Monday, December 16, 2013

St. Mary's, full of grace

Here, in the third week of Advent, I want to tell you a resurrection story.

OK, I know it's the wrong season. Bear with me. This won't wait until Easter. Besides, we're in a time of expectation, a time of hope.

Our Hebrew scripture reading for the third Sunday in Advent was Isaiah 35:1-10, one of my favorites. But this part stood out. Pardon my ellipses:

1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice  and blossom, like the crocus; 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing ... 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes ...  9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

This is a passage about restoration and a new beginning. It speaks of hope, of renewal, of new growth. The desert will bloom again. Dry sands will become a pool of water, where rushes can grow. And the ravenous beasts will be there no longer, where the people return singing.

Just as the land can be renewed, so can a church!

First, a little background. My two or three constant readers may recall that I left my old parish, St. Mary's, Haddon Heights, NJ, nearly six years ago, when I realized that strife between the Rector and the laity had become toxic to my worship. As the emphasis of teaching and preaching became more fundamentalist (oh, sorry, I really meant orthodox), lots of others left as well. At one time, another ex-parishioner calculated that at least 160 members had departed.  I was one of the lucky ones: I landed in a new parish that I found easy to love, and where I fit well into the common life. Some were not so fortunate, and did not find a new church home that fit them as well as St. Mary's had. Some, feeling betrayed, ceased going to church altogether. This is the greatest tragedy when there is Church Drama.

Time passed, and membership continued to diminish. This past autumn, the Rector departed the Episcopal Church, taking with him a few like-minded parishioners, and affiliated with CANA, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. CANA describes itself as "a missionary district sponsored by the largest and most vibrant province of the Anglican Communion, the Church of Nigeria." You can read about that  if you're interested. It's not my cup of tea, since they don't ordain women, won't marry same-sex couples, and seem preoccupied with sin. You can have your Church of Nigeria, as far as I am concerned. Oh, did I say that out loud?

But, in fairness, you can read about the Rector's decision to leave the Episcopal Church right here. The relevant posts are entitled, "Hello, I must be going," numbers 1-3.  They are not to be missed.

As the Rector departed, a small number of parishioners remained at St. Mary's.  All those remaining loved St. Mary's and were unwilling to give up on their church. In early November, 2013, our Bishop came to meet with all current and former parishioners who wanted to see St. Mary's continue. Current and former members were asked to sit on opposite sides of the aisle. The number of former parishioners dwarfed the number of those remaining, and nearly all the former parishioners had once had leadership roles in the church. Everyone was given a chance to speak, and were free to tell their stories. It was a tearful meeting, as former members described the changing atmosphere of their spiritual home, and why they had grown to feel unwelcome and unwanted, excluded from leadership and basically sidelined.  As the meeting wore on, the Bishop looked sadder and sadder, and told us he had not been aware of the depth of our distress. My late Grandmother's description would have been blunter: the Bishop looked as though he had finally discovered the proverbial turd at the bottom of the punchbowl.

But it was an honest meeting, and the news is good! The Diocese pledged to help restore St. Mary's in any way they could. They found supply priests, so services could continue. One of those has just become Priest-in-Charge, and is doing a wonderful job. A new Vestry has been elected.  But the best news is that people are coming back. Among them are some of those who never found another parish after they left St. Mary's. It is truly a family reunion. Returning members are greeted with joy, embraced as though they had never left.

And great things are planned: a hymn festival in February to raise funds in aid of the Philippines; a five-organist concert in the spring; several outreach endeavors. St. Mary's has come back to life!

I'm no longer formally a member, but a large part of my heart will always be at St. Mary's with my original parish family, as St. Mary's resurrection moves forward. 

Watch this space for more good news about St. Mary's!

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