The Cloister Walk, IX: Scrooby

Matthew 5:13–16

 

let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and
give glory to your Father in heaven.

—Matthew 5:16

In 1958 our Kenilworth Union forebears decided to tell the long story of Judeo-Christian history by mortaring into the arches of our Cloister Walk twelve stones from significant places in that story.

Twelve stones is a modest collection. The Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue has 149 stones to tell its story. Twelve stones is not very many to tell a long and rambling story.

Storytellers—and I think of our Cloister Walk as a storyteller—storytellers build a compelling story as much by what they leave out as by what they include. Did you ever listen to your Uncle Charlie tell a story that was longer than Lent? What you leave out is as important as what you leave in, and one striking thing about our twelve-stone story is what’s not there.

There is no stone from Rome, for instance—the capital city of Catholic Christianity—nor one from Istanbul—the capital city of Orthodox Christianity—nor one from Canterbury—the capital city of Anglican Christianity—because those are all things our ancestors decided not to be. Our ancestors didn’t want popes, and they didn’t want bishops, and they didn’t want ostentatious pageantry; they wanted a simple, humble, egalitarian Christianity.

In a word, they wanted a Congregational Christianity. And that is why in a modest, spare collection of just twelve stones to tell the sprawling, 3,500-year history of Judeo-Christianity; three of them—25%—are from Pilgrim places. One-quarter of the stones in our Cloister Walk tell the story of the first lasting English-speaking colony in the New World, a story that covers a mere 20 years.

Why are the Pilgrims so important? Well, I think I’ve told you before that I’m not sure if there is meant to be a single common theme among these twelve stones, but if there is one, that common theme, it seems to me, might be The Mind Unfettered, or, The Spirit Unshackled.

These twelve stones are places where slaves are freed or revolutions begin or movements are born: the Christian Revolution or the Protestant Revolution or the American Revolution. These are places where brave but lonely pioneers stand up to prevailing authority and forge a new path. These are places where imposed doctrine and required ritual go to die. That is how our forebears from 1958 wanted us, their descendants until that walkway crumbles, to understand ourselves.

Which makes me want to ask the question: if we continued to mortar newer stones into our Cloister Walk to update our story, which stones would we use? The latest, newest stone right now comes from the eighteenth century. What other ones should we add to reflect this theme of The Unshackled Mind and The Unfettered Spirit?

A while back I ran into my friend Marty on the sidewalk outside the church while we were walking our dogs and we got to talking about the stones in the Cloister Walk. Marty’s mother was a German immigrant, so Marty speaks fluent German. On the sidewalk that day, Marty told me, “I have a piece of the Berlin Wall. Do you want it for your Cloister Walk?” I said, “Are you kidding me?” I thought Marty got it just right. The Mind Unshackled, the Spirit Unfettered.

Scrooby is a funny name and an odd place to have in our collection. Scrooby is a Nottinghamshire village in England about 170 miles north of London, and even today it’s a tiny little inconspicuous place, population 329.

But in the late sixteenth century the Archbishop of York kept a sprawling and elegant estate in Scrooby and stayed there whenever he had church business in the area. A man named William Brewster was the caretaker of the estate and also Scrooby’s postmaster.

William had a brilliant son also named William, and William the Younger was smart enough to matriculate at Cambridge University. When he left Cambridge Young William Brewster became an assistant to William Davison, the brilliant and accomplished Secretary of State who served under Queen Elizabeth I, but Secretary Davison’s political panache disintegrated when Elizabeth gave him the unpopular and ugly task of seeing to it that Mary Queen of Scots was dispatched with expedition.

Now, Queen Elizabeth didn’t give a flying leap about religion one or the other, of course: Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Pagan, it was all the same to her, but what Elizabeth did want is peace, and for the peace of the Kingdom, Elizabeth wanted loyal Roman Catholic Mary executed, but she didn’t want to have to be responsible herself for killing the Queen of Scotland, so she had her Secretary of State henchman do it for her and then wept inconsolably when Mary lost her head and pretended it was all a big misunderstanding.

So she blames it on Secretary Davison, who loses his job, and of course the Secretary’s Assistant William Brewster also loses his, so Mr. Brewster goes back home to Scrooby to take his father’s place as the caretaker of the Archbishop’s Estate and Scrooby Postmaster—which probably constitutes a classic case of underemployment for a former Assistant Secretary of State—but anyway, while Mr. Brewster is not mowing the grass or making the beds or milking the cows or delivering the mail, he’s holding worship services in the Manor House with a collection of odd Anglicans who have funny ideas about what the Church of England should look like.

You see, here’s the thing about the Church of England at the end of the sixteenth century in the minds of William Brewster’s Scrooby Congregation: it was entirely too Roman Catholic. Fifty years earlier, Henry VIII had successfully calved off the Anglican Church from Mother Rome, but like a baby humpback whale swimming always just three feet behind and beside its mother, the baby Church of England stuck close to its Mother in Rome.

Henry VIII loved everything about Roman Catholic theology except the pope. He loved its theology of the Eucharist; he loved its system of confession and penitence; he didn’t even have any trouble with bishops; all he wanted was an annulment of his marriage so he could get himself a male heir to the throne. Most everything else about Roman Catholic theology he kept. You watched Wolf Hall on PBS, didn’t you?

And this just horrifies William Brewster and his ilk in Scrooby. They don’t want bishops; they don’t want the Book of Common Prayer; they don’t want the poofy vestments of the Anglican priest prancing down the aisle of the nave like a supermodel on the runway of a fashion show; they don’t want an errant theology of the Eucharist making the spooky claim that the bread and wine of the sacrament become—chemically, physically, literally, actually!!—become the body and blood of our Lord.

