By Chip Prehn
“Many hands make light work.” I reflected on this maxim last weekend when I discovered fire-ant mounds all over my yard. This time of year, when it has rained in the semi-arid Southwest, fire ants of a sudden build these veritable castles. Hundreds, probably thousands, of them carefully assemble the edifices from various kinds of soil they manipulate and process. Tiny pieces of rock are also used here and there, I think to give weight to the vaulted ceilings against the elements. They build palaces one piece at a time, each ant doing his or her part. Some of the ant castles are colossal.
Since I do not want the mounds scattered on my lawn, I stir through them with a stick, or spray them away with a garden hose, or I impose birth control by way of a mix that stops the growth of the empire by killing the queens. When the queen is gone, the rest of the realm loses its purpose. Only when I am forced to destroy a mound can I see the intricate interior architecture of the finely engineered buildings. Look what these creatures can do when they work together! I thought of the old cartoon where ants invade a happy picnic and, combining forces, take up a large roasted turkey and transport it homeward.
The ants prove that there is strength in numbers. This prompted me to remember the spectacle of Dunkirk in 1940, when several hundred little boats crossed the English Channel to save the British army backed onto the beach by the Germans. The rescue of thousands of troops was made possible by many individuals — fishermen, small-contract shippers, leisure-boat skippers — working together toward that single goal. This event leading up to the Battle of Britain is often called a miracle. There are other examples of such strength-in-numbers miracles, such as the way hundreds of people passing sandbags can prevent high water from destroying homes, or recall the once common bucket brigade: many people passing buckets of water to put out a big fire. “Many hands make light work.”
Like most churches, the Episcopal Church likes the strength of numbers. Good numbers in a particular church — communicant count and good annual giving — are surely signs of life, health, and strength. The obvious number strength is what the Dunkirk deliverers and the ants have. My home parish in a large healthy city is moving toward 10,000 souls. What an Episcopal church of this size can do is amazing. What I’m calling obvious number strength is strength indeed! (I would also note that the 20-year rector who built up that formerly C of E parish — may God rest his soul in peace — was adamant that quality and not quantity must be the goal.)
But the Church ought to be cautious of using numbers such as these to measure the quality of our work. We can decide to assess our progress by reckoning upon a different number. There is an unobvious number strength that measures success, not by ASA or the size of a budget, but by counting the total churches in a statistical or demographic sample.
If we count up the hundreds of Episcopal churches in small towns and rural areas from Maine to Alaska, from North Dakota to Key West, the number is surprising and impressive. These often tiny churches lack the obvious number strength of many big-city and suburban churches, but together — as a group — they make an extremely important witness in the hinterland. Reckoning by way of the number of parishes and missions — small as they usually are — instead of “communicant strength” allows us to discover to our surprise an Episcopal Church stronger than we supposed. As with green bell peppers in a garden, it is quite easy to miss the strong presence of little churches in the hinterland, but they are there.
I have been something of a country vicar for the last three years. In addition to my professional work as an educational consultant, I do Sunday supply. I am half the year in the Texas Hill Country and half in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In the Old Dominion, I am a circuit rider serving small congregations all over the place. In Texas, I am vicar of one community called St. Mark’s Church, Coleman. Serving churches in small-town America has opened a whole new world for me. Growing up in large parishes in two big cities, and being overly proud of what I possessed, I was mostly ignorant of what goes on in small-town and rural parishes. I had no idea what these churches must deal with year in and year out — and yet they have been delivering Anglican faith and practice for three and sometimes four centuries.
At Coleman, we have gained two persons in two years to improve our ASA to 22. A young couple with five children is coming in July. Our ASA will thus rise again! We broke records on Christmas Eve and Easter Day this year: 63 and 84, respectively. The beautiful little brick church, entirely carpenter gothic on the inside, is especially pretty when it is full of people. The building is as neat as a pin. The memorial garden is peaceful and pretty. The lawn is always mown, we have a new outdoor pavilion and sidewalk. One could eat off the floor of the parish hall. St. Mark’s people love the Lord, love their church, take good care of the place, and look after one another in and out of season. They are also proud Episcopalians and utterly determined to keep their Christian community up and running. There is no debt.
Most St. Mark’s people are ranchers or have jobs related in some manner to ranching or farming. Even the enterprising lady who runs a splendid gift shop sells as much to locals as to tourists. Several of our parishioners come to church redolent of the cattle business. They have been up feeding since before dawn. But their stories transcend pinkeye, escaped calves, broken fences, and lack of grass. They also tell stories of reading the prayer book to a sick friend, of working at the homeless shelter in town, of preparing meals for the street people (O yes! even in Coleman), or preparing for and leading Morning Prayer services between the eucharistic Sundays.
Our little church has an “organist” every Sunday of the year. We use an MP3 device that gives us a pipe organ (more or less). All of us would prefer a live musician, but that’s not worked out. Whoever did the digital recordings must be a Methodist, since a Hymnal 1982 selection will suddenly stop after just three verses. But we do fine.
The churches I serve in Virginia are small but very busy and happy places. Again, they are neat, clean, and debt-free. The people are eager to practice their faith. One congregation has been waiting for its new rector for two years because he is English and a federal government that will allow millions of foreigners to cross the border without credentials of any sort has made this British cleric sweat it out like a suspected terrorist.
