Dear Brothers & Sisters in Christ: Greetings from Christ Church Warwick, 2006.
On any given Sunday, about 150 people gather to worship at one of our three services in this church. On Easter Day we might have 300 people in attendance…on the morning of a hard winter snow, 25 or 30. One long-time parishioner walks here from his home every single Sunday including during our occasional blizzards. "I'm an old farm boy," he says, "A little snow isn't going to stop me." Sure enough, on a couple of Sabbath days during my tenure, Fred has been the only soul present at our early morning service.
If you look at our current church roster, there are listed about 160 families of different shapes and sizes, all of whom call Christ Church home. In some ways, we are a diverse congregation. We represent a variety of racial and ethic groups and though many of our members are life-long Episcopalians, an equal number have come to us from different denominations and different faiths. We are young and old in about the same measure, and though we are largely from the great American middle class, we cover the gamut of that demographic. Many of our parishioners spend the winter months in beautiful second homes in the southern states others rent small apartments, live on fixed incomes, and never leave Warwick.
We are a diverse enough group that it's difficult to generalize about how we spend our time, but we do share much in common. We awake in the morning to alarm clocks and radios. We watch or listen to the news of the day on TVs, or read newspapers that are delivered to our doorsteps by someone who gets up very early to drive their car around town and do that chore. Increasingly, we turn on our computers to get the news of the day "on line" and to communicate with our friends by e-mail.
Our kids go to school from about age five (Kindergarten) through age 18. Most then continue on to college. Our adults work in almost any job you can imagine. Among our number there is at least one: firefighter, small business owner, doula, doctor, dentist, teacher, actor, singer, social worker, real estate agent, student, secretary, mechanic, nurse, home builder, barn manager, librarian and computer wizard.
We spend our leisure time in different ways depending on our interests and passions. We watch TV, go to movies, shop at the mall, listen to live and recorded music, and read. On the more active side we exercise our bodies by playing golf or tennis, riding horses, hiking, camping, walking or running. Many Christ Church folk go on vacation one or more times a year sometimes driving to beautiful spots in the northeast, sometimes flying to more exotic locals in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. It takes us about an hour and a half to get to New York City by car. For many of us, this is a frequent destination for work or fun.
We worry a lot about money, but we are by any measure, among the richest people on the earth. It is a challenge for us to live faithfully when we possess such wealth.
If it is difficult to generalize about who we are, it's tougher still to speak intelligently about what we believe.
We are united chiefly by our practice on Sunday morning. We kneel to pray together, stand to say the Creed together, we come forward to the altar rail as a family to receive Christ's body and blood. We appear to be very unified on the surface, and our work of "common prayer" does in fact shape our belief, and bring us together in a meaningful way. But when we speak to each other in private, something else in revealed: a plurality of belief about God in Christ that is both holy (in that it reflects the vast and deep truth of a God bigger even than time and space) and heretical (in that we are quick to depart from the ancient teachings of the Church and embrace what suits us.) We are children of a time and place that affirms our uniqueness and value as individual human beings, even to the point of utter relativism in theology and morality. We're great at reminding ourselves that we are created in God's image and beloved of Jesus…we're not so great at confessing our sins, or being open to ideas and experiences of God that might challenge us by asking us to change and live in a new way.
Besides our worship habits, we share these beliefs in common.
We believe that in many and varied ways, Christ is truly present in our community. Some would point to the Eucharist. Some would point to life-giving personal relationships. Some would point to our focus on proclaiming and responding to the Word of God in worship. Some would point to numinous experiences of music and prayer. Even those who would disagree that "Jesus is present" at Christ Church, come here in the knowledge that everybody else seems to think Jesus is really here.
We believe there is something holy and of great value in what we have inherited from those who have gone before. Churches are a dime a dozen in this age. In the bounds of our little village alone there are nine healthy Christian churches. Christ Church however, is in a minority of these in that while we offer lively and welcoming worship gatherings, we continue to make saying old prayers, singing traditional hymns, and following ancient patterns of liturgy the norm for our common worship. Our people choose to be a part of this community because these old ways speak to us of deep and ancient truth.
We believe that we need this place and each other to help make us better human beings. Our worldview is enlarged by our relationships with the people of this parish people whom in many cases we would not encounter at all, let alone count as friends, if left to our own devices. We say that rubbing up against these other folks wears down our "sharp edges" making us kinder, more loving, and more lovable human beings.
I could not possibly overstate how completely optional it has become in this time and place to belong to a faith community. Though over 90% of Americans say they believe in God in 2006, only some 40% claim to attend weekly worship services and many researches think that number is closer to 20%. Where one or two generations ago worship attendance was normative and encouraged by the surrounding culture, this is no longer the case. The people of Christ Church really believe that who we are and what we do here matters. We would not bother otherwise.
The things which we do not necessarily all believe or agree upon are legion. Chief among these are the nature of the Bible (some believe it has extraordinary authority, others do not) the veracity of biblical miracles (some believe they happened as recorded, others do not) and the nature of the life to come (some believe in the second coming of Jesus, judgment day and a literal heaven and hell, others do not.) Our current Book of Common Prayer and my preaching I hope attempt to hold down an orthodox via media between what we call in this time and place "liberal" and "conservative" Christian teachings. It can be difficult work to find and occupy that space.
There has been a remarkable outpouring over the last couple of days of items people wish to be included in our time capsule. As I am sure you've discovered, the box is literally jammed with tokens of this era, including artifacts of historical interest, and many priceless reflections on the lives of the saints that have passed through these halls, and made this church their home for a time.
I wonder what you'll make of it all. I do not dismiss the possibility the world will be a radically different place in 2106. Nor even that Christ himself may have come back to bring to its fullness the mighty work begun so many years ago. But if Christ Church stands, know this:
We did our level best to be faithful to God in our time. We loved Jesus and looked for his presence in our midst. We loved one another even when that work was painful. We tried hard to reach out beyond the walls of this building and make a difference in the world. We baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, we broke the bread, said the prayers and stood with each other on birthdays and wedding days and dying days too.
I know I speak for the entire community of Christ Church when I say that we wish you well. We prayed for you when we walked these halls…
And we watch you now from the next life with pride. Our doubts put to rest…our hopes fulfilled.
Faithfully Yours in Christ
The Rev. J. Scott Barker
For the People of Christ Church - Warwick, NY
The Feast of All Saints
November 1, 2006