The 2006 Christmas season was a very tumultuous one for me. It was really the beginning of the end of my time in the Episcopal Church and my own future was very much uncertain at that point. I remember putting away my Christmas decorations early in January of 2007, and as I did, I wondered to myself what life would be like for me when I took those decorations back out in a year. Where would I be? What would I be doing? Would everything be different?
Ever since then it has been a private tradition of mine to wonder those things when putting away my decorations. It also allows me to be a bit reflective on what has occurred over the past year, to sit back and look at how God has worked, often in ways I never could have expected. As I look back on 2018 I just keep thinking, “Wow, what a ride it has been!”
Quite a bit has happened in the past year. When we rang in 2018 I was still in my first year as Rector of All Saints, and I felt like I was still learning the ropes and holding on for dear life. Along the way we have seen some wonderful things happen. We have brought in a number of new families which has increased our Sunday school program from one room to three and enabled us to have our very first Christmas Pageant.
“Father Doug wants you to give him a call.” I was sitting in my office in Colorado Springs when I received this message from Darla Johnson. I had already been called to serve as the new Rector of All Saints but I hadn’t yet made the move to Springfield. I will admit, the request made me a little nervous. I had heard horror stories from other priests about tense relationships with former rectors still active in their parishes. After all, giving up control is hard, and when you have been a senior pastor for as long as Fr. Doug, it can be hard to no longer be in charge, to watch someone do things differently. So I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was Fr. Doug going to tell me how to do things? Was he going to take issue with something I had said during the interview process? Was he going to warn me that he would always be looking over my shoulder?
Fortunately, my anxiety was unfounded. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about during that phone call, but I do remember thinking it was much more pleasant than I had anticipated. So when Fr. Doug requested another meeting with me shortly after my arrival in Springfield, I went into it with a much more positive attitude. I’ll never forget what he said to me that day. He told me that All Saints is his legacy, and in order for All Saints to be successful I would need to be successful. He then promised me that I would have his full support and assistance. If I did anything he disagreed with he said he would tell me, and only me. He has kept his word.
As we continued to talk we discovered that although we are very different in many ways, we discovered that we both share a love for the Church and Anglican liturgy. As I told him my plans for the upcoming Holy Week services his constant refrain was, “Yes, that is how I would have done it as well.”
When I was first called to All Saints in 2017, our bishop suggested that we consider joining another diocese. Since I was at that time a priest in the Diocese of CANA West, I proposed to the Vestry that we move the parish there. However, after a congregational meeting with Bishop Felix Orji, the Vestry concluded that it was not the right move for us to make at that time. However, we were also clear that the possibility of moving into a new diocese might still be a possibility in the future. Recently we have begun exploring the possibility of joining the Anglican Diocese of the South. But before I say more about that, perhaps some background and history would be helpful.
What is a diocese?
If you are new to Anglicanism, you might be wondering, “What is a diocese?” The simple definition is that a diocese is a geographical region or district of churches under the pastoral care of a bishop. So just as a parish is made up of many individuals under the pastoral care of a priest, a diocese is made up of many parishes under the pastoral care of a bishop.
What are the benefits of a diocese?
The geographical structure of a diocese helps churches to share resources. For example, when I was in the diocese of Colorado, there were many parishes that were simply too small to have a significant youth program. So the diocese would put on these wonderful youth retreats every year where all the teens could come together to have fun and learn about Jesus.
A diocese also provides opportunities for collegiality amongst clergy. Especially in smaller parishes, a priest can easily feel isolated, so getting to know other priests in a diocese often feels like a lifeline to the larger church. It also provides a network of pastoral care for clergy with the bishop serving as their primary pastor.
The diocesan structure gives us a way to experience and learn from the broadness of the Anglican Church. Again, when I was in Colorado we had churches in our diocese that were traditional and others that were more contemporary. We had some churches that were evangelical and others who were more catholic. This diversity helped open my eyes to the beauty and adaptability of Anglicanism and helped to strengthen my understanding of my own ministry.
Finally, a diocese helps to connect us to the wider communion. As Anglicans, we are not simply part of an individual parish or a national denomination. We are members of a worldwide communion of Anglican Christians. It is through our diocese and through our bishop that we remain connected to these other Anglican around the globe. When I meet an Anglican from another country, I may not know him or her personally, but we quickly discover that our bishops know each other, and thus an immediate bond of fellowship is created between us.