I serve another country church that can afford a supply priest only once a month. It does a first-class Morning Prayer service the rest of the time. The usual lectors have a great reverence for the Scriptures and respect for the English language. A little church not far from our farm is one of the most beautiful stone churches I have ever seen. When you go inside, you are instantly in a world of jewel-like colors that invite you into the realm of the beautiful God. A spotless carpet takes you forward to the chancel area, replete with polished silver and brass. Everything is in its place. The perennial warden of this church is the organist. He is really good on the bench, picks hymns he knows the choir — that is, the whole congregation — can sing, and has the pastoral touch. In truth, he is the pastor of the church. The ASA at this stone church is probably 17. The annual budget is not above $35,000. Yet parishioners give till it hurts to various charitable causes in the area. They are staunch Episcopalians of the more traditional sort and are thus suspicious of innovations in religion if they are rooted in ideology and not theology. Their commitment and their discipline are impressive.
Back out in Coleman, the bishop visited us last December. He was extremely pleased to confirm four young adults. They are the finest young persons I’ve ever met. (I am a former priest-educator, so I have known a great many teenagers.) I realize that conscientious, hard-working children and youth can gain a great education anywhere in any sort of school if the right ingredients are there. I know that huge, well-fixed schools in the big cities have incredible offerings and boast remarkable data. On the other hand, I believe that if a teenager does not live in a big urban area or is unable to go away to a good church school, the next best thing is to gain one’s education in small-town schools. The reason is that the same person is expected to do many things. You’ve seen the picture of the football player with the homecoming queen on one arm and a trumpet in the other. That boy and that girl are gaining a multitude of experiences in that little high school that will serve them and others for life.
My point here is that the four deeply formed, impressive youth we presented for confirmation at St. Mark’s Church last December are now strong Episcopal laity who will serve in various ministries and carry on the Anglican tradition in rural and other parts of America. They grew up on ranches. They will likely remain in the area and practice their religion as Episcopalians. Quantity does not mean quality. Presiding Bishop John Maury Allin grew up in a small-town parish where he and a girl were the only two children in the Sunday school for years. She went on to run an Episcopal religious order.
I must not paint too rosy a picture. Small-town and rural America face a plethora of challenges. Not a few of these challenges have been created by both political parties, which have been rather stupid in terms of agriculture policies, especially as sustainability becomes imperative. In some areas, commitment to monoculture has ruined the soil. Trade policies in Washington have put a lot of ranchers and farmers out of business. There is plenty of poverty in rural areas. Opioid addiction has decimated the Shenandoah Valley and many other parts of small-town and rural America.
I am likewise deeply anxious about how the current political divisions in the United States — is it not in part a city versus country dynamic? — may affect TEC’s attitude about and support of hinterland parishes and missions. Just when TEC needs this non-urban witness the most, and just when the hinterland churches need the support of TEC the most, the larger, better-off body appears aloof and often indifferent. I wonder if we are facing the same large challenge the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA faced in the early 19th century? Other Christian bodies are way ahead of us. Not only the Baptists, Church of Christ, and independent evangelical communities, but the Roman Catholic Church has made a huge commitment to the hinterland. Some of the prettiest RC churches in the world are in the middle of nowhere, which of course is somewhere. The Mormons are committed too, and paganism thrives in the forests, deserts, and one-horse towns. Where is the Episcopal Church?
If we believe the gospel is true; if we believe that Christianity offers the most compelling perspective of the purpose of this life, and the historically best path through mortal existence; and if we believe that Anglican Christianity has an excellence and a beauty worth sharing, then we must get a strategy and derive tactics from it in order to “weigh in” in small towns and rural areas. The Episcopal Church is in fact getting good exposure outside the metropolises, but the witness needs more concerted effort and financial support from the larger body. Perhaps Christianity itself will go rural and will thrive in small churches with a few people. This has happened quite often in the last 2,000 years.
As an Episcopalian, I want to have “coverage” across the land and not just in certain parts of the land. If city fellers from other religious backgrounds find Anglicanism a rather compelling phenomenon, then hinterland folk might also find TEC a happy home. We must tell them more about it. There is no Episcopal church in Kaycee, Wyoming, or Crosby, Mississippi, but there could be. I’ll wager that God has already given the charism of headship to someone in these and other small communities. We might reach out to these leaders, offer a little theological education (but, please, not too much!), get them some practical training, and get out of their way. These folks belong to us and practice the same Faith via different pieties. Most country people I know admire our presiding bishop and welcome all sorts of strangers. Small towns and rural areas are no less human than metropolitan areas. While many of the people with whom I worship on most Sundays are concerned that TEC has become the Democratic Party at prayer, they are not going anywhere and really are committed to the idea that in Christ Jesus there is a unity of truth.
“Many hands make light work.” Small American churches make a contribution to the advance of the gospel that is much “bigger” than the size of a congregation indicates. While it is still true that these small platoons are located in areas losing net population, things may be changing a bit. The Great Panic of 2020 (i.e., COVID) has driven hundreds of thousands of people out of the cities into the country. In any case, there is great potential in rural and small-town America, and we must think again about the opportunity. The part little churches play in the Christian witness in America — unobvious number strength — is way over and above what their ASA and budgets would indicate. Taken as a group, these little churches have a large effect.
I submit that we should make it a priority to help them remain in the saddle against the odds. These people are masters of thrift, creativity, and imagination. Their presence in the villages, small towns, and little cities of our country is often a blessing for the local communities and is a living reminder that Anglican Christianity is not dead, gone, and forgotten. But they could use a little boost. We can give it to them. This would be a way to practice our belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true for all, anywhere.