By Eugene R. Schlesinger
The first time I set foot inside my parish was to clean it.
Over the course of the pandemic, my family and I went through any number of configurations for managing our liturgical and spiritual life: a home brewed Triduum, adapted for a solely lay community (i.e., our household), Sunday morning liturgies of the word with reflections or lectio divina, tuning in to Facebook Live to watch Mass at our then parish, while offering a prayer for spiritual communion. Some of these practices were better than others, all served their purpose at least for a time. But by the time Ash Wednesday of 2021 was rolling around (the last time I’d been to an in-person liturgy where I could receive the sacrament was Ash Wednesday of 2020), we’d had all we could take of virtual church.
When we discovered that another parish, just a little further away from our home was offering in-person liturgies in their courtyard, we decided to give it a try. That was the Eve of Lent I (the liturgies are vigil Masses on Saturday evenings). Around the Eve of Pentecost, we realized that this was our parish home now. Around this time, the parish’s annual campus clean up was occurring and this coincided with the diocese authorizing a return to indoor liturgies. So we participated in the clean up, setting foot inside the building for the first time after months of attendance.
The weekend before, another nearby parish was having a yard sale. The occasion was a sad one; after 60 years of ministry, they’d reached the difficult decision to close, and so they were selling off their material goods. Attending the yard sale was poignant: all of the trappings of parish life, life supplies for coffee hour or Sunday School, were being sold to use no more, at least not as part of the church’s life. It was also, by turns, funny. The bookshelves were quintessentially those of an Episcopal parish library — a book from the Evangelical/Fundamentalist Left Behind series shelved right next to Hollywood Lesbians, with no sense of irony or cognitive dissonance, along with some serious theology. (I augmented my library with volumes from Karl Rahner, Dom Gregory Dix, Rowan Williams, Stephen Sykes, et alia.)
The impending closure of this other parish was on my mind as I carefully dusted the stained glass windows of this sanctuary that was home, but into which I’d never before stepped. In the process of cleaning, I noted the plaque on one of the windows, which was given in the 1920s, just about a hundred years before me and my cloth intersected with it. I though of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920, also about a hundred years before, and realized that the woman in whose memory the window was given probably experienced that global health crisis. Now a similar crisis had, in a roundabout way, led me to be cleaning this window. This was a turn of events that neither the memorialized woman nor her memorializing loved ones could have anticipated. And yet, in a certain sense, it’s precisely why the window was given and dedicated: to ensure that future generations would be able to worship God in this sanctuary and to keep the memory of departed loved ones alive, even when they passed out of living memory.
I was reminded, as I cleaned, of this essay I wrote for Covenant a few years ago, appreciating in a new way the faithfulness of those who’ve preceded me in the parishes where I worship.
A few weeks after that cleaning session, at the end of June, the parish that was closing held their final liturgy, a service of thanksgiving and healing, presided over by the bishop and attended by the faithful of the parish and folks from around the diocese. At this liturgy, gifts were given to other parishes in the diocese. A missal stand and processional cross were given to our parish, where they will continue to be used in the worship of God. And the church’s “greatest treasure,” its baptismal font will also find a new home in a chapel at the diocese’s cathedral church.
As these gifts were given, as the pipe organ sounded its final notes, as the sacrifice of the altar was offered one last time in that place, I thought about the meaning of a church closure. It would be easy to view this as some sort of failure. But it would also be wrong. For decades, people were born again by water and the Spirit, the Eucharist was offered, the gospel was preached, and the faithful engaged in ministry. And though the building is closing, parishioners are finding new parish homes around the diocese (our parish has gained not just a cross and missal stand, but an altar guild member!). Seasons of church life come and go, parishes come and go, but the mission to which God has called the church continues.
In these days of decline, all churches need to be prepared for the eventuality of their closure, and, by God’s grace to serve faithfully for as long as they can. And when one season gives way to another, we can trust that not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father’s care and concern. And the church is worth more than countless sparrows.
Eugene R. Schlesinger, Ph.D. is lecturer in Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and editor of Covenant.