I beg your pardon for skipping Week 3 in our search for our next church home. Having spent last Saturday at PrideFest Norfolk, and then had the start of a migraine attack Sunday morning, we opted for All Saints Pasadena, who stream the Eucharist each Sunday. Their adult forum had been planned–weeks ago–to address gun violence as a public health problem; after the shooting in Orlando, it touched even more deeply. And the sermon preached by the Rev. Susan Russell… well, put simply: WOW. That’s a link to the video, and I urge you to go watch it. It’s okay: I’ll be ready for you when you get back.
This morning, we worshipped at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, in Norfolk. St. Andrew’s is near Old Dominion University, in Norfolk’s trendy (and wealthy) Ghent neighborhood. The building is surrounded by beautiful gardens, feeling like one more (lovely!) house in the neighborhood. They have provided very comprehensive signage, both outside the building and inside–a crucially important detail for welcoming visitors–and I love that there are restrooms just outside the worship space. As a person with mobility challenges, I am disappointed that they have neither a parking lot nor any labeled parallel-parking spaces for the disabled. Though I didn’t get a good look at everyone participating in worship this morning, I also did not see anyone with a clearly visible disability.
Each week at our former parish, our priest would bring the consecrated elements into the nave, taking the Eucharist to the two or three among us who were unable to come up to the altar to receive. It is a wonderful moment of deep and grace-filled theological significance: Christ comes into the world, among all of us people, for the benefit of those at the margins, those who need help. It may be that nobody at St. Andrew’s this morning needed Christ to come to them. It may also be that those who need Christ to come to them don’t come to St. Andrew’s. I do not say this as an indictment of St. Andrew’s. It is merely my observation based on one Sunday-morning experience.
On the other hand, it was very encouraging to see a multi-generational congregation. Naturally, the Episcopal Church has a generous share of aging members, and St. Andrew’s has a number of families with schoolchildren, and I saw a number of younger adults, in that twenties/thirties range when many take a break from church while they try to figure out who they are and how to make their mark on the world.
We were greeted warmly at the main entrance, the narthex, by people with nametags that said “Usher” and “Greeter.” A particularly lovely tradition at St. Andrew’s is that each person is given a small slip with a name on it, a member of the parish who is sick or has otherwise asked for prayer. When the offering is gathered, the names are gathered as well, for the next Sunday’s worship. I noticed on the parish website that you can ask for a name to be kept confidential when you send in a request for prayers.
As we took our seats, we noticed the beautiful architecture of the cruciform worship space. Crosses in the shape of an X — known as the St. Andrew’s Cross — featured greatly in decorations, from the gorgeous carved wooden reredos to the crosses worn by the (eight!) acolytes. Stations of the Cross surround the worship space, with the 14 traditional images. One series of stained glass windows show the Corporal Works of Mercy, while another series shows important moments in the life of Jesus. The choir and sanctuary are quite deep, obscuring view the main altar from the transepts. One transept holds a small Lady chapel, the other being the designated area for families with children, neatly separating them from the body of the congregation and from full participation in the liturgy.
You may have noticed previously that I have opinions on children and church, which can be mostly summed up like this: Children are not the future of the church. Children are the now of the church, every bit as much as the adults. When you recognize this, there are other implications that become obvious. Every person in the church has ministries, both inside and outside the parish. Churches that attend closely to this make sure that they have some ministries organized for children–a choir, perhaps, or acolyte ministry–and that they invite and include children in so-called “adult”ministries in appropriate ways.
I believe that this church misses the mark in a number of areas around children. During the program year, school-aged children are separated from the congregation in “Children’s Chapel.” (But thank GOD there was no “Children’s Sermon” – because you wouldn’t offer men’s and women’s sermons, would you? young adult and middle age and geriatric sermons?) When they join the congregation, they sit in the transept with their parents so they cannot see or join in the Eucharistic prayer. A similar program begins again for the summer in a couple of weeks. They have “Sunday School” rather than “Formation”–or, at least, the signage in the building has not been updated to reflect the reality that our formation as Christians never ends, but continues to unroll and evolve as a journey.
