Church Experience #4 – Jan 23, 2011
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
It’s Denomination Time
After spending the first few weeks of 2011 attending non-denominational churches, I knew it was time to take ChurchSurfer into the denominational world. Although I plan on visiting all of the popular denominations sometime this year, I couldn’t see myself going to a Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian church this week because that’s what I’ve known for the majority of my life and I really wanted to experience something new. So I chose an Episcopal Church, because I know very little about that denomination. It turns out that its a very interesting denomination…the history, the rituals, and the people I met were all very enlightening to me. One of the ways I feel like I grew this week was in expanding my awareness of church history and the responsibility of carrying on traditions from generation to generation. So get ready to jump back in time…
Creating an Atmosphere
As my wife, Laura, and I arrived at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, I examined the building and couldn’t help instantly noticing the stark architectural contrast between this church and the churches I had visited the previous two weeks. The Net Church meets in a movie theater and New Covenant Fellowship is definitely built more for utility than aesthetic grandeur, and now here I was in front of a large church building that was beautifully constructed in a very detailed and classic brick theme with a multitude of windows. I stopped for a moment to take a few photos and really listen for what this building was saying to me from the outside. Already feeling pretty nostalgic, we entered the building (about 30 minutes early for the service) to look around and see what was going on. I could immediately tell that the service was going to be very formal and ritualistic compared to the contemporary non-denominational services I’ve grown accustomed to. Outside of the sanctuary was a bowl of (holy?) water and a decanter of wine and as I looked into the sanctuary I saw traditional wooden pews lining a spectacular room with wooden arches from the walls to the ceiling, a suspended metal cross above the pulpit, and two gloriously breathtaking paintings at the rear of the room above the entrance. This scene instantly brought forth the argument in my mind of whether it is a wise use of a church’s money to build such a lavish building when it could instead go to provide food, shelter, and support for people in need. This is an argument I haven’t settled within myself yet, because I think of the instance in the Bible when a woman poured expensive oils and perfumes on Jesus, and He overruled the disciples’ objection to her gesture. I also think of Solomon’s Temple as an example of the material indulgence vs. moral acceptability argument. Whether investing large sums of money on a fancy building is ethical or responsible is not my judgement call to make (thank God), but what I will say is that attending services in this Episcopal church brought out a deep sense of spirituality through these various atmospherics. Inside this building you can’t help but feel the connectedness to the ancient times, from the beginnings of the Christian church and through all the ages to this very moment. Those of us who seek God’s presence continue to use symbols, rituals, decorations, and buildings to aid us in the process, and many of these haven’t been changed for centuries. (Visit the ChurchSurfer Facebook page for more pictures)
A Young Ambassador
I won’t comment as much on the actual service this week except to say that it was very “Catholic” feeling. There were a few traditional hymns mixed with congregational responses (some spoken, some sung) to the pastor’s readings of prayers and acknowledgements out of a hymnal-type book, a short sermon, communion, and greetings of peace among the people. The service was new and interesting to me, but made a much lesser impression than one individual that I had the pleasure of meeting, and would like to spend more time writing about. While sitting in the lobby outside of the sanctuary before the service, a young pre-teen stood off to the side mumbling to himself while struggling to put on a white robe and tie the rope belt the proper way. He introduced himself as Marcus and I told him this was my first time attending an Episcopal church and asked him for his thoughts on St. Peter’s. He then proceeded to go on what must have been a 10 minute continuous ramble (not sure if he was taking time to breathe or not) about their pastor, Reverend Carter Paden, the three different Sunday services that are offered, their youth group, his role in the service of carrying the crucifer (a golden cross on a wooden pole), the paintings in the sanctuary, and everything we would need to know about how to take communion and participate in the service at this church. He did all of this with such enthusiasm that it was impossible not to feel good about being there. I remember thinking that if every church had young people (or anybody) like this who were as engaging, sincere, and downright excited about being there, attendance and retention would probably skyrocket. Marcus explained that he was a Romanian orphan that was adopted and raised by his American family who were members of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. He spoke with a local accent, so the adoption must have been as a baby, but it seemed that despite his young age he was fully aware and appreciative of just how blessed his life has been. How refreshing it is to meet someone like this when our country is so full of people who take their wealth and privilege for granted and seem to have no concern for the people around them who struggle for even the most basic necessities. Marcus invited us to come to the dining hall after the service for cake and coffee and fellowship time, which we did in hopes of meeting a few other church members, but instead ended up spending 20 more minutes talking (or more accurately, listening) to Marcus about his youth group mission trips, the pranks he and his buddies have pulled on their youth director, and the weekly 9:30 AM Sunday service that caters to families with young children where disciplining kids for making noise and moving around is not allowed by the pastor.
One of the powerful feelings that I experienced at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church was the deep sense of historical spirituality and connectedness that filled me while being surrounded by such ageless artifacts of the Christian faith. For those of you who are history buffs, I would highly recommend reading about the origins of the Episcopal church, which they themselves trace back through the colonial settlers of the 1700’s to the Church of England and beyond that to the original Christian churches, only distinguishing themselves from the Church of Rome (Catholic with a capital “C”) during the reformation to reject the claims of the pope to be the singular, universal authority. In my experience at St. Peter’s I felt like the one glaring omission to the service was true worship. I felt like worshiping and praising God through joyful and spirited music was almost completely absent, and the priority and significance of their service was to honor God through hymns and recitals that affirmed their beliefs and understanding of the Scriptures. I loved the fold-out “kneelers” in each pew that allow you to comfortably kneel for prayer, which I think is not done enough by Christians these days. To me, kneeling to pray is a symbol of complete surrender and submission to God, our only true authority. I’m not sure why this act has mostly been removed from current church services, and replaced by simply bowing our heads and closing our eyes. Getting on my knees before God is something I will make a point of doing more often moving forward. I didn’t get in depth with the differences of beliefs and doctrines of the Episcopal church versus other denominations and faiths, but that’s really not my intention in the first place. Instead, I succeeded in my goal of gaining new insight into the Christian faith, and experiencing God through people…thanks Marcus.
View more photos of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at the ChurchSurfer Facebook page, and make sure to “like” it while you’re there!