16 August 2009

Maria Assumpta Est In Coelum, Angeli Gaudent

I said goodbye to my church today. It was our patronal feast day and we started down on the street corner and carried St. Mary on her litter under the canopy back into the church. For the anthem we had Arcadelt's Ave Maria and then some of my favorite hymns, including 278 (Sing we of the joys of Mary). Our last choir director wrote a descant for it specially for our choir that is very fun to sing; lots of high notes.

During announcements, our rector made me come downstairs to be bid farewell and gave me a blessing for my studies next year, which was nice but embarrassing. On top of that, our choir director asked me to sing the prayers, which is also nice and embarrassing; I sing just fine to be a choir member but my voice isn't really strong enough for me to sing by myself, at least, not in front of people. I can never quite make it, breathwise, to the end of 'Father we pray for all who govern and hold authority in the nations of the world'. The other versicles are easier because they are shorter.

Anyhow, it is strange to be leaving Our Lady of the Holy Smokes, as it is nicknamed. I was confirmed there and have been going to church there for five and a half years - I've been there longer than the current rector, I've been a choir member longer than anyone else who is currently in the choir, longer than our current choir director and organist, longer than any of the other 'young people'. We broke ground today for the new parish hall - I'm glad I was there to see it - but I'm sorry that I won't be around to see what happens next.

When I first started going to Our Lady of the Holy Smokes, there were five people under the age of forty, an interim priest who was doing things he ought not to have been doing*, no children and a rather paltry community life. As of today, our congregation has increased from around 100 active members to 150, we have enough children of varying ages that we have child altar servers, around twenty young people, gay, straight, single and married, and the median age of the parish has dropped from 54 to 39.

All of this is nice and it has been wonderful to participate in the growth of the parish but I'm going to miss my church most because it is where I discovered the mystery that is Christianity. When my then roommate and good friend dragged me off to church with her one Sunday morning, I was entirely unprepared by my lukewarm Presbyterian upbringing for the beauty and holiness of the liturgy. I spent the entire service in anxiety; on the one hand, I was enchanted by everything that was going on, on the other hand, I didn't know what to make of the statues and procession and the singing of the Regina Caeli at the end of the service. It seemed to be a good that I was going to church but was I not then guilty of idolatry? Church attendance felt like an occasion of sin. But I couldn't keep myself away the next Sunday, nor the Sunday after that, despite my initial quandary.

Confirmation didn't make the impression on me that I had hoped for - it seems to have been one of those rituals of life that comes here too early, there too late, as Forster puts it - but I will never forget the awe of God's presence that overcame me the first time I went to Benediction, nor the solemnity of my first Holy Week (Presbyterians don't really do Holy Week, at least not in my experience).

A building does not make a church, but those four walls are especially dear to me for having housed so much revelation and love. I'm heartsore at leaving my congregation and all the friends I have therein. And the choir! Will I ever again have the chance to sing Palestrina and Arcadelt and Tallis and Clemens non Papa and de Victoria again? (I do suspect myself of making a false idol of the music sometimes, hopefully not being in choir will help me get past it although I doubt I would ever be able to make my peace with a guitar led mass).

More than anything else that has happened so far this summer, leaving my church is the one thing that has made me feel, rather than know, that this part of my life is over, whether I want it to be or not. I'm scared, both of what might happen and what I might miss. When I was still studying ballet very seriously, it was a comfort to me that wherever I went, ballet class would always follow the same structure and that no matter what country I was in, I would be able to follow what was going on. Now, the structure of the mass gives me the same comfort. Even when I have been to mass in a country whose language I do not speak, I have been able to follow (excepting the sermon, of course) and say the prayers and creed and sanctus and so on quietly in English or in Latin. That will always be there, both in a church and in my heart, and ever my strength and shield.

Okay. My prose is getting a little out of control, so I should probably stop.

Everything here is over now.


* He was trying to switch the church from being part of the Episcopal church to being part of the Anglican Church in America - much more conservative and against the wishes of most of the congregation but not necessarily those of the vestry, two of whom were very wealthy and tried to throw their influence around that way and who scared off all of the candidates for the new rector by pretending that their viewpoint was the majority viewpoint over a two year period before the bishop intervened, dissolved the search committee, froze the vestry and more or less appointed our current rector - happily, I had no idea this was going on at the time or I wouldn't still be there - for something that almost split the congregation and did drive many people away, there was very little gossip.


  1. I'm sorry you feel so sad at leaving your church. I think I can imagine how you feel, just a little bit. And I admire how strong your faith is.

    I hope you will find a new church where you will be happy.

  2. Thank you. I do, too. I've a list of seven to try at the moment. Hopefully, one will feel like home. If not, I'll probably lump it and go to the local parish church regardless of their propensity to have guitar masses. Otherwise, I can see myself floating around the greater London area at a different church each week, eternally dissatisfied and homeless. Folk masses are not too high a price to pay to prevent that!