Rector’s Chronicle: September 2012

Dearly Beloved in Christ,

After a restful, re-creative July on Monhegan Island, Maine, I have used the quiet days of August to prepare for the resumption of the full choral foundation of Saint Thomas in September. We are always a wonderfully busy church; even in the summer we have fifteen weekday Eucharists from Monday to Friday, one Saturday Eucharist, and three Eucharists on Sunday mornings. Saturday Soup Kitchen and Sunday adult classes have been going on each week. Our Youth Group returned in August to the Convent of the Sisters of Saint Mary to learn about acts of corporal mercy; we look forward to a report. The Choir School has been on summer vacation. But in September all at once we add Sunday Choral Evensong and Choral Evensongs on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The rigors of this ministry together with the presence and work of the Choir School are really something – it feels like a great jetliner suddenly taking off full throttle down the runway. Along with the choral foundation, everything else takes off as well, from the Every Member Canvass to the full scope of Christian Education to many other things, all of which are well presented on our website.

WHO WOULD KNOW?

In 1996, my first year as Rector, I mentioned to a parish leader some things going on in the Chantry, during those sixteen above-mentioned non-Sunday services. My point was that there were some differences in the Chantry from practices at the High Altar, and that a particular development I was pushing for the High Altar was already being done in the Chantry many times each week. “But who would know?” I was wisely cautioned. So I held my horses for a good while.

Who indeed would know? Saint Thomas has always been what might be called a vertical church, vertical like everything in Manhattan. New Yorkers including yours truly for the most part seem to like things this way, and Saint Thomas is gloriously vertical. People have vertical connections with the church: looking up at the reredos with its amazing blue windows; sitting and listening to the preacher in the pulpit; worshiping at one’s particular favorite service in one’s preferred pew and going up to receive one’s holy communion; meeting and talking with the people one has known and cherished perhaps for many years yet not knowing in the slightest others (in other groups) who have been at Saint Thomas perhaps for decades, not to mention the many newer and often younger parishioners who come to Saint Thomas every week. The vertical blessing is great until it results in an aggregation of individuals and groups, each within their own silos and not communicating with or even aware of others. The vertical blessing is good but must not prevent horizontal circulation and thereby engender stagnation. Charles Dickens (see below!) believed, rightly I think, that the secret to social health is circulation – just as in a body. Making horizontal, communal communication is always a challenge, and we do try constantly to address it.

Approximately 78,000 people attended all services at Saint Thomas in 2011, a nice increase of nearly 9,000 over 2008; and 2012 is significantly higher at this point over the first seven months of 2011. But conservatively estimated, over and above those who attend services, about 300,000 people climb our Fifth Avenue steps each year in between services to look, sit and rest, cool off or warm up, pray, close their eyes, take pictures, inquire, and generally find relief in the holy silence. We have anecdotally labeled these visitors wanderers, lookers, seekers, finders and keepers; and I have written before in The Rector’s Chronicle about this group of people who as an aggregation are about the size of the city of Rochester. Who would know, without our newly intentional nave ministry?

Among the 78,614 numbered as attenders of all worship services in 2011, 11,545 were attenders at services in the Chantry Chapel. Although we have had nice increases in attendance each year from 2008 to the present at both High Altar (Sunday and weekday Choral Services) and Chantry services, the biggest gains, percentage-wise, have been at Chantry services. 2011 was up 24 percent over 2010 in the Chantry. The first seven months of 2012 are up 16 percent over the first seven months of 2011. So in two years we have witnessed an increase of about 40 percent in Chantry service attendance. These figures all exclude the special services of baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Who would know? If you are somewhere in your own silo at some other Sunday service, you don’t know. Yet it’s good news about the mission of Saint Thomas on the corner of Fifth and 53rd in the center of midtown. The Lord’s work in his House here is far more extensive than any of us, including the Rector and clergy, realizes. It is worth noting as well, that in this era of steep decline in national Episcopal Church attendance and membership, even to “stay flat” is to do better than normal.

What is going on in the Chantry? Well, first of all, the full cycle of the services of The Book of Common Prayer – Morning Prayer and Eucharist at 8 am, Eucharist at 12:10 pm, and Evening Prayer and Eucharist at 5:30 pm – are set forth for congregations ranging on average from half a dozen to two dozen. Some of these congregations have sub-groups, especially at 8 am but also at 12:10 pm, who know one another and keep track of one another. Just the other day, a person who worked nearby and attended daily Morning Prayer and Eucharist but who has been ill for quite some time (but very much in our thoughts and prayers), came back to the 8 am looking miraculously well after being away for several years, creating an outburst of joy amongst us after Mass. This sort of thing happens in the family of Jesus Christ.

