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State of grace

May 9, 2008

Several days ago, in writing of my early morning visit to the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Newport, Rhode Island, I was at a loss to describe what I termed the other-worldliness of the service, so different was it from the overly-earnest worship on offer in so many contemporary Episcopal churches. It has subsequently occurred to me, sparked by my reading of Nelson Aldrich’s essay in the January 1979 Atlantic Monthly, that what set St. John’s apart from its peers was a quality of grace.

I do not mean Grace, that free gift which we can neither accomplish nor achieve, but grace of the ordinary garden variety, which though not unrelated to its divine counterpart is entirely within the grasp of humanity, should we choose to reach for it. My dictionary gives it as definition 1: a) “simple elegance or refinement;” b) “courteous goodwill;” c) “an attractively polite manner.” Grace is indeed all of these things. It disarms with its appearance of effortlessness and is courteous in its restraint. Chesterton gives a good summation:

“Greatness is a certain indescribable but perfectly familiar and palpable quality of size in the personality of easy and natural self-expression. Such a man is as firm as a tree and as unique as a rhinoceros.” (from The Common Man)

The Church is too frequently guilty of Trying Too Hard, of making it obvious how much work is done, and judging success based on that statistic alone. Churches where grace is practiced and cultivated have that quality – almost insouciant – of getting it just right, of easy and natural self-expression. Indeed such grace is characteristic of Episcopalians. One is not assaulted at the door of an Episcopal church with false gaiety and overdone goodwill; one does not find the service imposed, but rather offered; the visitor is brought to coffee hour only if it sets him at ease. Indeed at St. Bartholomew’s in New York, the vestry room adjacent to the chancel is used as a welcome and information room where the crowd-shy newcomer can ask questions and speak to a priest in more intimate surroundings, if he so wishes.

To shove elements of worship – and of church life – down people’s throats betrays an obvious lack of confidence in the quality and worth of what is presented, and it shows. Indeed this is the very nature of Trying Too Hard: that it is self-conscious, that it is a show intended to deceive, for surely one who is genuine needs to put on no airs. St. Bartholomew’s doesn’t believe that newcomers must be assaulted: if they be moved, they will come to the vestry room. And if they haven’t been moved, then confronting them is not the correct remedy.

This was my chief grievance at St. Peter’s against the manner of commissioning the search committee: that we were compelled to put our hands into the air, that the clergy leadership felt that having us do so would make everyone feel “involved” or “welcome.” Rather, it served only as a distraction from the serious charge of the search committee, and it drove my hands straight into my pockets.

If we understand that the Church strives to be in the world but not of the world, then grace must be that quality of otherness which elevates our worship above the quotidian without breaking its crucial connection to the earth – and to us sinners, here below. I have posed the question before: should a church service be challenging in its methods, or in its message? For Episcopalians and the Episcopal Church, it has always been my experience that the former obfuscates the latter and that we are at our best, our most honest and our truest, when we worship with ease and poise.

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