Two Episcopal churches, two paths in Boulder, Colorado St. Aidan's Episcopal Church, 1 February 2004 St. John's Episcopal Church, 27 June 2004
Boulder, Colorado, a city of about 100,000 persons, is home to the main campus of the University of Colorado (CU), with a population of about 25,000. With such numbers, town-gown tensions come as no surprise. For one thing, according to U.S. News & World Report, CU is the country's top party school, and the townsfolk are frequently annoyed by the noise, pranks, litter, alcohol and drugs, sexual aggression, scandalous and even criminal behavior, and general rudeness of some students. But there are deeper issues too. CU draws heavily from local resources and services, while enjoying exemptions from local regulations and taxes as a state-owned institution. It is a recipe for conflict in a host of areas, including law enforcement, housing, planning, architecture, construction, fire safety, and traffic. The arrogance of CU, and the resentments of the city, are symbolized in the university's monstrous Folsom Stadium, which glares down on townsfolk from a high ridge. In 2003 the university added two generous levels to the height of the stadium in order to provide club seats and skyboxes for the very affluent; the city whose skyscape was blighted was powerless to resist.
There are two Episcopal churches in central Boulder: St. John's is located downtown at 14lh and Pine Streets, and St. Aidan's stands just a few paces from Folsom Stadium. St. John's traces its history to a mission from Wyoming in 1873, making it one of the earliest Episcopal churches in the Colorado Territory; St. Aidan's is the outgrowth of an Episcopal student ministry begun in 1948. St. John's declares on its website (www.stjohns-boulder.org) that it serves "the Boulder community;" St. Aidan's identifies itself in its vision statement (www.saintaidans.org) as, first of all, a mission "shining the light of Christ to the University of Colorado." St. John's worships in a century-old sandstone gothic-revival church building, including a tower with castellated roofline, suggesting solidity and tradition; St. Aidan's has a modern church building with ski-chalet roofline and windows looking onto a quiet courtyard, suggesting openness and a contemporary sensibility. It would seem safe to predict that St. John's, the long-established town church, is the home of the Episcopal traditionalists, and that St. Aidan's, with its Celtic patron saint and its aerie among the intellectuals, is the home of the Episcopal radicals.
Unexpectedly, however, it is the other way around. The websites for the two churches, and their advertising in the local newspaper, the Daily Camera, drive home their differences with the current Episcopal Church coding: St. Aidan's is "traditional," with the word underscored; St. John's is "an AIDS-aware faith community." And while it is not unusual for a city to have two Episcopal churches of distinct character, a visitor discovers that circumstances and same-sex issues have pushed these two towards opposite theological poles.
St. John's became strongly committed to community service during the long ministry of Hubert Walters, the pastor from 1912 to 1953, and escalated to a liberal activist social advocacy in the 1960s. Its rector from 1961 to 1965, Bruce Ravenel, was a passionate advocate of the civil rights movement. His successor from 1965 to 1991, James McKeown, has been described as "an outspoken champion of the alienated and disenfranchised;" for instance, in 1969 he persuaded the church to house a hundred hippies and young runaways in the church every night, more in the summer, for two years, until it could build a hostel for them. Another radicalizing confrontation with the world was thrust on St. John's in 1996, when the murder of a six-year-old parishioner named JonBenet Ramsey was followed by a bungled police investigation and national media attention; a parish history recognizes this as an immensely trying and disruptive experience (The Centennial of A Sanctuary 1903-2003: St. John's Church Boulder, Colorado, 16).
Meanwhile, in 1948 St. John's supported a campus ministry, which became the mission church of St. Aidan's in 1957 and a parish in 1962. Unlike the liberals at St. John's, most of its clergy have been theological conservatives. In 1991 David Mustian, who had been rector of St. Aidan's for eight years, led seventeen families into the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America as a "solution," according to the website of his new parish (http://www.stlukeorthodox.org/about/history.shtml), to the "steady challenge to traditional Christian faith in the Episcopal Church." (There is a curious historical precedent. In 1874 the first locally appointed Episcopal minister, a deacon named James Pratt, reacted to theological change in the Episcopal Church by leading most of his congregation into the Reformed Episcopal Church.)
