Sabbatical Journal: Visit to St. Columba’s, Kent

I made this sketch of the Rev. Alissa Newton on the back of the bulletin while her associate preached the sermon.

One of the advantages of being on sabbatical is that I can visit other Episcopal churches on Sundays to see how they do things. By visiting other churches, I hope to get new ideas and perspectives.

On Sunday, July 21, I visited St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Kent, WA. I chose this church to visit because I admire the Vicar, the Rev. Alissa Newton. She’s a bright young priest who came to St. Columba’s when it was nearly ready to close. Despite having a lovely building in a good location, they had shrunk to the point they were considering selling the building. Since Alissa has come, they’ve nearly doubled in Sunday attendance and become a vitalized and energetic congregation.

In addition, Alissa is the head of our Diocesan College of Congregational Development. In this role, she teaches about organizational development in the context of church congregations. When I attended the CCD several years ago, Alissa was on the staff and I remember how well she explained the concepts that are making our congregations more healthy and effective.

I arrived a few minutes before the 8:00 am Eucharist and Alissa immediately recognized me (she’d seen my Facebook posts about my sabbatical). An usher gave me a bulletin and I sat down to collect myself in silence. There were about nine people present. On this day, the celebrant and preacher was the associate Vicar at St. Columba’s, the Rev. Meghan Malarkey. Meghan was ordained only two years ago and has a young family. To open the service, she rang a bell to begin a period of silence. I like that. A second bell and the service began with the usual, “Blessed be God…”

The early service had no music and followed Rite II, using the Eucharistic Prayer from Enriching Our Worship. The sermon was about ten minutes long, using the Gospel passage about the visit of Jesus to Martha and Mary’s home. Meghan said that her initial reaction to the reading, as a mother and wife, is that “Jesus just doesn’t get it!” He doesn’t seem to understand how hard it is to keep a house clean and to serve and pick up after guests. Martha is working hard, and Jesus is a man who doesn’t value her contribution of labor.

In preparation for her sermon, she read a number of commentaries, but they were all by men who also didn’t get it. Then she read a commentary by Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenze, who said that Martha was doing diakonia, or the ministry of service. So Martha’s role was not diminished but honored. The commentary also noted that there is no mention in the text about food or cooking. Meghan said she had simply assumed that Martha was cooking and serving food, but when she went back to the text, she found it silent about that. It was just her own bias that led her to make that assumption. Meghan noted that our implicit biases often lead us to overlook the contributions of those who are outside the dominant power structure.

The small congregation came forward to stand around the table for Communion, which gave a sense of community. I would say the service lasted about 50 minutes.

After the first service, Alissa gave me a tour of the building. I asked about the large carpet that took up the aisle between two of the quadrants, with soft toys near the back. She said it was for small children, so their parents could remain with them in the service. She also showed me the Godly Play rooms which were set up for kids of varying ages. Obviously this church makes a priority of welcoming young families.

I noticed there was an organ near the back wall with a quilt over it, and I asked about it. “We normally use the piano for our music because we don’t want to give that ‘funeral parlor’ feel to our church,” she said.

I was struck by something Alissa said, “When traditional Episcopalians visit our church, they often don’t return because we don’t meet their expectations of a somber atmosphere. And I’m okay with that. That’s not the demographic we’re seeking to attract.” That impressed me, because I realized that she has a vision of the kind of church community she’s creating, and she isn’t trying to please everybody. I wonder what I can learn from that.

I went away to get some coffee and returned for the second service. Alissa apologized because half their congregation was missing because their young families were participating in the Choir Camp at St. Mark’s Cathedral this weekend. I counted about 35 people present.

The second service followed the same order as the 8:00 am service, Rite II, except this service had music. The singing was puny. Something about the acoustics of the building make it so that you can’t hear the voices of the people around you, so you feel self-conscious about your own voice and you pull back. Too bad, because the music was accompanied by a lovely pianist and a trumpeter.

The Prayers of the People were unfamiliar to me, but I thought they were very good because they seemed to be more targeted than the usual broad-spectrum prayers. The Confession, taken from Enriching Our Worship, is stronger than our usual Confession. I stumbled over a couple of places in the Nicene Creed because they made some small changes, eliminating male language for the Holy Spirit, and omitting the Filioque clause.

Before Communion they announced that white grape juice was available in addition to red wine, and rice wafers were available for those who asked. There are no kneelers or Communion rails, so we stood for Communion.

The service was almost exactly an hour long. Afterward, we were invited to refreshments in the entryway, which worked nicely. I spoke with a man who had come for his second time, and a longtime member came up and introduced herself to us and told us about the church. Very welcoming. I waited until Meghan was free and introduced myself and complimented her sermon.

Overall, I would say that the atmosphere at the church was relaxed, friendly, and cheerful, while still keeping the dignity of the Eucharist. I’d like to go back someday when all the young families were there and see what that’s like.