The Republican Party at Prayer: St. Martin, Houston 25 April 2004

Article excerpt

The church in Texas, where a few are fabulously rich and many are dirt poor, affords some splendid illustrations of the influence of economics on spirituality. A notable example is how the Episcopal diocese of Texas began to change in the wake of the oil strike at Spinclletop in 1901, the pivotal event of state history. In 1900 this had been a world of landless tenant farmers facing falling cotton prices, mounting debt, and boll weevils, with the Austin floods and the Galveston hurricane thrown in. The appropriate diocesan theology was high-church of the South Carolina type (Lawrence L. Brown, The Episcopal Church in Texas, vol. 2, Austin, 1985): preachers exhorted the faithful to set their sights on treasures which neither moth nor rust could consume, to be thankful for their daily bread, and to recognize God's will in adversity. Within a year of Spindletop, many had pocketed huge wealth, and 500 new companies were operating in Beaumont, including those from which Texaco, Sun oil, Gulf oil, and Exxon have descended. The bishop of Texas, George Herbert Kinsolving, visited the town in 1902, and one can almost see his theology yawing. At first he was disgusted with the displays of "that most loathsome of all diseases, the itch for gain." Then, more hopefully, he reflected that some of these rapacious speculators might be Episcopalians, and once settled in their new prosperity they might "awaken to a sense of responsibility to the Church of God and manifest their gratitude by generous offerings."

One day soon, Texas Episcopalians would make complete theological peace with "the itch for gain."

No city benefited more from the oil boom than Houston. Once the mosquitoes were sprayed and the Buffalo Bayou was dredged from the Gulf of Mexico, Houston became one of the world's busiest deep-water ports. And it determined to be friendly to business. The "free-enterprise city" boasts weak unions, low taxes, poor city services, a high tolerance for environmental toxicity, and no zoning regulations whatever. It has become the fourth largest city in the United States. Growth has been proportional in the diocese of Texas, a territory of about 50,000 square miles in the southeast quadrant of the state. In 1900 it had 23 thinly attended congregations; today it is the second largest diocese in the Episcopal Church, with 86,000 members (according to parochial reports for 2002) and 160 congregations.

Affluence and a free-enterprise climate are particularly on display in uptown Houston, just west of the Interstate 610 loop. This belongs to the seventh congressional district, where in 2002 the Republican candidate won re-election with 89 percent of the vote. Its most famous landmark is the Galleria, where the well-heeled shop their way through Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Gucci, Tiffany, and 375 other stores. A mile and a half north of the Galleria stands a newer landmark, equally testifying to local wealth. Opened only in 2004, it is a huge limestone and brick church in German early gothic style, with two spires reaching 188 feet. This marks St. Martin Church, whose membership of over 7400 makes it the largest Episcopal congregation in the United States. A visitor decides to see whether there may be signs that wealth and Republicanism have influenced Anglican life and liturgy in this privileged place.

St. Martin stands in a subdivision called Tanglewood, which was named after Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales by its developer, an Episcopalian named William Giddings Farrington (1901-1967). The 750acre subdivision opened in 1949, and its large lots (the median size is 0.4 acre), rambling ranch-style homes with air conditioning, gently curved wooded streets, hiking trails, and good drainage attracted the first buyers. Most of the original houses have been replaced by elegant twostory executive homes, typically of Palladian or Spanish inspiration. Today there are about 1050 homes in Tanglewood, and the median family income is over $200,000. …