September 23, 2010

Sermon for Philander Chase

Today the Church celebrates the ministry of The Right Reverend Philander Chase. St. Paul's in Foley, Alabama owes Bishop Chase an extra bit of gratitude because without him and his efforts to evangelize the West, we wouldn't be graced with the likes of Father B and Joan or John and Ruth. You see, in 1817, the West was Ohio and Michigan instead of California and Oregon. And as Diana Bulter Bass tells the story, “In 1818, less than a half-dozen clergy [Filander Chase among them] had organized the practically nonexistent church into a diocese; thirteen years later there were only 16 clergy serving 873 communicants in 31 functioning parishes. Much of this growth can be credited to the energy and vision of Philander Chase, [first Bishop of Ohio]. He preached all over Ohio, and he founded Kenyon College to provide Episcopal Ministers for the west. By the time [Charles McIlvaine was elected second bishop of Ohio], the church was still small, but Chase had laid a foundation for future Episcopal evangelization.” (Butler, 63).
Chase was born on a farm in Cornish, New Hampshire and raised in the Congregationalist Church that was prevalent in New England at the time. He studied top become a Congregationalist Minister at Dartmouth College when he stumbled upon a copy of the Book of Common Prayer. The folks at Lesser Feasts and Fast say that, “next to the Bible, he thought [the BCP] was the most excellent book he had ever studied, and believed that it was surely inspired by God,” which sounds a little self-serving to me, but he was confirmed 3 years later, so something must have happened in the reading of our Prayer Book.
Anyway, Chase's career in the ministry was one of a pioneer. His first call as a deacon was to the northern and western edges of civilization and he planted a parish at Lake George in New York State. After a stint in Poughkeepsie, New York, he moved with is wife to New Orleans where he founded the first protestant congregation in Louisiana – also the first of two churches he served which now serve as Cathedrals. Missing the children they left behind dearly, Chase and his first wife, Mary, returned to New England and served at Christ Church in Hartford, Connecticut, the second now Cathedral of his tenure.
Here's where I have to be careful because Bishop Chase's ministry begins what is, for me, the most interesting time in Episcopal Church history, the great battle between the High and Low Church Parties that took place between about 1800 and the end of the American Civil War. I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that Chase never did fell quite right in the established parishes of New England, and was increasingly at odds with his High Church learning Bishop, John Henry Hobart, so he took a call to the frontier of Worthington, Ohio in 1817 and was elected first Bishop of Ohio, despite many protests in 1818.
Ohio was a vast mission field (between June 1820 and June 1821 the good bishop logged over 1200 miles on horseback) and was desperately in need of some infrastructure. Bishop Chase founded Kenyon College and Bexley Hall Seminary on Gambier Hill in Knox County Ohio in 1824. He left Ohio for other frontiers in 1831 and was elected as Bishop a second time in 1835, this time as the first Bishop of Illinois, where he again went about founding parishes, a college, and a seminary, and served there until his death on September 20, 1852.
His biography on the Kenyon College website finishes with a apt summation of his life and ministry, “Philander Chase spent his life hacking through the frontier wilderness missionizing and educating, as well as traveling throughout the country (and to England, twice) raising money to support his endeavors. Chase also faced the death of his wife, Mary, and of three of his children (two of whom did not see their first birthday), and he endured constant attacks of his enemies, and a life of dire financial straits, for both him, and his institutions. Nevertheless, Chase was able to overcome these hardships and achieve his goals of bringing religion and education to the west thus establishing himself as a seminal figure in the history of religion, education, and the American frontier.”
I think that it is the lead of their diocese's first Bishop that folks like Father B and John and Ruth and other great Episcopalians from Ohio are following as they live out the charge of Jesus to his disciples, “proclaim the kingdom of God.” Bishop Chase lived a life of proclamation in word and in deed, and I pray this day that we would learn from his example of whole life dedication and take on the task of reaching out to people who as of yet do not know the Good News of what God has done for them in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. May we be strengthened by the good bishop's example and filled with the Spirit to follow his example. Amen.

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