Over the past decade or so, the two churches have sped in opposite directions on issues of gay sexuality. At St. John's, after the children's choir director died of AIDS in 1992, the vestry voted the parish an "AIDS-aware faith community." In 1997 a Presbyterian minister with a gay son, feeling more at home at St. John's than in his own church, had himself ordained an Episcopal priest and was appointed to St. John's as an assistant. By contrast, in January 1999 St. Aidan's fired a lesbian lay worker after she had been joined to her partner in a ceremony of commitment at First Congregational Church attended by 450 persons. The startled leaders at St. Aidan's explained to her that, according to "Episcopal doctrine," her only proper choice had been between faithful marriage or single celibacy. A number of people left St. Aidan's in protest against her dismissal, including, reportedly, the entire choir; many began attending St. John's. The lay worker sued the diocese, the parish, the clergy, and the vestry in state and federal courts. The case, cited as Bryce v. Episcopal Church in the diocese of Colorado, made its way to the United States Court of Appeal for the tenth circuit, which in April 2003 affirmed the lower court in dismissing the claims as "precluded by the church autonomy doctrine of the First Amendment" (the text of the decision is at http://www.kscourts.org/cal0/cases/2002/04/00-1515.htm).
Nevertheless, these two churches, so diverse theologically, are both immediately recognizable as Episcopal. Both follow the 1979 prayer book with few alterations and use the 1982 hymnal. And a visitor to both churches is immediately struck by the similarity in their arrangement of worship space. Both are oriented towards the north rather than the east. Both naves have wooden pews and a carpeted center aisle, with a gallery over the rear pews. Around the walls of both naves are stations of the cross. Both churches have raised chancels, with pulpit left and lectern right at the front, and, behind, flags of the United States and the Episcopal Church. Both have the altar a step or two from the liturgically east wall, within a railed sanctuary raised from the rest of the chancel. Both altars are dressed with fair linen and a pair of candles but no frontal. And the liturgical action is similar in the two churches: the choir and clergy process and recess, the présider in chasuble stands in basilical position, communion is given at the altar rail, and so on.
In architecture and decoration, however, the churches impress a visitor quite differently. In gothic St. John's, side aisles separated from the nave by stone columns and lancet arches are surmounted by a clerestory, and the narrow dimensions of the room accentuate the distance of the high altar. Behind the altar is a handsome wood reredos and many candles, and above it a fine Ascension window. Colorful blue and gold stained-glass Christian symbols in the clerestory, three on each side (fish, dove, crown, chalice, chi rho, triangle), and five large multicolored ground-floor windows, heighten the effect. In modern St. Aidan's, the warm brick of the pillars, the mellow pinkish woods of the ceiling and warm darker woods of the pews, and the wider proportions of the room suggest fellowship and welcome, while the steeply pitched ceiling hides skylights admitting reflected sunshine. The integrating symbol of the room is the Celtic cross: a wooden cross stands behind the altar, flanked by black banners emblazoned with golden angels pointing their horns towards it; and from the ceiling hang seven white banners featuring Celtic crosses. St. John's suggests God's holiness and Christ's peace; St. Aidan's suggests Christian community and Christ's cross.
Entering for worship, the visitor receives a service bulletin. It is rather heftier at St. Aidan's than at St. John's. In fact at St. Aidan's it is almost a package, with a blue pamphlet (legal-sized paper, folded) for the order of service, including the melodies of nine tunes for the morning's special music; plus an eight-page pamphlet of announcements, a staff directory, and prayer requests; plus a sheet introducing today's Taizé music; plus a flyer on peach-colored paper. Coming events include workshops for seniors, adult lectures, a pre-lenten quiet day, a lenten program, a mission trip to Navajoland, a social outing to a Boulder dinner theater, a new women's book group, mid-week services, and meetings. St. John's gives the summer visitor simply two sheets. One is the order of worship, with a word of welcome, the music of the morning's psalm chant, a prayer list, and the names of liturgical leaders; the other is a half-page of "parish community matters" printed on both sides. The half-page is densely packed, however, and includes fifteen items, announcing meetings and events, requesting assistance and supplies, and sharing news, attesting considerable activity even in these summer months.
