Hello St. Mary's Family,
Bishop Doyle has continued the suspension of "at Church worship" for the time being. But we are airing our Sunday services live at 10:00 AM. Go to the "Worship" tab at top of this site and click on "Live Media." We will keep you updated!
In His Peace,
(click above for scripture reference)
We have just heard from Matthew’s Gospel some great instruction about church order and process, and it is helpful in a day where there is so much disorder and upheaval and no shortage of distress all round.
So this morning, I would like to speak to you all from this historic sanctuary about the short-term future of St. Mary’s and the work that lies ahead of us.
Our Recent History
Almost six months ago—it sometimes seems a lot longer than that—we faced a re-ordering of our worship habits and practices in order to accommodate a surprising and hard new reality that had come upon us. Our Bishop, who had been with us just a few weeks earlier—Andy has a long and loving relationship with St. Mary’s—instructed the closure of parishes to in-person worship as a measure of protection, and witness of love of neighbor by which, as we have just heard in our epistle lesson, all the law is fulfilled. This action was taken because of love of neighbor.
It was not an easy decision, nor one which our Bishop took lightly. In fact, our Diocese also faced significant challenges in more vulnerable parishes and in our family of institutions. For example, Camp Allen, beloved by our people faced financial peril as those in and outside the Church cancelled conferences and gatherings in order to protect their people. The welfare of many people was in jeopardy. Our Bishop moved quickly to address exigent need so that valued employees—who were not Episcopalians—did not lose their jobs and livelihoods. This action was also taken because of love of neighbor.
We were hardly alone. This year, an election year, both major political parties cancelled their in-person conventions for the same reasons, the first time in history such a thing had happened. We all know the circumstances, even as we may or may not have been spared the brunt of the pandemic.
About Loaves and Fishes
When we swiftly changed course in late March, I was, I’ll admit, thunderstruck, a little like a deer caught in the headlights. Frankly, I didn’t have a clue—I felt like the disciples who wanted Jesus to send the large crowd into town because they only had a few loves and a couple of fish to feed them. Jesus tells the disciples, “No, you give them something to eat.”
A few loaves and fishes. We had no internet in the sanctuary, precious little prospect of getting it, and suffice it to say that virtual worship did not occupy a prominent place on my resume. I was the deer in the headlights. At least that’s how I felt.
I reached out to an old friend, a pioneer in virtual worship, and who is the videographer at Diocesan Council, Charlie Sumners. Charlie’s family is legendary in the Church—his late father, who baptized me as an infant, was rector of St. David’s Austin for 36 years, and his dad’s twin brother was the founding rector of St. John the Divine in Houston. Charlie instructed me to get a test of our internet capacity in the office from our existing service. I did not have a clue. I ran the test, called Charlie back, and told him the news. Charlie replied, “Bill, that’s just pitiful.”
A few loaves and fishes. I could recount for you the aggregation of small miracles that were like the blessed rains that came our way last week, but the fact is that we started from scratch, a few loaves and fishes, yet within two weeks, we were able to launch. On Palm Sunday. Holy Week. We fed many on Easter Day from this historic sanctuary. It was one miracle upon another.
A few loaves and fishes. But we were able to feed in new and unaccustomed ways. Sometimes it was stressful and sometimes downright comical. My darling wife, Deborah, who had never run a camera in her life, became a fixture at the back of the Church, and I watched her facial expressions closely as they told me when we were freezing up, or other problems as well, which made for some interesting pillow talk. Trust me, I always come around to Deborah’s way of thinking. I preach the Gospel, but Deborah lives the Gospel.
I know this has been a difficult passage. It sure has been hard on me, too, being away from the people I had come to love. I had barely been among you for one year before we had to change course. Our successful fellowship breakfast program, which I really loved was only five months old. We have been apart now for longer than we were together in that fellowship.
I held on to the memories of Christmas Eve in this place, just a few weeks earlier, when the place was packed with the extended families in this sacred place, and the setting sun blazed love through the stained glass, and the close conversations and Christmas handshakes and hugs that were so precious to me. At the time, that seemed like a miracle, too.
Bishop Doyle is a faithful and loving servant of the Church. He is not afraid to risk unpopularity when he believes he is doing the right thing, as God gives him the insight to do so, and I have very high regard for that sort of leadership. I support our bishop wholeheartedly, and I want to continue to strengthen the bonds between this historic parish and our Diocese and its remarkable resources while I am among you.
This is a high priority for me, especially as I see the potential for St. Mary’s in the next decade, like we have seen all over Central Texas, in Georgetown and Marble Falls, as our area continues to grow because it is such a wonderful place to live.
I also know that the Episcopal Church does things differently than some other churches in our area—we must not forget that we are Episcopalians precisely BECAUSE we sometimes do things and think things and believe things in our own distinctive way. I like to say that our system, the Episcopal system, is the worst possible! Except, that is, for all the other systems. . .