When I was 23 years old I was working as a youth minister in a parish in Boulder. I was a postulant at the time and preparing to go to seminary, so the Bishop had requested that my Rector allow me to be involved in more adult ministries in the church. So, he put me in charge of the Christmas pageant (I still don't quite get the logic). I decided to do a retelling of the Christmas story. I asked, what would it have looked like if Jesus had been born today (it was 1996) in Boulder? It was actually a pretty clever script. Joseph and Mary Davidson had come to Boulder for the census, and when all of the rooms were filled they had to sleep in the inkeeper's garage. They put Jesus in the back of an old Chevy. Instead of shepherds, the angels proclaimed the good news of Messiah's birth to the homeless on Pearl Street. Rather than wise men from the east, we had professors from the university. Everyone got a big kick out of it. But looking back on that pageant 22 years later, would I do it again? Absolutely not.
What 23 year old me never stopped to consider was why we have Christmas pageants in the first place. As I used to tell my former Children's Ministry directory, pageants are something to be survived ("I didn't realize it was going to be this hard!" she once said to me). So why are we doing a pageant at All Saints this year? Sure, it is adorable, and it gets people into church, but that is not why. We are doing a Christmas pageant because the story is important.
I have received some questions lately about the expression of some of the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit at the 10:45 service on Sunday mornings. Some people may not be aware that many of the original founders of All Saints were part of the charismatic renewal movement in the Episcopal Church, and we have always sought to be open to the promptings of the Spirit. As the parish has grown we have seen the addition of members from many different Christian traditions, some of whom may not be familiar with the charismatic expression of our Christian faith. For this reason we thought it might be helpful to do some teaching on these spiritual gifts and their use in public worship. While Fr. Nathaniel and I plan to do some more extensive teaching in the near future, I would like to start with some basic understanding and instruction now.
To begin, I believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are entirely Biblical. Paul addresses this topic numerous times in his Epistles, most notably in 1 Corinthians and Romans (more on all of this in our later teachings). While some Christians today teach that the gifts were a reality for the Early Church but are no longer needed today, I see no Biblical evidence for such a cessation of the gifts. While certain gifts appear more mundane, like the gifts of helping or administration, others seem to have a more extraordinary quality, such as gifts of prophesy and tongues. It is this second type of gift that I would like to address now.
When I think back on my childhood, some of my fondest memories come from holidays. I remember sitting around the dining room table eating turkey on Thanksgiving, going to the annual Holy Week ecumenical breakfasts at the local Methodist Church, and waiting excitedly for my parents to wake up on Christmas morning. While most days seemed to blend into each other in the midsts of everyday life, these holiday celebrations stood out. They were special. Often times we would have family come to visit or we would go and visit extended family somewhere else. These days were markers along the road, giving shape and focus to all of the days in between.
Feasts and festivals are important for us. They break up the monotony of day to day life, they give us opportunities to come together as families and communities to remember the things that are most important in our lives. Life in ancient Israel was structured around the weekly celebration of the Sabbath and seven other key festivals throughout the year which included the Feasts of Passover, Unleaven Bread, First Fruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles. These festivals helped them to remember their past (e.g. Passover and Tabernacles), celebrate God’s provision in their lives (e.g. First Fruits and Pentecost), and rejoice in God’s work among them (e.g. Atonement and Trumpets). They also provided Israel with an opportunity to come together as a community for worship and fellowship which helped to define them as a community and as the people of God.
Many years ago, when I was a brand new curate, I had a woman come into my office to talk to me about having her son baptized. She was not a member of the parish, and in fact I had never even laid eyes on her before she stepped into my office that day. So I asked her what I thought was a very practical question. “Why do you want to have your son baptized?” She looked at me like I had snakes coming out of my ears. As if to say, “Isn’t it obvious,” she responded, “Well, so he won’t go to Hell, of course!” Now it was my turn to be shocked. I said, “Ma’am, this isn’t some sort of magic wand or ‘get out of Hell free’ card. It is a sacrament!” I can’t remember what happened after that, but I do know that I never did that baptism.
