At noon, we will convene the annual parish meeting of the Cathedral Church of St. Stephen, spending some time examining the past year in order to move forward faithfully. This serves as the Rector’s Annual Report. Our lessons for this sixth week after the Epiphany illustrate for us Jesus’ challenging vision of a holy life. The beatitudes in GLk echo the teaching of Jeremiah, Blessed are those who trust in the Lord/ Cursed are they who put their trust in [mortal values]. Jesus calls us to pursue a holiness different from secular values. How are we doing?
We are beginning our third year of ministry in the context of disruptive global pandemic. Despite the stress and difficulty, 2021 offered us abundant blessings. My greatest fear these last several years, beyond the possibility of falling ill, has been that we would be unable to perceive the presence of Jesus Christ among us because we have been so focused on the crisis. The faithful endurance of a holy life has been our theme. What has worked well in pursuit of holiness? What can we leave behind? What shall we do next?
What worked well in 2021?
Prayer worked. Worship worked. The regular gathering of virtual communities of prayer and worship have invoked the presence of God, have offered sustenance and comfort, have nurtured resilience in a terrible time, and have expanded our ministry in the very best ways. First and foremost, St Stephen’s is the people of God gathered in worship and prayer. We are the Church, not just a club or a social group, and when we lean into our genuine identity it goes well for us.
Although wi-fi and social media are inconsistent and mixed blessings, technology has mostly worked for us. We have learned that we can build our community and conduct our business in a hybrid (virtual + in-person) format. Yes, we know for sure that we prefer to be together for worship and social activities. We have also come to appreciate that we can hold meetings and study groups online even in the worst weather. Many staff can accomplish their work at home: likely we will need less office space in the future.
Safety protocols have worked. We have learned that we can take some calculated risks in gathering and still plan to maximize safety. Our Cathedral and school communities committed to following rigid safety protocols to keep our community healthy, and mostly we were successful.
Creative strategies have worked. Smaller groups, masking, and distancing feel safer right now. Outdoor gatherings work when weather is conducive to that. These are the options that allowed us to reconvene children’s formation, build a young adult social group, offer Holy Communion in a drive-by format, offer baptism to 6 families, provide consecrated wine at worship, and continue Sunday services.
Collaborative teamwork has worked. Remembering that we do this together and for God is working. Dwelling in silos while competing for resources is isolating and does not work for the good of the community.
A spiritual focus has worked. We are mostly exhausted and raw after two traumatic years of illness and loss. Moments of lightness – Christmas in July, extended Christmas services, spiritual care packets, in-person gatherings and many many phone calls – have helped our community survive the pandemic madness.
Commitment has worked. As weary as we all are of “pivoting,” and as limiting as we have found virtual formats, our community leaders have committed to figuring out how to get things done. Many members embraced online giving as the most expeditious way of supporting the mission of God at SSEC. Community Connections figured out how to provide for people in need and many of you stepped up to support that: food bank, little pantry, refugee ministry, NOEL program. Our choir and MBTR returned with masks. Altar Guild and Flower Guild have adjusted their ministry. Spiritual formation has struggled but it has continued.
What shall we leave behind as we move forward?
I suspect that as a group, we would agree unanimously to leave pandemics behind. May that be so.
I suggest that we leave behind our expectation to return to “normal” – because our experience in 2021 has changed us and has changed the church. Some members will not return, for many reasons (age, relocation, change of heart). Some of our previous practices may not return for a long time, if ever, (common cup, weekly children’s formation, weekly adult formation) because they no longer feel safe or useful. The good news: Our future normal will be what we make of our circumstances.
We need to leave behind our longtime way of being church: on Sundays only, in person only, for the able-bodied only. The exclusive nature of our prior reality is no longer sustainable or defensible. Do you know that 35% of Americans work on Sunday? (58% of those with more than one job work on Sunday). We are adjusting our sound system and livestreaming capacity, in order to allow our worship to be out in the world and on-demand. In what new ways can we welcome and incorporate all people into a transformative relationship with Christ? In which format can we provide spiritual formation of adults (aka Forum), young adults (YAASS) and children? Can we consider new ways to socialize and build friendships outside of Sunday morning? (Necessary and not easy prospects for a parish that is regional and not locally-based).
