The Chapel of the Resurrection
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
Today we are celebrating a new saint in the Episcopal Church. Vida Dutton Scudder was recently added, on a trail basis, to The Lesser Feasts and Fasts. And she is certainly a saint I hope stays on our calendar.
Scudder is a saint who was a near-contemporary to us and yet, she is one of those ageless Christians who can speak to us wherever we are in our history as a Church.
A few facts about her life: Born in India on December 15, 1861 to parents who were Congregationalist missionaries. Her father died when she was young and, with her mother, she was confirmed as an Episcopalian in the 1870s by the great Bishop of Massachusetts, Phillips Brooks. She studied Literature at Smith College and Oxford and then came back to Massachusetts, to teach as Wellesley College for almost half a century. In her life time she wrote 61 books. She received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from my alma mater, Nashotah House in 1942. She died on October 9, 1954 in her Wellesley home. Her remains were cremated and buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
And that probably would have been her life. She probably would have been a fairly obscure college professor at an exclusive Seven Sister School and we would not be commemorating her today. But the fact is that Vida Dutton Scudder was more than that. She did not fit easily into the mold of just another college professor.
In fact, two aspects of her life made all the difference. She became a Socialist. And she became an Anglo-Catholic Actually I should flip those two around. She was an Anglo-Catholic first and a Socialist second.
What I liked About Vida Scudder is the fact that she lived and was reared in a very academic world. And yet, she did not let academia choke her faith out of existence. As any of us who have worked in academia knows—it can be strangely insular and secular world. It is easy not have any religious conviction in that environment. It’s easy to become completely and utterly secular. Certainly, it would have been very easy for someone with the intellect of Vida Dutton Scudder to have practiced no faith at all.
She was an intellectual—a brilliant woman—and yet, she was also an Anglo-Catholic. To be an Anglo-Catholic takes a concentrated effort. It takes a concentrated effort to search your soul and to emerge from that’s searching with the realization that you are an Anglo-Catholic.
From her Anglo-Catholicism came her socialism. There is a long tradition of Anglo-Catholic Socialists—those who felt that being Anglo-Catholic meant more than just going to “Mass” with all its smells and bells and making sure their priest wore a chasuble and that there were candles on the altar. Anglo Catholic Socialism took the beauty of liturgical worship and the Catholic faith they held in their hearts and went out into the world to share it.
In Scudder’s day, there were many Anglo-Catholic priests who were going into the slums of East London, to bring to those people he riches and beauties of Anglo-Catholic liturgical worship, while also bringing them personal and spiritual help. One of my favorite people from that period was the priest Stewart Headlam—truly one of the great Anglo-Catholic slum priests. Vida Dutton Scudder belongs to that group of great Anglo-Catholic socialists.
For Scudder, her Anglo-Catholic Socialism meant standing up for women’s rights when women were not allowed. It meant speaking out against war when doing so was unpopular. It meant siding with striking textile workers. It meant helping Italian immigrants settle into American culture. It meant living out a deep and fulfilling spiritual and liturgical life, while knowing full well that if one was truly going to heed the call of Christ in one’s life, one had to take that faith out into the world to share with others.
And that’s the message we can take away from Vida Dutton Scudder. Now many of us might not be called to be Anglo Catholic Socialists. But hopefully all us feel the calling of Christ in our lives. That calling should involve more than just sitting around thinking about it or doing it just by going to church on Sundays. The calling of Christ can never be a call to complacency. The calling of Christ is a calling to action. When Christ calls we—like Vida Dutton Scudder—must sit up and take notice and then do something about it. We must go out and proclaim it. And she gives a very good example of how to do that.
We don’t have to go out to street corners and start telling people that they must accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. We don’t have to go knocking on doors and shouting “Amen! Alleluia!” in church. Let’s face it: that doesn’t further the Kingdom of God any more than a clanging cymbal does.
But we can do it by furthering the Kingdom of God in our midst—in whatever ways we can. We can do it by speaking out against those things we see as unjust or unfair. We can do it by acting on our sense of justice for others and for ourselves. We can do it in whatever way we can—in whatever way Christ is nudging us and leading us to do it.
So, remember Vida Dutton Scudder and look to her as a very practical example of how to live out Christ’s calling in the world.
I will close with Scudder’s own words. She wrote these in about 1937 during the depths of the Depression. But if we listen closely, they are words to us in the Episcopal Church now as well—
“The Christian Revolution! In a world where the old order was dying and a new order cradled in hate strove for the mastery, here was the only hope. Could that revolution be nourished within the Christian Church? So I trusted, so I prayed . . . but let no one think that purpose easy to fulfill. Sadness waits upon it. Comrades within whose eyes glows the vision of a brave new world fall away from the Church one by one, driven to despair of her, not by open persecution but by the deadness of the ecclesiastical atmosphere. I see them go. I mourn. Others, more moderate, wiser it may be - - who am I to judge? - - succumb as the years pass, and insensibly conform to a conventional ecclesiastical pattern. I give thanks for their devoted service within the decorous religious system which the world now despises, now applauds, but never fears. And yet again, I mourn. Worst of all is the burrowing doubt within. And all the time eager unchurched voices call to me. I close my ears...
“[The Church’s] work is not to dictate but to enlighten and inspire; she is too all-embracing to endorse this method or that. Probably the future will judge that today as in the past, the truest life in Christendom is in minority groups, driven by Christian impulse to work for a new day.”
(On Journey, c1937)