Here’s The Plan:
Now, let us look to the future for a moment:
In the past weeks, in detailed discussion with our bishops, and co-ordinating with a number of other parishes, including Marble Falls, St. Mary’s has secured approval to re-gather in this place, according to the worship schedule we observed prior to the onset of the pandemic. That would be two Sunday services, and our Wednesday Eucharist.
My goal is that we could launch these in-person services by the end of this month—please note that I said it is a goal, not a promise, because there is some important work to get us ready and to comply with the commitments we have made for the health and safety of our people in order to gain approval to re-gather. We will do everything we can to protect our people.
As much as our services will be the same—especially in their essential quality of worship that we Episcopalians hold dear as expressions of love of Christ, things will look and feel different until we get this crisis behind us.
**For openers, all who come to worship with us will be required to wear masks. That’s the deal. It won’t be forever but that’s the deal for now.**
Moreover, unless you live in the same household with another person, everyone will be required to sit six feet apart, and that seating will be quite a change from the day when we sat where we wanted, and with whom we wanted. It won’t be forever but that’s the deal for now.
I will celebrate Holy Communion—with a mask on—and since we will be seated in alternate rows, I will bring bread—only the bread, not the wine—to each of you in your seats. Church teaching for many centuries is that Holy Communion is complete in one part: the bread contains the blood; the blood is part of the body. Communion will be complete in one part, the bread. It won’t be forever, but that’s the deal for now.
If we somehow run out of space, because of the social distancing required, I will institute another service so that all who wish can come. LaTashia, our breakfast chef, will disinfect the sanctuary between services.
Livestream Till Kingdom Come
I also want to say—emphatically, that our virtual worship, by which we have come so far with no small effort, will become a permanent fixture of our worship life. We know we are reaching and connecting with many who are vulnerable or who live at a distance. If you are not ready to come into the sanctuary, that is just fine. I get it. I encourage you to continue to participate online, even as we continue to improve our livestream.
Again, our Diocese sent us grant money to underwrite and sustain our virtual worship, along with the gifts of leaders at St. Mary’s and the pro bono work of people like Charlie Sumners, who saved the Church thousands of dollars in fees. Whereas, I could not have believed I would be saying this a few weeks ago, trust me, we are in the virtual worship business at St. Mary’s till Kingdom Come—or at least as long as I am with you.
Because so many of our flock are in the higher risk category and may not wish or be able to come into the sanctuary, I am also going to re-arrange our worship teams, to reduce labor, and pressure, and complexity.
One example: we won’t need a Lay Eucharistic Minister because we will NOT be administering the Chalice.
I want to make things as simple as possible for the Altar Guild.
Our ushering duties will be substantially reduced because the plate won’t be passed, and there won’t be a line heading to the altar for communion—I’ll bring the bread to the congregation, who will be seated in alternate rows, at a distance.
Over the next couple of weeks, I will get all this figured out with our lay ministers, with the goal of being careful, of keeping things as simple as possible and trusting God as we have trusted God in the past. We are committed to a solid plan of safety.
A Firm Foundation
Shortly after I came here to be with you, St. Mary’s undertook some important work on the foundation of the sanctuary. I learned some Lampasas history as the excavation began. I learned about past floods, and the fact that the people had to worship elsewhere until things got restored.
I have also become alert to the history of epidemics that placed our forebears in excruciating pain: for example I learned about four little boys in one family who died in the course of a week. Four children in one family who died just a century ago, a result of an outbreak of measles. Can you imagine the grieving and the heartbreak?
Still, our forebears kept their faith, and they did not turn from God. They trusted God and they built this Church, just as we have dealt with the crisis in our day and time. Somehow, their faith sustained them. Their faith proved stronger than any disease. They stayed at the plow and moved forward in faith.
When we were doing the repair last year, I also learned that the foundation of the church was laid in an old creek bed, what is called an alluvial plain with its sand and rocky gravel. It reminded me of the adventure this Church has always undertaken, like bringing the internet in here and sailing into the virtual worship age on a moment’s notice.
The skilled workers in charge of the work last year spoke to me about the cedar posts and railroad ties that formed the pier and beam foundation to support the church some four generations ago. Today, it is said that St. Mary’s is the oldest house of worship still in use in Lampasas County. It is also one of the oldest in our Diocese.
Sometimes, of course the old structure needs a little shoring up, just as it did after the devastating floods in 1957. Sometimes, I suppose we all need some shoring up in our faith. But the Church remains vital, despite flood or pandemic, or any other challenges to our faith—the swift and varied changes of mortal life.
The fact is that the foundation of this historic Church is not pier and beam, set in the rocky gravel of an ancient creek bed.
Our foundation is Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. Christ who heals disease and defeats death. Trusting, and leaning upon this foundation we will get through this crisis and we will continue to move forward in faith just as St. Mary’s always has.