In church-land there are certain little customs that seem to develop over time. At first, they are innocuous, charming, even quaint; but it doesn’t take long before they begin to attain a sacrosanct and inviolable character. Any clergyperson who has inherited this sort of custom (and I believe we all have, of some sort or another) will know of what I speak. In one church I knew, the service always concluded after the final hymn and dismissal with the congregation singing “Go now in Peace.” While this might have been open to criticism by some of our more serious-minded Anglican liturgists, it was quite lovely, as the whole congregation sang it with great love and meant every word of it from the depths of their hearts. These are the little customs that do no harm, and perhaps even do a little bit of good, but are still the sort of thing that any good cleric, especially those of us trained at Trinity College, sooner or later feel we must stamp out. The thought of one of our old college friends seeing us allowing such para-liturgical aberrations in our parish is just too much to bear. Thus, it was with our friend, the Rev. Mr. William Perkins, the rector of that tiny parish of Christ Church, Hampton’s Corners, and his inherited custom of the monthly birthday celebration.
The custom was this: On the final Sunday of the month, after the service had concluded, during the announcements but before the recessional hymn, he was to ask if there were any birthdays in that month. Hands would go up or people would stand. The organist would strike up a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday to You!” and the small, but faithful congregation would lustfully warble along. Following the service, a big slab cake would be served to the ever-diminishing cotton-topped congregation. I suppose that at one time in the parish history, in those halcyon days of yore, when the pews were packed and the Sunday school over-flowing with children, a slab cake was appropriate. Yet, in these latter days of church decline, with which we are all so sadly acquainted, a slab cake was more than enough – too much – way too much for the dozen-and-a-half octogenarians who made up the congregation. They were always pushing half a cake on Mr. Perkins to take home. He was not a big fan of Costco cake.
In his early days in the parish, on the first Sunday when this little ritual unfolded, Mr. Perkins knew he would soon “nix” it. Mr. Perkins, especially in his earlier years, was what we might refer to as a “liturgical fusspot.” Being the Trinity College man that he was, he liked things done with order and decency, according to the rubrics of the authorized liturgies of the Church. After that first Sunday in which he experienced the strange phenomenon of the monthly birthday celebration, he thought to himself, “Well, this is the first thing to go.”
And so, when the next month rolled around and the last Sunday of the month arrived, that Sunday being a Sunday in Lent, and certainly inappropriate for the singing of “Happy Birthday” and the eating of cake, Mr. Perkins knew the moment had come. He rolled through the announcements without a breath, singular in his purpose of arriving at the announcing of the recessional hymn. The recessional hymn played and Mr. Perkins was faced down by angry stares as he processed down the nave to the back of the church for the dismissal. The hymn ended and before Mr. Perkins could say a word, old Judy Jumblejump barked, “We forgot the birthdays! Who has a birthday?!” Miss Lillian Littlestature, that ancient spinster, cried out, “I do! And so does Charlie!” referring to Charlie Strawblade, an old farmer whose family had been founders of the parish, one hundred and fifty-three years ago. The organist struck up “Happy Birthday” and they all began to sing. Judy Jumblejump began to cut up the cake and pass it around to people when they ought to have been on their knees saying their final prayers in silence.
Needless to say, Mr. Perkins heard about it for weeks. He was told how deeply offended people were and how important the monthly birthday celebration was to the parish. A certain Marjorie Mayhem, a stalwart member of the flower guild, confronted him mid-week with considerable rage. She told him that last month was her husband George’s birthday and that she had almost missed the opportunity to celebrate it. “Hasn’t George been gone for a several years?” Mr. Perkins asked, somewhat confused.
“Yes, but it’s very important to be able to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him in church every year. It makes me feel close to him.”
Mr. Perkins didn’t know what to say. The idea of singing happy birthday to a dead person in church seemed beyond the pale. He tried to explain this to her, but she became more indignant and furious. This is the moment when most wise clergy would re-evaluate their decision and ask that time-honored question of themselves, “Is this the ditch I’m going to die in?” But Mr. Perkins was undeterred, resolute. He would hold his course no matter how stormy the seas and root out this para-liturgical abomination from the Lord’s temple. In more a reasoned moment, he said he might allow them to continue to have their “happy birthdays” and cakes in the church hall, but certainly not in the church proper. Such festivities were more suited to a coffee hour than a service in the church. He was drawing his line in the sand. Much grumbling and murmuring ensued over the following month after Mr. Perkins had communicated his decision, but Mr. Perkins paid it no mind. He was firm in his determination to kill this thing.
And thus came that fateful day and one once again the last Sunday of the month rolled around. All wondered what would happen. The service was tense. Mr. Perkins’ sermon, not touching on the topic of “birthdays,” of course, seemed uncharacteristically cold. He was, of nature, a warm man and known for his compassionate preaching. This dissonance only made the congregation feel even more tense. The Sacrament being concluded and the service drawing to a close, he the made announcements with some haste and pushed forward to announce the recessional hymn. Before he could draw a breath to announce the hymn “Take up your Cross and Follow Me,” Judy Jumblejump called out, “What about the March birthdays, Mr. Perkins?!” His countenance fell. With his head down, he felt a rage pulsing within his chest at this monstrous uprising, this sinister sedition, this blatant act of defiance. He drew in a breath slowly, tried to calm his mind and his heart. He would not make a scene of it. “Take the long view” he told himself silently. He was devoted to order and decency in Anglican worship as an article of faith. He would not lose it from the chancel steps.
“Alright,” he said, “who has a birthday in March?”
Silence. No one answered.
“Surely,” he continued, “there must be at least one March birthday…”
“No March birthdays?” he asked, giving one final opportunity. “Alright,” he continued, “Our recessional hymn is…”
“Wait!!” a voice called out. It was Judy Jumblejump. “But we didn’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’!”
“But there aren’t any March birthdays,” he responded, confounded.
“But we always sing ‘Happy Birthday’,” she said.
“It’s true,” added old Charlie Strawblade.
“Indeed it is,” chimed in Miss Lillian Littlestature.
And so, knowing he was defeated, he directed the organist to strike the chord, and they all sang “Happy Birthday” to no one in particular. And when the singing was over, Judy Jumblejump called out, “And don’t forget! There’s cake!”