Rector’s Chronicle: December 2008

Dearly Beloved in Christ,

Christmas is upon us. This year is unusual, because we are in the midst of the greatest economic crisis of most of our lifetimes. A very few remember the Great Depression of the 1930s. Baby Boomers, like yours truly, recall the 1970s: gas lines and the “misery index” of high unemployment and double-digit inflation, and the time when New York City went bankrupt. We certainly remember the stock market tumble after 9/11. But our current financial crisis, which hasn’t yet been named, seems different. Before I get to its effect so far on Saint Thomas Church and Choir School, let’s return to Christmas. Three things:

First, the Women of Saint Thomas, in addition to enjoying a pre-Christmas luncheon in Andrew Hall, have sent toys to children known to Holy Apostles’ Soup Kitchen in Chelsea (of which Saint Thomas is the largest benefactor among religious groups) and Iglesia San Andres, Yonkers. This good work began over a decade ago with the Angel Tree project.

Second, we have recently enjoyed two critically acclaimed performances of Handel’s Messiah by the Choir of Men and Boys, four distinguished soloists, and Concert Royal under the direction of John Scott. Handel’s perennially fresh rendering of the whole mystery of the Gospel reminds us of the priceless and best gift of all – the love of God in our Lord Jesus Christ. Handel is so successful that it is hard for me to think of many central texts of our faith without having his melodies and phrases in my head.

Third, we have just been treated to Miracle on 53rd Street – in the words of its producers “a brand new and somewhat original Christmas play” – that is, the 2008 Sunday School Christmas Pageant. Lucky Gold, who wrote the script, brought what sounded like two Valley Girls to the steps of Saint Thomas, where the sight of a poor woman with a baby, street vendors and other folks suddenly opened up into the story of the Nativity. “Is this church like this every week?” one girl asks the other; and they wind up joining the Magi at the manger. Some of us in the congregation were so moved (as happens at Christmas Pageants) that we choked up and could not sing Silent Night at the end.

Thank God for Christmas – which is to say, Thank God for his Son! The first Christmas had dislocation, taxation, and political terror. But in the midst of it was born the Prince of Peace. This is a fine time for us to rediscover that Gift which comes from above; let circumstances happen how they will.

THE FINANCES OF SAINT THOMAS

Here are some excerpts from a letter to the staff of the Church and Choir School from the Vestry’s Standing Committee (the Rector, Wardens, and Treasurer; joined in this case by the Headmaster), informing them that there will be no salary increases for 2009:

“As we approach the end of another year, we are again reminded of the tremendous contribution that each of you makes to Saint Thomas Church and Choir School. This marvelous place of worship and education could not function without the dedication and good work that you all give day in and day out….”

“As we are all acutely aware, the world’s economies are in the midst of a recession and financial crisis that is expected to last well into 2009. The Every Member Canvass is about 16% lower than it was this time last year. The church’s endowment, which underwrites the vast majority of our operating budget, has declined by over 30%. While our investment losses are less than the losses of many market indices, they are clearly significant. As a result, the 2009 budget has been reviewed line by line. Many of you have identified innovative opportunities for cost savings, and we are very grateful for these good suggestions. As the Rector says repeatedly, we must bring Saint Thomas through this financial crisis ‘whole’. To this end, we are making significant budget reductions in 2009.”

“We value each of you very much and trust that you understand the financial challenges that lie ahead for our parish, school, and community….The decisions we are making are very difficult indeed.”

So that you are aware, here are some of the more visible cuts in expenses we have made. We are not advertising our services in The New York Times or on WQXR, a savings of over $100,000. We have cut the flower budget by half. We are also seeking ways to reduce the cost of the Choir. Because of contracts already signed, we will have instrumental music for Christmas Eve 2008. However, for Easter Day 2009, we lack sufficient funds for brass and instrumental music. The Leslie Lang Memorial Fund offsets some of what we need. Here is an urgent appeal: We are about $6,000 short. If you or a group of you are interested, we are eager to receive the money and restore the brass/instrumental music for Easter Day as a memorial or thank-offering.

Nota bene: This Rector’s Chronicle is being mailed only to our list of recorded contributors. The mailing list had grown to well over three times that number; given the fact that it can be read on our website, this seems an unwarranted postage expense for a much slower method of delivery. If you find you are not receiving this and other mailings and prefer to receive regular mail than to rely on the internet, you may send us a contribution. We are working on compiling an email list for The Rector’s Chronicle and other mailings.

These and numerous other reductions are being made, and will continue to be made, in all the various departments of the Church and Choir School. It is a statement that bears repeating: Our goal is to bring Saint Thomas through this crisis, whole.

Beyond our Operating Budget, there are the Stained Glass Windows and the Organ projects. While we are not backing away from these commitments, we are reviewing the timetables for them. As it stands, we are due to have the restored reredos and north clerestory windows re-installed, beginning in spring 2009. Inasmuch as we do not have the money to begin restoring the windows on the south side of the church, the timetable for that project is under fresh consideration and may well have to be staged differently, thereby spanning many more years than we originally anticipated. Funds to begin the project for the Great Organ have been pledged and received, but it is still too early for us to know if we will realize our hope that 2013, the one hundredth anniversary year of the Saint Thomas Church building, will see the completion of the project.

