“This is a bad idea,” said the senior warden. We were sitting in my office, 90 minutes before the morning service would begin. I had asked to meet with him before our Christian Formation classes, order in order to let him know what was coming, when I would announce in the sermon that we would be moving our services to the Parish Hall. “We’re just going to lose more people,” he lamented, shaking his head. “Probably so,” I replied, “but I am absolutely convinced that this is the direction that God is leading us.”
As the sermon approached the moment announcing the drastic move, only two people in the congregation knew what was coming: the senior warden (as of that morning) and my wife. I had been preparing for this moment for almost three weeks, and though I had sought a great deal of counsel outside of the parish, it seemed important to me that this be a jarring, unexpected moment for the people of St George’s. Normally I’m a “team” guy, but this one was different, I could sense from the beginning. It was vital that this experience begin with a shock, so we could understand as the process moved forward just how differently things were going to go. How differently they needed to go. So the announcement was certainly a shock.
But there needed to be more than just words: the end of the liturgy provided a jarring visual moment. After the postcommunion prayer and blessing, I turned to the tabernacle behind the altar, removed and consumed its contents, then extinguished the sanctuary lamp. The door on the vacant tabernacle remained open as it would at Maundy Thursday. I then shrouded the altar, covering it in its entirety. We were done in the sanctuary, at least for awhile.
Reactions to Sunday were mixed. Some were excited; others were glum. One staunch Anglo-Catholic came into my office Monday to tell me that what I was doing was an “outrage.” As we talked, he readily admitted that things were going downhill for St George’s, and that if we didn’t change our ways we were only going to continue on that slide until extinction. But this manner of effecting change precipitated the day before was simply unacceptable. A late night email from another person asked why we couldn’t stay in the “comfort” of the nave and sanctuary to learn the lessons. But at least these people came to their priest: others fussed and fumed behind the scenes.
It’s a perplexing thing how people say they want change, but when change comes, they balk at the very thing they said they wanted. Yes, we want our church to grow, so we need to change: just don’t actually change anything. I’ll never forget early in my tenure at St George’s, someone (undoubtedly apprehensive about my evangelical background and sympathies) uttering the baffling phrase that we should pursue “change without variation.” (What does that even mean?) The change coming to our congregation would be of a drastic sort, and that last Sunday in the nave and sanctuary gave folks a glimpse of what was coming.