So we have been attending St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Plymouth since September. And after five years of feeling unsettled in three other churches, we are ever so carefully and tentatively, pleased and surprised, feeling at home here.
Before we moved here, we felt most closely aligned with the conservative side of the Presbyterians — especially the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) branch. Granted, the four PCA churches we’ve attended — Grace Covenant in Williamsburg, Sycamore and West End in Richmond, and New Life in Ithaca — have been sort of in the same margin of that branch. They’ve been heavy on grace and the joy of the Gospel — gentle and open and encouraging. Nothing dour, worried, defensive, or complacent about it. We loved the liturgy — having a structure to the service that included the breadth and depth of worship — being called in, confession of sin and assurance of pardon, readings, reminders of truth in creeds and catechism questions, communion, blessing, plus the usual songs and sermon.
There is no PCA church around here. The closest approximation is, in Walkerton, an OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church), which is somewhat more conservative than the PCA. We attended there briefly when we first moved here, but the drive and the long service plus lunch was rather too much for baby Amy; we attended there again for — nearly two years? — when she was a couple years older. I liked the simplicity there — piano hymns, some liturgy, no faddish programs, nothing flashy. The adult Sunday School program was often interesting and informative — for example, we had a great study of the Westminster Confession, a foundational and guiding document for the Presbyterians. I liked talking to the pastor about theological things. We were really not so conservative as most folks there, had different ideas about parenting, and were not as self-consciously OPC as much of the church seemed to be, and there were some other things that eventually made it difficult to stay.
In between our stints there we attended Common Ground Christian Community in Plymouth, a Church of Christ (Restoration Movement). We liked being part of a local body, with more young people and children. Our pastor there was very accepting of us Calvinists and was a good conversation partner. The music was contemporary without being like a concert and wasn’t too slick — not too much marketing stuff at this church. But again we didn’t really quite fit in, and so we also didn’t feel as well-supported — it’s one thing to be accepted and welcomed, but another to be aligned. We were growing antsy here as the church was nearing the end of its five year mission status, and we left about the same time as they decided to dissolve rather than keep trying to become self-sustaining.
After our second endeavor with the OPC, we went to CrossRoads Evangelical Free Church in Plymouth. Once again it felt good to be part of a local body instead of driving out of town. It was a comfortably big church, where we didn’t feel we stood out so much. Again, more young people and children. People were friendly and welcoming. It was nice to do contemporary music again. But we missed liturgy and hymns, we didn’t quite think and live along the lines that most folks there did, and, as respectful as the pastor was of different approaches in Christian faith, he still of course preached from his own dispensational perspective. And we missed communion, which happened pretty infrequently there and sometimes felt like an afterthought to go with the theme of the sermon.
Dismayed, discouraged, feeling like shallow, nitpicky, out-of-line Christians, we pondered what to do next.
Episcopal? Not really sure. It’s a mainline — the dreaded liberals who tend to not actually believe anything, or so it seems when you’re in the midst of evangelicalism. And the whole movement started with a divorce and a political conflict — hardly a good beginning. (I hope it wasn’t really as bad as it seems.) But what else? We felt some affinity for Catholicism’s respect of scholarship and thinking, their earthy ease with art and wine and beauty, the liturgy. On the other hand we did not want to convert and not converting would mean no communion — there were too many doctrinal things we could not subscribe to. Episcopal seemed awfully close — might have the same dangers.
We liked Father Tom Haynes, whom we knew through Mark’s school, so we thought we would visit his church, St. Elisabeth Episcopal in Culver. And we enjoyed the service and were thoroughly welcomed at the following coffee hour.
Then we visited St. Thomas.
We first visited the 8am mass, described as spoken vs. the sung mass at 10am. We didn’t expect the 8am service to have no music at all, though — we’d just thought it would have no sung prayers and responses and the like. We fumbled with bulletin, prayerbook, and hymnal and quite enjoyed ourselves. Father John Schramm introduced himself, quite friendly; and in his coherent, substantial but not elongated sermon, he’d mentioned N. T. Wright, a scholar we’ve been appreciating.
We returned a week or two later, this time trying the 10am mass, and we have been there since.
I love the good and strong liturgy. I know some folks talk about how boring and dull they feel it is, to say and hear the same prayers and responses and creeds and everything week after week. But I love it. And it does vary — some parts are the same all year, some parts vary each week, some vary by the church seasons. And sometimes the settings change — the tunes used for the psalm, the sanctus, the agnus dei. And it is deep and broad. I will be happy to never again hear someone begin church by asking if we’re excited to be there — I’d much rather begin this way, with “Blessed be God…”
Rather to my surprise, I love receiving communion at the rail. In all other churches I’ve attended, either the plate of bread and the platter of tiny juice cups are passed down the rows, or else you come forward and take them from the plate and platter as someone holds them at the front of the church. But to kneel at the rail, hold out my hands, and be served — instead of taking — there is something marvelous in this. It speaks of how everything is God’s work, his doing, and not mine. And, as shallow as this is, I appreciate that we have bread instead of wafers! It is a sweet flat round bread, perhaps three or four inches across. And I even like the common cup, and the wine.
Even though the church seems on the small side — three services (spoken, sung, Spanish), but none full — there are about a dozen kids of all ages in the Sunday School program, which involves a liturgy as well as a craft time. And there’s a choir! We do typical choir anthems — decent, if not always terribly interesting or profound. I have mixed feelings about church choirs on principle, but am loving being part of this one. The other singers have welcomed me warmly and they are a humorous bunch. And we get to wear robes, which again is a silly thing but still one that pleases me. We are starting to know other people, as well.
I love our priest, Fr. John. I like the sound of his voice when he speaks or sings the prayers and all. I like his sermons, well-composed, read dynamically, and in content along the lines of what we’ve been thinking for several years. And I have appreciated his kindness and openness to questions and other conversations. He is retiring; I worry a little about what the next priest will be like. And we are reading N. T. Wright for adult Bible study, and there’s the Non-Food Pantry service project, and I loved the very small gathering for midweek evening prayer and mass and hope to go again whenever I can, and I’ve been appreciating doing the Daily Office (morning and evening prayer) on my own at home, too.
How long it has been since I have been glad at the prospect of going to church! What a lovely thing it is.