I am also acutely aware that among our members many are anxious about their own jobs and financial security, as well as concerned for their families and friends. After 9/11, many took refuge at Saint Thomas for private prayer and quiet, for services, liturgies, fellowship and classes, and also for pastoral counsel. While, thank God, we have not been attacked as in 2001, this financial crisis similarly throws us back onto God and the things in life that really matter. Remember that the Church is here for you. Our ministry involves “in-reach” as well as outreach. You will be hearing more from us on this topic.

EVERY MEMBER CANVASS FOR 2009

As you can see from the letter quoted above, the Canvass for 2009 is 16 % behind the record Canvass for 2008, which is understandable. We have decided not to do our usual Every Member Canvass follow-up until after Christmas and the New Year (The “Candlemas Campaign”). All things considered, we are not doing badly so far. The Canvass Committee uses an acronym: LYBUNT, which means a person who pledged “Last Year But Unfortunately Not This (Year).” There are to date 250 LYBUNTs. We expect many of these to pledge, with good results. If you are in the LYBUNT category, please save us the effort and yourself the prodding, and make your pledge for 2009 to Saint Thomas Church and Choir School. Remember that a pledge is made on the basis of a person’s situation here and now, and it may have to be changed with circumstances. In all cases, a pledge to the Church is an outward sign of faith in the Lord and an investment in his gracious providence in all circumstances.

I view this crisis as an opportunity for the living congregation to take a larger share of financial responsibility for the operations of Saint Thomas, a goal we have had for years. I know how much Saint Thomas means to so many of you. Confirm this for us by sending in your pledge. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

VESTRY CHANGES AND THANKS

Every December we have the Annual Election to fill three positions on the Vestry, which comprises nine members, each of whom is elected for a three-year term. An incumbent Vestry member may run for a second three-year term, but then must rotate off the Vestry. In addition are the two Wardens, who may serve for up to six consecutive two-year terms. The customary titles Senior and Junior, applied to the Wardens, refer to length of tenure. Elected this December was William H.A. Wright II to a fourth term as (Senior) Warden and W. Michael Margolin (incumbent), B. Franklin Reinauer III and Karl C. Saunders MD, to three-year terms as Vestrymen.

This year we thank two members of the Vestry rotating off after six years, Willem Brans and William R. Miller OBE. Willem Brans provides invaluable expert advice and encouragement for fund raising, from the Every Member Canvass to the inception of a Capital Campaign (still in its “quiet phase”) for the Stained Glass Windows and Organ projects. Bill Miller is the great lion of Saint Thomas’ music program. He has given crucial support to the Rector’s call of John Scott to be Director of Music, and he is a vital force behind the brilliance of our Concert Series. Both Willem and Bill continue as appointed members of committees in support of fund raising efforts and the Organ project. I speak for myself and for many in saying, Thank you, to both these pillars (“oaks of righteousness”) of the Church.

FRIENDS FROM OTHER TRADITIONS

For 2009 I have invited two distinguished members of my Class of 1971 at Yale Divinity School to preach for us. The Rev’d Richard W. Reifsnyder, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Winchester, Virginia, will preach for both the Festal Eucharist at 11 o’clock and Festal Evensong at 4 o’clock on Sunday, January 25, the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, which closes the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Later, Dr. Royal W. Rhodes, Professor of Religion at Kenyon College and a Roman Catholic lay scholar, will preach on the Seven Last Words of Christ at the three-hour service from 12 noon to 3 o’clock on Good Friday. Dr. Rhodes preached for us in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity last January.

The Rev’d Dr. Timothy Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church at Hunter College here in Manhattan, has written a superb little book, The Prodigal God, which we will promote in Sunday leaflets and have available in the Bookstore as The Rector’s Recommended Book for Lent 2009. The Prodigal God is based on the (misnamed) Parable of the Prodigal Son – it should be the Parable of the Two Lost Sons, or the Parable of the Loving Father. It brings insight after insight. [Tim, with whom I took turns for a decade at a men’s prayer breakfast at the Harvard Club, has also written The Reason for God, which has had a long run on The New York Times best seller list.]

I want to note the passing of Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, one of the most distinguished American theologians of all time. Cardinal Dulles was 90 and died December 12, having taught the past two decades at Fordham University. He preached at Saint Thomas for Choral Evensong during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2002. Avery Dulles came from a distinguished family of diplomats and was the son of John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State. In many ways, in his humility, brilliance, and charm, Avery Dulles made people think of John Henry Cardinal Newman, his spiritual ancestor from nineteenth century England. I remember how delighted Cardinal Dulles was when I showed him the figure of Newman (cardinal’s hat and all) in our pulpit, into which, his legs supported with braces because of polio, he was about to climb to give us the Word. The polio which he had overcome as a young man returned to paralyze and silence Cardinal Dulles. Father Austin, who was one of Avery Dulles’ doctoral students, witnessed the great man’s last lecture. It was read in the Cardinal’s presence for him by the former President of Fordham. Let his words, which probe personally the mystery of suffering, finish this Rector’s Chronicle:

“Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils, but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be accepted as elements of a full human existence. Well into my 90th year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord!’”

May you have a truly blessed Christmas and New Year 2009.

Faithfully your Priest and Rector,
Andrew C. Mead