Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How it's done

Another of Caelius' posts made me think about what makes the difference between a thriving parish and the ones that are sick or dying out.   The parish I attend now is a thriving one; in fact, it's one of the few I'm aware of in my diocese that is healthy and growing.

Here are some of my thoughts about why that has happened:
  • Worship and faith.  There are 4 masses on Sunday (3 in the summer) - one being a 6 p.m. "Last Chance" mass. There is at least one prayer service every day, and I think on two days of the week a mass, too. Not very many come to these, usually - but the services are offered nonetheless, every day. The rector is a woman, and Anglo-Catholic in approach; most of the parishioners are pretty middle-of-the-road, though. There's a crucifix on the wall, but no other obvious signs of Anglo-Catholicism; they use no incense (except perhaps on special occasions - but I've never seen it).   (Oh, wait:  they do ring bells during the Consecration.)  Feast days for the upcoming week are listed in the weekly announcements bulletin that comes with the service bulletin. 

    The music director offers a great variety of hymns from the 1982 Hymnal, and occasionally hymns from other sources.  Hymns are briskly paced; this, I think, is actually more important than anybody would think.   The litany is sung on Advent 1 and Lent 1, and the late service is Rite 1 on the first Sunday of each month.  The congregation sings all the ordinary parts of the mass except the Creed; we sing the Pascha Nostrum instead of the Gloria during Easter, to Anglican Chant, and other seasonal anthems and canticles at other times of the year; we sing the Psalm except in summer when it's said.  (There are only two readings and the Psalm each week; the third is printed in the bulletin.)    The choir sings a great variety of music of all kinds, from all over the world. 

    I look very much forward to going every week, because I can count on a respectfully done and intelligent liturgy that I know well and don't have to feel afraid of.  I can absolutely rely on its detoxifying effects - and I feel, when I don't go, that I've missed something important.

  • Care for members and others:  Many families belong, and there are many kids;  many or most of the kids are part of the very strong choir program. The parish does a lot of service in the neighborhood and around the diocese and beyond; they give service a very important place in their hierarchy of values, and are involved in many long-term projects. 

    For instance, they are helping a parish destroyed by last year's hurricane with rebuilding, and donate Prayer Books, etc.  This parish gets prayed for every Sunday.  They also raise money for some of the poorer churches in the area. The kids of the parish worked to raise money to buy a service dog for a young boy, also a member, who had a degenerative disease; he died eventually, though, before they could give him the dog - and they mourned deeply for him.   That's probably one of the most important things they'll ever have done in their lives; this kind of direct, personal care is even more important, I think, than almost any other kind of service.   Prayers for special days in the lives of members always come  from the Prayer Book; we pray once a month for those celebrating wedding anniversaries - and I believe I saw the beautiful Prayer #45, "For Families," used on Mother's Day. 

    There's an independent nonprofit counseling center on the grounds, originally founded by members of the parish.  While it's independent, its presence produces a feeling of confidence that there are people close by you could go to for help if you needed it.   I used to go to this parish for the Office and for things like Stations of the Cross, and the clergy remembered and welcomed me warmly when I started coming on Sundays, too.

  • Stability.  The rector has been there for almost 20 years; I think this makes a huge difference.  It might be the single most important factor, actually, given her un-selfconscious Anglo-Catholic approach; there are also strong lay leaders who do a great deal of service (and officiate at the Daily Offices).  All of this is a great example of consistency, constancy, grounding in prayer, and dedication.  Consistent, dependable worship services every day of each week, and leaders who continue to be willing to spend their energy on all this, every week, for two decades:  that's an impressive legacy these days.   I believe the average tenure of a priest now is less than 6 years, and continues to shrink.  

    The rector always seems to hire young curates, usually somebody recently ordained; this means that the rector must preside at every mass, for at least six months - but she continues this practice faithfully.  They get very good training.  The music director, too, has been there for a couple of decades; she has her own choral ensemble outside the parish which is well known and highly regarded in the local area.  

    What has made the difference here is that the rector - and I think the music director, too - have actually dedicated the greater part of their work lives (and thus their hearts) to this parish.  They have built up something meant to last; they are, unfortunately, a vanished breed - but they are the ones who've made this parish what it is.  It's this kind of long-term dedication and constancy that matters.
  • Energy.  It may be quite difficult to combine this kind of long-view investment in stability with energy and freshness and openness to new ideas, but they are able to do it.  This seems to me the absolute best of Anglicanism, actually.

  • Egos checked at the door.   Every service is done by the book (the 1979 BCP, that is); rubrics are followed.  This demonstrates that the rector is able to keep her own ego in check, and can obey rules.  It also helps the congregation to memorize the service so we can actually pray, and not have to be looking down at the bulletin all the time.  The music director uses settings everybody knows for the service music.  Nobody makes any attempt to be special, cute, or to put an individual spin on any part of the liturgy.    Nobody's there for the sake of attracting attention to themselves, or to power-drive their own agendas over everybody else.  (You might be surprised how hard this is to come by!)

    The fact that the rector is able to low-key her Anglo-Catholicism, for the sake of her parishioners' worship style, yet still live by, and teach and preach it - well, that's another example of the ability to "check one's ego at the door." And, BTW: it also demonstrates that Anglo-Catholicism is not actually mostly about birettas.

  • Helping kids.   The choirs are very important to the kids and the parents, it's clear.  There are also scholarships for seniors going to college; choir trips to RSCM events during the summer; pilgrimages (they just went to a New Mexico monastery) and mission trips; summer Bible school; movie nights; Compline for Kids; pizza nights.  The music program is very central, though - and brings kids from other neighborhoods in, too, and other choirs, and other people who like to sing.  What's important about this is the same thing we always talk about:  healthy, grounded, dependable faith is a slow process.  People aren't going to get it immediately; after all, it took me 10 years to really feel at home with almost everything in the liturgy.  So have people sing, while they're waiting and learning!  Give them something valuable while you're teaching them something even more valuable.

I really don't think it's more complicated than that - but of course, that's a lot.  This church is growing and healthy; they are actually spending money building, rather than digging into their endowment.   All this, in a college town in the Northeast.

There is a lot going on, thanks to a dedicated, energetic, extremely hard-working, faithful rector who doesn't think it's all about her, and works at helping people find a stable, rich, beneficial  faith - something that's clearly at the very center of her own life.

The Episcopal Church really doesn't have to die, you know.

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