By Richard Mammana
It is a cold Thursday morning near the banks of the Cumberland River in Central Tennessee, and I am preparing for a board meeting. I have had a mug of coffee with the morning’s portion of the Psalter before a brief attempt at inbox triage — and then the last-minute compilation of the list that makes this board meeting different from every other board meeting.
The list is the annual necrology of the Living Church Foundation, read during the course of our yearly requiem: a constant practice that sets our time together about the common task of reports, nominations, votes, motions, budget discussions, and social fellowship.
The list contains the names of every deceased editor of The Living Church, its major benefactors across almost 140 years, its recently deceased employees, and others in whose memory gifts have been made to the foundation during the course of a year. Reading the list has become my privilege and my duty for the last decade or so, and I seldom make it all the way through without my voice quavering or a tear welling up at the name of a strong one or a loved one.
And then for those, our dearest and our best,
By this prevailing presence we appeal;
O fold them closer to thy mercy’s breast!
O do thine utmost for their souls’ true weal!
From tainting mischief keep them white and clear,
And crown thy gifts with strength to persevere.
These are my friends and siblings in the Lord, asleep now until the last trumpet when we shall all be changed. As a church archivist with that highly developed affinity for dead bishops that only those who possess it can recognize, the names I read are not by and large strange ones. I have known and supped with some in that storied dining room in Milwaukee whose wallpaper and windowpanes hold the powerful memories of a half-century of such annual meetings — now nicotine-free.
Our work and our shared love in Christ have been knit together by correspondence, by family celebrations and funerals to which we have invited one another. The ones I do not know from cheerful and serious conversation I know from the pages of the magazine it has been our happy toil to create in an often quixotic-feeling confidence that we had of our strength any good word or work to build up the body of Christ.
And now, O Father, mindful of the love
That bought us, once for all, on Calvary’s tree,
And having with us him that pleads above,
We here present, we here spread forth to thee,
That only offering perfect in thine eyes,
The one true, pure, immortal sacrifice.
I have read the list in that disused parish church in Tennessee, in a seminary chapel in Chelsea, in a great Ancient and Modern church of Dallas, in the tired bastions of the Upper Midwest, while the mud of a hurricane-battered Houston was still fresh. The tradition — because it is a tradition, of unknown origin — keeps our minds, but more our hearts, aware that we are inheritors and stewards with a goodly heritage.
If the names of the founders, John Fulton and Samuel Smith Harris, have been forgotten, they are not this morning. If the names of Frederic Cook Morehouse and his son Clifford Phelps Morehouse, those devout and intellectual servants of both church and country, have ever been forgotten, they are spoken at the altar today. If we remember — some of us — H. Boone Porter, Carroll Simcox, and Peter Morton Day, the necrology tells us that the proper place for our memories, our gratitude, our vexations, our blessings from God, met uniquely in each of them. It tells us that the place for all of this is at the foot of the Cross in the sacrament of remembering. I would wager a Mercury dime that the annual requiem is the only time when the name of Charles Wesley Leffingwell, sometime editor, is ever still spoken aloud.
Look, Father, look on his anointed face,
And only look on us as found in him;
Look not on our misusings of thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of thy Son our Lord.
We do not read their names because they were heroes, though three of them probably were. We do not read their names because they were especially venal — though some of them probably were. We read them not to change their souls’ state with God, which would be folly.
We pray for the light perpetual and the mercy of God, because it is what we need today as they did in their day. We pray the names of the ones who have gone before us, sealed with the seal of faith, because we want in our feeble ways to be more conformed to them in duty, in service, in devotion to one another. We hold their names on our hearts as we approach the throne of grace because this is how a family cares for its loved ones.
And so we come; O draw us to thy feet,
Most patient Savior, who canst love us still!
And by this food, so awful and so sweet,
Deliver us from every touch of ill:
In thine own service make us glad and free,
And grant us nevermore to part with thee.
This board meeting is different from the other board meetings because of the list, and because we gather at God’s Board. No person who has given real labor for the work of the foundation, or served on its governing board, can know it to have been other than a wrinkle of the service of perfect freedom to which we are all called. There is a leveling here, an awareness of our mortality: I have stood as worshiping neighbor in a room today with persons whose names I believe will someday also be on the necrology, and the best of hopefulness and thankfulness well up here. This is not morbid; it is Christian reality and honesty. Whether in the old Biretta Belt or in Texan-Canadian tones of reverence and awe, I have a good hope that it shall continue as long as The Living Church is in the Living Church.