Steve Rice gives advice for forming a catholic parish
Based on average Sunday attendance, St Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina is one of the largest (and depending on how narrow you wish to define Anglo-Catholicism, it may be the largest) Anglo-Catholic churches in the Episcopal Church. Yet, the church was not founded in the wake of the Oxford Movement. It was not endowed by an eccentric benefactor/benefactress for the purposes of perpetuating the catholic faith. Nor was there a groundswell among the membership calling for incense and the Angelus. Twelve years ago, the parish would easily be described as ‘broad.’ Colleagues and seminarians will frequently ask me how St Timothy’s became what it is today in such a short amount of time. Depending on your perspective, it was an accident or providence. I trust it was the latter.
For those who have asked about forming a parish in the catholic tradition, I’m not sure there is a formula other than conviction and constancy.
I am convicted for the catholic faith.
For hundreds of years, the Church has called women and men to holiness and has given them a rhythm of life that has produced heroic faith and virtue. The Holy Spirit, through the Church, has formed saints. I do not know why I would deviate from this witness. I am a convert to the Episcopal Church because of her catholic pedigree and practice. Confused, or even embarrassed, as she might be at the present moment about her catholicity, I firmly believe the Episcopal Church is very much a real part of the catholic Church. I am firmly convinced (thanks to Saepius Officio) that I am a catholic priest.
It is not only an article in my faith, it is an article of the faith: I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. As soon-to-be saint John Henry Newman wrote in the second Tract for the Times: ‘Doubtless the only true and satisfactory meaning is that which our Divines have ever taken, that there is on earth an existing Society, Apostolic as founded by the Apostles, Catholic because it spreads its branches in every place; i.e. the Church Visible with its Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.’
It is because I believe in my heart and am intellectually convinced of this that I have led St Timothy’s deeper into her own catholic identity. My intention was not to give her an identity that wasn’t hers to begin with. She is catholic because she is a part of the Church. I cannot separate Christianity from catholicity. For me to do anything else would be fraud. My advice for priests wanting their people to go deeper into the catholic faith is that they need to believe it, and if they believe it, they must live it. Parish experience across traditions has shown extraordinary generosity and goodwill among Christians. They wanted to be loved and led. Fr Hope Patten did not inherit a catholic parish at Walsingham. But he loved his people, and like all real relationships, we learn to love what our beloved loves. Isn’t that why we are called to love one another—because God loves them?
St John Vianney as the patron of parish priests is our model. He wasn’t brilliant, quite the opposite. He wasn’t talented by any modern measurement. He certainly wasn’t original. But he loved his people and he loved the Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. That devotion and holiness taught the catholic faith better than a campaign or program.
I would not argue, nor would anyone in my parish, that I am remotely near the ideal parish priest. I can be moody, passive-aggressive, impatient, and sensitive (to name a few), but I pray I have been devoted to the people in my care over these past 11 years. Over this time, they have learned to trust me as I them. I have learned to trust that if I say my prayers, in time, they will join me. They have learned that if they join in my prayers, over time, they will become their own.
If a priest wants his people to live the catholic faith, he must live the catholic faith. If I want my people to pray, I must pray more. I must say the Office, even on days off, even on vacation. If I want my people to embrace discipline and self-denial, I need to be there first. Am I temperate in food and drink? Do I take care of myself? Do I fast and abstain according to the precepts of the Church? If I want my people to examine their conscience and confess their sins, do I do the same? Do I let them know, for the sake of accountability and not accolades, that I do the same? Do I admit when I’ve been lax in any of these responsibilities? If I want them to tithe, do I? I cannot say a word in a finance meeting about the budget unless I am giving at least 10%.
Nine years ago on Ash Wednesday, we began the rhythm of saying Morning and Evening Prayer publicly. It was initially designed as a corporate Lenten practice for the staff. We would begin our day with Morning Prayer and end with Evening Prayer. Once Lent was over, I kept it going. A few months later, I added the daily mass. There would be stretches of time where it was just me. With no one to answer mass, I would say the office. I would get discouraged, I would get lazy, but I felt that I must push through. I don’t remember when, but it was some months later, we reached the tipping point and we had a critical mass for mass. I cannot now remember the last time I had to cancel mass and just say the office due to no one coming. It is in our nature to test boundaries, to see if someone is serious and if it really matters to them. As priests and leaders, if we are convinced of the truth, we must hold the course. If you want a daily mass, you must first have the Daily Office. As priests, we are set aside for the altar. This is our life. We cannot flatter ourselves with the lie that we are too busy or too important to say our prayers every day. I’m sure the Archbishop of Canterbury has a more complicated diary than I, and I’m sure Pope Francis has more to worry about than either of us. Yet both begin their days in prayer. Am I really more important with more things to do than the Archbishop or the Pope?
