I recently discovered that G.K. Chesterton wrote an epic poem about Alfred King of the West Saxons, often known by history as Alfred the Great. By Chesterton’s admission, the account is fictitious, though he claims for it the truth of old legends: the truth of the why and broad meaning of history. His poetry lacks the wit of Alexander Pope or the smoothness of the great Romantics, but occasionally it punches through with the force of a jackhammer to deliver Chesterton’s brand of social and religious commentary.
The story opens with Alfred having been defeated by the Danes again and again. He is almost conquered. In his moment of despair, he is visited by the Mother of God, who offers him not comfort but a call to arms. Newly inspired with “the joy of giants,” the king “goes gathering Christian men” in a last-ditch effort to rally his folk for a final desperate attack against the Danes. He approaches three great chieftains and offers them, as the Mother of God offered him, no comfort, but rather a repetition of the message he saw in his vision. This is the section in which Alfred approaches Eldred, chief of the defeated Saxons:
A mighty man was Eldred,
A bulk for casks to fill,
His face a dreaming furnace,
His body a walking hill.
In the old wars of Wessex
His sword had sunken deep,
But all his friends, he sighed and said,
Were broken about Ethelred;
And between the deep drink and the dead
He had fallen upon sleep.
“Come not to me, King Alfred, Save always for the ale:
Why should my harmless hinds be slain
Because the chiefs cry once again,
As in all fights, that we shall gain,
And in all fights we fail?
“Your scalds still thunder and prophesy
That crown that never comes;
Friend, I will watch the certain things,
Swine, and slow moons like silver rings,
And the ripening of the plums.”
And Alfred answered, drinking,
And gravely, without blame,
“Nor bear I boast of scald or king,
The thing I bear is a lesser thing,
But comes in a better name.
“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,
More than the doors of doom,
I call the muster of Wessex men
From grassy hamlet or ditch or den,
To break and be broken, God knows when,
But I have seen for whom.
“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God
Like a little word come I;
For I go gathering Christian men
From sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in a battle, God knows when,
By God, but I know why.
“And this is the word of Mary,
The word of the world’s desire
‘No more of comfort shall ye get,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.’”
As a fan of movies like Braveheart and 300, I cheer at this point. But as a priest I also must pause and think, “Is this not the plight of the orthodox in the Episcopal Church?” It certainly seems analogous: Episcopal orthodoxy stands nearly defeated at the end of a long and highly successful crusade. The how and the why matter not at this point, only that it is so. Our people are dispirited. Our clergy keep their heads down if they want a job outside the remaining safe spaces for orthodoxy.
Like Eldred, we sigh for friends fallen in the fight, many of whom have either left the ministry or embraced movements like the Anglican Church in North America. Their names and faces are fresh still in our minds. It is easier to focus on “certain things,” predictable things, like getting along with colleagues, sitting on diocesan committees, helping our churches become healthy, running vestry meetings, though we seldom think of how these certain things are less reliable because of the continual pressure and influence of heterodoxy. Another call to arms for orthodoxy? — “the chiefs cry once again, / As in all fights, that we shall gain, / And in all fights we fail.” Despair is fearsomely pragmatic.
What has been lost to us is that inspiration Alfred brings to Eldred. The tug of war in the Episcopal Church is not about the how or the when — but, by God, for whom and why. The Episcopal Church is not ours to lose, or to give up. That choice does not belong to us.
It is God’s church, if we believe in its claims to catholicity through the Church of England, Rome, and the Apostles. It is one of God’s vehicles to bring his gospel to the lost. It is a higher and nobler thing than we have yet seen, higher and nobler than any existence it has yet reached in any conservative golden age or any progressive paradise.
The question is not whether we can take the church back — a fearsomely pragmatic question — but rather and simply whether we are God’s to command, and whether we will come when he calls the muster.
God’s people are not coddled in loss, but called to rouse themselves once more and make it good, turning near-loss into victory. Radicals are not stopping their crusade, nor should we expect that of them. The sky grows darker yet and the sea higher.
Instead of being comforted, we are called to rediscover our strength and dignity and (if the old word may be used) our manfulness while in the midst of the worst defeat. It may be that the future of the Episcopal Church depends less on whether we can see pragmatic solutions and more on whether we will be gathered with fellow Christians to reimagine our task as playing offense and spreading the Word of God to a culture, and a church, that is dying for the want of it.