Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. – BCP, p. 99
One of the many reasons that I am an enthusiastically Anglican Christian is because of the richness of the Common Prayer tradition. We have prayer that is time-tested and well-worn, and raises us into the very throne-room of heaven. This prayer is no exception.
I’d like you to notice the pattern in the Collect: “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified.” This is the pattern. This is our pattern.
On Sunday, January 12th, 2020, I celebrated my last Mass at St James’, Texarkana. Leaving a church and community after 15 years was a gut-wrenching experience, but I had a hopeful drive across the country to Boston, with excited thoughts of what the first months of our time together as priest and people would bring.
I arrived here four days later. I was met at the apartment at 140 Mount Vernon (the rectory, you recall, was not yet finished) by Peter Madsen, Paul Roberts and Kyriell Palaeologue. Martini-makings were produced. Off to a good start!
My first Sunday here was Candlemas, February 2nd. A few short weeks later, when Covid descended upon the world, we were locked down. I had two times in the pulpit, four Sundays of coffee hour, and precious little time to come to know you, and you to know me. Maybe not such a good start after all.
In many ways, this past year has been one of pain and loss for all of us. Much of what we love and hold dear has been stripped away from us – as individual persons, as a parish, as a wider society. I don’t need to dwell on that, but I do need to acknowledge it. It has been a stressful year, sometimes depressing, always uncertain. Things are not as we would have them, to say the least. It has sometimes been hard to be the positive, resurrection people Jesus calls us to be.
This has been true for you, and it has been so for me. When a new rector comes to a parish, there is a time when both priest and congregation have a blank slate and they enter the relationship hoping and believing the best about each other. It can be a time of great excitement and great creativity. We didn’t have that time together.
Yet there have been moments of joy these past months. Once it became clear that “two weeks to flatten the curve” would turn into a much longer period of time, we moved to carry on a form of parish life online. Mark Dwyer has produced webcasts of the Sunday Mass and Choral Evensong, now totalling many hundreds of hours of material. Our listeners come from all over the world.
The Advent is well-known for the quality of its liturgical music, and the Vestry continued to pay our singers even in that time period when we were completely locked down. As they minister to us each Sunday, this was a tangible way we could support them. The arts and artists, as you well know, have been especially hard-hit during this pandemic.
I am thankful to the Wardens and the Vestry for their wise counsel and faithful service, and especially to Tom Brown, Paul Roberts, Brent Nelson and Amanda Daley, whose terms end today. All have given much, quietly and behind the scenes, to ensure that the work of the Advent continued. On behalf of us all, thank you.
Our finances are in good order. Fran Piscitelli, our stewardship chair, has reported to the Vestry that despite being limited or even shut down for large parts of the year, our pledges for this year are 94% of last year’s pledges. Fifty-four households increased their pledge, and there have been twenty new or renewed pledges – in the middle of a pandemic! I speak to priests all over the Church, and they are completely blown away when I share that statistic with them. Recall that we give not to the Church, but to God through his Church, so it is a remarkable testimony of your conversion. Thank you.
Our Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) remains strong. Given the pandemic, the 2020 parochial report asked only for attendance for the first three months of the year, in which we had an ASA of 231. By way of comparison, our ASA in 2019 was 205, and the year before that was 199. We cannot know how things will shake out going forward, but there is a positive trend.
For many months, the Advent has been one of but five or six parishes in this diocese which were offering public worship on Sundays. At one point, I am told, we were the only congregation meeting on Sunday, and I think we are even still the only parish in the Diocese offering daily Mass. We could not do this without the help of faithful laity and our honorary associate priests, and they have my profound thanks. Speaking of clergy, may I say that we have an excellent clergy team at the Advent! I hope you know that. I likewise thank Fr Jeff Hanson and Fr David Thompson for their dedication, faithfulness, and friendship. Fr Jay James retired at the beginning of June, but is even now available to help out and give his wise counsel to me.
Pastoral care continues. Your priests have continued to marry, bury, baptize, and hear confessions. People are hurting: marriages are in distress, there is depression, anger, confusion. Sometimes a person just needs someone with whom to talk in their isolation. As a parish we have provided this care for one another and those around us. I have experienced that care firsthand. I am thankful for your encouraging notes, emails, and telephone calls. Often they came at just the right time to give me a shot in the arm. And if I have been remiss in my duties in any way, or dropped any balls, I ask your forgiveness.
More joy. Barbara Boles and her able team of helpers have carried on our Tuesday community suppers without interruption. And in case you missed it, we as people and parish have just raised $10,000 for Project Bread, of which a good portion of those funds will be returned to us.