Within the Prayer Book’s round of services, there are also the glories of the Church’s calendar, especially of commemorations of manifold saints and servants of God in the Eucharist, from the early church apostles, martyrs and other heroes and heroines to recent stalwarts of the faith. We might celebrate Saint Laurence the Deacon and Martyr, or Saint Agnes the young girl of the Early Church who was martyred, or John Mason Neale the hymn-writer of the nineteenth century Anglo-Catholic revival, or Absalom Jones the first African-American priest and rector in the Episcopal Church. Nota bene: Saint Thomas’ founding Rector, Cornelius Roosevelt Duffie, was a pioneer supporter of African-American full participation in the Episcopal Church. We have very brief homilettes (we aim for only a minute or three). As for the daily lectionary’s regular round of Scripture, especially from the Old Testament for Morning or Evening Prayer, we hear strange and wonderful readings: prophecies, oracles, ballads, epics, tales and histories, which we never hear on Sunday. Yet experienced and heard in the intimacy and holiness of the Chantry, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle and your fellow members of the Body of Christ, these Scriptures come alive with a power hard to describe. Recently, after the lay reader finished part of the story of Abimelech (the hero Gideon’s son by a concubine in the Book of the Judges), just before we were to stand and recite the canticle Benedictus Dominus Deus, we all of us looked wide-eyed at one another with smiles as we stood up. It was electric – and this is not unusual. Who would know? Come and see.

Some Chantry worshipers are workers who live in the outer boroughs or the suburbs where they worship on Sunday but for whom Saint Thomas is their during-the-week church. For others of these midtown workers our Chantry is their church, period. Some visitors come into the church during these services, stumbling onto them, and take part. Others stand and watch. Others sit down in the main nave and are clearly listening if not directly taking part. Recently I celebrated a noon Chantry Mass for two dozen, while perhaps another fifty were out in the nave, looking around but also listening.

As I have become more aware of and sensitive to this mystery of our hundreds of thousands of visitors, I have found myself getting friendlier, being readier to help questioners, smiling more at them, almost no matter what. If someone is being a problem, we have good staff to help us get disturbances under control and keep the place a sanctuary. And of course safety and security are priorities. Nevertheless, Saint Thomas is God’s House, and we do not do well if we act like trolls guarding a gateway! As the Apostle enjoins, we are to welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed us. Well, I have written enough. Now you know, at least a little bit, about Saint Thomas’ glorious Chantry.

BOOK REPORTS

One of the great things about a month on Monhegan Island is that Nancy and I read to our hearts’ content. This year, instead of shipping boxes of books to the island, we had his and her Kindles and read most of our books that way. She gives me a list of books she’s vetted or thinks may be good, and I generally follow her suggestions. This year’s big read was Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, his last complete novel, and it is truly a masterpiece and a page-turner as well. We read it simultaneously. Kindles do not provide page numbers; they tell you what percentage of the book you’re through. So in the dark (there is no electricity in our rented cottage) I would say, where are you? She’d reply, at 87 percent; where are you? At 89 percent, I’d answer. “Don’t say anything!” she’d exclaim worried that the cat would come out of the bag. Our Mutual Friend is about an inheritance and the destructive effects of money. Dickens’ celebrated ability with names reaches a high point with the social-climbing couple, Mr. and Mrs. Veneering, and the John Bull British bigot, Mr. Podsnap. His mastery of psychology, of interior struggle and trial, gets full play. He surprises by having two lawyers and one clergyman as Very Good Guys. His sensitivity to the dignity of women, of Jews and to anti-Semitism (and to the special problem of Jew-hatred among his own countrymen) is extraordinary in this book. His control of the many subplots within the big plot is at its height; and suspense is sustained through an enormous volume. Although Dickens was not known as a churchman, nevertheless this novel, like the rest of his works, is profoundly Christian. I’ve read most of his later novels now, but none of his very early ones. After a breather, I need to take those up. But I recommend Our Mutual Friend, and it’s worth taking the time to tackle it. You feel improved when you finish.

John Grisham’s Calico Joe (2012) is a baseball story with father-son and other kinds of redemption. The narrator is the son of a Mets pitcher, not a nice man, who beaned a Cubs rookie sensation (Calico Joe) and destroyed his career. It is short, hard to put down, and satisfying. You can read it in two nights. Unbroken (2010) by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit, is the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who would have done the first four-minute mile had he not gone to be a bombardier in World War II – in which he was shot down over the Pacific, floated for 47 days on a raft, was captured by the Japanese and interred, starved and tortured both in the Gilbert Islands and in Japan till the end of the war. He had a hard time with freedom after returning home and was not especially religious but heard angels and was saved by attending an early Billy Graham rally. He is alive at 95. His is a story of heroics, survival, resilience and redemption. Cutting for Stone (2009) by Abraham Verghese connects third world (Ethiopia) medicine with first world (Massachusetts General Hospital) by having them meet in the Bronx. It is an arresting story about families, forgiveness, violence, and mortality, in which love conquers all with no cheap grace. The author, a professor of medicine at Stanford, provides as much medical detail as Herman Melville does on whaling in Moby-Dick. But it doesn’t spoil the suspense at all. Philip Roth’s little book, Nemesis (2010), concerns the polio epidemic after World War II before the Salk vaccine was developed. There is a lot of good, hard Jewish arguing over theology – is there Anyone there or not; if there is, is He good? Roth surely, like his peer John Updike (another theological novelist but from the WASP world), is one of finest American novelists of a great passing generation. Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn is a murder mystery in which a husband is set up for the murder of his wife. I’ll say no more, except that for all the twists and turns of the story, there is a fine justice in the end.

