The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Church Names

After doing a bit of website maintenance, I used Google to search for "church Ashland Ohio," just to see whether we were still being indexed. (A prudent plan—sometimes an error will cause Google to lose track of a website. Google always drops you if you have malware that's been inserted by some malicious program.)

Yes, there we were, about the fifth one down. Some of our near neighbors in the Google search emphasize doctrine in their names (Trinity) or their location (Park Street). Some emphasize their denominational connection. Years ago I did a lot of work for the Congregational church, and nearly every group called itself "First Congregational Church of [Town name]." (There are just a few "Second Congregational" churches in the USA, and by the time you work down to "Fourth Congregational," apparently there's only one in the country. No "Fifth Congregational.")

I'm a bit amused at the newer groups who struggle to find some one-word, non-ecclesiastical, dynamic descriptor for themselves. Almost always with an exclamation point. Some of these new names require a trip to the Greek lexicon or to an urban dictionary. And for some of them, even this research will not quite tell you what they are all about.

St. Matthew's, like a lot of liturgical churches, is named for a person who is something of a "hero" for our parish: Matthew, the corrupt tax collector who dropped everything and completely changed when he heard Jesus calling. Like a poker player who puts all of his chips on one bet, Matthew abandoned everything when he got a glimpse of Jesus. Not a bad role model.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Our New Visibility

First a bit of history

You probably noticed that the religious right ("Evangelicalism") got itself focused on two issues: abortion and gay marriage. Yes, there were other issues as well, for example the display of Christian artifacts (Nativity scenes, the Ten Commandments, etc.) on public land, but abortion and gay marriage were the litmus issues.

One result of this litmus test was that organizations such as the Episcopal Church who are not putting much energy into opposing abortion and who accept gay marriage got labeled as "not really Christian" by the loudly vocal mainstream.

Another result was that, especially in politics, "Christian" became rather narrowly defined as opposition to abortion, hatred of sexual minorities, and the willingness to say "Merry Christmas." Each of us can name a friend or neighbor who said that so-and-so is THE Christian candidate because he is solid on these points—never mind such minor issues as honesty, sexual morality, or racial prejudice.

The secular press noticed how basically wrong-headed this is, and for the last year or two, we have seen a rising tide of articles in publications such as The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Guardian, pondering how Evangelicalism lost its soul and became anything but Christian—essentially a jingoistic political party that meets to sing hymns on Sunday morning.

Enter Bishop Curry

When Bishop Curry was consecrated, I heard a lot of comment that he would breathe new life into an old structure and that it was great to have a Black man as our most visible leader (diversity, you know). People who know him personally are unwavering in their praise. I heard him preach a couple of times, and I was awestruck. Maybe he would be good for the Episcopal Church.

Then came the royal wedding. I don't think any of us saw this one coming. Is there a more visible moment for a preacher? Yes, we have public prayers at the President's Inauguration, and eulogies at the funerals of important figures, but the public is trained to sleep through those (and most of them aren't worth much attention anyhow). Curry's sermon was different. It came as a high point in a fairy-tale event that caught the hearts of millions of people. I doubt there's been a more public sermon (or one that got as much attention) in the last thirty years.

He didn't stop there. Curry is, according to the Washington Post, a "prime mover" in a movement to shift the church from being an arm of a political party to proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. Today, he will be part of a candlelight vigil marching on the White House, inspired by a declaration titled "Reclaiming Jesus: A Declaration of Faith in a Time of Crisis."

What this means for us

First, Bishop Curry is our leader, and I think he's got it right. The world is not waiting to hear about Episcopalianism; the world is starving for the message of the saving love of Jesus. We need to plant our feet in that message and keep proclaiming it (even if that feels a bit awkward).

Second, this new visibility for the Episcopal Church and our message will surely bring in some newcomers. Bishop Curry is never portrayed in the responsible media as just "that black church leader." He is always referred to as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. We have never had an advertising campaign this extensive. Curious newcomers will show up and they will not look or sound much like the rest of us. They won't know when to kneel and they won't know our weird vocabulary. We need to welcome them. And we need to be ready to be changed by their presence.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Looking Outside Our Parish

A few basics about organization

(Don't be upset if you already know this stuff—it's new to someone else in the room!)


The Episcopal Church, USA is divided into geographical areas called dioceses. Our diocese, The Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, is the oldest one in the "wild west" on this side of the Alleghenies. We're 200+ years old (had to get special permission to become organized because we were so few and so spread out). Our diocese covers approximately the northern half of Ohio.

Mission Area Council (MAC)

In other places, this would be called a "Deanery." It is an informal association of several local parishes who send representatives to keep one another up to date and to share with outreach projects. Our rector, Rev. Kay N. Ashby, is the Dean. Members of the MAC are Grace, Mansfield; Harcourt Parish, Gambier; St. James, Wooster; St. Mark's, Shelby; St. Matthew's, Ashland, St. Paul's, Mount Vernon; and Tabor Cottage, Butler.

