Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Times Leader opinion - Mark Guydish

A church message with universal appeal MARK GUYDISH OPINION
Tuesday November 17, 2009 | 12:00 AM
Mark Guydish

Maybe it was the brick walls and modest marble columns, or the wood floor crafted from thousands of slats not much bigger than Popsicle sticks.

Maybe it was the half dome above the altar, sporting a semi-circle of petite stained glass windows backlit just enough to give a glimmer of the detail they contained.

Maybe it was the flamed copper “fa�ade pipes” of the organ that can still be deemed recently restored. True, the refurbishing happened seven years ago, but since parts of the instrument are more than a century old, seven years sounds recent.

Or perhaps it was the open-armed angels that emerge from the ornate wooden trusses in the ceiling at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. With elbows gently bent and hands curved inward, the carved heavenly hosts looked like they could be guiding the sound into just the right location for listening pleasure.

Something made the acoustics sing during a special “Evensong” last week that marked what was believed to be the first visit by the Episcopal Presiding Bishop in 190 years.

I know choral church music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – heck, it’s torture for some -- but when done right, I find it spiritually uplifting in a way few other human endeavors match. And, frankly, the Catholic churches I’ve been attending have shrunk so much they rarely have the people power to pull off a full-throated songfest. That’s no reflection on their music ministries; it’s just a reality of our time.

Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori didn’t have much to do other than sit and listen. This wasn’t a Mass, or an elaborate ritual. It was mostly a concert with the crowd occasionally joining in, punctuated by a few readings, highlighted by Jefferts Schori’s sermon.
Faith is a lifelong learning process

She opened by rattling off some of the nations the Episcopal Church calls home. “Greetings from our diocese in Colombia, The Dominican Republic, Ecuador … Austria, Belgium, France, Germany … and the other 99 Episcopal Dioceses in the U.S.”

The last comment drew chuckles during a pause, after which she added “They pray for you; I would ask that you pray for them.”

Jefferts Schori acknowledged shortcomings not only of her faith, but of religion in general. The number of Americans who are essentially not connected to any church keeps climbing rapidly, even as the vast majority of us claim to be spiritual.

She stressed that faith is a lifelong learning process. “We don’t learn what we need to know by the time we are confirmed at the age of 12 or 13.”

The presiding bishop did not touch on any of the issues threatening to divide the Episcopal Church, such as appointing an openly gay bishop, allowing priests to bless same-sex unions, or the ordination of women as priests that, while not new, rankles traditionalists. Jefferts Schori is the first female presiding bishop in the 220 years the position has existed.

I confess, after a lifetime of male-only sermons in Catholic churches, there was something refreshing about hearing a woman’s voice at the podium, but it may have simply been the novelty. It was the universal tidbits in her message that struck me.

When she summed up the Episcopalian mission in a single sentence, I thought the message transcended the moment. Though spoken in a church, it should hold true in any setting; a worthwhile goal for everyone:

“We participate in trying to heal this world. That’s what we’re here for.”

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