The Difficult Beauty of the Episcopal Church

“Difficult beauty” indeed

It’s nice to wander around and see what other Episcopal churches and organizations in the area are doing… not necessarily to see how my parish compares, exactly. We have our own unique problems. Like ducks on the roof and not enough bottoms on the seats.

We’re small. Really small. We have been for a long time. On a good Sunday, there are more than 40 people in the chairs (we don’t have pews, we have creaky, heavy wooden chairs with fold-down kneelers).

We’re a mission, and we’re yoked with an even smaller parish. For some crazy reason the church was built on an obscure suburban residential street in an unremarkable suburb distinguished by its complete lack of a downtown district.

The yoked parish was built on a major thoroughfare in a nearby suburb best described as transitional – the sort of place you have to go through to get somewhere more interesting or attractive. The other church is difficult to see from the street and gives the impression that it’s just a bit standoffish, architecturally. It’s kept alive by a very small number of largish contributors (we’re kept alive by a larger number of relatively small contributors). They have almost no music at their service, and probably think we put on the dog with ours, but they have stained glass and look more churchy than we do. For some reason they have a large brick educational wing that’s completely unused and full of stuff, and worship in something that looks like it was the original chapel and they never got around to building a big sanctuary.

Their vibe is unlike ours – we’re friendly, laugh a lot, and hang around for a long time after services. They (well, their leaders) tend to act a bit like people in mourning – cautious, afraid of being hurt, risk-averse. We both have money problems; we think we’re realistic about ours, and they’re not realistic about theirs. Apparently, they think they’re helping us out, since they are parish-status and we are mission-status (the former being financially independent of the diocese in theory, and the latter not. In theory). However, generalisations are dangerous, and some of the folks from there that I’ve met at combined events seem open and enthusiastic. There is some sort of connection some people had with a former priest (one of the personal fiefdom ones) that is not healthy, but I don’t know too much about it. There’s more, but that’s another blog-saga (“bloga?”).

Strangely enough, both churches have a lot in common besides being really small. Both have a history of having strong willed, conservative incumbents who pretty much ran them as personal fiefdoms, ignoring the increasingly liberal slant of the local diocese.

Mind you, this is all second or third hand.

Liturgically, we’re as high-church as we can manage with so few people – the Altar Guild keeps everything organized in their fussy, no-nonsense way. And there’s a pretty large side of acolytes and readers, also well organized. You should see them when the incense is going and they practically prostrate themselves.

I’m not sure what the conflicts are within these two groups, but I suspect there are a few, but none of it gets out to the rank and file. Which is nice, and not at all as is done in a lot of churches – I think our size forces everyone to belt up and get along, rather than risk open war.

The church itself is modern and looks like a power substation with a bit of vaguely religious ironmongery on the roof (sorry about the precious style, I’ve just finished reading Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island”).

It’s square and laid out “on the bias” in the center of an improbably large and weedy lawn. It’s all open inside – the offices and cloakroom are clustered in one corner behind the sacristy and the wall behind the altar. There is an undercroft – in other words, a basement that houses a neglected kitchen full of cast-off crockery and appliances, a frightening pit otherwise known as the boiler room, and a nursery that is used only to store a lot of cheap plastic crap (“toys”) and is never cleaned unless there is a need for adults to go in there and not get stale cookie crumbs on the soles of their shoes.

We rejoice in a pipe organ built by a former organist from either a kit, or cast-off bits and pieces given to him by other organists who were shelling out $60,000 or more for new custom-built instruments. It ain’t much, but it’s an honest-to-God organ and not a wimpy little electronic excuse to sing acapella. We have two pianos – both unplayable – and no stained glass, but we do have some interesting art and relics displayed on the walls.

The roof is flat – the kind where rainwater is supposed to remain on it rather than be drained away. Apparently this cuts down on the amount of ultraviolet radiation beating on the roof itself and causing it to break down – it seems to me that a couple of inches of rainwater are going to find their way into the building with depressing regularity, but it really seems to be designed to work like this.

And now and then, ducks get up on the roof and swim around, and they can be seen from below as they paddle past the upper windows.

It can be difficult to keep a proper frame of mind when you lift your eyes up to God and a duck swims past, but perhaps it’s really one of His little jokes.

I was looking for an Episcopal parish for years and years after moving to the area – I was used to attending services in a historic downtown church in my former home city with a strong tradition of music and “smells and bells” liturgy. And I couldn’t find a place like that here to save my soul (heh) other than taking an hour or more drive into the nearby large city, where such churches abound. Out here in the ‘burban hinterlands, it’s all spoken service, blandly modern music, and for another reason, not welcoming to me.

If the good people from Ship of Fools ever visited those other parishes, they would have remarked on the fact that most of them never welcome a new person and invite them to the Sacrament of Coffee and Cake after the main service. Except for one place – I might have considered going there, but they had an organist that played everything at a snappy dirge-like tempo, and they were a little out of the way.

Anyway, after looking around for years, and moving just a few miles south from where we originally were, I found this place within 5 minutes’ drive of the new house. It was a little too far and indirectly reached from the old place, but now… and for the first couple of years, a sung liturgy until the former vicar had to leave.

So now we’re back to the regular spoken liturgy (interim priest is the first to admit he can’t carry a tune, so it’s all for the best) and waiting for something to happen in re getting a new vicar in. I’m not on either the transition committee or the discernment (to yoke or not to yoke, that is the question) committee, but I am on the Bishop’s Committee, so I hear things.

3 years ago, I never would have dreamed of getting involved to such a degree, but in a small place, you kind of have to or people mutter darkly over their coffee that you’re not pulling your weight (not really, they wouldn’t, but I worry that they would).

Somehow, I also was involved in getting the choir re-started after many years’ inactivity (too many singers had moved away, died, or fallen off the church wagon). Now we’re at the point where if the attendance is not good, but the volunteers forget to count just how many worshipers were in attendance, they joke “Just double the choir, that’s how many there were.” Meaning that we’re reliably at least a third of the entire congregation, sometimes half.

But it’s fun. Just God help me if somebody nominates me for Bishop’s Warden someday (this is not pride, we’re small. So small that in a few years it’s probably my turn). I’m too disorganized and lack the essential diplomacy, leadership, and delegational genes. And we need a priest who is interested in growth and not just marking time until retirement (sigh).

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