A Feast for the Holy Sovereigns

A Feast for the Holy Sovereigns November 28, 2021




As it happens the Episcopal diocese of Hawaii celebrates today, the 28th of November as the “Feast of the Holy Sovereigns.” The rest of the Episcopal church marks today as a feast for “Kamehameha and Emma, King & Queen of Hawaii.”

While I have mixed feelings about how royals end up saints, formal or informal, this particular one tickles me.

Hawaii was for a hundred years a kingdom, united in 1795 under Kamehameha the Great. In 1893 the kingdom was overthrown by a cabal of mostly European born subjects of the kingdom, and soon after annexed by the United States. All in all, a sordid affair.

However, for the purposes of this small reflection, before that happened something delightful occurred. During the reign of Kamehameha IV, he and his Queen consort, Emma, resisted the dominant Congregational church and its bleak Calvinism. As a prince the king had visited England and was very much taken with the rich liturgical life of the Church of England. Similarly the Queen came from Anglican stock.

When they married they had to do it as a Congregational service, but they insisted on interpolating readings and prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. They longed for a more generous and rich version of the Christian tradition that was on offer in the islands.

Then, in 1859, with the agreement of her husband, Queen Emma wrote to Queen Victoria asking that the Church of England send Anglican clergy to Hawaii. After some political back and forth, on December 15th, 1861, the Archbishop of Canterbury consecrated Thomas Nettleship Staley as a missionary bishop for Hawaii.

His arrival was strongly resisted by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which dominated the Christian community in Hawaii. Other conservative Protestants joined in the protest. Even Mark Twain dipped his oar into the matter, expressing concern about the arrival of the Anglicans.

Partially they were concerned with the political influence of England in a country that was economically largely controlled by American interests. But what they most disliked was that this mission was Anglo-Catholic to the bone.

In 1862 the Hawaiian Reformed Catholic Church was officially established with the baptisms of the Royal couple. It survived as an independent church of the Anglican communion until the overthrow of the kingdom when it was redesigned as a diocese of the American Episcopal Church.

As Robin Williams and others have noted of that higher part of the Anglican communion, all the ritual but only half the guilt of the Catholic Church.

The great middle way in its Christian expression. Some kind of wonderful.

So, in Hawaii today this collect is read in services.

O Sovereign God, who raised up (King) Kamehameha (IV) and (Queen) Emma to be rulers in Hawaii, and inspired and enabled them to be diligent in good works for the welfare of their people and the good of your Church: Receive our thanks for their witness to the Gospel; and grant that we, with them, may attain to the crown of glory that never fades away; through Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

For once, something to thank royals for…

May their spirits rest easy.

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