The Fond Du Lac Circus

The Fond Du Lac Circus
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In recent months, under the general rubric of "ugly vestments," RealClearReligion has presented a striking selection of some of the most amazing wardrobe malfunctions perpetrated by senior clergy, usually of the Roman Catholic or Episcopal churches. Personally, I have been shocked -- shocked! -- by the light and mocking tone of this coverage.

There was a time when such images were actually a deadly serious factor in ecclesiastical politics.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Protestant denominations were transformed by the revival of High Church traditions, including rich vestments, veneration of altars, genuflection, Eucharistic devotion, even of confession. But this revival found plenty of low church evangelical critics, who loathed what they saw as a restoration of Popery. Seeming to confirm such charges was the Catholic conversion of some prominent leaders, including the later John Henry Newman. In the Church of England, relations between the two factions -- the high and crazy versus the low and lazy -- became so bitter by the 1870s as to result in some Anglo-Catholics actually being jailed.

Although state sanctions were not invoked, the U.S. Episcopal Church was no less riven by disputes between high and low, and by recurrent threats of secession and schism. By the end of the century, the two sides had settled on a kind of armed truce.

And that brings us back to vestments. In 1888, the distinguished High Church leader Charles Chapman Grafton became the Episcopal Church's Bishop of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. In 1900, Grafton consecrated a coadjutor bishop at an impressive ceremony, to which were invited several prelates from friendly communions, including the Polish National Church. One of the guests was the Russian Orthodox Bishop of Alaska, Tikhon, who would later be canonized by that church. Ah, we might think: a glorious moment for the Episcopal Church, for religious pageantry, and for ecumenism.

And then the photograph of the event was published in the Anglo-Catholic organ, The Living Church.

But that was only the beginning. Soon, the image was circulating nationally among low church and evangelical believers, who were appalled by what they saw as the outrageous pretensions of the robes and vestments. For hostile eyes, these vestments were not merely ugly, they were utterly absurd. At best they had been borrowed from vaudeville, and at worst, they were bestowed by Satan personally. And they were so unapologetically Catholic. Had the Reformation never happened?

Based on this photograph, the consecration earned its undying name in evangelical mythology: the Fond Du Lac Circus. Only barely did the Episcopal Church retain its unity over the following decade. But as "The Ugliest Vestments Ever Worn" and "Even More Ugly Vestments" show, the circus goes on.

Once upon a time, then, vestments were not only comic: they could drive a great church to the verge of bitter schism.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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