The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Holy Spaces

If you visit a lot of churches, you notice that one thing they all have in common is an enclosed area where people are supposed to get together (usually on Sunday morning) for some kind of worship event. We don't often think of asking, though, what are these spaces for?

The church I grew up in was a suburban start-up that began with an "all-purpose room." (Yes, that was its name.) I remember a fairly ugly grey room that we used for worship, suppers, and even the square dance club. There was no decoration to speak of, not because of our theology, but because of our finances and the general idea that we wanted a room that could be used for anything. We sat on grey metal folding chairs.

More recently, I visited a church that took this "all-purpose room" idea to the max. It had a stage, a sound booth, a projection screen for the song PowerPoints, and basketball hoops that could be cranked up to the ceiling. The floor was an odd tight carpet that was marked for a basketball court and (as one member proudly told me) actually worked quite well for dribbling the ball.

Another church I visited years back was one of those huge mega-churches with thousands of members. The main room had theater seats (really good ones), a balcony, and a really high-tech stage.

I don't think any of these three groups would be comfortable calling their room a "sanctuary." People gather there to eat dinners, to dribble basketballs, or to be audience members.

The concept of "Holy"
The basic idea is "set aside for God." It's the reason you don't use a communion chalice to fetch water for a plant. I have to admit that, because of my background, I'm still struggling with "holy," but there is something beyond simply preserving the finish on the chalice that keeps me from using it as an ordinary cup. (Yes, Eucharist would still be Eucharist if the wine were in a common teacup, but something did change in that ornate drinking vessel when it was blessed and set aside for its current purpose.)

One of the odd things about us Episcopalians is that we use a lot of "stuff." Wine, water, bread, oil, and fire are all part of worship. People who are leading worship wear special clothing. We kneel, we bow, we cross ourselves. Once a year we get ashes on our faces. When I was going for surgery, the priest used holy oil (not just any oil from the kitchen) and made a cross on my forehead. It's not just a "head trip" in which we try to put ourselves in an "attitude of prayer." We actually get down on our knees.

C.S. Lewis said, in The Screwtape Letters, that "Humans are amphibians...half spirit and half spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time." So I think at least one reason for "sanctuary" is to grab the attention of our spirit side and allow our animal side to be quiet for a bit. The decorations, the music, even the smells can help with that redirection.

Who is the real audience?
When I was a boy, I was amazed by Washington National Cathedral (quite a contrast with our "all-purpose room"). The beauty and the incredible craftsmanship were overwhelming. Everywhere I looked, there was some amazing little detail, often in places where the general public wouldn't see it at all. Years later, I was shepherding a group of Japanese high school students through the Cathedral, and the tour guide asked them all to lie down on their backs at the great crossing. She asked them what shape they were seeing. It took a while, but they finally got it: The Cathedral is an enormous cross. Then the next question: If the Cathedral is built in the style of the great European Medieval cathedrals, who can see this shape? Who can hover above it and look down on it?

So another reason for "holy space" decoration is not just the beauty or the attempt to shift the attention of the worshipper; In a real sense, God is the audience and the holy space is his space.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Two Important Pieces of News

It's been quite a week for the entire country, and for the Episcopal Church. I think I'll let these two links speak for themselves:

New Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
Here is the New York Times article announcing Curry's election. Just to emphasize a couple of points:
  • Curry is widely known as a dynamic leader who wants to reach out to the larger community. One of his huge priorities is spreading the Gospel of Christ.
  • He's also known as being a liberal social activist. As pastor of one of the earliest black Episcopal churches, he has a link to our historic involvement in social justice.
  • His election was by an overwhelming majority. He's the leader the majority of the church wants.
Letter from our bishop concerning gay marriage
There will doubtless be committee discussions about the exact language to be used in performing weddings between people of the same gender, but Bishop Hollingsworth says we don't need to wait for all that to happen. Here is our Bishop's letter (and the article's headline, "Go Ahead and Celebrate" is appropriate).

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Who Are We? (Volume 2)

(OK—one oddity of this software is that the newest material is on top, so volume 2 actually appears before volume 1. Sorry about that.)

I was going through some old notes (we writers are incredibly messy and disorganized) and I found a scribble called "What have we got?" (Referring to St. Matthew's). Here's what I wrote. It seems like a good agenda for the next few posts:
  • We are culturally progressive but theologically grounded. (Down through our denominational history we were very early to embrace such ideas as equal rights for different races, equal rights for women, and equal marriage rights regardless of sexual orientation, but we didn't do these things just to be trendy or relevant.)
  • We come from an ancient tradition, but long ago we became more Celtic than Latin. (I can see that this post will require a lot of explanation!)
  • Our environmental concern is a built-in part of our history and theology. (Partly because of that Celtic heritage.)
  • The concept of holy spaces is important to us.
  • Even though we're quite small, a formal liturgy is also quite important to us.
I am certain there are other things to say, and I may throw in other comments in between, but this is a starting point.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Gay Marriage

Of course, the big news of the day is that same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide in the USA. For St. Matthew's, this is a reason to rejoice. We already have an unusually large number of LGBT people, some in partnerships that go back several decades. (One Facebook post said, "We just might make an announcement." A reader responded, "Don't rush into anything," to which the original writer said "It's just 20 years.")

