I took some of my college students from a NT / Christology course I’m teaching on a field trip last night. We went to the Maundy Thursday / Foot washing service at Grace & St. Stephens Episcopal Church in downtown Colorado Springs. The building is arguably the most beautiful structure in our city. It was built a century ago and is in the gothic English style. But it was more than architectural beauty that assaulted these young men and women; it was the surprising realization that God was present there. In the midst of [literally] ‘smells and bells,’ and high church vestments and choral singing in Latin (or Greek, I couldn’t really make it out, though it was absolutely enveloping!), they encountered a deep piety, more Scripture being read than the average Evangelical church would read aloud in a year, and the most vulnerable, intimate expression of worship we could imagine – foot washing.
Ok, I admit I am one of the many evangelical theologians who has been ‘charmed’ by the Canterbury Trail in recent years. Our church is a parish of both a non-denominational ‘mega church’ and the Rwandan Anglican Diocese, and our pastor is actually an [Evangelical] Anglican priest. (It was a surreal moment for me a couple months ago, when being prepped for my spinal surgery, and I told the nurse, “my priest is going to be here in a few minutes.”)
Back to the field trip: Early in the semester, our class began to talk about early Christian worship, which inevitably led to conversations about the ‘traditional church.’ Call it inspiration or just novelty; I mentioned in class that perhaps around “Holy Week” we should go visit one of ‘those churches.’ They all agreed and I started my research.
(I am not unaware of the challenges and circumstances surrounding the Episcopal denomination and other Anglican groups.)
Grace & St. Stephens Church (the long name a result of a merger of two parishes in 1893) is a gorgeous church building. I had the privilege of officiating a wedding there probably twenty five years ago that I still fondly remember. The current congregation recently went through a terrible schism between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ factions and they are recovering as an interim ‘rector’ (an Episcopalian ‘senior pastor) is guiding them through these tough times.
We all met at “Grace” a few minutes before the service began. The students all dressed a bit ‘smarter’ than their usual ‘hipster’ look and we found a long wooden pew in the middle of the nave that would fit all of us. The silence in the building was deafening. People trickled in, bowed slightly toward the altar, and kneeled in silent prayer in their pew. I peeked at my students; they were just looking around.
One of the robed assistants went to the side and proceeded to ring the church bells for the ‘call to worship’ (three sets of three rings, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come’).
The next ninety minutes went wonderfully slow. Lots and lots of Scripture were read, as the lectionary brought us from the Old Testament account of the Passover, through David’s Psalm of penitence, St. Paul’s description of the Last Supper, to the Gospel accounts of that night Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Choral renditions of these same Scriptures were interwoven, then a painfully short, yet powerful 10-minute sermon by the associate priest on the incredible vulnerability of Jesus’ final act before the cross – washing the disciple’s feet and we were suddenly faced with an awkward, yet holy moment. We were removing our shoes and socks, standing in line in the center aisle and not only having someone we don’t know wash our feet, but then taking their place and washing the next stranger’s feet.
The elderly lady who so gently washed my feet looked at me and said, “When I give you a hug after I’m finished, you’ll need to help me get up!” I was in tears.
Back in the pew, all of us were on the kneeler and quietly praying / contemplating what we had just experienced.
In no hurry, they finished and the Rector began to lead us into the celebration of the Eucharist. This time, we got in that same center aisle, but now made our way up to the ‘high altar,’ and as we stood in between the two sides of the choir, we could hear them singing ‘at us’ looking at the stained glass, hearing the echo of their voices, and the priest would put the wafer in our outstretched hands, keeping his finger pressing on it and saying, “the body of Christ, broken for you!”
When it was all done, and we silently left the church in almost darkness, we migrated over to one of the ‘Bohemian / hipster’ coffee places that are springing up all over our downtown area. My first question to my young friends was, “so, what were your impressions?” The answers ranged from “reverence,” to “I loved the silence!” Then I asked, “Are these people Christians?” One young lady, who had never attended this type of service before, almost immediately spoke up, “Yes!” She then confided that she had been taught that most of these ‘mainline’ type churches weren’t even “saved.”
We had a great conversation about faith, worship, and who should be the ‘star’ of our gatherings (the pastor, the band, the ‘event?’). All in all, a pretty good evening!