Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sermon for the Feast of Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle

"[Jesus] sighed and said to him, 
Ephphatha, that is, 'Be opened.'"
(Mark 7:34)
Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle                                                       Jan Robitscher
       Isaiah 35:3-6a                                                                                      St. Mark's Chapel
       Psalm 19:1-6                                                                                        August 27, 2014
       Mark 7:23-27
(Signed 2x)  EPHPHATHA!
(Be opened)

Today we remember Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle. While they may not be saints (Beyond the word that describes all of us) in the traditional sense, they certainly were pioneers in the Faith.  But this is not just a history lesson; there are connections, and these are important to our life-in-Christ.

The story actually begins long before Gallaudet and Syle, yet after Jesus healed the deaf man. Roman Catholics count the early seventeenth century bishop Francis de Sales as one of the patron saints of the deaf because he invented a kind of sign language in order to impart the Gospel (and probably his incomparable spiritual direction, too) to a deaf person. 

Fast forward to about 1822 when Thomas Gallaudet was born of a deaf mother and hearing father. After teaching the deaf at what would eventually become Gallaudet University (which his father founded and as was his wish) and marrying Miss Elizabeth Budd, who was deaf, Thomas was ordained in 1851 and established St. Ann's Church in New York, with a special ministry to the deaf.

One of the parishioners there was Henry Winter Syle, who became deaf from scarlet fever at the age of 6. From his archives:
           He became an active religious leader, as a lay reader. He was involved with dr. Thomas 
           Gallaudet's mission for the deaf. He also started studying for Holy Orders while working
           at the U.S. Mint.  He was ordained 1876 by Bishop Stevens of Philadelphia as a deacon
           of the Protestant Episcopal Church.   

           On October 14, 1884, Rev. Henry Winter Syle was ordained to priesthood by Bishop
           William Bacon Stevens at St. Stephen's Church, becoming the first Deaf priest in the
           United States.  He helped to improve the Church Mission to the Deaf in Pennsylvania,
           Delaware and New Jersey.  He also founded All Souls Church in Philadelphia.
            (From <www.gallaudet.edu/archives>
Sadly, Syle died two years later, in 1890. So what? Why do these people matter and what
connection do they have with us? A former Associate Priest of All Soul's Parish here in Berkeley had a personal connection.
Fr. Bill Fay's grandfather taught at Gallaudet and his father grew up on the campus there. Another connection is the ministry to the deaf that took place right here in this chapel, with Fr. Henry Bayne presiding, until about 20 years ago. Fr. Fay and Fr. Bayne have joined Gallaudet and Syle in the Communion of Saints. 

After Henry Winter Syle it would take another hundred years before the Church would ordain another deaf person, Fr. Roger Pickering. I knew of him when I lived in Philadelphia. He, too, had a Berkeley connection.  

           Prior to his moving to Pennsylvania to become Vicar of All Souls Church for the Deaf,
           [Roger Pickering] was the founding Vicar of the Mission of the Holy Spirit Church in
           Berkeley, California.  He was a frequent guest preacher and pastoral counselor in
           numerous other churches including the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  While
           most people think of him exclusively as the beloved Vicar of a local church, over the
           course of his life he did far more, often unrecognized.                

But all these wonderful connections still beg a question: Why was==and is==the Church so fearful of ordaining persons with disabilities? Henry Winter Syle endured fierce opposition from those who believed the tradition that a loss of one of the senses was an impediment to ordination. He was a deacon for eight years before finally fulfilling his call as a priest. Today there are very few deaf clergy and  even fewer who are hearing who can sign.

Isaiah's prophetic words ring out to the Church as much as to those who are deaf or otherwise disabled:
           Strengthen the weak hands
                 and make firm the weak knees.
           Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
                 "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. (Isaiah 33:3-4a)

And to the Church and to us all, Jesus says:
            (Signed) EPHPHATHA!  Be opened!


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