I arrive at a cozy English cottage version of a church. A red door leads directly from the street into the chapel; no grand foyer eases the transition. The scale of the building is intimate, with exposed wood beams running the length of the chapel’s ceiling and stained glass windows at eye level. It’s like something in a curio cabinet, a miniature to gaze upon when you want to feel “churchy.” I can almost smell lush pastures dotted by sheep. The images on the stained glass are unmistakable in their realism: wise men, Jesus, angels.
I take a seat halfway down, on the left side of the aisle. Many of congregants are bent with age or reverence or a little of both. Their hair is well-coiffed, crisp leisure suits are donned, walkers are politely placed out of the aisle. A wave of latecomers hacks a good 20 years from the median age, helped by a sprinkling of teens at my back.
For a moment, I’m overcome by the fascinating history of push and pull encapsulated in this simple place: the “Episcopalian” title of the denomination harkens back to the colonists’ demand for independence after the American Revolution. They changed the title from “Anglican” to dissociate from the British monarchy. Yet, everywhere are loving nods to Great Britain. Colonists may have rejected the king as divine head of the church, but they embraced this version Christianity, outlined during Henry VIII’s reign, as a middle ground between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Like a daughter who balks at the rules under her parents’ roof only to recreate their orderly world in her own home, the Episcopalian colonists wrote a “Book of Common Prayer” almost identical to the one in the motherland. Henry VIII installed himself as “pope” of the Church of England to marry and divorce as he pleased, secure a male heir, and ensure the unity of his kingdom. The results of his efforts became an unwitting vehicle for other types of empowerment. Unlike Catholic and even some mainline Protestant denominations, women are allowed in leadership positions in the Episcopalian system. The first female Episcopalian bishop was appointed in 1989. In 2009, the House of Bishops voted to allow homosexuals to serve in ministerial positions. The most traditional house on the block is surprisingly progressive. Today’s service is dominated by female leaders. The priest, or “rector” (as it is called here) is a woman, as are most of her ministerial helpers.
The choir begins its walk down the aisle toward the altar. They wear emerald green robes with bright yellow hoods. A majority of the congregants stand, though there is a little disclaimer in the program. It reads, “please assume postures comfortable for you.” It goes on to state, “Our first Book of Common Prayer noted in 1549” that positions can vary “as every man’s devotion serveth, without blame,” a nod simultaneously to English roots and physical differences.
A handful of the very elderly remain seated, and I might have too if I’d realized what was in store. Today we perform something called “The Great Litany,” a series of 43 calls and responses; after each one, the choir takes a baby step toward the altar. It starts with the rector saying, “O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth” and then the people and choir reply, “Have mercy upon us.” Over the next six pages of the program, the rector asks God to spare us from sin and everlasting damnation and earthquake and fire and flood and plague; to bless and keep all people; to increase our grace; to make wars cease; to inspire us; to comfort those in danger, in childbirth, and all who suffer. The responses the congregants provide change every few lines, so in turn we beg: “Spare us, good Lord;” “Good Lord, deliver us;” “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord;” “O Christ, hear us;” and “Christ, have mercy upon us.” This ritual is so emotionally charged; it feels as if we are pleading for our lives. Fifteen minutes after they started at the top of the short aisle, the choir members take their seats at the altar and I fall into my own, worn out…