11 August 2008

God's Grace, history, and my parish

There are many thing I should comment on today, but I'm going to post a personal reflection about my parish -- a parish I've belonged to since I was a boy soprano "in the days."

I have been around our parish longer than just about anyone else has. There are only a handful of real “old-timers” left. Because of my long association with the parish, and because I am an historian (and the person who wrote our parish history) I took note of two very important liturgical/historical events that happened on 1 August 2008.

The first event was a liturgical date that is unique. It comes so infrequently that some parishes/missions go decades without its observance. The church calls it “Curiosity Sunday” – the first Sunday that the new priest is in the parish. Usually people who have not been inside the church in ages will show up to check out the new rector. For better or worse, the whole balance of the priest’s tenure depends upon the outcome of this Sunday.

The other event that happened was historical. It was the inauguration of a new era in our parish history. The new rector is female.

I have to admit that somewhere in the dark recesses of my traditionalist Anglo-catholic 1928 Prayer Book loving soul, I prefer male priests. There is no logic to that at all, and I am embarrassed to admit how I feel. With only one exception, every female presbyter I have ever known as been an exceptional priest (so have the deacons who happen to be female). I know that God’s grace comes to us regardless of the medium of the priest. (That’s what the church decided in the 4th century.) Nevertheless, I want to call the rector “Father.”

When I arrived at for the eight o’clock mass, the new rector was standing outside the church waiting to welcome us. I introduced myself and started to say, “I’m so happy you are our new rector.” I could not get the words out; I was so overcome with emotion that I could hardly speak. The rector gave me a hug and patted my back in a motherly fashion. I told her that it would take some time before I could call her “Mother.” She laughed and said, “Call me father!” Okay, she has a sense of humour.

I went into the church and knelt, as is our Anglican custom. After a prayer of thanksgiving, I thought about our parish and about our past. What else would an historian think about?

In 1892, four women met and decided there would be an Episcopal Church in Paso Robles. They formed "The Guild" then wrote the bishop to demand that he send a priest. He sent the Very Rev’d. John Abbot Emory, Archdeacon, who did not like Paso Robles and decided Templeton was the place for an Episcopal Church.

A few weeks later, Emory’s sister, Julia Emery came to the diocese for an official visit. She was president of the newly authorized United Thank Offering. Julia looked Templeton over and said, “There is nothing but Swedish Lutherans here!” She decided that Paso Robles was the place for the mission. She personally funded the initial work and pledged UTO funds. She also chose the patron saint – James the Greater. That is how the Episcopal Church came to Paso Robles and how we “got” our name.

During the anti-Asian hysteria of the 1910s and 20s, The Guild repeatedly went on record denouncing the discrimination. They also sent financial aid to Archdeacon Emery’s daughter and her husband to help them while there were hiding in the redwood forest. They were hiding because people wanted them both dead because Florence had fallen in love with and married a young seminarian who was living with the Emerys. What was so bad about that? He was the son of a Japanese nobleman – he was not “white.” In an odd coincidence, one of St. James’ early priests officiated at that wedding!

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the women of our parish ran the only soup kitchen in the city. They insisted on integration. The constable came to close down the kitchen and the women ran the police officers off the property. The kitchen stayed open and the seating was integrated.

In 1939, St. James’ became one of the first churches in the Anglican Communion to elect a woman to the vestry. (There is considerable evidence that we were the first to do so.) That woman was Florence Lyle, Bev Tornquist’s aunt.

In the 1940s, The Guild opened the hall for service members and their families stationed at Camp Roberts. Again, integration was enforced.

In the 1950s, the school board banned school dances for fear of interracial dancing. The Guild opened the hall for school dances, and there was no segregation.

In the 1960s, our rector, Fr. Steensland was presented an opportunity to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He went, funded by The Guild. Some parishioners were unhappy about this and so was the community. Fr. Steensland received death threats and his family was threatened. Bricks were thrown though the rectory windows. The Guild encouraged Fr. Steensland to go to Selma, assuring him that all would be well. And it was well.

Throughout our history, women have played a monumental role in our parish life, always standing up for what was right and against injustice. Many times the women of our parish were the only people who listened to the Holy Spirit's guidance and followed Jesus’ example of welcoming all without regard of who or what they were.

As I knelt, I remembered many of those women who had come before us in this place. V.A. Street, the Church sisters, Ruth Trussler, Dorothy Trussler, Maud Hansen, “Mrs” Sobey, Grace Lyle, Florence Lyle, Maud Neis, Estelle Galba, Glyndon Peachey, Connie Brooks, Niki Janny, Adina Bunting, Amy Braid, Lydia Smith, Marilyn Hansen, Isabel Dodd, Martha Swanson, Themla Shelvock, Irene Delleganna, Emily Baxter, Nita Peterson.

To all of you, these are just names. I was fortunate enough to have known most of those noble women. I wondered what they would think of our new rector. I had to smile because I knew what the answer was: “It’s about time!”

It was my birthday weekend and I went up at the offertory for the traditional blessing. When the rector traced the sign of the cross on my forehead, I actually felt the “electricity” of the Spirit. When she forgot my name in the prayer, she said, “for this dear man whose name I’ve already forgotten.” She put her hand on my cheek, leaned in, and our foreheads touched. I reminded her of my name; she patted my cheek and finished the prayer.

Minutes later, I watched the awesome mystery of our faith unfold as our new priest spoke the sacred words of consecration and God transformed simple bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. The miracle happened just as it always has happened at our altar and always will happen. God’s grace came to us through the priesthood of Mary Morrison. It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.

I went to church “Curiosity Sunday” with a heart open to whatever God had to tell me about this new rector. I heard his voice repeatedly during that celebration of the Holy Communion. I also heard the voice of those St. James’ saints who preceded us. When mass was ended, I made my way to The Guild Hall where I once again greeted our new rector. Only this time I said, “Welcome, Mother Morrison.” And it was okay; I did not stumble over the words at all and they came from my heart.

I know, without doubt, that those noble women who founded our parish and fought so hard for civil rights are overjoyed that our vestry called the best-qualified priest to serve the parish. I also know that if all our parishioners give her a chance without prejudging her, they, too, will see Mother Morrison is the right person. This call wasn't extended from our parish, it was extended to her by God. There are too many little things that happened during the search process, too many wee things that went wrong with all the other candidates. The Rev'd. Mary Morrision didn't even submit her name to our committee until several other people turned down our call. God was holding her in reserve for us. I am convinced of that.

So, that is the report on Curiosity Sunday. Oh, there is another wee thing, Mother has a cool partner who is a deacon a female deacon. I have reservations about “the partner” though she stands during the prayers. That is positively schismatic.