According to the Anglican catechism, a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." It goes on to say that sacraments should be received, “by faith in Christ, with repentance and thanksgiving.” So for a sacrament to be valid, faith must be present. This is why I can’t stand on the side of the road with a garden hose and baptize people as they walk by, because without faith I am just getting them wet (and probably myself in trouble). But if that is the case, how can we allow babies and young children to receive the sacraments of Baptism and Communion? Shouldn’t we wait until they are old enough to profess a personal faith in Christ? Shouldn’t these sacraments be invalidated by the absence of faith? Not at all.
For part 1 of this story, please click here.
I remember thinking, what in the world have we done? We were the proud owners of our very own…nightclub. Sure, it had once been a church, but almost 90 years had passed since God’s praises had been sung in this building. Looking at it, I was reminded of those pictures you see on the Internet of famous people who had once been quite stunning, but years of drug abuse had taken a toll and left them a shell of their former selves. Could we recapture that beauty? Could we transform this building back into a church? We knew we had a long road ahead of us.
It was July 26, 2011. Our lease was quickly coming to an end on our previous space, and we needed to be ready to worship in this new building in 2 weeks. The task seemed impossible. We decided to pick one room and start there. We decided on the large room at the front of the building. It would eventually be our parish hall, but for now it would be everything. In two weeks we tore out the bar, stripped down the walls and re-plastered them, replaced the floor, and painted the ceiling. Two weeks after signing the papers to redeem our old building we held the first church service there since 1925. We marched around the block, reclaiming it for the Lord, and then marched right into our one usable room. The place was packed with folding chairs and our sound system was the epitome of jury-rigged. But it was beautiful, because it was ours.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” With these words we began the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday. They are hard words to hear. As Christians, we are unashamedly pro life. We believe that human life is a gift from God and should be cherished and treated with dignity and respect. We should never fail to fight to preserve the sanctity of human life. However, we cannot use a pro life culture as an excuse to avoid the reality of death. In the United States we are free to talk about all sorts of things publicly, but the topic of death remains a taboo among Christians and non-Christians alike. Have you ever noticed how we can't even say the word? We have a hard time saying something like, "Jack died last night." Instead, we say things like, "Jack passed away," or "He is no longer with us." Even when I worked in a hospital as a chaplain, the medical staff would refer to people as "expiring" rather than "dying."
Nowhere is the taboo of death more evident today than at funerals. In fact, we rarely even have funerals any more. Instead, when a loved one or friend has "passed away," we attend a "celebration of life." I had the opportunity to go to one of these a number years ago at a large church in Colorado Springs. A young man who had done a lot of work on our church building when we first moved in had died tragically in a climbing accident. The "celebration" was like nothing I had ever seen before. Since the young man enjoyed going barefoot, people in attendance were encouraged to do the same (I insisted on wearing a suit and clerical collar with my shoes on). A slide show of his life played on the giant screens throughout the service and various people spoke and told stories about their time together. There was even a woman on the stage who painted a picture. Finally, the pastor got up to speak. My guess is that he hadn't done many funerals, because he literally didn't know what to say. He told those gathered together that he had no answers, that he couldn't explain what had happened or why it had occurred. And that was it. Game over.
One of the responses I often get from people who are new to Anglicanism is surprise at the abundance of Scripture that is read in our worship services. Whether it is in the Daily Office, Holy Eucharist, or even weddings or funerals, the public reading of portions of the Bible is central to every act of worship we do. And yet, for many Christians, faith has become overly individualized. The important thing, we are told, is our own personal relationship with Christ. That is all I need. So it should be enough for me to just read the Bible on my own, right? Well, not exactly. While I certainly believe that all Christians need to spend time reading and studying God’s Word privately on a daily basis, it is also vitally important that we read it publicly when we gather together as a community.
The history of the public reading of Scripture goes back long before the formation of the Christian Church. When Josiah discovered the Book of the Law in the Temple in 2 Kings 22-23, his first order of business was to have it read in public. The people of God had neglected this practice for so long that they no longer knew what the Lord required of them, and consequently had fallen into idolatry. When Josiah had the book read aloud before the people it sparked a national revival and return to the ways of the Lord. Unfortunately they did not continue with the practice, and quickly fell back into idolatry and ultimately were exiled to Babylon.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.