of fact it had both, and two of the former – two magnificent Latin crosses the same size as today’s one cross and both much more elaborately detailed with Byzantine splendor, painted to each side of the chancel windows by John La Farge himself. And if there was no altar what did the founding president of Boston University mean when in his eulogy of Brooks he remarked that “on Thursday last we saw the manly form of Phillips Brooks for the last time before the altar of Trinity.” Or what did Brooks’s friend, Sarah Orne Jewett mean in the Atlantic, when she wrote of “the altar heaped with flowers” at Brooks’s funeral? Yet Alexander Allen himself, Brooks’s first biographer, declared there was “not an altar” in Trinity Church. So did William Lawrence.
Allen really explained the matter somewhat unintentionally when he went on in the same place to laud the fact that Brooks’s “Lord’s Table” was not – as he thought an altar would have been – “obscured or dwarfed by other ornament.” He was describing a sideboard more than a table, of course, but that is how Victorians envisioned an altar, always backed up to a towering wedding cake reredos. By the time of Brooks’s second biographer, in 1961, Raymond Albright could write clearly of Trinity’s “free standing altar.” And even Allen gave no credence to any thought but that the altar’s form at Trinity was “a form of architecture where the central truths of Anglicanism, as distinct from Romanism, should be bodied forth in unmistakable manner.”
Today, when almost every altar in every church everywhere is Brooks’s kind of altar, entirely free standing, and the older Victorian altars are reduced to historical background, one begins to realize how radical and innovative was Phillips Brooks in thus anticipating the Liturgical Movement, enticing the passer by to the altar of the Lord with no weak tea at all. The meaning of Brooks’s altar – as the controlling factor within Trinity Church – has taken awhile to sink in. Like Brooks’s Madonna and Child.
That little squiggle of an “x” in a rough rectangle, scrawled by H H Richardson and ‘discovered’ by Ann Jensen Adams on the back of of the Building Committee’s letter, that little squiggle is the beginning at Trinity Church of what the now celebrated Anglican spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill, in her The Mystery of Sacrifice, called the “Table of Holy Desires,” table that stands, so she argues in a brilliant chapter, “on the frontier of the invisible.” Whatever that may mean, by comparison with Allen’s attempt to delineate Phillips Brooks’s program for Trinity Church, discussed here last month – to awaken “the spirit of religious ecstasy and bring heaven before the eye” – Underhill’s focus on the invisible is more specific, as well as perhaps best catching hold of something about which we already have had quite a lot to say here in our many encounters at Trinity in this study with the pattern of hiddenness.
Phillips Brooks was a hugely sophisticated character. Consider his analysis in one sermon of how we all”live in a perpetual confusion of self pity and self-blame. We go up to the scaffolds where we are to suffer, half like culprits . . . and half like martyrs.” But Brooks was also a practical Brahmin, and as well characteristically a simplifier, and in a sermon key to understanding his Eucharistic thinking, “The Mind’s Love for God,” he argued that the sacrament ought to be approached through reason as well as faith. It was not “in contradiction [to its] mystic richness” or in “diminution, but increase of sacredness,” to do so, he urged, pointing out of bread and wine that “the field, the vineyard, have their essential sacredness [in] those deep, venerable words, ‘this is My Body,’ ‘this is My Blood.”
Brooks complained, indeed, of the sort of person who, when asked “how it is that he expects to receive his Saviour,” in the sacrament, whispers back: ‘Hush, it is a mystery.'” That attitude, Brooks warned, was “a crippled thing.” If only, he urged, the believer would “bring his intelligence to bear upon his faith,” he would find that if he were but to try “to understand in some degree what now already he adores, gain a new delight in a perception of the beauty of his truth” and ” his whole life [would] more completely feel its power.”
