William Stringfellow, an American Prophet

Once upon a time, this country had a really badass religious left.

Case in point: the late William Stringfellow–an Episcopalian lawyer and lay theologian. Stringfellow was a relentless, shrill iconoclast who refused to fit neatly into any popular molds. Conservatives thought him too political. Liberal Christians couldn’t get fully on board with his Orthodox theological views. And nearly everyone found his apocalyptic doom-saying frightening or at least a little bit exaggerated.

Here’s a little taste of Stringfellow. In 1963 he was giving a talk at General Theological Seminary on the topic of race relations. William R. Coates describes the scene as such:

He spoke rather woodenly, standing behind a podium in formal style. He was in fact gripping the podium; he had been drinking. There were no notes. He spoke freely, with a low, threatening tone. he wove together a recital of racial woe and biblical commentary. We had never anything so direct, piercing, and menacing.

Stringfellow concluded his talk on race by warning that eventually “the long history of white oppression would spill out and be visited on white people” through violent means. And when that happens, he said, “I tell you in the name of Jesus Christ, do not run, do not retaliate, do not resist; I tell you, die!

This was not a man concerned with telling people what they wanted to hear.

Last winter I delved into most of Stringfellow’s writings. I was enamored with Stringfellow the prophet; the man who was fiercely antagonistic towards injustice wherever he found it.

But it was his autobiographical writings that really moved me. In 1982, Stringfellow wrote a book called A Simplicity of Faith. This little book combined some of his theological ideas with reflections on his recent experience mourning the death of his partner Anthony Towne. The final passage of the book is called “a eucharist at Calvary,” and it reads like this:

It was January 28, 1981, the nominal anniversary of Anthony’s Death.

I would spend the day alone in the city, as I had decided, until six-thirty in the evening, when the eucharist was to be celebrated at Calvary Church with, as it is often styled, “special intention” for Anthony Towne.

I do not know much more than that about the day. My recall is as surrealistic and impressionistic, as eerie and intense as the corresponding day a year earlier had been, when I traveled from Ontario to Anthony’s deathbed.

I did walk a lot. Commonly, if I walk much, the exertion occasions pain. I walked a great distance that day oblivious to pain.

I walked for blocks in East Harlem, my beloved old neighborhood. It was teh place in the city where I had first felt accepted and at home.

I walked in Greenwich Village; I found the building from which Anthony had been evicted. I rejoiced quietly in my failure in stopping that eviction.

I went again to West Seventy-ninth Street, where we had shared a household and had begun to practice hospitality.

I stood outside and looked upon Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. In there Anthony had waited twelve hours while I was in surgery. It was where I was supposed to die but didn’t.

I walked.

I walked some more.

I walked the city that day.

But, this time, I was not searching for the dead. I knew I would not glimpse Anthony no matter where I went. So, mainly, all that day, I wept. I wailed. I gnashed teeth.

And then, suddenly, it seemed I was walking down an aisle. I could recognize the interior of Calvary Church. Only the chancel was lighted, just the immediate vicinity of the altar.

I sat down somewhere in the dimness of the nave.

I picked up a prayerbook and opened it.

After a time, a figure approached me. It was Tom Pike. He embraced me, gingerly, as if he knew that I might shatter if his touch were too robust. He invited me to join him and a few parishioners who were gathered near the altar.

The service began.

At the time of the offertory, when the bread and wine were placed on the altar, Tom spoke gently of Anthony. A prayer was said. The meal was blessed, the bread was broken and eaten, the cup was passed, this eucharist was celebrated.

All the while, I had been holding the open prayerbook. I looked down at it. It was opened to the Service for the Burial of the Dead.

By now my tears were done.

That passage makes me tear up most times I read it. I hope you find  it meaningful, too.


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