There’s another grace note for inclusion–and this one marks inclusion not only for children or for the disabled, but for everyone present–and this is gestures. In the liturgy, there are a number of places where gestures are particularly important. Liturgical gestures include bowing the head, bowing more deeply from the waist, making the sign of the cross, making the triple cross, holding sacred objects up (called elevating), carrying sacred objects, even kissing sacred materials like the altar or the gospel book. The gestures made by the clergy, acolytes, and congregation are of great importance for young children, as well as for anyone who cannot read. These gestures are how a three-year-old participates in worship: the young child can see the priest giving a blessing and make the sign of the cross herself, receiving and accepting the blessing. A young child sees the clergy and acolytes bow when they cross the altar, and he learns that the altar is central to what we do as Christians.
I was sad to see weak gestures at St. Andrew’s. The priestly cross of benediction was small and easy to miss, both at the absolution and the blessing at the end of the service. The gesture of epiklesis–when we pray that the Holy Spirit will come down, will descend into the bread and wine to make them truly the Body and Blood of Jesus–was missing entirely (replaced by using the wafer to sketch a horizontal cross in the air over the chalice of wine). While the movements of the acolytes in procession were carefully and beautifully coordinated, Father’s motions were small or non-existent. While I totally get that using these gestures is about one’s own personal piety, I also believe that it behooves parents of young children and those who serve as leaders in worship to invite and include everybody present, by demonstrating the gestures that allow a non-reader to participate in worship as a full member of the Body of Christ.
The service opened with a greeting from the priest and an (announced!) organ prelude. This gave a few minutes to settle one’s heart and mind for worship, and also highlighted the work of the parish organist; honoring the organist and/or other musicians will always score points with this family! Kristin pointed out the harpsichord at the front of the nave, which intrigued both of us.
I wore my formal habit again this week, having decided that when we are visiting an Episcopal Church, I will wear it. Most of the clergy in the diocese recognize me anyway, from participating in Annual Council. When we visit churches of other denominations, I will wear only my street habit (black pants/skirt, white shirt, black vest or cardigan).
Worship ended with the traditional dismissal, to which the triumphant Easter Alleluias were added. Except, the response from the congregation was perfunctory. It felt like the Alleluias were an obligation rather than a joyous cry of triumph. I used to enjoy this bit of subversive liturgical naughtiness… until I came to a parish where the priest carefully reserved “Thanks be to God – Alleluia, Alleluia!” only to Eastertide (and a couple other key observances). While it is a wrench to know that we’ve reached the end of Eastertide, that Pentecost Sunday will be the last time we get to cry out our Alleluias until next year, they become so much more precious to us. I found it terribly sad to hear this tepid response, when Alleluia should never be desultory.
Other than the warm greetings at the Peace–comprising handshakes from those sitting nearby–the people who greeted and welcomed us this morning either had an Usher or Greeter nametag or had seen us participating in the Pride Interfaith worship service two weeks ago. We lingered near the table of refreshments (cookies, chips and salsa, crackers and cheese, sodas and coffee and tea–a decent spread!) trying to look lost, and this is where several people came up to us to say “You were at the Interfaith service!” Two of the three clergypeople greeted us, but we didn’t see Father after worship ended (I think he was working with volunteers to decorate for Vacation Bible School, so he gets a free pass). The impression I got was that St. Andrew’s has delegated the responsibility for greeting and welcoming visitors and newcomers to certain people, has issued them special nametags, and then has breathed a sigh of relief at no longer being expected to talk to strangers.
So… based on a single Sunday visit, this does not feel like a place where my heart can rest. It is definitely a place where I could do ministry, where I could work with the lay leaders and clergy, like I did at our previous parish. The people are wonderful, the sermon we heard excellent (about the “Okay, but first…” approach we so often take toward our relationship with Christ and the commands of the Holy Spirit), and the building is lovely. I would recommend St. Andrew’s to anyone in Norfolk, to LGBTQ+ persons who want a safe and loving place to worship. In fact, my beloved found much to her liking this morning, so I’m sure we will return to St. Andrew’s for a second visit after we’ve experienced a few more churches. Living in transition is tough, and we continue to pray that the perfect home church for both of us will find us.