Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Elephant in the Room

One always hesitates to ask the obvious question. If it’s this immediately apparent to me, and no one else appears to be asking, then it must be a stupid question. I must be missing a critical piece of information that everyone else has factored in; so best I just keep quiet. Such is the case with a recent and avalanching sequence of events within our parish. In very short order, the ‘grand old church on the hill’ has seen its nave declared unsafe for use, necessitating a hasty shift of all church activities into the attached upper and lower halls – of equal age and, as it turns out of equal or greater compromise. No sooner had our hardy little group of parishioners adjusted to this move – no mean task for a population likely averaging three score and ten (and all the inflexibility that that might imply) – then, these (hallowed?) halls too were declared in sufficient peril to require their being evacuated. Rather like watching the flood waters’ relentless rise, pushing occupants farther and farther into the corner, from floor to habitable floor, perched first on chairs, then tables, then banished to the roof. To its credit the ‘club room’ now serves as meeting hall, chapel, meditation hut – depending on chair configuration and occupancy.

As with choice of up-scale restaurants, an abundance of excellent music, and a world class repertory theatre, Stratford is blessed too with a full palate of churches. The rationale for edifices of the same stripe, being built, cheek-by-jowl in a town that only now pushes 30,000 occupants, has long since receded into the mists of the late 19th and early 20th century. Two Presbyterian congregations, marginal in their numbers, worship mere blocks apart, having declared quite publically and perplexingly their inability to consolidate – quite possibly sounding their respective death knells. Two Catholic flocks, one clinging precariously on life support, steadfastly carry on, unfalteringly ‘separate’. And three Anglican buildings, a stone’s healthy throw apart.

And so to the obvious question: “With the aforementioned crisis at hand (that would be paragraph one, not two) and some pretty viable and consecrated options available, what are we doing scurrying about moving, cramming, compromising, and splitting what (optimistically) remains of this congregation, camping out in the Knights of Columbus Hall – having only just escaped setting up shop in the Army Navy?” Even more to the point, if one is permitted two stupid questions in the same paragraph, “Why are we suddenly deaf to the obvious option of celebrating what is frequently and sanctimoniously referred to as the ‘Anglican Communion’ – this (evidently under other conditions) tight little community of like-minded folk – by joining an existing congregation five blocks away?” Oh what the Hell, let’s go for a third dumb query: “Why, with an Archdeacon for parish rector (that would be the nominal tie that binds together our little band of buildings in this patch), is this not the first option to be considered?”

Ever the advocate of collecting empirical data – that would be the scientific and grounded-in-reality alternative to sitting in one’s (insular) study and hypothesizing (aka ‘navel-gazing speculation’) – I set out this past Sunday morning. First stop, St. Paul’s for their BCP service, thoughtfully scheduled for 8:30 to allow me as well to attend St. James’ transplanted vestry meeting, preceded by its drive-thru’ (‘Eucharist-free’) 10:00 service. There’s nothing quite like a test drive. Funny how the ‘grass is greener’ applies even in February. The turmoil, the uncertainty, the concessions, the next hard on the heels of the last, are real enough – sufficiently evident to make the abstraction of sitting in the pew of a less traumatized congregation quite appealing. But, what one leaves behind in one venue is quickly supplanted with a different set of issues in the next – once one climbs out of one’s assumptions, one’s conjecture, one’s expectations and pulls into traffic behind the wheel. I’d long forgotten this particular rector’s penchant for a sing-songy, lily pad to lily pad, oral cadence. While I recognized a few faces, the ‘community’, while welcoming, was unfamiliar. And the no-nonsense, near-mechanical rhythm of the service excised a key element that had drawn me back, after forty years, to the formality of a four hundred year old liturgy: the mystery and reverence for the words. Nothing fundamental; but enough to remind me of the colour of the grass everywhere in our land in February – that would be that drab and lifeless brown.

And I did say everywhere. On to the K of C (vs. KFC – although a secret recipe would not go a wanting at this stage). Perhaps empiricism does have its drawbacks. Small, low-ceilinged, fluorescently brilliant, packed with the ubiquitous ‘stackables’ – just like every other ‘meeting room C’ in this convention centre or that – with an eclectic mix of iconography to remind us we’re not in a Courtyard Marriot somewhere. And just when the pendulum was starting to reverse toward St. James. I know, I know, as Malcolm so eloquently reminded us, it’s not the building, it’s the community – and boy was it a tight wee community that day!

And so full circle, back to that big, grey, wrinkly thing in the corner. What’s the harm in taking community A with all its reverence for the word, inserting it into community B with its building and trappings, and worshipping as something other than the clerical equivalent of the Sharks and the Jets? Or is that just a stupid question to which everyone else knows the answer but me?
David Howard

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