Hence the remarkable design of Trinity’s chancel and altar as he and Richardson conceived of it, a design Bishop Lawrence went so far as to call not only “a daring enterprise in its day,” but also “as original an expression and as unique as was the genius of the American people.” It is a phrase worth repeating, as nationalistic in a sense as ecclesiastical. It is another aspect, this seminal chancel, once so hugely admired, of Trinity’s history that has all but been lost to history. When Brooks was elected bishop of Massachusetts in 1891 The New York Times singled out as characteristic of his fame – what? “The severe dignity of his chancel and altar, which are remarkable,” the Times reported, “for their stern simplicity, being without hangings or adornments of any kind.”
The repute of Trinity’s first chancel and altar were as well transatlantic. The British art historian Paul Snell has discovered that Brooks’s radical chancel plan attracted significant attention in Britain. Snell discovered two full pages of plans in The Building News in 1886 (volume 51) focusing on the new idea Brooks’s chancel exemplified, “the large chancel with semi-circular apse” where “the altar [is] brought forward from the east wall”, using Trinity Church, Boston, as his only American illustration. Drolly, Sedding observed: “in this matter of Church Planning there is nothing new under the sun. It is only the American who is quite original.”
Pre-medieval Catholic in scale and grandeur, post-Reformation Anglican in focus, Byzantine in tone and feeling and vividly Victorian in taste, Trinity’s First Chancel was also proto-liturgical movement in conception. Brooks himself referred to the apse – 60 by 50 feet, opening the full width of the great crossing which announces it – as he was planning the disposition of its elements, as “the majestic circle,” and, indeed, the chancel’s design centered on two great half-circles of sweeping architectural and symbolic importance. There was a larger and outer circle of elaborate, high-backed clergy stalls bounding the curving wall of the apse for its entire breadth. Then there was a smaller and inner circle of beautiful and ornamental balustrading and (bright red!) continuous kneelers – in fact, the altar rail enclosing the islanded sanctuary and its free-standing altar. On such a cathedral scale there had never been anything quite like this in America.
The outer half-circle of clergy stalls is probably the first example in this country of the synthranon, an architectural feature (just recently introduced into Philadelphia Cathedral) of the Early Church, examples of which survive today both in Rome and in Istanbul. Ancient synthranons traditionally deploy seats for priests to either side of the Bishops Throne. Richardson designed such a synthranon for Trinity, but diocesan services in Brooks’s time usually involved all the New England bishops, which meant up to six such chairs. Thus two bishops thrones were placed permanently to each side of the altar and others of the same design kept in readiness to place behind the altar as needed.
All of which points up the regional and national stature of Trinity Church from the beginning as envisioned by Brooks – remember “the glory of America forever” – and in the case of national liturgies the synthranon was intended for the entire American episcopate. Bishop Lawrence, in fact, remembered one such occasion and how powerfully symbolic such use was: “the whole body of [American] bishops were seated in the sedilia [as the synthranon was called] about the chancel, [including] the Presiding Bishop [of the United States] and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was if we were carried back to an ecumenical council in a basilica of the earliest age.”
Having thus marked the Eucharistic role of the episcopate by their episcopal chairs, and of the ordained ministerial priesthood in the larger half circle, Brooks then marked the role of the Priesthood of all Believers in the smaller half circle of the balustraded altar rail around the islanded sanctuary of the altar, all in a powerful and lucid fashion. The second half circle was especially innovative in his scheme. He felt very strongly, Lawrence remembered, that “the greatest need of the Church was a recognition of the Priesthood of the Laity,” and that the Church “must not lose the larger priesthood of believers in the smaller priesthood of the ministry.”
It remained only in 1888 to add a balustraded ambo, again a feature of Early Church chancels, with an eagle lectern, on axis with the altar at the chancel steps at the head of the center aisle. There the great Bible was placed, read from at the epistle and gospel of the Eucharist and the lessons of the daily office. The proclaiming of Word as well as Sacrament was thus finally expressed, all the more so when in the same year Brooks was finally persuaded to give up his little preaching lectern in favor of a proper pulpit.