What is most striking about the material from St. Aidan's today is its aggressive promotion of a conservative theological conference called "Rediscovering foundations...Restoring the gates" which is to be held in a few weeks in Denver under the sponsorship of "the Communion of Laity and Clergy of Colorado." The conference promises "teaching faithful to scripture and our Christian tradition" on such topics as "sexuality and truth." Two full pages of the eight-page bulletin are devoted to this conference, and the peach-colored flyer invites people to join its sponsoring organization, whose secretary recently served on the staff at St. Aidan's.
St. Aidan's has much the smaller congregation. Fifty-seven are in the pews on the morning a visitor attends. Of these, at least eight are visitors. Ten of the congregation might from their appearance be university students (all but one sitting in the rear): not many for a university church, and even the student-oriented service held Sundays at 5:00 PM seldom draws even twenty-five of the twenty-five thousand students next door. Of the others in the congregation this morning, four are of retirement age, fifteen have come as young families, and the rest are middle-aged. Two are black, the rest white. In addition, there are ten in the choir, four instrumentalists, and five liturgical leaders (crucifer, server, lay assistants, priest). At St. John's, even though the summer season has already begun when a visitor comes to worship, there are nevertheless a respectable 105 persons in the congregation, white except for two black families, and representing all generations. In addition, there are eight in the choir and seven liturgical leaders. In both congregations, the dress is casual, typically open shirts for men, blouses or sweaters and skirts for women, and T-shirts or sweatshirts for children.
Both churches offer the Eucharist according to Rite II when the visitor attends. In both, laypeople read the lessons and lead the intercessions, and a clergyperson reads the gospel after a short procession down the center aisle. But in other respects the two churches take quite distinct approaches.
The service at St. Aidan's does not begin propitiously; nine minutes after the scheduled time of 10 AM the presider announces that the rector is sick and that the organ cannot be started. However, a fine little orchestra of piano, cello, recorder, and clarinet has been assembled, and the choir is prepared to lead the congregation in something unaccustomed here, Taizé service music. The processional hymn ("In the Lord I'll be ever thankful"), gloria, sequence hymn ("Your word, O Lord, is a light"), intercessions ("kyrie"), doxology ("Sing praises, all you peoples"), sanctus, fraction anthem ("My peace I leave you"), communion hymn ("Eat this bread, drink this cup"), post-communion ("Jesus Christ yesterday, today, and forever"), and recessional ("Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us") are all characteristically simple tunes from Taizé, each usually recited initially by choir or cantor and then repeated a few times by the congregation. The music seems effective in this setting, and is received warmly by the people, who are perhaps more open to liturgical adventures than those at St. John's. The lections (Jeremiah 1:4-10, I Cor. 14:12b-20, Luke 4:21-32) are introduced by the reader with a one-sentence summary. The psalm is 71:117. The intercessions are a "special form" apparently based on prayers by Brother Roger of Taizé. The presider uses Eucharistie Prayer "B", accompanied by more ritual than at St. John's; for instance, at the words of institution, he elevates the host and genuflects as the sanctus bell rings. The service is lengthily concluded with a rite for sending forth lay eucharistie ministers, a blessing, and announcements before the recessional. The service concludes at 11:30.
