Friday, May 2, 2014

Buildings and Ministry: Part I

I recently attended the 2014 Episcopal Church Building Fund symposium in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida with my bishop and two canon colleagues, as well as thirteen other clergy and lay leaders from our diocese, representing five of our congregations. Our hope was to begin to gain a shared vocabulary for facing some of the challenges we face as a twenty-first century diocese.

This is going to be the first of several extended reflections. I'll get to the Symposium itself, eventually, but I don't want to start there. I want to start with my own context as Canon to the Ordinary in Worcester County, and present a kind of case study of the Episcopal Church in Worcester. I'll begin with a rough outline of the history of mission here which would, I'm sure, not meet the exacting standards of David McCullough but will, I think, be enough for some theological reflection. By way of this story, I'll eventually get to what I learned at the Building Fund Symposium and why it might be relevant to the work we are doing in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. So here goes...

The story begins in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 because that is how Anglicans came to this country; the folks at Plymouth Rock were not so fond of the established church as you may recall. So the "state church" in New England was controlled by the Puritans; the reason that every town in New England that goes back to the early days before the Revolution has one of those "meeting houses" on the town green that is now usually part of the United Church of Christ. The first foothold for Anglicans in our diocese came in the early years of the 18th century in Great Barrington, but it was not until after the Revolutionary War (1784) that the Diocese of Massachusetts (one diocese) came into existence as part of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

All Saints Church in Worcester
Now let's jump forward ninety years, to 1835, to the story I want to tell here. That is when Episcopalians began meeting in Town Hall in Worcester and talking about a church that in 1843 would become All Saints. Note this: the building came after the community formed. This is usually (always?) the case: the church is a people before it is a building. The first building for All Saints was built in 1846 and then burned down; the "new" building came in 1877. That building was designed by a man named Stephen Earle. Take note of that name; he'll reappear below.

Now before I move on to the mission parishes of Worcester let me just jump ahead to the dawn of the twentieth century. In 1901, the part of Massachusetts located west of what is now 495 (give or take a parish) became the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. (While it seems reasonable from our vantage point that the Diocese of Massachusetts should have also taken a new name in 1901 and become the Diocese of Eastern Massachusetts, if that thought occurred to anyone at the time it apparently did not gain traction.) In any case, for our purposes let me move on: the first bishop of Western Massachusetts was elected from All Saints, Worcester in 1902. His name was Alexander Vinton.

St. Matthew's Church in Worcester
Before that, the idea of planting new churches for a growing city emerged and from All Saints, in this order, the following parishes were planted: St. Matthew's, St. John's, St. Mark's, St. Luke's, and St. Michael's. One doesn't need to be a Biblical scholar to ask: why did St. John's come after St. Matthew's? The answer, I have been told, is that an influential parishioner at St. John's preferred the fourth gospel to the second one! I would have loved to have been there for those conversations.

Again, let me say there are stories and stories to be told here, to paraphrase the writer of the fourth gospel "I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (John 21:25) And you can learn more about the parish histories on their websites. But I'm wanting to get to a place where I can speak of buildings and ministry, so let's keep going. On September 21, 1871 (St. Matthew's Day) a mission chapel for English immigrants was built in South Worcester that would eventually burn down in 1893. That chapel was started through funds raised by the women of All Saints Church. Who do you think was there to serve as the architect when construction began on a new building? None other than Stephen Earle.

St Luke's Church in Worcester
In 1894, St. John's Church began in Lincoln Square. Of personal interest to me is that in 1952 they planted a congregation in the small town north of Worcester that was by then a growing suburb - the parish that I served for fifteen years called St. Francis in Holden. Unfortunately when Interstate 290 was built, St. John's had to move their building to the end of Holden street, from Lincoln Square. They did great ministry there for some time, but after 125 years of ministry (in two buildings) they eventually closed their doors. Some of those parishioners ended up in Holden.

So as mentioned, St. John's went "out of order" in terms of the four gospels. But just four years later, St. Mark's Church began - 1898. Guess who the architect was? If you guessed Stephen Earle you would be correct. Thank you for playing.

St. Michael's-on-the Heights, in Worcester
Then in 1912, in the Tatnuck area of Worcester, St. Luke's was founded. And then in 1926, in the growing suburban area of Greendale in Worcester, out of gospel writers, the sixth Worcester congregation was founded: St. Michael's on the Heights.

So in summary: from 1835-1912, six congregations were founded in the city limits of Worcester. Like all created things, they were born. Like all created things, at some point they will all die, as St. John's did. No one likes to hear this, but the people of St. John's bear witness to the power of the resurrection and the fact that death does not ever get the last word for God's people. But in the telling of that story make no mistake about it, there would be many tears. Of the remaining five congregations, three of the buildings were designed by a single architect for a nineteenth-century mission. The other two were built later - and St. Michael's is also on their second building after the Worcester tornado of 1953 destroyed their first building.

Ponder that a moment, because it leads to mission of the Episcopal Church Building Fund: "Empowering congregations to develop or enhance their mission through the strategic, resourceful, and creative use of their buildings."  But think about how the world has changed since the late nineteenth century. Count the ways! Let me reflect on just one that has had huge implications: those buildings were built for a church that existed before the automobile. The "Model T" was produced by Henry Ford's Motor Company from 1908-1927. Stephen Earle could not have possibly been expected to think about parking lots before that, nor could the people of St. John's have envisioned a highway coming through their neighborhood. Parking remains a challenge at all of these urban parishes with the sole exception being St. Michael's. But don't blame Stephen Earle. It is the world that has changed.

And along the way, so too have other institutions. The college I attended in the early 1980s (Georgetown) looks very different today from when I was there. New dorms. Better on campus parking. I'm sure those reading could say the same about their schools and colleges and gyms. Buildings change to meet new needs. Georgetown was founded in 1789 and I love those old buildings at the center of campus but along the way the university had to develop and enhance their mission through the strategic, resourceful, and creative use of their buildings.

So why is it that the Church mostly remained "stuck" in a bygone era - at least in terms of our buildings. And is it possible that the buildings themselves keep us from becoming the Church God is calling us to be? What happens when we begin to serve the building (and all of our energy and resources are focused on it) rather than the building serving the mission of God?

But this is already a very long post. When you feel up to it, click here for Buildings and Ministry: Part II.

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