These Scrooby Congregationalists don’t want anything to come between the individual Christian and her own genuine leather copy of the English Bible. It’s you and God; nothing between; not the Book of Common Prayer, not a priest, just you and God and your Bible. So they start worshiping on their own in living rooms without the benefit of an Anglican Church Building or an Anglican priest.

But the thing is, in the England of the late sixteenth century, all of this is illegal. “You can’t just make it up as you go along,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury. “You can’t worship without The Book of Common Prayer or without an Anglican priest or without an Anglican building.”

Loyal Anglicans called William Brewster’s Scrooby Congregationalists “Non-Conformists,” or, sometimes “Puritans,” because the Scrooby Congregationalists wanted a purer, simpler, humbler religion than the complicated paraphernalia, as they saw it, of the Church of England.

Neither of these labels is meant to be a compliment. The English word ‘Puritan’ is almost an exact translation of the Aramaic word ‘Pharisee,’ the strict and unbending purists who enraged Jesus over and over again in the first century.

The Puritans hated Christmas. The Puritans hated Pinochle and Poker and card-playing of any kind. The Puritans prohibited fun of any kind on the Sabbath. You’ve heard H. L Mencken’s definition of Puritanism, right: “The haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time.” That about sums it up.

These Separatist Puritans from Scrooby were so persecuted in their homeland that in 1607 150 of them fled to the more enlightened and tolerant kingdom of the Netherlands; fled, in fact, to Leyden, probably the most liberal and diverse city in Europe, where they were welcomed with open arms.

They all found minimum wage jobs in the textile or printing industries, running thread through looms or paper through printing press, and thirteen years later, the English are still in Leyden, but the Dutch, like the Anglicans they’d left behind back home, were having way too much fun, and besides that, the Dutch had the bad habit of speaking Dutch, and you can’t have a seven-year-old Englishman speaking with a Dutch accent, for God’s sake, so they decided to take their chances in the New World.

One hundred and two of them decide to cross the Atlantic for a new life and a new freedom and a new church in the New World. They chartered two ships to get them to Virginia colony, their original destination, but one of them began leaking the instant they left England, so they returned to England and loaded all 102 passengers onto one 100-foot merchant ship called the Mayflower.

They got a late start, on September 6, 1620, harvest time in England, knowing that in the New World, there would be no harvest at all for another year. Before they left, they had to sell some of the food and supplies they’d planned for provisions on the way over and upon first arrival. There was almost no water aboard the Mayflower; they drank beer. There were no showers, and no ‘facilities,’ if you know what I mean.

Of the 102 Mayflower passengers, 36 were children and three were pregnant. There were also two dogs, a mastiff and a spaniel. In service to the 102 Pilgrim passengers was a crew of about 30 sailors, but relations between passenger and crew weren’t always so stellar. One sailor was so hostile to his Pilgrim passengers that he constantly threatened to throw them overboard into the restless deep. But in fact, what soon happened was that the hostile sailor quickly grew ill and died and was buried at sea; inevitably, the devout Puritans aboard the Mayflower interpreted this death as the intervention of a righteous but angry deity.

Violent autumn storms in the Atlantic tossed them off-course, and it took them eight weeks to achieve landfall, which eventually ended up being Cape Cod rather than Virginia Colony, their original target, but as for the Pilgrim passengers themselves, only one of 102 died in the trans-Atlantic crossing.

To compensate for that single death, God saw to it that a baby was born on the Mayflower enroute from England to New England, so that upon arrival at Plymouth Rock, the census was the same at arrival as it was at departure: 102, 104 if you count the dogs. Can you guess what they named the baby born on the Atlantic between England and New England? Oceanus, of course.

When they finally arrived at Plymouth Rock, there was no one to welcome them and no one to feed them and no one to care for them, so they did the best they could and cared for each other. They’d arrived in November of 1620, early winter. By the following March, more than half of the 102 Pilgrims were dead.

The captain and crew of the Mayflower lingered at Plymouth all winter before returning to England, to wait out the winter weather, but also to make sure the Pilgrims could make a life for themselves in the New World, but when the Mayflower finally departed Plymouth for the Motherland in April of 1621, she carried no passengers; not one Pilgrim boarded the ship to return home. Apparently, they were all in.

And that was an early rip in the fabric of required ritual and imposed doctrine. They’d stabbed a battle flag into the beach on Cape Cod Bay, and 150 years later Thomas Jefferson will pick that banner up and turn that freedom for worship into national policy. I don’t like their severe and joyless theology, but I certainly admire their undying courage.

Ten years later, in 1630, John Winthrop would sail to the New World to preside over the new Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston, and while still aboard the Arbella, he preached the most influential sermon in American history until Martin Luther King. The sermon was called “A Model of Christian Charity,” and the Reverend Winthrop’s text was that passage from the Sermon on the Mount I read a few minutes ago: “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” That’s what the Puritans came to do: to plant a city on a hill, where the eyes of all the world would be watching. They were to make it a beautiful home, a model of Christian charity.

Someone once asked David McCullough why history is so important. You know this beloved historian who writes books we can all understand about John Adams and Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, among others? Someone once asked Mr. McCullough why history is so important, and he replied, “To remember how hard it was to get here.” Yes? To remember how hard it was to get here. We all stand on the shoulders of ancestors far braver than we. Shall we honor them by becoming models of Christian charity?