During Covid, Adult Christian education moved online. Before Covid, in-person Entr’acte provided about 180 minutes of education each month; the Advent Chapters (in terms of minutes of Zoom) have more than doubled that. Many of the Zooms provide a time for informal social visiting beforehand, and that has been a boon as well.
Yet, our Lord did not come amongst us in pixels, nor as an avatar, but as a man. He was close to the people. We regret the loss of coffee hours and social events, but these will come back. This will be a large part of ‘re-membering’ this parish family. It is in being present to one another in our bodies, rubbing elbows, reading the other person’s body language, looking into their eyes that our rough edges are sloughed off, that we realize that we are not isolated individuals, but part of the wider people of God. Even now I catch glimpses of what will be. It’s been a great blessing these past few weeks to see happy, laughing people on the sidewalks after Mass, greeting one another, and catching up as friends.
On to glory, and the task before us. My goal for this year, working with our leadership team, will be to both reorient and center our common life around three main themes, which also, not coincidentally, are the mission of the Church: I. The worship of God, II. the spreading of the Gospel–Evangelization, and III. making saints of our members.
I. With respect to worship, we are working hard, within the constraints placed upon us by a public health crisis, to restore the full worship life of this parish, and indeed to deepen it. Everything we do flows to and from this altar, as the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. We might go so far as to say that the Mass makes the Church.
II. In terms of evangelization, there is a critical need to share the saving message and timeless truth of the Gospel with those around us. The world needs Jesus. Covid has laid bare many of the ills of our society. We believe and proclaim that Christ has won the victory, and yet the residual effects of Satan, Sin and Death still very much infect the world. One has only to glance at a newspaper to see this. We have seen unprecedented division in our society. I speak not of the normal variances of opinion that people will invariably have, nor of the clash of ideas that characterize every age. I mean the vilification of the other, a cold hermeneutic of suspicion that sees those who differ from one another, or who have different ideas, as hostiles on a zero-sum field of battle.
The ministry of the Church, the Catechism tells us (BCP, p. 855), “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” The Church has this unique mission, and we do this by evangelizing the world with the Gospel of the Prince of Peace. Among the acts of the flesh, St Paul mentions discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions. In contrast, we are called to manifest amongst ourselves the fruits of the Holy Spirit: faithfulness, self-control, patience, goodness, gentleness, joy, kindness, peace, and love (Galatians 5). As St Augustine says, “The greater the love that dwells in a person, the greater the person in whom love dwells.”
If we can manifest these fruits of the Spirit in here, we can take them out there! The Church, and this parish, needs to proclaim, loud and clear, in word and deed, that the Kingdom is “not a political strategy, not a philosophy, not a tribe, party or club. The Kingdom is not a worldview or an ethos. The Kingdom is not of this world. The Kingdom is a person, with the face of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God” (source unknown). The world needs Jesus, and it is our solemn calling to bring him to others.
As Anglo-Catholics, we are uniquely positioned to do this. Historically we have had great missionary impetus, which needs to be recovered. We must resist at all costs the idea that there is somehow a finite number of people who are interested in Anglican Christianity. Such is the mentality of decline. The task of proclaiming the faith in word and deed is not for “other people,” but for us! We need to draw on our abundant resources to go into all the world as our Lord commands. What if, when the Lord returns, we’ve been too timid to do the things he’s calling us to do?
As Anglo-Catholics, we have been concerned with a just society and the incarnational value of each person. This parish, you recall, was founded on the radical idea that the church should be a house of prayer for all people. And as long as I am rector it shall remain so. All people are welcome here to hear the Gospel message; all people are welcome to repent and return to the Lord; all people are welcome to found their lives on the teaching that comes down to us from the Apostles.
In terms of promoting a just society, I have been working with parishioner Carolyn Shadid-Lewis on hosting Ruby Sales at the Advent, as part of an event sponsored by the Boston Harbor Deanery. Ruby, for those of you who may not know, is the young woman for whom Jonathan Myrick Daniels gave his life during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s.
Our Anglo-Catholic conference (hereafter to be known as the Grafton Conference) will return at Ascension of 2022, the working title of which is “Covenant Identity and Race: Theological Reflections.” Fr Jeff, on this side of the Atlantic, and our visiting Curate, Fr Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff, with his connections to the wider Anglican Communion, are working on bringing stellar presenters to Boston to consider this timely subject from a theological standpoint. This will be a valuable contribution to our Diocese, the Episcopal Church, and the wider Anglican Communion.
