Going to church alone

by

Egan Millard had recently moved and was new to Portland, ME and St Luke’s cathedral.  One Sunday evening he opted to go to a service at the cathedral.  It was raining outside as he stepped up the cathedral’s doors;

“I opened the church door. Inside, it was silent.

Had I gotten the time wrong? I was new to Portland and I’d only been to St. Luke’s, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, once before – and that was for the busy, colorful morning service. I felt a pang of dismay as I hovered on the threshold, deciding whether to investigate further or just go home. Through the open door, I could smell the distinct fragrance that seems to emanate from every old church: incense, candles, flowers. I stepped inside.”

What he discovered inside was that he was the only one, other than the priest, who had shown up for the 5:15 service.  He recounted his experience for the Portland Press Herald, where he worked.

“I took a seat and looked up into the chapel’s spire. Every once in a while, some muffled fragment of a sound would surface briefly – a faint siren, rain on the roof – before dissolving. Candlelight brought a warm glow to the chapel’s wood-paneled walls, which fold into a partial dome over the altar. If you haven’t been to an evening event there, just imagine being cradled in a conch shell under a dark sea.

In those minutes, my understanding of the word “sanctuary” deepened.

Though Egan was a little uncomfortable and unsure, the celebrant, the Rev Anne Fowler wasn’t.

“I’ll start with these prayers, as usual,” she said, opening the program. “Would you like to do the readings?”

I told her I would, and we began. The service started just like any other, except that Anne’s voice was quieter than it would have been otherwise. Many of the prayers are fixed in the liturgy, so the words don’t change from week to week, but they sounded different this time. They weren’t just being recited into the ether. They were being spoken to me. They were being offered for me.

The readings that night were challenging ones; Ecclesiastes on the futility of life and a discomforting parable from Jesus, “Church is supposed to make me feel better about my life, not worse,” he thought.

But then, priest and parishioner were able to connect.

“Anne sat down next to me. She didn’t preach. She wanted to know more about me, and asked what brought me to this church on this night.

I told her I was feeling adrift. I’d recently moved across the continent and, as much as I was loving Portland, hadn’t had time to adjust or relax. My life was changing rapidly, and it seemed like the world was too. When I feel ungrounded, I gravitate to the firmest ground I know, which is the church.

She asked how the readings made me feel.

“Confused,” I said. “And a little afraid.”

She nodded.”

As he sat there and talked, he also thought about how this experience had sharpened his sense of the divine, despite the discomfort and awkwardness.  And also of how so many people would never allow themselves this opportunity, and he was thankful for this night.

After we had shared communion and taken some time for silent prayer, she concluded the service and sent me on my way with the traditional blessing: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” I responded, more sincerely than usual.

She started putting out the candles as I walked out into the night.

image: from the Portland Press HeraldStaff illustration by Michael Fisher

special thanks to Matt for sharing this story with us here at the Café

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Mitchell McClain
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Mitchell McClain

I always just felt classism at church, because I mean hey, I am way too educated now for the Baptist church!

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Elizabeth VanDyke
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Elizabeth VanDyke

As I was not feeling the best today this story reaffirmed my conviction about needing to be in church, which I cannot be at this time. God had his church built for all the souls that need to pray and feel His presence in their lives.

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Heidi Shott
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This column, and how deeply it seems to have touched many people, has been a sweet surprise. A few weeks ago I received a press inquiry from the reporter about the veracity of attendance and baptism stats he found on TEC research and statistics web page. I responded and filled out the picture a bit about life here in Maine. He thanked me in reply. I figured he was working on a story about declining numbers in mainline denominations or the rise of nones and dones. Imaging my surprise when this gem popped up in an email news alert.

Heidi Shott
Canon for Communication and Advocacy
Episcopal Diocese of Maine

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Mercy Hankins
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Mercy Hankins

Weekday Morning Prayer at our Cathedral is sparsely attended and led by a lay minister. We are a downtown church with rush hour traffic all around us. But when we begin the prayers all sound seems to diminish and we are in quiet worship. It doesn't matter if there are two souls or two hundred, our hearts swell as Christ fills the empty space.
It's funny, but the peace from the prayers and readings stay with me through the day.

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Michelle Jackson
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Michelle Jackson

It is really important for the powers that be to continue holding these sparsely attended services. Jesus did say he would be there for 2 or 3. The casual intimacy, coupled with the glorious liturgy of the Episcopal Church in these circumstances can be life changing.

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Michael Struble
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Michael Struble

About a year ago while attending a School of Ministry class at our Episcopal Conference and Training Center Called Proctor I had developed a friendship with a class studying for the Diaconate. At about 7:00 AM, their Priest/Instructor was preparing for an early morning service in the beautiful chapel that overlooks a lake. As we passed in the hall she called out my name and said to join the group. Only three others braved the early morning service along with myself. She invited all of us to gather around the glass enclosed altar area as we celebrated the sacred mysteries of our faith. The physical closeness combined with the sacred moment was overwhelming. When we reached the part of the service where we responded to the sursum corda, lift up your hearts, we lift them up unto the Lord, the sun broke over the horizon, splash its reflecting light across the waters of the lake and illuminated the glass enclosed alter area along with us. In this "beam me up Scotty" moment, I've never felt closer to the presence of God.

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Mary Myers
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Mary Myers

While reading this article, I recalled a Wednesday evening service when only four of us showed up in attandence. When it came to the communion service, our priest, the Rev John Coil,invited us to come and stand near the altar, inside the railing, to participate. It was a very intimate moment and I knew then that the Episcopal Church was my church for life.

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Member

Knowing St. Luke's, Excelsior Springs, Missouri, it is a lovely setting even when only a few show up.

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Paul Antenore
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Paul Antenore

Being somewhat familiar with St. Luke's in Portland, this is their Sunday evening contemplative prayer service...while I'm not a regular parishioner, I am a regular visitor having family that live in Portland.

But I'm not commenting to defend St. Luke's-- I had a similar experience at a parish south of Boston (not my own) on Good Friday last year where I joined eight other people in the service, a service that was probably one of the most moving I had ever experience.

The priest invited us to sit in the choral benches on the altar vs. the pews, and intimacy of service, including each of saying one of the solemn collects appointed for the service moved me to tears.

I think we need to reframe what "success" looks like in our churches. I can understand how disappointing it may be for the presiding priest to plan something and have a handful, or no one attend, but if one person gets something from it...the ripple that sends across that person's life is more than worth the effort.

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Bill Ghrist
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Bill Ghrist

Reminds me of a Sunday in February, 2010, known here in Pittsburgh as "Snowmageddon" with more than two feet of snow. At St. Andrew's the rector was stuck in Texas, the deacon could not get out of her driveway, but half the choir showed up (some us could walk, but a carload of our university students made it across town somehow). We had about an equal number in the congregation (not all parishioners), so we invited them to sit on one side of the choir and we had choral Morning Prayer. I think we were one of the few parishes that had any services at all that Sunday.

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David Allen
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David Allen

That sounds cosy & spiritual.

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