The 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church began yesterday in Salt Lake City, and it was already planning on dealing with gay marriage. Father Joe Ashby of Grace Episcopal in Mansfield pointed out to me the other day that the Supreme Court's action really isn't going to govern the church's action because it has to do with civil law. As a denomination, we're on record as open and affirming toward gay people, but there have been, over the years, a lot of people who objected to this attitude. My guess is that the national body will spend a lot of time debating how to solemnize these unions and what to call them.

On the local level in Ashland, things will be much more laid-back and rejoicing. The congratulations are already flying back and forth on Facebook. LGBT people aren't just a barely-tolerated side-show in our church; in fact the congregation is so welcoming that sexual orientation is a total non-issue here. But now we might have to find all the decorations for a couple of weddings.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Who Are We? (Volume 1)

That is not such a silly question as you might think. On the Bishop's Bike Ride this week, I stayed with Episcopalians in four other towns, and none of the parishes felt much like St. Matthew's.

You can probably name businesses that have failed because they forgot who they were and what they were trying to do—tried to do too much or went in the wrong direction. (Baldwin Piano Company went into bankruptcy largely because they tried to diversify into investments and insurance.) So the question St. Matthew's has to answer is really the same Baldwin failed to answer: What do we do best? What one thing does God want us to focus on?

The Rev. Brad Purdom, Canon for Congregations, came down from Cleveland to ask us this question two different Sundays. (The Vestry invited him after hearing what he had to say to that smaller leadership group.) We are a fairly small congregation, and we can't do everything a mega-church does, nor should we want to. What should we be doing?

Some things we're obviously not
Purdom pointed out that there's nothing wrong with being a small church—and that most churches in the length and breadth of Christendom have been small. So the first thing we're not is big. We're around 40 people most Sundays, and like most churches, the majority of the work is carried by a smaller portion of that group. (We do a pretty good job, though, of getting the majority of the people involved in things.) So here, just off the top of my head, is a list of the things St. Matthew's is not, and probably never will be.
  • A place where a visitor can hide. We really do notice when someone new walks in, and even though it's a bit overwhelming to a few, the visitor will get greeted and invited to coffee hour.
  • A church with a bus ministry. We have a very small number of kids, and there's no point in buying an old school bus.
  • A church with a praise band and songs on PowerPoint slides. The area has dozens of those, and there's no point in trying to be another one. We really do like the old hymns and the pipe organ. We're also in love with a form of worship that includes tons of Scripture reading and a format that we've been developing for hundreds of years.
  • A church where the preacher does all the work. Even if our priest were not a part-timer (who, by the way, puts in at least three times the number of hours we pay her for), the Episcopalian setup, both for worship and for daily life of the parish, assumes a lot of participation from everyone in the group.
  • A church that shuts people out. One of our core beliefs is that baptism works, no matter who does it. So we're quite happy to share the Lord's Table with all brands of Christian. We're also quite happy to welcome people who might not fit into other church groups: rich or poor, gay or straight, old or young, black or white—you get the picture.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Beginning Again

It's been a rough year for your webmaster (though not for St. Matthew's). I won't go into all of it, but surgery, death of a family member, trouble at work, and a few other things generally overwhelmed me, so the result was that this blog was totally ignored for a full year.

Not good.

So in the next few blog entries, I'd like to give some account of what's happened in the past year (quite a challenge!) and some idea of where we want to go in the future.

The Past Year
This is all just off the top of my head, so if I have missed anything, more apologies!
  • We added several new people.
  • We watched Luke Simmons graduate high school (There was never any doubt, by the way. He's a wonderful kid.)
  • A Twelve-Step All-Inclusive Recovery Group began meeting on Wednesday evening. (The idea is that it's not just confined to one type of challenge.)
  • Erin Fuller was received into membership. (For those who are not Episcopalians, this is an enormously big deal! Bishop Williams came down from Cleveland to officiate.)
  • We participated in the Diocese Capital Campaign drive, and raised a significant amount of money. So far, we have replaced the kitchen stove (so there's much less likelihood of the building blowing up) and two outside doors (so the cold air will tend to stay outside where it belongs). Next up is a roof, which is quite a project for an A-frame building.
  • I was part of the Bishop's Bike Ride, a pleasant little 240-mile jaunt through northern Ohio. We did that in five very rainy days. (Someone took a picture of trout swimming across a flooded bike trail he was using. I didn't get to go that way because my group got diverted.)
I'm sure there's more, and I'll post things as I think of them.

Not exactly our parish, but certainly something we are part of—the capital campaign raised enough money to purchase the camp property in Wakeman and begin work on developing it. This is an enormously big deal, both for the Diocese and for our parish. (It's only an hour away, so it will be very available to us for such things as leadership retreats.)