A Call to Worship, An Invitation to the Altar

By Dennis Grove

For those who have been worshiping at the Cathedral for any length of time, it is easy enough to take the unique beauty of the edifice for granted, and it is no less enigmatic for the uninitiated to realize that everything about this monument historique recounts a fascinating phase in the evolution of the Anglican Church – and therefore the Episcopal Church in the U.S. – as it transformed from a distinctively Protestant denomination into the media via envisioned by Elizabeth I in the 16th century.

Confusion inevitably arises when a visitor enters here for the first time: the unwary Catholic will invariably genuflect, and those who practice signation will cross themselves. What is this trickery? Are you Catholic or Protestant? is a FAQ. Virtually every outward and visible sign – other than the total lack of statuary – would seem to point toward Rome, as the visitor’s eyes are immediately lifted to the heights, and then drawn forward to the altar by the rhythm of the columns, the vaulting, and the centerpiece of the luminous triptych: Christ on the Cross. This triptych, painted by the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey and mounted at the altar here in 1907, was commissioned by the rector John Brainerd Morgan. He wanted the altarpiece to be the affirmation of our faith, to cite part of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ …. He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary … crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried…. On the third day He rose again….” Looking from the Epiphany scene on the left, to Christ crucified with Mary at his right and John presenting the chalice at his left; to the right panel, the risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene. After we became a cathedral in 1923, an early bishop found this representation too “Catholic” and suggested covering it with a curtain. The dean at the time disagreed.

That same tension was present in the American community in Paris from the early days, when they first assembled to create what was then called the “American Chapel,” consisting of various contingents of American Protestantism, including the rather recently formed Protestant Episcopal Church, which described our identity at the time of the organization of the Episcopal Church in the United States in 1789.

Parts of the Book of Common Prayer were used for Sunday worship, excluding the Eucharist, except for—in keeping with Protestant practice—Communion Sunday. The Congregationalists, among others, did not like the use of “read” prayers, but the American Chapel continued for a number of years at various locations. Just 30 years later, in 1829, a movement that began in Oxford, and went on to transform the Anglican Communion, led the Episcopalians to determine to celebrate the Holy Eucharist on Christmas Day in 1859 in the American Chapel. They had done so the previous year, but in 1858 Christmas fell on a Saturday, so the Episcopalians had gone it alone, without controversy; 1859 was another story, as Christmas Day was a Sunday, and the others protested such “popish” practices; the Episcopalians insisted, and in the rupture that followed the American Church of the Holy Trinity was born, embracing the so-called “popish” practices espoused by the Oxford Movement, under the authority of the Presiding Bishop of the ECUSA . While the Chapel continued as a multidenominational church and was eventually to become the American Church on the banks of the Seine, the parish of Holy Trinity built a church on Rue Bayard, installed an organ, established a choir, and flourished.

Read the full article in the Fall 2016 Trinité here.