We’re back from Boston, the first of our nine visits to congregations raising up fresh expressions of church alongside their traditional worshiping communities. We spent time with people from the Cathedral Church of St. Paul (and the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which is merging with the cathedral), as well as people from The Crossing, the cathedral’s fresh expression. Check out the video here:
Or, if you prefer just the text, here you go….
Like the Episcopal Church itself, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston is a study in contrasts under the big tent. It’s not just “a traditional congregation raising up a fresh expression of church alongside it.” St. Paul’s is a fresh expression of “cathedral,” truly “a house of prayer for all” (its vision statement). There’s a traditional 8:00 a.m. spoken Eucharist; there’s a choral Eucharist at 10:30; and there’s a Eucharist in Mandarin in the early afternoon that brings in as many as the 10:30 service. And there is The Crossing, the fresh expression of church I’m studying here. In First Corinthians, St. Paul writes about “becoming all things to all people,” so that he might “by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). That is the Cathedral of St. Paul. On a typical Sunday morning, about a third of the congregation are people who are homeless – and when it was cold or rainy, they used to spend their days inside the nave, camped in the old wooden pews. Now that the pews have been removed as part of the Cathedral’s renovation, they’ll have to make different arrangements. Still, their place in the cathedral remains, with homeless people serving regularly and normally in the life of the congregation (including on its parish council). That, in itself, is quite a fresh expression of church.
The cathedral is in the midst of a major interior renovation, and that project has opened the door to a “both/and” nobody was looking for. Multi-million dollar renovations need multi-million dollar funding sources, and that kind of a capital campaign just wasn’t going to happen at the cathedral. But up the street and over the hill sits another Episcopal church – the parish of St. John the Evangelist, one of the few Anglo-Catholic congregations in this diocese, with incense, bells, statues of saints, and six side chapels in a medium-sized worship space. St. John’s membership had been dwindling for years, and it couldn’t sustain itself. But the value of its downtown Boston property just kept growing. Now the cathedral and St. John’s have merged, meeting both churches’ needs (the sale of St. John’s property will go a long way toward funding the cathedral’s renovation) and opening a new missional door. If the cathedral is supposed to be a house of prayer for all, says the Very Rev. Jep Streit, cathedral dean, that should include people looking for very traditional Episcopal worship – smells and bells included. How will the two congregations work out the details of incorporating some Anglo-Catholic liturgy into a low-church cathedral? Stay tuned.
And how does a fresh expression of church work in this context? For The Crossing, both of the following statements are true: It’s not about the worship, and it’s all about the worship. Clearly, liturgy matters to The Crossing. Isaac Everett, liturgical arts coordinator and de facto community leader, would say that liturgy is what shapes us most. And that’s true for good and for ill, both in the carefully crafted language of the BCP and in unwritten code. Isaac and others on the liturgy team put in hours each week crafting the celebration so its energy can flow without the distractions that come from sloppy preparation. And the worship is authentic – life-giving and unifying in the way it welcomes all around God’s table. And yet, when some priest from Kansas City shows up asking questions, the message comes through loud and clear: It’s not about the worship; it’s about the community, because the worship springs up from that. You can’t re-create this experience, no matter how many hours you might spend in careful planning and rehearsal. The liturgy is not plug-and-play. It’s the voice and heartbeat of the Holy Spirit in this place, among these people, discerned through careful, holy listening – both in The Crossing’s earliest days and in each moment of its ongoing creation.
(And here’s a special old-school extra, not included in the video: The first night in Boston, like many tourists before us and many more Bostonians, Ann and I sat at the U-shaped oyster bar of the Union Oyster House, watching the high priests of mollusks preparing the evening sacrifice and sending it up the dumbwaiter for hungry diners upstairs. It’s an art form, preparing oysters on the half shell, and it’s been happening at this shrine since 1826. It is said that Senator Daniel Webster held court at this very U-shaped bar, eating up to six half-dozens of oysters in a sitting and washing down each round with a tankard of brandy and water. It doesn’t exactly sound like a model for healthy eating, but Webster managed to help guide the nation for decades, fighting – and collaborating – with people like senators John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay. Maybe our leaders today should spend more time eating oysters and drinking brandy together and less time yammering on cable news.)