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Archive for October, 2016

Homing: Life and liturgy

Posted by Ron George on October 15, 2016

St. Timothy's: From the choir loft

St. Timothy’s: From the choir loft

I don’t recall the exact date, but it was 50 years ago in the fall that I first enjoyed Solemn High Mass at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas. For some reason, earlier this week, my aging mind connected the dots while reading Rod Dreher’s memoir, How Dante Can Save Your Life, a gift from a dearly beloved friend of many decades: I was in Fort Worth just 30 minutes from St. Timothy’s; so, I went to church.

The backdrop: I have all but given up on Christianity for lack of authentic faith in God. I seem to be at least a hopeful agnostic if not an outright atheist and humanist; however, ironically and perhaps paradoxically, I’m also sufficiently open-minded to reconsider any and all standpoints I’ve ever had for interpreting my experience in the world (well, except that I doubt I’ll ever lean to the right politically).

Dreher’s memoir – I’m not sure why – drove me to a kind of theological soliloquy. The topic: OK, if I were to believe in God, what would that look like? How would I speak of God; i.e., what would be my logos about theos, and where would that leave me with traditional Christianity? That went on way too long, but somewhere near the end, I felt like returning to my roots, as it were, to that particular place where my adult journey as a churchman began.

I’ve written elsewhere on this website of my very first encounter with the High Church tradition of Anglicanism. All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Worth set the hook, but St. Timothy’s reeled me in. I felt more at home with a congregation that was far more middle-class than the parish drawing most of its members and wealth from Fort Worth’s Westover Hills.

What hooked me, however, was not the demographics but the sky-high church liturgy and its expression of a way of Christianity rooted in practices of worshipful devotion and prayer, intellectual engagement and charitable works. This certainly was not the Methodist worship tradition in which I was reared, but it rhymed with it: I knew all the words! In those days, the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer and the Methodist Book of Worship had much in common, word for word. I didn’t need to bury my nose in a book while learning to participate in Anglo-Catholic liturgy. Even most of the hymns were familiar. I immediately felt like a member of the Body of Christ at St. Timothy’s.

At age 19, I felt, somehow, as though I’d come home; and, last Sunday, I felt again as though I’d come home; for, surely, I had.

Home” is the sentimental term, but “pivotal” says the most about how life turned out from 1966 onward.

  • May 1966: St. Timothy’s rector, the late Rev. George M. Acker, presented me for confirmation by the Rt. Rev. Charles Avery Mason.
  • August 1968: I married the mother of my children at St. Timothy’s; and the following year, our first child was baptized at St. Timothy’s. Two years later, we brought our second child from Houston to be baptized at St. Timothy’s.
  • St. Timothy’s sponsored me as a postulant and candidate for ordination in the Diocese of Dallas. I was graduated from Nashotah House Theological Seminary in May 1976; ordained deacon in June of that year, and priest in January 1977.
St. Timothy's: The congregation

St. Timothy’s: The congregation

There’s more to it, of course, an unhappy history wrought by my flawed character: Divorce in 1983, deposition a few years later, decades of regret and shame, redemptive love and, somehow, forgiveness.

Dreher’s story is about faith restored. I’m not sure that’s where this is headed, but somewhere within my impermanent, mortal soul lives a version of me hoping to find itself at least on the outer edge of the Christian community of faith. And, so, on Sunday last, I threw myself into the Solemn High Mass at St. Timothy’s.

I sat in the same pew, or thereabouts, where I sat for the first time next to my friend Donald R. “Peaches” Wertz, who had invited me to that eventful service and would later make sure I attended all of Fr. Acker’s confirmation classes. He served as bishop’s chaplain at my confirmation and would be best man at our wedding. He is godfather to our first- and second-born.

There weren’t but about 35 or 40 people in the congregation on Sunday, but there was a full-bore sanctuary party – all adult men – and an almost overbearing though small choir.

In truth, St. Timothy’s has always been a liturgical outlier in the U.S. Episcopal Church, an Anglo-Catholic parish offering a worship experiences that hark back to pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. It’s certainly not the only one of its type, but it’s among the more extreme; which, of course, appealed to me immediately in 1966. I’m not that kind of churchman, anymore, but on Sunday, I fell back into the ceremonial routines with abandon. I trembled as I received Holy Communion and shed a few tears thereafter.

The celebrant was a man I knew from seminary, the Rt. Rev. Keith Ackerman, former Bishop of Quincy and now deposed from the Episcopal Church for his allegiance to a breakaway organization, the Anglican Church of North America. (He’s not alone. The entire Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth voted to leave the U.S. Episcopal Church in 2008. Long story.)

St. Timothy's: Anglo-Catholic to the core

St. Timothy’s: Anglo-Catholic to the core

After church, Keith and I had an embracing reunion then retired to the parish hall for a covered-dish lunch. His wife, Joann, was there, and I reminded her that we had once babysat his first-born child at Nashotah House. Keith introduced me as a returning son of St. Timothy’s, someone who had actually lived on the grounds as a college student.

It was a sentimental journey, to be sure, awash with nostalgia for times past; and yet, I would not want to return to those days, for somehow that would be a denial of providence for all that’s happened since my youthful years and, if God there be, a denial as well of God’s grace and the redemptive power of love that truly heals, be it supernatural or not.

I had no idea, in 1966, of the liturgical power that underlay the Tridentine ceremonial Anglo-Catholics so joyfully imposed upon the staid Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of it, as they say, was “aping Rome,” but it seemed then as it may be now the sincerest form of flattery and a longing for much that had been stripped away from Christian worship by Protestant reformers. Surely, it may be overdone, but truly not by much. It remains as it has been for almost two millennia, regardless of ceremonial style; literally, the work of the people of God at prayer and in worship, a service deeply rooted in our humanity to acknowledge that which – or Who – is greater than ourselves.

At root, it is, truly and simply, about He who said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

I guess you might say St. Timothy’s changed me for life, for better or worse, into a person for whom liturgical prayer emerges first and foremost from his flawed frame. Everything else, if anything there be, falls into place after that in terms of Christian spirituality, for it is the work of the people of God – the liturgy – that forms us as the ministering Body of Christ in the world, wherein we are no longer many but One – at least, we hope so.

OK, yes, I’ve made too much of the homecoming visit; or, maybe not. We’ll see.

In any case, I’m awfully thankful for my dear friend who gave me Dreher’s book and to Bishop Ackerman and the people of St. Timothy’s for ratifying the sneaking suspicion I had last Sunday that I needed to go to church – and to be at home, steeped in liturgical worship.

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