Speaking of fine justice in the end, I took time out once again to listen to Dante’s Divine Comedy on tape, from his midlife crisis down to the pit of hell right up into the empyrean of highest, deepest heaven. This is a translation by Herbert Kenny, read by Grover Gardner. The Comedy I think is the most nearly perfect epic poem of all time as well as the greatest piece of Christian literature outside of Holy Scripture. I first read Dorothy Sayers’ translation (with her superb notes) 25 years ago and have revisited it by either reading or listening to it every five years since. Dante addresses the Great Issue of Life, i.e., “What do you want?” You meet this issue of the Freedom of the Will in Hell, in Purgatory (which is where I think most of us are and which is also my favorite of the three parts) and in Heaven. Our Lord Jesus Christ has made it all possible by visiting every dimension of human life, overcoming the sharpness of death, descending into hell, and opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers. All is under “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.”

BEFORE I LET YOU GO

Sometimes, when I am reading the Daily Office at home, after I’m finished, I read from one or another collection of readings from the early church writers and other spiritual masters. Canon Wright edited one of my favorites which gathers writings from the Church Fathers (and Mothers too) of the patristic era. I picked up a newer, different volume for the Church of England, entitled Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Christian Year, edited and introduced by Robert Atwell, an English priest. One day I just happened, after a long time away from this book, to think I should have a look. What I read blew me away, and I want to share it with you. This is a reading from a treatise, “On the Mortality Rate,” by Saint Cyprian of Carthage in North Africa, Bishop and Martyr (258 AD), written after a virulent outbreak of the Plague in his city. [Cyprian’s feast day is September 13.]

“There are certain people who are disturbed because this disease has attacked equally pagans and Christians. They talk as if being a Christian somehow guaranteed the enjoyment of happiness in this world and immunity from contact with illness, rather than preparing us to endure adversity in the faith that our full happiness is reserved for the future. It disturbs some of our number that death seems to have no favorites. And yet what is there in this world that is not common to us all? As long as we are subject to the same laws of generation we have a common flesh. As long as we are in the world we share an identical physicality with the rest of humankind, even if our spiritual identity singles us out. Until this corruptible form is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal frame receives immortality, and the Spirit leads us to God the Father, we share with the rest of humanity the burden of our flesh.

“When the soil is exhausted and the harvest poor, famine makes no distinction of persons. When an army invades and a city is taken, everyone suffers a common desolation. When the skies are cloudless and the rains fail, all alike suffer from the drought. When a ship goes aground on treacherous rocks, the shipwreck affects all who sail in her without exception. Diseases of the eye, attacks of fever, weakness in limbs, are all as common to Christians as to anyone else because this is the lot of all who bear human flesh in this world.

“The righteous have always displayed a capacity for endurance. The apostles maintained such a discipline in obedience to the commandment of the Lord not to murmur in adversity, but to accept bravely and patiently whatever may happen to them in the world. In the same way the fear of God and faith in God ought to prepare you for anything. If you have lost all your worldly goods, or your limbs are racked by constant pain and discomfort, or you have lost your wife, your children or friends, and you are swamped by grief, do not let these things become stumbling blocks to your faith but rather battles. Such things should not undermine or break the faith of Christians but reveal their courage in the struggle. The pain which these current troubles can inflict on us is nothing when compared with the future blessings that are assured us.

“There can be no victory without a battle: only when victory has been secured through engaging in the battle is the victor’s crown bestowed. The true helmsman is recognized in the midst of a storm. The true soldier is proven only on the battlefield. There can be no authentic testing where there is no danger. When the struggle is real, then the testing is real. The tree which has sent down deep roots is not disturbed by gales, and the ship that has been made of decent timber may be beaten in the waves but will not be broken. When corn is beaten on the threshing-floor, the solid and heavy grains rebuke the wind, whereas the empty chaff is carried away on the breeze.

“To summarize: the difference between us and those who do not know God is that when misfortune occurs, others complain and murmur, but we are not distracted by adversity from the true path of virtue and faith; indeed, in the midst of suffering we are made strong.”

Thank you, Lord, for speaking through Saint Cyprian. Welcome, new Season of 2012- 2013 at Saint Thomas Church and Choir School.

Faithfully your Priest and Rector,

Andrew C. Mead