At St. John's, the service starts precisely on time at 10 AM with an extemporaneous prayer for "quiet minds" by the presider walking slowly down the center aisle. There follow a processional hymn ("I sing the almighty power of God"), kyrie, collect, and readings (I King 19:1516, 19-21; Gal. 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62) with psalm (16:5-11) and gradual hymn ('Jesus calls us, o'er the tumult"). The intercessions, while not speaking explicitly of either gay bishops or George Bush, nevertheless clearly assume a liberal position on both ecclesiastical and national politics, and also include a fairly exhaustive inventory of the parish's mission and outreach projects. The presider uses Eucharistic Prayer "A", and the service concludes with the hymn "The Church's one foundation". The organist is extraordinarily good. The service is concluded in sixty-five minutes.
The two sermons are markedly different, and not just because the homilist at St. Aidan's preaches from the pulpit while his counterpart at St. John's speaks from the front of the church. The preacher at St. Aidan's begins by proclaiming explosively that those who take the gospel seriously will never find church boring: The remark must have a context unknown to the visitor. He then moves abruptly to six principles for preaching a good sermon. Finally he addresses the gospel passage, Jesus's sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. Why was Jesus driven out of town on this occasion? Without any basis in the text, the preacher explains that Jesus had told the Jews that they had failed God. Jesus spoke with integrity; the Jews responded with anger. The first lesson is that prophets must sometimes warn people. The second lesson is that if we in our day fail God, God will find someone else. (The second lesson follows only if God rejected the Jews in favor of the church, but this is apparently the preacher's view.) Is the preacher justifying St. Aidan's as a church of prophets, braving the world's displeasure with its vocal opposition to immorality? In any event, the sermon reflects an extraordinarily low doctrine of grace. It lasts twenty minutes.
The preacher at St. John's begins with the gospel passage (foreshadowed in the Old Testament passage), in which Jesus demands full and immediate commitment. Our society, the preacher explains, has institutionalized the essentially adolescent view that freedom consists in loosing all restraints on ourselves. But in the Christian world, freedom is for something. We find our identity not in being independent but in being marked as the children of God. Moving to the epistle, he describes how our life for God is to be lived by the fruits of the Spirit. A fleeting reference to the sexual issues of the day can be detected in his sermon, too; he says that if we are marked as Christ's, then we are not marked by our sexual, economic, or racial differences from one another. His sermon, lean and articulate, lasts barely eleven minutes.
At both churches a visitor experiences a generously warm and affecting welcome from laypeople who after the service show him around the church premises and introduce him to others in the congregation. His new acquaintances at St. Aidan's suggest that while most members who have decided to remain are probably in agreement with their clergy's conservatism on issues of sexuality, they do not want this conservatism to be their congregation's denning characteristic; they have asked the clergy not to bring sexual politics into the pulpit, and a handful express their unhappiness on seeing the conservative theological conference so lavishly promoted today. By contrast, the visitor's new acquaintances at St. John's have little to say about sexuality, possibly because they feel comfortably within the new Episcopal Church mainstream. They speak instead with justifiable pride of the new parish building just completed, of the recent renovation and expansion of the organ, of the celebrations in 2003 of the centenary of the laying of the cornerstones of the church, and of their various programs.
Thus two churches a mile and a half from each other, both Episcopal, serving constituencies of similar socio-economic character, have been moved in different directions by their different histories, by the different outlooks of their leaders, and, perhaps, by the circumstance that the one is oriented to the city and the other to an elitist campus. Although almost every Episcopal church welcomes people of a diversity of views, "Bryce v. Episcopal Church" has left St. John's and St. Aidan's more polarized than most pairs of churches. In their advertising, bulletins, prayers, and sermons, the two churches are eager to make their contrasting positions known. But St. John's, busy with programs and projects, and content with trends in the Episcopal Church, seems at peace with its position. St. Aidan's, by contrast, seems more stressed by the issue du jour, for its people are not unanimously agreed that they should be making it a priority, or that they should be so actively promoting protests and conferences, or that principles should be applied with unremitting rigor to personnel practices. Perhaps that is one reason they have responded so warmly this morning to the conciliatory language and music of Taizé.
Alan L. Hayes
University of Toronto…