Another priority this year will be the re-establishment of Christian education for both adults and children on Sunday mornings and at other times. Fr David has begun working with stakeholders to renew our Sunday offerings for children and youth, building on the successful ministry of Meg Nelson, who retired as Christian education coordinator at the end of 2020, and indeed all of our teachers and helpers.
With regard to adult education, we have a responsibility to form disciples and make saints of our own members and make a significant contribution to the theological renewal of the church and the world. We live in an age when opinions are strongly held and weakly formed, and the Advent has a vital role in the intellectual formation of the wider Church. Ecclesia semper reformanda! – the Church must always be reformed! As the flagship Anglo-Catholic parish in the Americas, this is a calling we will take up.
III. And making saints. The Ascension, which we observe today, reminds us that heaven is our destiny and our destination, and the third mission of the Church (sanctification of her members) is to make us fit for heaven, so that when we leave this life, and come before the dread judgment seat of Christ, he will recognize something of himself in us, that we will have been more formed into his image and likeness in our earthly course.
This formation-for-sanctification takes place at Mass, it takes place in formal Christian education, it takes place in our time together, as I have already mentioned.
- There is also great need to cleave to the Scriptures. I mean not reading as exegesis, which is essentially draining all the substance from Scripture by scholarship, but coming to know the Scriptures as the Lively Oracles of God in whom we encounter Jesus. This is part of our reformed and catholic Anglican heritage.
- There is a need for the renewal of devotional societies like the Society of Mary, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, and others. Devotional societies are a great blessing to growth in holiness.
- There is a need for small groups of Christians meeting together as friends in mutual support.
- There is a need for increased service to the poor and needy, as we serve Christ in his poor.
So going forward, these three: The worship of God, the spreading of the Gospel–Evangelization, and making saints of our members. You will hear more about all of these in the coming months.
These are unprecedented times. None of us, clergy or lay, has been through anything like this before. We cannot know what future God is leading us into, except that it will bring changes, and God will be in those changes. This will mean changes to our membership as well. To be sure, we’ve gained new people during this pandemic, some from churches that have been closed throughout. We will gain people as we obey the Great Commission to evangelize. We will lose people. At different seasons in life, people are in a different spiritual place, and in need of different spiritual food. But, whether here or elsewhere, they no doubt go forth with thanksgiving for the Advent, and for the spiritual nourishment they have received in this place.
As we reboot, we are also going to have to retool. In the coming days, I plan to do a survey of time and talent, asking your assistance with these things. Our goal is that every member of this parish is also a minister. The leadership of the Parish will need your help. I will need your help. Truly, it is going to have to be all hands on deck. We all must lean on one another in this new religious landscape, and harness the many charisms and talents that the Holy Spirit has given us.
Two final thoughts:
I saw, some years ago, a documentary about a small town in the rust belt of Pennsylvania. The mayor said of her town, “Our tomorrows are not as bright as our yesterdays.” I do not believe this about the Advent. No, our best days are still ahead. We have everything we need to do the work of the Gospel in this part of the city of Boston and beyond. The Lord, who has given us the will to do these things, will give us the grace and power to perform them. I believe this with all my heart. In Christ, our best years are to come.
The second is a true story. When I moved to my last parish, I went to the bank to open an account. The teller asked me, “Where are you the pastor?” I mentioned the name of the church, and the standard descriptor, “red doors, across from the courthouse.” “Aah,” she said, “such a beautiful church.” Yes, I said, and the buildings are nice too.
How much human life has passed through here over the last 176 years? How many souls reborn at the font; how many have breathed their vows at these altar rails; how many Christian dead have been sent forth to eternity from here? All those prayers, offered for so many years, their prayers rising to heaven like incense.
And what shall we say of the busy congress between heaven and earth these walls have seen?—the renewals of Calvary in the Mass, of Bethlehem in Holy Communion, the floods of sins that have been absolved in the sacrament of penance, and all the grace that has flowed back to us from God’s heavenly throne.
But, as beautiful as is this temple of stone and glass, it is the people of God which make this place most beautiful – those who have gone before us, those who are here now, and those who will come after us.
This is a wonderful parish, filled with wonderful pilgrims, on their way to becoming saints. Even under less-than-ideal circumstances you have welcomed me. Almost without exception you have been liberal with your compliments and charitable with your criticisms, knowing as you do that our goal is to work together to do something beautiful for God. Together. You are positive, hopeful, supportive and kind people. For all these I am grateful. I am honored to be your priest and pastor.
Fr Douglas Anderson, Rector