One of the things that a lot of seminarians do is to look for a home church while they’re at seminary. Most of us have been very active in our home churches, and we find it jarring suddenly not to have a church home or a place to serve. We have PLENTY of worship at Yale Divinity School and Berkeley Divinity School: morning prayer every day for the Episcopalians and Anglicans, daily worship at 10:30 for all of YDS, Monday night evensong, Wednesday night Episcopal Eucharist, etc. etc. etc. But Sunday morning is different. On Sunday morning, we want to belong to church communities. We both want to observe churches as future church leaders to see what’s going on, and also to simply belong and worship as regular people. Many seminarians are trying to find churches that work for their spouses and children. I have the luxury of pleasing myself alone.
In New Haven, one might consider it a heaven for Episcopalians because there are EIGHT Episcopal churches in New Haven alone, and if one has a car as I do, there are plenty more in adjoining communities to consider as well. Sometimes, too much choice can be daunting. I have tried three so far. The first one had a very diverse congregation and friendly greeters and so on, but they didn’t seem at all interested in talking to me at the coffee hour after church, and the hymns were ungodly slow. No.
The second one, the former church of a friend who used to be the rector there, was a very nice experience. The congregation seemed casual and friendly, and I stayed for almost an entire hour at the coffee hour, talking to two of the priests, fellow seminarians, and other church members. This boded well.
The third church has a reputation for High Church, “Anglo-Catholic” worship, complete with copious amounts of incense (more than any Easter I’ve ever experienced), chanting throughout most of the service (including the Gospel reading itself), a distant altar with the priests facing the Holy of Holies rather than the congregation, a beautiful choir that sang a lot of things in Latin, and so on. It was beautiful, but I didn’t feel as at home with the congregation.
So I returned to church #2, St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is right near the Divinity School in the hip part of New Haven (cool cafes, lots of graduate students, tree-lined streets). Two little girls danced in the aisles during the Gloria (and then kicked the back of my pew throughout the service), and I smiled. The kids in the church squeaked and bounced and cried, and the elderly members smiled down upon them. The choir was not present that day, so we mumbled our way through some hymns while a woman at the front energetically tried to urge us on. And I smiled.
I was feeling a little sad because it was my first Sunday without my daughter, and I was missing my church back home, where I know everyone. So I started to ask myself in the middle of the offertory what I wanted from a church while in seminary. I hadn’t arrived with a shopping list of qualities, to be honest. But I realized that I wanted a church that was welcoming to children, and this one clearly is. And I wanted a church where people are friendly, and people were definitely friendly.
And then, during coffee hour, several members of the church approached me, including members of my Divinity School faculty. (There is no way to avoid going to a church with one’s professors; they’re at every church in New Haven, often as the officiating priest. At this one, the organist is my academic advisor, a professor in the philosophy of religion.)
Then the interim rector approached me and asked who I was, and I explained that I was a new Episcopal seminarian looking for a church home, and told him I had visited three so far. And he looked at me and said, “There is often a feeling of uprootedness at a time like this.” And I said, “Yes.” That’s when I realized that I had picked my church: when someone at the church can look right into you and see you and acknowledge where you are, especially the priest, it’s a good place to stay. They are recruiting new liturgical ministers, and I asked him what types of liturgical ministers he needed the most (e.g., Eucharistic chalice bearers, readers, acolytes). And he said, “To be honest, we need more people on the Altar Guild.”
And I said, “There’s a reason for that!” If MD from St. Michael’s is reading this, I bet she is laughing very hard right now.
So I am wondering whether I am really able to be an Altar Guild lady, but I think I’ll be going back to St. John’s. I like those dancing kids….