The Episcopal Church Typified Trinity Episcopal Church, Columbus, Ohio Second Sunday after Pentecost, 18 June 2006

Article excerpt

Ohio is frequently described as America's social and economic heartland, and its political bellwether. In the same vein, Trinity Episcopal Church, Columbus, typifies mainstream Anglicanism in the United States. At every step of its history, it has been the representative Episcopal church, naturally finding its place near the ever shifting center of Anglican belief, ministry, morality, and worship. In June 2006, while General Convention is housed three-quarters of a mile away, a visitor attends a Sunday morning eucharist at Trinity, and finds contemporary Episcopalianism in miniature.

The congregation's historian is Lisa M. Klein, a former English professor, whose Be it remembered: the story of Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square (Wilmington, Ohio: Orange Frazer Press, 2003) was subsidized in modest part by the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church. She has successfully resisted the dominant template of the parish history genre (a rosy narrative of the church's origins, thumbnail sketches of the clergy, a summary of building projects, a survey of congregational organizations, and appended lists of names) in favor of a serious and candid social history of the congregation.

As she reports, Trinity began in 1817 when some prominent citizens assembled in a Columbus storekeeper's house. An itinerant missionary from the east coast led them in a prayer book service, and then produced a standard form which the men could sign as a declaration of their intent to create an Episcopal congregation. This scenario must have been repeated many hundreds of times in the American frontier.

For several years Trinity was a small collection of families related by marriage and business, meeting in private homes for prayers led by lay readers, and known for their formal, lukewarm piety. (The Presbyterian church in town, meanwhile, was flourishing.) Attendance grew after 1829 when Trinity received its first resident rector, a fervent evangelical. A church was built in the Greek revival style so characteristic of public buildings in the young American republic; it was financed partly by the sale of pews. As in so many Episcopal churches, the lay leaders represented the local social elite, the Whig party, and the nation's Protestant evangelical consensus. Almost certainly, all faces were white. Children were catechized by the rector once a month during the service. As elsewhere in the era before public schooling, the Sunday school was administered mainly for the children of nonmembers, and it was racially segregated.

Women's ministry developed at Trinity along the patterns familiar in other places. Women were teaching Sunday school and forming societies for missionary and charitable work in the 1820s, and holding prayer meetings in the 1830s. They were increasingly active in local ecumenical benevolent societies and welfare institutions. The Women's Auxiliary caught on quickly after 1876. Until the 1890s, women dominated the church's devotional life. In 1864, of 211 communicants at Trinity, 174 were women.

As was common across the Episcopal Church, Trinity initially resisted all ritual innovations, but gradually accepted a few. In 1842 a rector had to resign after insisting on wearing a surplice; his few supporters left to form high church St. Paul's a few blocks away. In 1863 the people of Trinity decided to sell their old building and erect a new one in the style that the rest of the Anglican world was adopting, gothic revival. At first the decorations remained chaste, but soon polychrome painting and frescoes were replacing whitewashed interiors; embroideries, hangings, and embellishments were being provided by women's groups; and liturgical items and candlesticks were being donated as memorial gifts. Trinity vigorously resisted surpliced choirs in the 1880s, but accepted them in the 1890s. In 1912 a marble altar was installed, and a new ornate reredos replaced one displaying the Lord's Prayer and creed. …