It’s hard to explain what worship at Grace Church is like. For me, it’s pure joy. Most young clergy start off their careers in small churches and hope to work their way up to something big. As a late vocation priest, I started in a huge NYC parish, and have been working my way down. But I digress. Maybe every small rural congregation is different, has its own ways, and cannot be compared with ease to any other. As Episcopalians, we at Grace take the liturgy seriously. Its dignity leads us ever deeper into soulful worship. But we don’t take ourselves that seriously. There just are not enough of us to do it. Average Sunday attendance is around fifteen, and if everybody shows up we might have twenty-five.
In our very small space and even smaller congregation, there isn’t much reason for a procession or recession. We visit with each other for a while and then settle down for some quiet time before the worship begins. I generally announce the first hymn, and, since we don’t have anyone to play our old vacuum tube powered organ, we start with whatever note I lead off with in, as I like to say, fifteen part harmony and a variety of keys and time signatures.
Prayers are offered, lessons read, the gospel proclaimed, and I preach for about ten minutes, then open it up to conversation. Sometimes there is a lot. Sometimes not. The offering includes announcements concerning the life of the congregation as well as making any decision that would otherwise be made by a vestry, if we had a vestry. The Eucharist is celebrated with relaxed formality, and we often end the service with a second hymn sung in a fashion similar to the first. Since we don’t have room for in house coffee hour, we all troop down to “the bakery” where we pull a few tables together and continue our fellowship.
I suspect that Grace is graced with more resources than most other small rural congregations. I drive the thirty miles to Dayton two or three Sundays a month, and two other retired clergy serve the other Sundays. The gift of having three different voices lead worship and proclaim the gospel adds an enriching breadth and depth. Two of us have served at Grace for well over a decade, and that has provided a degree of intimacy in pastoral relationships that cannot exist in places served by an ever changing stream of supply clergy.
Grace also has money, not a lot, but enough to cover costs, send its fair share of support to the diocese, and be generous in giving to local community needs. One member has begun scheduling a local musicians of varying talent to enrich our services on the fourth Sunday of each month. If I get my act together, we will have a midweek adult education series sometime this summer. LIfe is good at Grace.
On the other hand, it’s an aging congregation in a town that is economically stable but not growing. There is a tendency to announce that everybody who is coming is here, so we can shut the door and get started. The intimacy of a small family congregation has a hard time wrapping its collective mind around being open to newcomers. They like the security of knowing who they are. That the majority in town are the “nones” of modern America seems lost on them. How could that be in a small town so full of churches?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the question of legacy. What legacy will the current members of Grace Church leave? It’s an open question with no clear answer. It could just fade away until the last one dies and the doors are locked forever. It could continue, as it has for a hundred years, with new members trickling in for whatever reason, just enough to replace those who have died. It could become an entirely new kind of parish, one filled with “nones,” mostly poor, and in great need of being taught what it is to be Christian in the Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church. Who knows?