Friday, November 21, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 10: St. Mary's County, MD

My sabbatical ends in a matter of hours, so just in time -- here's the last installment of my video blog.  The last visit, to St. Mary's County, MD, was unique in that this fresh expression of church is a collaborative effort among three parishes.  Here's the video text:

When you go to a church founded in the 1630s, tradition takes on a whole new meaning.  That's the situation in St. Mary's County, Maryland, nestled at the bottom of a peninsula between the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, a place of picturesque lighthouses and fabulous crabcakes.  People in St. Mary's County take their history seriously.  The first Maryland colonists landed there in 1634 aboard ships like this one at St. Mary's City, the first state capital.  The churches I visited are part of this landscape of deep roots:  Trinity, in St. Mary's City, dates from the colonists' landing and sits on the site of the first capitol building, now reconstructed across from the churchyard cemetery.  St. George's, in Valley Lee, was founded in 1638 and still features box pews, though the doors have been removed.  Even comparatively new Ascension parish, founded in 1951, installed half-box pews in order to tap into this rich sense of history.  Some families have been worshiping at Trinity and St. George's for more than two centuries now. 

Along with revering tradition, the parishes of Trinity, Ascension, and St. George's are also hearing a call to connect with people whose families haven't been Episcopalians for 200 years.  A group of young adults and families from these parishes has led an effort to figure out how to do church in new ways.  Initially, they wanted to bring some changes to inherited worship on Sunday mornings -- expanding the musical repertoires, using different prayers, making the experience a little more relaxed.  But that impulse soon turned outward as the young adult leaders saw an opportunity to connect with other people who wouldn't be likely to venture into these traditional worshiping communities.  And thus was born Gather Eat Pray -- a collaborative fresh expression sponsored by Trinity, Ascension, and St. George's.  

Gather Eat Pray meets in an art studio in Leonardtown, a somewhat more urban area of St. Mary's County but only minutes from the three sponsoring churches.  In a place known for historic church buildings, the young adult leaders wanted to find a space that felt open and inviting to people who had no experience with liturgical worship, or whose experience of church hadn't been good.  The art studio presents its own challenges -- fitting kids and adults into relatively small rooms and occasionally tripping over paint cans -- so it may not be the ultimate solution.  But in it, Gather Eat Pray creates a warm, intimate experience of worship around God's table, with all sorts and conditions of people -- the tall and the small -- helping to lead worship.

The community's life is still taking shape, including a new gathering, Thirsty Theology, at a local bar.  And there are plenty of growing pains, both for the new worshiping community and for the sponsoring parishes.  The three churches are working on an agreement to form a Multi-Parish Council, a body to help coordinate shared ministry and to unify some of their administrative work, perhaps sharing staff positions.  Being the Church in new ways is never easy, particularly when you're trying to collaborate on both spiritual and temporal affairs.  But the leaders of Gather Eat Pray, as well as the leaders of Trinity, Ascension, and St. George's, are working hard to follow what they see as the Holy Spirit's lead, building on the depth and richness of the communities they've known to bring a new community into being.

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