Feast of William Stringfellow (April 28)   1 comment

Above:  William Stringfellow

Fair Use

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FRANK WILLIAM STRINGFELLOW (APRIL 26, 1928-MARCH 2, 1985)

Episcopal Attorney, Theologian, and Social Activist

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I think they need to hear it.

–William Stringfellow, explaining why he read long passages of the Bible to the F.B.I. agents recording his telephone calls

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This is the man America should be listening to.

Karl Barth, on Stringfellow, early 1960s

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It is profane, as well as grandiose, to manipulate the Bible in order to apologize for America.

–William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (1973)

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For thousands of us, he became the honored keeper and guardian of the Word of God.

Daniel Berrigan, 1985

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William Stringfellow comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via five sources.  He is on the short list of people The Episcopal Church will probably list officially as a saint once the “fifty-year-rule” (to which the denomination has made notable exceptions) ceases to be a barrier.  Stringfellow’s name appears in this context in the back of Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010) and its successor, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  A Calendar of Commemorations (2016).  Cloud of Witnesses, 2d. ed (2005), edited by Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday, contains Wallis’s remembrance of his friend of 14 years.  A Year with American Saints (2006), by G. Scott Cady and Christopher L. Webber, features Stringfellow.  So does All Saints:  Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (1997), by Robert Ellsberg.

Stringfellow was a prophet.  He was, by definition, also a controversial figure.  Our saint was the kind of man certain contemporary reactionaries would dismiss cynically as a “social justice warrior.” Stringfellow would, in a counterfactual scenario in which he would have heard that term, probably have considered it a compliment and read the Book of Amos to his critics.  He did, after all, read long Biblical passages to the F.B.I. spooks who recorded this telephone calls.  That was better than what some other spied-upon U.S. citizens did in identical circumstances–frequently insult J. Edgar Hoover profanely.

Stringfellow stood up for what he believed.  He condemned economic injustice, racism, institutionalized segregation, homophobia, misogyny, sexual promiscuity, and other offenses.  Our saint also advocated for the ordination of women within The Episcopal Church long before 1976, when the General Convention approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate.  His opposition to the Vietnam War and to nuclear weapons also made him many enemies on the Right.

Frank William Stringfellow was a man who allowed the Bible to shape him.  He was a radical and a strong social critic who walked the walk.  Our saint, born in Johnston, Rhode Island, on April 26, 1928, was a life-long Episcopalian.  At age fifteen, he matriculated at Bates College, Lewiston, Massachusetts.  When Stringfellow left Bates College, he studied at the London School of Economics.  Our saint served in the Second Armored Division, U.S. Army, during World War II.  Next, he earned his J.D. degree at Harvard Law School.

Stringfellow moved into a slum in Harlem after he graduated from Harvard Law School.  He joined the East Harlem Protestant Parish, taught Biblical studies, and practiced law.  He remained in Harlem until 1967.  Our saint moved for health-related reasons; a metabolism-related disorder that led to diabetes affected him.  Stringfellow and platonic partner, poet Anthony Towne (died in 1980), a Methodist, moved to Block Island, New Shoreham, Rhode Island.

All evidence points to Stringfellow being a celibate, semi-closeted homosexual.  This matter, relevant to his life and activism, does not offend me.  (Stringfellow no more chose to be homosexual than I chose to be heterosexual.)

Theologically, Stringfellow was neo-orthodox.  He read works by Karl Barth (with whom he had a conversation in Harlem in the early 1960s) and Jacques Ellul.  The neo-orthodox theology of original sin pervading neo-orthodoxy was evident in his writings, including many of his books.  The presence of original sin in American culture and social institutions was one of Stringfellow’s most controversial topics.  He objected to reading the Bible through (dominant) American cultural eyes.  Rather, our saint interpreted (dominant) American culture through Biblical lenses.  He concluded that the Bible condemned his culture and his society’s institutions.  That proved to be controversial when

My country, right or wrong

was a popular slogan for many people.

Stringfellow’s views and activism placed him on J. Edgar Hoover’s radar, hence the wire-tapping.  When our saint’s friend, Father Daniel Berrigan (1921-2016) was a fugitive for having destroyed military draft records, Stringfellow and Toyne sheltered him for four months.  F.B.I. agents raided the house on Block Island and arrested all three.  The court eventually dropped the charges (of sheltering a fugitive) against Stringfellow and Towne, though.

Stringfellow, in constant pain during his final years, died at home on March 2, 1985.  He was 56 years old.

Stringfellow defined being holy as

being truly human.

By that standard, of being the best person one can be, our saint was holy.

Stringfellow’s prophetic witness remains relevant, unfortunately.  I write “unfortunately” because the United States of America, my country, has continued collectively and officially down a path contrary to the high moral standards Stringfellow championed.  I wonder what the FOX News Channel (according to which Mister Rogers was evil) would have said about Stringfellow, had it existed when he was alive.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MARCH 14, 2020 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF FANNIE LOU HAMER, PROPHET OF FREEDOM

THE FEAST OF ALBERT LISTER PEACE, ORGANIST IN ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND

THE FEAST OF HARRIET KING OSGOOD MUNGER, U.S. CONGREGATIONALIST HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF NEHEMIAH GOREH, INDIAN ANGLICAN PRIEST AND THEOLOGIAN

THE FEAST OF SAINTS VINCENZINA CUSMANO, SUPERIOR OF THE SISTERS SERVANTS OF THE POOR; AND HER BROTHER, SAINT GIACOMO CUSMANO, FOUNDER OF THE SISTERS SERVANTS OF THE POOR AND THE MISSIONARY SERVANTS OF THE POOR

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Almighty God, whose prophets taught us righteousness in the care of your poor:

By the guidance of your Holy Spirit, grant that we may

do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in your sight,

through Jesus Christ, our Judge and Redeemer,

who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Isaiah 55:11-56:1

Psalm 2:1-2, 10-12

Acts 14:14-17, 21-23

Mark 4:21-29

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 736

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One response to “Feast of William Stringfellow (April 28)

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  1. Pingback: Feast of Philip and Daniel Berrigan (December 6 | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

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