By John Deepak Sundara
Kevin Martin’s recent article “Who Are We Missing?” highlights a valid sociological and theological commonality among some of the largest congregations in the Episcopal Church: they are theologically and liturgically conservative. This has been documented in various sociology papers: there is a strong connection between membership and Sunday attendance, and historically orthodox theology and traditional liturgy, across mainline traditions, ours included.
By traditional liturgy, I mean a liturgy that is intentionally out of step with current cultural norms. Indeed, anyone familiar with the three parishes Martin mentions knows that, liturgically, they are all quite different from each other. Although All Souls, Oklahoma City, Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, and St. Martin’s, Houston are Rite I parishes, one uses the forms of the 1928 BCP, one is a parish that would have made E.B. Pusey proud, and the other is deeply influenced by the venerable Church of England low-church evangelical, John R.W. Stott.
That being said, it is worth mentioning that, apart from their theological commitments, the rectors of each parish share a particular charism of spiritual leadership, namely a personal discipline of prayer, that lends itself to their congregation’s growth and vibrancy, making them outliers in the Episcopal Church. From personal experience, I want to discuss Church of the Incarnation, where I served under the former rector, the Rt. Rev. Anthony Burton, for five and a half years, and St. Martin’s, where I now serve under the Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson Jr.
First, Bp. Burton. When I served at Church of the Incarnation, the daily rhythm was a morning Mass and Evening Prayer. On the mornings when I made it on time, Bp. Burton was invariably beginning his workday kneeling in prayer. While all of us leafed through the service leaflet, sometimes clumsily, Bp. Burton knew and said it all by heart. It is hard to not remember him kneeling in that chapel.
Likewise, when Bp. Burton prayed or celebrated the Mass, every word uttered was simultaneously both his and the prayer book’s. Nothing felt rote. The prayers felt true and sincere. He believed every word he prayed.
During the early and painful months of COVID, our parish organized a Zoom Bible study. In the first session, Bp. Burton closed our evening with Compline. I cannot explain how it was possible for one man, praying through his computer, to draw a hundred or so parishioners, also watching and praying through their screens, into a deep moment of faith, peace, and comfort, especially when he prayed these words: “Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.” There was something about how he prayed those words, and how they landed on us sitting miles away from him, that I knew this prayer was coming from a priest and bishop whose soul had been deeply shaped, for many decades, by Christ in the school of prayer.
Another story. Across the highway from Incarnation is a neighborhood with a community housing project. Over the years, Incarnation has sought to partner with existing ministries and churches in the area, many of which are historical African American congregations and outreach ministries from a variety of traditions. One tragic evening, a drive-by shooting claimed the lives of many innocents, including a child. Residents rallied to support each other through prayer and worship. Their pastors invited Bp. Burton to participate and pray. In a space full of non-White Christians, one would have imagined that Bp. Burton stood out like a sore thumb — a tall, slim, Anglo-Catholic bishop and rector of a predominantly well-to-do, white church. But the pastors invited him for a reason. And Bp. Burton’s prayers and words, steeped by decades of prayer book spirituality and piety, were met with resounding amens over and over and over again.
There was something about his spiritual leadership that was deeply influenced by his spiritual discipline of daily prayer.
But this trait isn’t only evident in Bp. Burton. In one of my first interviews with Russ, I met him at his home, early in the morning. At one of his side tables in his living room was his cup of coffee, his well-worn Bible, and his prayer book. He told me about the gems he had mined in his time with the Lord that morning. During his morning quiet times, he would also sense the Lord prodding him in certain directions about decisions for the life of the parish. Later, I discovered that Russ designates certain topics for each day of the week. For example, on Mondays he prays for all 200 employees of St. Martin’s by name.
Russ has a reputation for compelling preaching. I believe this is the secret: while the hymn before the Gospel is still being sung, and before Russ climbs the stairs to the pulpit, he kneels in prayer at his preacher’s seat. It feels a tad bit out of step with everything else going around liturgically. And then, after he’s done preaching, while we’re all reciting the Nicene Creed, Russ is again kneeling in prayer, at his seat. Or sometimes he’s off to the vesting room. The lay servers sometimes ask, “Where’s Russ off to?” To pray!
It should be utterly unsurprising — but it still surprises me — that people give their life to Christ after he has preached.
Of course, God is going to honor the prayers of a priest who hopes his words bear gospel fruit for the sake of Christ’s kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why people love Russ’s preaching. Not least because he is a compelling preacher; but rather that he prays the Holy Spirit compels them — and he does!
Not too long ago, St. Martin’s beloved choir conductor died quite suddenly. More than being a conductor, he was a chaplain and pastor to dozens of choir members. The church was mired in a sense of shock and grief. One evening, when all the choir had gathered to mourn, Russ pulled out the prayer book and prayed for us and with us. Once again, every word uttered was simultaneously both his and the prayer book’s. Nothing felt rote. The prayers felt true and sincere. He believed every word he prayed. And then we sang a hymn.
I hope you see a picture.
The prayer lives and personal disciplines of Bp. Burton and Russ look quite different. Yet, both have deep lives of prayer shaped by the prayer book. And I can’t help but conclude that their disciplines, habits, and lives of prayer have much to do with the growth and vibrancy of their congregations.
The Rev. John D. Sundara is the vicar for worship and evangelism at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church (Houston, TX), and was the assistant rector for Christian formation and Church of the Incarnation (Dallas, TX).