It was a spectacular achievement, flawed only in respect to liturgical movement principles, by the placement of the font, so positioned to the chancels north to point to the need for baptism before communion, a thesis that might better have been served by placing it at the West Door of the church. But let us turn instead to La Farge’s iconography. Notice the birds! Not quite the bevy of them, chirping away all day, that Isabella Stewart Gardner let loose in her romantic courtyard a generation later, but Brooks original chancel at Trinity was full of birds – significant birds.
The birds of Trinity Church had everything to do with what may have been Phillips Brooks’s favorite prayer. As I reconstruct that prayer – reconstruct because we know Brooks invariably made changes in this Prayer Book collect, as he allowed himself to do because he used it often at the beginning or end of sermons – the text reads as follows:
O God, Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the Faithful, visit us [not “this congregation”] with thy love and favor; enlighten our [not “their”] minds more and more with the light of Thy everlasting Gospel; graft in our [not “their”] hearts a love of Thy [not “the”] truth; increase in us [not “them”] true religion; nourish us [not “them”] with all goodness; and of Thy great mercy keep us [not “them”] in the same, O blessed Spirit, whom with the Father and the Son together we worship and glorify as one God.Amen.
As collects go, the cognoscenti will know this is something of a rarity, addressed not to the Father, nor to the Son, but to the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to which, like the Madonna and Child, Brooks had so signal a devotion. In a sermon on the tenth anniversary of Brooks’s death, William Lawrence confirmed this: “[Brooks had] an unwavering belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit . . . . The Spirit was in the world today as really and as evidently as at Pentecost . . . It was the Spirit of Truth. Hence Phillips Brooks had unbounded confidence in the Church, if only she would keep ear and heart open to the voice and influence of the Spirit.” Brooks himself once enlarged on this in a straightforward, honest way as few present day preachers would dare:
“Who is the Holy Ghost? He is the effectively present Deity. He is God continually in the midst of . . . daily lives. . . [emphasis added].” Notice that it is the Holy Spirit for which even the highly Christocentric Brooks makes this claim, not Jesus Christ. And then he himself defers and brings his sermon humbly to a close: “It is time for me to stop, for here there waits for us the sacrament of the holy communion . . . May we so meet in Him this morning, and the blessing which has rested upon so many generations rest once more on us, making our communion a true communion of the Holy Ghost.” As usual, the mind of the preacher and the mind of the church builder was one, never divided.
And what of the birds? These were mostly seen, as Barbara Weinberg points out, in the broad band of scroll-work containing “white doves” – symbol of the Holy Spirit – “flying through tender tints in a chain of flowers, painted in gold and bright colors” just beneath the Chancel’s seven great windows. Again we are pulled eastward, for Weinberg tells us this motif was “suggested by one of the borders seen in the Basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice,” a border executed by Francis Lathrop, the same artist to whom La Farge entrusted the tower Madonna.
Apropos of things eastern, I also wonder (for Brooks was a keen amateur historian) if it was not a reflection of an interest he shared with Jeremy Taylor, who was much influenced by the Eastern Orthodox belief in the “epiclesis” (or the invocation of the Holy Spirit over the bread and wine) as the means of consecration of the elements of the Eucharist, a form of which distinctive hallowing Taylor had incorporated into a liturgy of his creation that had been adopted by the Episcopal Church of Scotland, with considerable historical effect in the American Episcopal Church. After the American Revolution, the Church of England bishops would not consecrate American bishops. The first such, Samuel Seabury, had to go to Scotland to receive holy orders. In return he signed a concordat that he would do his best to persuade the American Church to use as its prayer of consecration the Scottish prayer. And, indeed, it has ever since been accounted one of the glories of the American Book of Common Prayer.
All of which might explain why on Phillips Brooks’s altar,as designed by Richardson and carved in black walnut, nothing could be more conspicuous than that prominently carved in the center of its topmost cornice midst the conventional frieze of Eucharistic grape vines is a large descending dove. It is easily seen in the photograph at the head of this essay, a photograph so far as I know I have published for the first time. Brooks and Richardson’s design for Trinity Church of “God’s Board” – in the old English phrase for the altar – could not have been more particular to the place or its rector.
Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.