The Very Rev'd Dr Andrew McGowan
Christ Church, New Haven
October 11, 2015
Today we hear readings that offer confronting pictures of God’s demands on those who have every reason to think that they have done what is right. Amos’ criticism of ancient injustice (5:6-7, 10-15) and Jesus more poignant encounter with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31) both pose questions of us about what God might require of us today.
When Jesus responds to the young man “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” we may find this as difficult a saying as he apparently did. Through Christian history there have been those– desert fathers and mothers, Benedict and Scholastica, Francis and Clare – who have taken this call to leave everything and follow in ways as direct as the first disciples of Jesus.
Most others however have felt called to live in more conventional ways but nevertheless to live out the Gospel call to justice and charity as best we may. The insistent call to live our lives in ways that remember the poor finds a particular focus in the celebration of the liturgy, where we imagine and live out a world where wealth and poverty are not the basis of human worth, and where a community of love and peace is constituted, day after day, in sharing the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
We know that this parish places a high value on that sacramental life. The forms of worship and witness that characterize a place like Christ Church owe a particular debt to the 19th century, and a time when Anglicans began more actively to balance their well established protestant credentials with a more self-conscious appropriation of ancient and medieval theology, ritual, and art. Some of the results are visible all around us now; the beauty of Henry Vaughan’s architecture, which nods to Magdalen College, Oxford; the wood carvings by Johannes Kirchmayer; the dynamic performed beauty of liturgy and music; these are the most outward and visible signs of our commitment to worship in beauty, as well as in sincerity and truth.
But the heart of Anglican Catholicism, that strand of the Episcopal Church that we represent here, is not primarily about aesthetics.
This particular Church in New Haven seems to have been founded with perhaps three related characteristics in mind - first, the Edwards sisters who were its first benefactors were adherents of the Tractarian movement that had begun in the Church of England in a few decades before. This first flourishing of Catholic renewal was not particularly interested in ceremonial, but emphasized the importance of spiritual discipline and regular communion. At that time it was typical for Episcopal parishes to have Morning Prayer and the Litany, but with communion only monthly. The Edwards sisters apparently cycled around the New Haven Churches that had different communion Sundays of the month, seeking more regular participation. So Christ Church began with a different pattern of worship, centered on the Eucharist.
Second, the need for a parish on the west side of New Haven reflected a sense of mission, and in the early sermons and other documents from this place it is clear that evangelism of the neighborhood was an unapologetic and central aspect of why we came to be here. Christ Church was not built to pander to taste, but to witness to the Gospel through its sacramental worship, and to draw others to faith through it. This part, I submit, has become less obvious in the life of this or of most Anglo-catholic parishes now. Our post-Christian and pluralistic society makes us perhaps hesitant to give an account of the faith that is within us - but our purpose is not purely about ourselves, or our own relationship with God, but with God’s relationship with humankind and with the world.
Third, Christ Church was established as a “free” Church. Somewhat unusually and even controversially for the time, there were to be no pew rentals in the Church. At Trinity on the Green, families of means were expected to rent pews, providing their own personal space for worship but also generating revenue for the parish. Here it was established from the outset that the offertory would be the primary means of support, and that all seats were open.
At the consecration service of the first Church in 1854, the preacher Thomas Pitkin -Assistant Rector of Trinity Church, of which this was a mission - said of the Church:
"Its wide open-door will invite all passers by to enter in. There will be no ownership of seats. All are made welcome of whatever name or creed who are willing to unite with us in our worship. High and low, rich and poor, old and young, may here fervently join in the prayers and praises of the Church.”
By centering the economics of the parish on the offertory itself week by week, Christ Church was making a statement about the character of the Church as a society not defined by class, status or wealth.
This third characteristic - the open Church, we might say - was as important as the first in achievement of the second; that is, by being a place defined not just by an approach to liturgical worship, but as a community characterized by concern for justice and inclusion, the Church was able to reach out into the community and serve it.
Christ Church also came to be seen as a center of catholic worship and spirituality around the nation and beyond. Here, in November 1925 - just a few weeks short of 90 years ago -the first annual Catholic Congress was held. At it, Fr Granville Williams SSJE spoke to the assembly about “the Eucharistic Sacrifice” and he quoted from the same chapter of the prophet Amos we read this morning, reflecting on the connection between right worship and right behavior.
More famously a couple of years earlier, the Anglo-Catholic bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston, had urged attendees at a similar congress in London to find the connection between eucharistic piety and social action:
“you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.”
As we contemplate the new chapter of this parish’s history that a new rector will bring, considering these roots offers us something important. All this—worship, mission, service—is our purpose. We will not flourish if our piety is liturgical but not political too; our worship must go on in the Community Soup Kitchen, as well as in the sanctuary. In all these things week in and week out we show glimpses of the Kingdom of God, giving thanks to the one who has called us into this service, and for whom all things are possible.