Church Homecoming, Virtual Episcopal Style

“Homecoming” is a term that usually evokes a lot of maudlin blubbering in Evangelical circles (especially Southern ones.)  Images of “old-time” religion and hymns, “dinner on the ground,” and churches and families getting together cloud our eyes with tears and our minds with nostalgia.  Bill Gaither was wise in tapping into this the way he did.

These days this isn’t going to happen, not the way it has with “social distancing” and churches closed by a society whose own vision of the eternity of its members is as cloudy as the eyes of sentimental Evangelicals; it doesn’t help that the “leadership” of many churches has rolled over and played dead to boot.  Many churches are scrambling to create “virtual church” to at least tide things over until better days come.

Some churches were better prepared to be catapulted into a virtual state than others.  One of them was my old home church, Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach.  They’ve been putting their services on social media for some time (that was the first revelation in this adventure.)  I’ve said a lot about this place, but with “stay in place” the rule I decided to take a look at a streamed service or two and see what was up after nearly a half century of absence.

I wanted to see what it looked like before we were all scattered like sheep by COVID-19.  I started with the First Sunday in Lent, but they started it with the Litany (something I don’t remember doing growing up) and felt that this wasn’t going to be “typical” enough for a fair assessment.  Bethesda had a real talent for dragging its services out in High Church fashion, and that was the first lesson: they’re still good at it.  After a little more digging I decided to use last year’s Tenth Sunday after Pentecost service, which you can see here:

This obviously took place during the summer, which is the “off-season” in Palm Beach, so it was interesting to see what kind of crowd they had.  It was also in “ordinary time,” which was (as I explain here) my favourite time at Bethesda.  That moulded my reaction to the service, as will be plain below.

Let me just make some observations about what I saw and my impressions thereof.

The first thing that struck me was how little the look and feel of church at Bethesda has changed in the last half century.  The look being unchanged is no surprise: Bethesda is on the National Register of Historic Places, changing anything there is very difficult.  (I’ll bet ARCOM helps out with that too.)  But the feel of the service: even with the major changes that have taken place in society in general and the Episcopal Church in particular, including women in ministry, the dreadful 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and changes in church music, the mood and execution of the service was very much the way it was fifty years ago.  There is still only one instrument: the pipe organ, which accompanies the (probably paid) adult choir.  The procession and recession pretty much goes the same except that choir and clergy no longer process from the narthex but through a side door and from there into the main aisle.

This is amazing because I’ve spent most of the time since I left Bethesda in the church I’m in, and the changes in worship style and music have been pretty dramatic.  This is necessary, we are told, because we must keep up with generational changes, and we would find ourselves empty if we did not do these things.  The attendance in this service at Bethesda was, truth to tell, pretty decent.  Although this needs to be seen in view of the the demographics and other peculiarities of Palm Beach and Bethesda, change for its own sake needs to be considered carefully.

One thing that brought back an amusing memory was the processional hymn: “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.”  The definitely paid youth choir did this when I was growing up.  There are two conspicuous rests in the score, and we felt compelled in rehearsal to either clap or stomp our feet at the rest, something which irritated the organist and choirmaster at the time, Adam Decker, to no end.

As is the case with most Episcopal churches these days, the Holy Communion is standard on Sundays.  Years ago Bethesda was more “Protestant” in its routine of the Eucharist once a month and Morning Prayer the rest of the time.  Even with this, I noted that they do not elevate the Host at the consecration.  I also noted that Bethesda still uses the altar rail for communion, something that is a sine qua non of the “trad” Catholics.  Same trad Catholics would sour at the exchange of peace, which was reasonable.

One of the things I wanted to see was whether Bethesda had toned down the offering a little bit.  In my review of Latta Griswold’s book The Middle Way, I noted the following:

Anglican-Episcopal types “trash talk” prosperity types, but this was a fault my home church Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach was notorious for.  We had the largest silver trays I have ever seen, and the celebrant’s elevation of same at the altar, accompanied by the organist’s all-stops-open rendering of the Doxology, outdid the elevation of the Host at Communion.  I’m sure the Philistines said some ripe things!

They’ve ditched the elevation of the plates, but everything else is pretty much the same.

I mentioned early the expansion of women in ministry in the Episcopal Church.  Bethesda had an indirect role in that: the first Episcopal bishop to consecrate women, Robert Appleyard, was Rector at Bethesda before he became Bishop of Pittsburgh.  In any case this service featured women in both lectern and pulpit.  There are two extreme claims made about this: either the women are so much better they will save the church, or that they are so much worse they will destroy the church.  If Bethesda is any indication, neither is the case: the women pretty much step into the mould and role the men left behind.  (One thing: did I detect a Southern accent or two?  My brother and I were made fun of when we brought ours from TN to Palm Beach in the mid-1960’s.)

That became obvious with the sermon.  One of the reasons I like Ordinary Time (to use the Catholic term) best is because it presents some of the most challenging of Our Lord’s teachings, and this Sunday was no exception.  It’s worth reproducing the Gospel reading here:

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:49-56)

Most of this passage has a pretty straightforward message: you follow Our Lord the way you’re supposed to, and you will have division in your family.  I certainly got that message at the time, was experiencing some, would experience a lot more before it was over with.

For me, the homily fell flat, as those which were preached at the time.  Sure there are allusions to the conflict that following Our Lord will bring.  Some of that conflict was framed (in a subtle way) to a left-political commitment.  (She had to be careful about that, there are doubtless numerous Trumpettes in the congregation.)  But left-political commitments are not countercultural today; they may have been at Bethesda fifty years ago, but the world was changing very fast, as my years at St. Andrew’s were to demonstrate.

The core problem, then and now, is that the Episcopal Church in general and Bethesda in particular are averse to the dramatic, life-changing event of salvation that naturally engendered the kind of division this Gospel reading described.  I’ve said it before numerous times, but I was lead to believe that such dramatic transformations–and telling people they needed one–were in bad taste.  Political substitutes on either end of the spectrum are not substitutes for that transformation.  It’s little wonder our minister “pulled punches” on this topic.

I felt that there were many pulled punches from Bethesda’s pulpit.  And that was a factor–but not necessarily the most important one–which inspired me to take my leave and “swim the Tiber” in Form VI.  My parish priest introduced me to the writings of one John McKenzie, SJ, who put the transformational/revolutionary aspects of the gospel in stark terms.  (You read that passage, along with my thoughts on renouncing privilege, here.)

But such is the course of a walk with God.  My “homecoming” was overall a nice experience, and an enlightening one.  And no blubbering either.

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