The representatives from our parish to the MAC are Ann Shelly (MAC Treasurer) and Curt Allen (MAC Secretary).

Each MAC sends a representative to the Diocesan Council. Our representative is Curt Allen.

Latest Diocesan Council information

The Diocesan Council met at Trinity Commons on Thursday, May 17.

The first half of the meeting was what I call B.B.I. material (Boring But Important): financial committee discussion, updates on loans and grants, and a quick update on the coming 79th General Convention. I took away four things:

  1. On the financial level, the diocese is doing OK. We are declining in number of parishes (two will cease fairly soon) and in membership, but the money projection for the coming year is exactly the same as what we got last year.
  2. The diocese has a fair amount of investment income, and we already avoid investing in tobacco, liquor, casinos, and for-profit prisons, but a committee is also working to seek out proactive investment opportunities: companies which actually work to make things better. A report on their findings will become available for individual parish members who want to configure their investment portfolios to become more proactive as well.
  3. Loan and grant money is available for parishes who really need it. It's not a total gift; the parish is expected to provide the majority of the money for a project, but help is available, even for fairly mundane items. One parish needed emergency roof repairs and another emergency parking lot repairs, and grants/loans were approved for both.
  4. This wasn't a topic of conversation, but I realized that St. Matthew's is in a much better position financially than many other parishes. We do not struggle to pay bills as many do.

The second half of the meeting was devoted to an initiative called Becoming Beloved Community. As a denomination and as a diocese, we are committed to working against racism, and this is our program for working toward that goal. An Anti-Racism Training program is already in place and clergy are already participating in that training.

At our previous Diocesan Council meeting, I raised a question about all this anti-racism training. According to the 2010 census, Ashland City is 95.8% white and Ashland County is 97.3% white. The obvious question, in an environment such as this, is why we should bother. The answer has two parts.

First, racism is a heart attitude, and one does not need to be standing next to a person of another race to be a racist. (If you think about it, a black or Hispanic person in a community which is 30% non-white will probably feel a lot less excluded than a black or Hispanic person in a community which is only 2.7% non-white, so there is a point to reaching out to our neighbors.)

Second, the shift from the negativity of being against something to the positive Becoming Beloved Community stressed our obligation to reach out to those who are dissimilar to ourselves—economic, social, education, etc. When a congregation consists of a group of people who are identical, something is missing.

Training events are already taking place at Bellwether Farm and will soon be announced for other locations.

The Bishop's Time was largely devoted to a report on Bellwether Farm. The summer camp will operate on a very reduced schedule this year, about two weeks, because we are still finding our way. Similarly, financial projections are all guesses because, as Bishop Hollingsworth said, "We are running by the seat of our pants." Construction all seems to be in place, however, and the farm is scheduled for several meetings and conferences (ECW and future Diocesan Council meetings, for example). There has been some discussion of acquiring a farm across the state highway, to be used for a sustainable agriculture program.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Thoughts on Preaching

Now that James Curry has made quite a splash with his preaching at the royal wedding, several interesting threads have emerged.

One thread, normally those outside the Episcopal Church, has been saying, "Wow! That guy was really good! I had no idea your preaching could be so interesting and so moving!"

Another thread, often from within the Episcopal Church, says things like

  • "You didn't call him by his full official title."
  • "It's demeaning to call him 'preacher.'"
  • "You need to refer to him as 'The Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry' and you mustn't omit 'The.'"

Give us all a break!

For one thing, we really are something of a minority group, and when TV commentators, who may have no connection with organized religion or who may be much more familiar with the usages of the majority churches such as Baptist or Presbyterian, refer to him as "Rev. Curry," they are not trying to be insulting. We need to admit that we have our own unusual vocabulary and just smile and nod when someone refers to Curry's production as an "address" rather than a "sermon."

I've heard Curry speak (twice), and I get the impression he'd be the last person on earth to stand on the formalities of being "The Most Reverend." I strongly suspect that he'd be much more focused on getting the Jesus message out there.

Getting the Jesus Message Out There

I recently attended a two-day College for Lay Preachers put on by our diocese. I really was afraid that it would turn out to be a seminar on how to preach the themes of the church year or perhaps something on emphasizing the history and distinctives of the Episcopal Church. Maybe we could throw together a sermon on the true meaning of "Ember Days."

Fortunately, I turned out to be wrong. The emphasis of the thirty or so lay preachers and the three or four presenters was quite uniform—bringing the message of Jesus to a lost world. That's something to get excited about, and a very healthy tone for the whole weekend. I'm glad that's our emphasis.