I have not written much about our adventures with a new church because I haven’t wanted to give offense or pain to my dear friends at our other church. It has been about a year since we stopped attending Sunday morning worship there — a church which was truly a home to us for about 12 years, and a part of which I hope we will remain.
A year ago, we visited the church we’re now attending after hearing about it from a music faculty member who was then lay pastoring the congregation. The church’s website seemed orthodox in its approach to Jesus, and we thought a visit to a traditional, liturgical worship service would do us some good, spiritually. In short, it did us a great deal of good.
A liturgy such as the Anglicans use is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I find it meets me wherever I am on any given Sunday and draws me to the gospel, feeds me on it and sends me back out the door, renewed and retooled. Ten or fifteen years ago I might have found the stylized approach of the liturgy to be off-putting–stiff or even phony–too unlike everyday life. But now I find no hint of phoniness. And though it is different from everyday life, that’s part of why I go to church. I want to connect with that which is beyond every day life, and I find a break from the practical and prosaic helps me with that.
Why does this so appeal to me while leaving my Christian friends mystified? I can only suppose it is something my cultural DNA prepares me for. I was not brought up a Christian but as the daughter of a pianist and a composer, works of music, art, and literature from Western culture — a culture highly influenced by Catholic and Church of England expressions of faith — were always around me.
I think that possibly in the absence of other spiritual formation, this raised up a certain interior architecture in me. The way candlelight says “romance” to many people, arches say “worship” to me. Fluorescent lighting says “government office” to me, but a room made luminous by stained glass gives an invocation to worship that I recognize. Long sonorous organ chords sound like the hum of God. The drape of vestments, the bright brass cross, the color and beauty of my surroundings are helpful aids to worship, and serve as visual markers of a time and space set aside to worship the Lord. They are not just anchors to hold the wandering attention but also symbols that impart hints of God’s character as we understand it, and a theology of who we are as worshipers.
The liturgy itself offers scripture readings, the creed, and a basic theological narrative but it also communicates a lot through the use of symbolism. Symbolism allows for layers of meaning to penetrate. An example is how the scripture readings are handled. There are three Bible readings each Sunday, typically a passage from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament letters, and one from one of the 4 gospels. The first two readings are presented from a lectern at the front of the church, just as you might expect. But the gospel reading is carried into the people and read from the midst of the congregation–symbolizing that in Jesus, God came to us.
The liturgy also involves more activity than you might suppose. It keeps you pretty busy, so that your mind does not wander much.
In this tradition, sermons are shorter than I’m used to–maybe ten or fifteen minutes. They come midway between what they call the “liturgy of the Word”–which includes the Bible readings I mentioned–and an elaborate, stylized communion service on the other which includes more biblical material. The sermon thus takes place inside the flow of the liturgy. The effect is that the sermon is a less prominent feature in the morning worship and is contextualized by the surrounding liturgy.
Partway through the year, the church received its new vicar, Kevin, fresh out of seminary. I was concerned about how this new factor would affect the church and affect me, uneasy transplant as I was. I’d gotten a feeling for Brad’s orthodoxy in singing the Messiah under his direction a couple years ago, but he was holding the church together, not seeking to set the world on fire. The new vicar would come to us from a seminary in New York City.
Well, he arrived, full of enthusiasm, articulate, and friendly: an auspicious start. Within two or three weeks of his arrival, tragedy struck: the death by accidental drowning of a congregant’s husband. (This couple, by the way, was my age. We had sat laughing with her in Sunday school that morning, and it was upon arriving home from church that she began to become concerned that her husband hadn’t come home from the lake.) We then saw and heard how he rose to the challenge of providing pastoral care under such shocking and sad circumstances.
We attended the funeral service. If you have watched almost any BBC production, you know the opening phrases of the funeral service, “I am the Resurrection and the Life…” It ends, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.”
I was struck again at how faithful and orthodox it was. But cynically I thought to myself that perhaps it was a relic, brought out at times when the comfort of tradition was required.
A few weeks later I asked Kevin about doctrine in the Episcopal church, still trying to get my bearings. He said, “Were you at the funeral service? That service about sums up our theology. You can find it written out in the Book of Common Prayer,” he picked one up and flipped to it. “Read through that, sometime,” he suggested. So–it wasn’t just a relic, after all, but a touchpoint.
Although I’ve appreciated the authenticity and commitment of the untrained volunteer pastor and elders at our other church, I’m impressed, too, by the commitment shown by Kevin and his family in becoming a priest. Kevin already had an MBA degree, had served 4 years in the Air Force, and was working in some kind of accounting or finance position in a big company when he felt called to priesthood. First he went through a process to “confirm” the call. After that, he and his wife packed up their children and moved to NYC for three more years of schooling. Then he served here for six months as a deacon/vicar, and only after all that was he finally ordained as a priest in a ceremony rather like a wedding. But he said he prayed he would always remain a deacon–that is, a servant–of the congregation. And although Kevin’s very gifted, we’ve also, I think, benefited from the careful preparation he’s received.
His sermons are grace-oriented and respectful of the biblical texts, and he carries his part in the liturgy with the gravitas it requires and clearly loves the process, too. He is more religiously liberal than me, and of course, so is the Episcopal Church as a whole, but in the worship service I have seen no axe to grind.
The congregation is smaller than CCC–which is saying something!– and skews demographically quite a bit older* and is warm and friendly. Since it is in another town, it is difficult to be involved, although Scott did join the “building and grounds committee”. (The building the congregation uses dates to 1895 and has suffered some neglect in recent years.)
In Sunday school — which I attend sporadically — one encounters this house of worship as specifically an Episcopal church with the distinctives you might imagine. Mixed in with more traditional bible study material has been, for example, a presentation on the Episcopal Church’s efforts to stamp out malaria and a plea to give money to that cause, a presentation on art that honors the Annunciation, a guest appearance by St. Nicholas, and many valiant attempts to describe the Episcopal church’s approach to scripture in terms that Miss Jimmie, an 87-year-old ex-Baptist, can understand.
That’s a not-so-nutshell account of our new setting for Sunday morning worship. Of course I miss some things from Sunday mornings at CCC: the casual warmth, the intimacy of worshiping with people I’ve known a long time, and the opportunity from week to week to stay abreast of the lives of so many people I care about.
It’s been great gradually to find new ways to stay in touch, though!
(*Edited to say that in the 7 months since I wrote this, the demographics have changed as younger families and younger people have been drawn to the church. And average attendance has risen from 40 to 60.)