If we are not convinced that the church is catholic and that her teaching forms saints, our insecurity will be exposed. We will be tested and tried. The accusations will focus on the externals. Catholic, Anglican, Roman, or Eastern, is not about the vestments. It’s our fault the Anglo-Catholic movement is often parodied as gin, lace, and backbiting. The cut of our chasuble should serve as the frame for our sacrifice and not the substance of our focus. The complaints will centre around the incense or the chanting or the vestments or Mary, but that’s not really it. The real charge is whether we believe this to be true. For if we do not, we’ll change. That’s my advice. Everyone’s context is different, yet the faith is the faith. If we are convinced in the catholic faith, we will practice the catholic faith, and our parish will have catholic people.
My experience has not always been pleasant. I have lost members, some of those came as a real and painful surprise. I have endured an anti-catholic email campaign designed to cripple my ministry. And to this day, I will feel or hear resistance because something is ‘too catholic.’ The hardest lesson is to not take it personally. Even if it is meant to be personal, do not take it as such. The catholic faith calls us to carry our cross and endure humiliations. How we endure hardship is as much, if not more, a part of our teaching on following Jesus Christ than anything we’ll deliver on the sacraments or in Bible study. Often I wonder when someone complains about something as ‘too catholic’ if what they are really saying is it’s ‘too religious.’ I’m not so sure if the anxiety is not about incense or chanting, but what this might demand of me. Jesus lost perhaps all of his disciples save the twelve when he doubled down on his assertion that unless one eats of his flesh and drinks of his blood, they will have no life in them (John 6). It was just too much. We cannot resent those who do not fall adoringly into our parish; that would be to take it personally. Rather, we re-double our efforts. We pray all the more. These are all lessons I continue to learn. ‘It is good that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes’ (Psalm 119).
But the transformation has been real. From 2007 to our current average Sunday attendance, we’ve experienced 58% growth (206 to 325). In that time, we’ve baptized 160 and buried only 95. For the past six years, we’ve operated a homeless shelter in our parish hall for 122 nights a year. We’ve created a law enforcement chapel and hospice that is open 24/7. We’ve created the Society of St Joseph of Arimathea and have provided cremation for 43 children and are in the stages of preparing a cemetery and national shrine. Our acolyte corps has 35 children and youth, and five priests and deacons have been ordained from the parish in the past ten years. And now, we are on the verge of a major renovation to our nave and sanctuary.
All of this has happened, in my firm belief, because of conviction that Jesus Christ is real, he is really present in the Holy Eucharist, and through his Church, and he calls us to holiness. The homeless shelter in our parish hall flows from the Tabernacle as the home of Jesus Christ in the sanctuary. That’s not a trite paraphrase of Bishop Frank Weston, it is the truth. The daily adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament makes room in our hearts to make room in our parish. Praying for the dead moves us to care for the dead. Caring for the dead moves us to care for the living. Saying our prayers together daily grafts us into a different rhythm, one that keeps time not by hours and a frenetic pace, but by the Office, Feasts, and Fasts.
If you, as a priest, want your parish to live into their catholicity, do you believe it yourself? Are you willing to endure and sacrifice what naturally comes with such a journey, one that takes the people of to what they need rather than what they want?
Say your prayers at the church. There’s no reason to delegate this to someone else. There’s no reason to wait until people will join you. Why wouldn’t the parish priest be at the altar saying prayers daily?
Teach the faith. Teach the Bible. Teach the sacraments. Teach Aquinas, Augustine, Athanasius, and Antony. Those are just in the As.
Pray the mass. It’s not a performance. Slow down. I think it was St John Vianney who said that if the priest knew what he was holding in his hands, he would die. Pray for that kind of faith. If you pray the mass, the people will catch on that it’s a prayer. If you adore Our Lord on the altar, they will realize something’s going on. Once this happens, celebrating ad orientem (if that’s your goal) will be a non-issue.
Make your confession regularly. My goal is once a month. Of late, I haven’t kept that discipline and I must work through issues of distance and logistics. Those are explanations and not excuses.
Keep the feasts. The catholic faith is taught best by the rhythm of prayer. Who cares if you have one or two show up? Who cares if you have no one show up? Just say the Office. It won’t be long before you’re not alone.
Preach beauty. We live in an ugly time. Then again, every generation has lived in a period of ugliness. The Church provides a glimpse of the beatific vision, the beauty of holiness. It is this beauty that lifts us from the mundane, the mediocre, and the macabre. But remember, vestments, spaces, incense, all of this is beautiful, but it is a means to usher us deeper into Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is not the means to usher us to Watts and Co. When Anglo-Catholicism becomes about the cut of our chasuble or the quality of our lace, we’ve strayed to fabric and not faith.
Love your people. Love them enough to correct them. Love them enough to be corrected. Love them enough that they become enough for your ambition.
The outreach, the education, the growth, all of it will and should flow from the prayers of the priest and people. Not only that, but the outreach, education, and growth will be authentic. In time you’ll discover that you don’t have to make your parish catholic. It already is.
Fr Steve Rice is the Rector of St Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.