I strongly recommend that we leave behind reflexive negativity and reluctance to try new things. We have never done that. This is the way we do things. These sort of anxiety-induced responses limit us and put off the newer member who has joined us because of the new things we are doing. We need to leave behind the tendency to cling to an imaginary, safe, glorious historical past. (I say this as an historian: history informs us and does not determine our future). We need to embrace our identity as a living community of faith. Unless you want to transform this parish into a museum exhibiting the way we were – never moving anything, never changing, never doing anything new – which is a strategy guaranteed to kill off the vibrancy of any parish – we must live in our present with an eye on our future. Our present reality is that we are in the downtown of a fairly young and diverse small city, with a socially progressive population. We are at the cusp of the Baby Boomers handing over the reins to Millennials. Let us cultivate the courage to offer an inclusive, hopeful, and challenging vision of faith, in order to proclaim Jesus’ powerful and revolutionary Way of Love. Life with Jesus is a holy, not a “safe” journey.
What shall we do now?
When we found ourselves isolating at home during the terrifying worst of the pandemic, many turned to the church for strength and consolation. The Cathedral led the way in our diocese, offering prayer and connection to many who were far from the sanctuary. It has been clear that God’s grace is most visible when we live into the disruptions of our expectations/plans. As life has interrupted our way of being church, it also offers us the opportunity to clarify our priorities. We stand four years away from the bicentennial anniversary of this parish. Where do you want St. Stephen’s to be in four years? in another 100 years? How will 2026 mark a new beginning? What do we need to do right now, to support God’s dreams for Harrisburg?
It is time to commit to an expansive expression of being a 21st century church. Our primary identity is as a community of faith and worship for all our neighbors. Liturgy in the Episcopal tradition offers the experience of beauty and transcendence, the opportunity to encounter the Divine in real time.
We are in the beginning stages of a capital campaign to replace our failing organ and to update the sanctuary in order to reflect late 20th century theology of worship. This is probably the fifth time the worship space has been re-ordered to reflect a change in theological understanding. Twice SSEC expanded the church. Third change added a pipe organ. The biggest change likely was the addition of the large ornately carved altar with candlesticks in the late 19th century, as the Oxford movement elevated liturgical practice in a very protestant church. Another big change was the 1979 reorientation of the altar so the priest faced front, because the liturgy is something we do together as a community. Why consider more changes now? Because the way we organize our space speaks to what we believe.
Week by week, we say that God has come among us in the flesh and has invited us into eternal life. The sacraments which nourish our souls and inform our lives – especially the Holy Eucharist, which is normative on Sunday in the 1979 BCP – need to be highlighted and accessible to everyone, as living symbols which effect what they signify. Adding the organ console to what is currently the chancel, so the choir can see the organist, will require moving choir pews. Moving the altar forward, so the eucharistic celebration can be closer to the people, will remove a symbolic barrier of distance between the sacrament and those who benefit from it. Moving communion rails to ground level will welcome all to participate in the heavenly feast without the necessity of climbing stairs. Updating our sound and video equipment will expand participation to those who cannot join us physically. Adding some new paint will enhance our space. In the next few weeks, we will have an artist’s rendering of what this may look like.
Will this be costly? Yes, and the cost of not updating is immeasurable in terms of our credibility. Will this challenge us? Probably, and yet this is not such a big deal: SSEC has survived two world wars and at least two global pandemics. As Dumbledore tells Harry Potter: it is not our abilities that show who we are; it is our choices. Let’s not be anxious about what we have lost or fear what we may change. Our experience through the past two centuries has shown us that we will know God’s blessing. 2021 has demonstrated decisively that we can do many things when we commit to the work and lean on the guidance of God. As we approach our third century, what shall we choose to do with and for God now?