The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Father Frank continued:
IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.
Mr. John Carver, Mr. William Bradford, Mr Edward Winslow, Mr. William Brewster. Isaac Allerton, Myles Standish, John Alden, John Turner, Francis Eaton, James Chilton, John Craxton, John Billington, Joses Fletcher, John Goodman, Mr. Samuel Fuller, Mr. Christopher Martin, Mr. William Mullins, Mr. William White, Mr. Richard Warren, John Howland, Mr. Steven Hopkins, Digery Priest, Thomas Williams, Gilbert Winslow, Edmund Margesson, Peter Brown, Richard Britteridge, George Soule, Edward Tilly, John Tilly, Francis Cooke, Thomas Rogers, Thomas Tinker, John Ridgdale, Edward Fuller, Richard Clark, Richard Gardiner, Mr. John Allerton, Thomas English, Edward Doten, Edward Leister
The Pilgrim Ancestors were deeply faithful people. Their coming here was a spiritual act with political implications, not a political act with spiritual implications. John Howland whose name appears on the Mayflower Compact is a blood ancestor of Gretchen Zimmerman+.
Howland was indentured to Deacon John Carver as his man-servant; he owed the Deacon several years servitude in exchange for his passage. Howland was washed overboard during a gale; he managed to grab a topsail halyard trailing in the water on his side of the ship, and was hauled back aboard. It was the lightning fast reflexes of a young man- making what he undoubtedly knew to be his one and only grab at a piece of wet rope dragging past him in the water- that gave life to his descendants in New England. It is horrifying to contemplate John Howland grabbing for and missing that halyard, only to watch Mayflower lumber away in the gale, too fast to swim after her; his loss overboard would have been logged and accounted a tragic footnote in the Pilgrim story, but nothing more. It is a high privilege and an unavoidable responsibility to be a living descendant of the first generation of English colonists at Plymouth, especially one whose life was saved by the random loosening of a single particular line in the running rigging…. a line about as big around as his thumb- a finite number of worn hemp fibers- that came within reach at precisely the moment and place it was needed.
It is with such tenuous connections as a loose length of sodden rigging that entire lives are connected and sustained. That is true personally, within family groups, and in small communities- communities such as might be governed by a document like the Mayflower Compact. Given the Howland connection, its formal language is holy writ for us at a family level as well as a national one; but we do not own it. It owns us.
It owns us all, Mayflower connection or not. Bradford, Howland and the rest made their intentions concise and clear as a “civil body politick,” and their intentions remain as concise, clear and relevant now as they were when the Mayflower Compact was signed 397 years and two weeks ago. Their intentions remain the long sturdy bones of citizenship today...God, country, and one another.
If we question the strength of its effects, consider that within ten years of the Compact, the life of the community had taken shape with such vigor that the enduring value of their intentions are reiterated when John Winthrop preaches aboard Arbella en route to the New World in 1630:
“Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the Lord make it likely that of New England." For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
Keeping faith with God and keeping faith with one another are the bedrock, black-letter principals upon which the life of Christian communities stand. Without such covenanted commitments between people, the life of human communities is diminished to the point that they are barely communities at all, becoming instead extended exercises in self-interested savagery.
We enjoy the freedom of religious belief and expression, and implicitly therefore the freedom to believe and express nothing. And so of course, it is tragically possible to be an American citizen without honoring God. But I am not at all sure it is possible to celebrate authentically the American holiday we call Thanksgiving Day without honoring Him. Howland and Winthrop and their companions were people of Faith- a Faith that was not an elegant adornment but rather the fundamental frame and context of their lives. Thanksgiving Day is more than ignorant and unconsidered patriotic sentiment, or an excuse for gustatory excesses and a day off. Leaving our celebrations at so trivial a level, marking it with mere warm sentiment and overindulgence in food and drink, disrespects the day, and disrespects God.
Last Thursday was Thanksgiving Day, and today is The Last Sunday after Pentecost- subtitled in parts of the Tradition as The Feast of Christ the King. This is an extended period of days where civil and religious observance converge, calling to mind the deepest and most fundamental tenets of faithful life. They compel our assent to the longed-for moment when God’s Sovereignty will be observable by all- the moment when the daily lives of us all are acknowledged first to be governed by God, and then and only then by ourselves. Enjoy these days of celebration. Please enjoy them. And do so making sure to say your prayers...not as a perfunctory, polite or archaic habit- not as the only table grace of the year- but as the deepest expression of your gratitude for God’s blessings as we know them in this country and in one another.
Love you. See you in Church.
FBC3+, 26 November 2017, being The Last Sunday after Pentecost