As an Episcopalian growing up in an old river town (Pt. Pleasant, W. Va.), I was a rare commodity indeed, because there were so few of us. Truth be known, there are not a superabundance of Episcopalians anywhere in the United States. However, if you look at the Anglican Communion [our world-wide denomination, which includes our “Mother Church,” The Church of England] there are about 80 million adherents. I have found that in many cases, even in large cities, the experience of having a large church building and a sparse membership is not uncommon in our branch of the Christian faith.
Our parish church was an impressive stone structure in the Gothic tradition with wonderful stained glass windows, and beautiful appointments. As a child and early teenager, I was not well traveled. To me, therefore, judging everything by what I saw on television, Christ Episcopal Church was the most impressive church building in the world.
A good turnout on Sunday might be seven or eight people for the early service (8 a.m.) , and 35 for our late service (11 a.m.)
Having spent most of my clergy career in small churches, I am fortunate to have grown up under the tutelage of Fr. Stone, our priest. My sense of self worth or success has never been based on how many people sit on pews every Sunday, but more on how well “we” as a congregation have followed the faith and practice of the church from the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the teachings of the Apostles, and throughout the ages.
Fr. Stone, though himself nearly blind, had an expansive and inclusive view of all “who profess and call themselves Christian.” He felt strongly that the saints when we gather on earth in prayer, are in the larger presence of the Body of Christ which includes those “who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” All Christians everywhere transcend time and space, and our prayers are joined together.
I served every Sunday as acolyte for Fr. Stone during Holy Communion, and because he could not see for himself, he would ask how many people were present in order to count out the communion wafers. I would tell him the number, which was always low and should have seemed disheartening to the old minister, but every week, no matter how high or low the numbers in the pews, he would answer, “No, no, you miscounted, we are filled to overflowing, with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven…”
I always share this story when talking with my own parishioners, or those from other denominations, even clergy, when they feel despair because of low attendance, or lack of congregational growth. For I want them to share in that faith-filled vision of Fr. Stone, that we are never alone in the worship and praise of God, but are surrounded by the prayers of the living on earth, and those in the closer presence of God. We are, “compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us…” [Hebrews 12:1-3]
The Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor is rector at Trinity Episcopal Church.
Pastors or assistant pastors who would like to write for the Devotional Column should email their articles to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, telephone number, the church’s name and the church’s address.