By Jennifer McKenzie
This morning at 11:15, a band of about 50 faithful men, women, and children gathered in a borrowed upper room – a loft, to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Greeting us as we entered the room was vestry member Dail Turner who was handing out nametags and service bulletins from behind a folding table set just inside the door at the top of the stairs. He in turn introduced us to Bill Fetsch, the senior warden. Both wore generous smiles and extended their hands enthusiastically for a sincere handshake.
“Welcome to the Party!” came the greeting from The Rev. Michael Pipkin as he appeared seemingly from nowhere out of the crowd. “It’s good to see you here. Thanks for coming.” The ‘party’ is the regular Sunday gathering of the members of The Falls Church – Episcopal, a remnant of former members of the several-hundred-member break-away church now affiliated with CANA, who have placed themselves under the authority of Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria. This smaller group is made up of the approximately 10% from the original church who voted to remain in the Episcopal Church plus newcomers and occasional visitors who come for a Sunday or two to give visible support to the gathered church. They are meeting in the loft at the Falls Church Presbyterian, generously supported by that congregation and their pastor, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Schmid, who says, “We are so happy to have them here with us.”
The service was a celebration of the Eucharist with special prayers for Pentecost, the day remembered for the occasion of the followers of Jesus being empowered by the Holy Spirit 50 days after Jesus’ Resurrection. In his sermon, The Rev. Pipkin explained how like so many, this holy day was taken from a Jewish festival commanded by God through Moses – in this case, the Festival of Weeks. The Jewish tradition is one where, at the beginning of the harvest, the ‘first fruits’ are given as a thank offering, waved by the high priest before God. In other words, The Rev. Pipkin said, the offering of thanks is made ‘not knowing what the rest of the growing season will be like.’ He suggested that making such an offering in our day would be akin to paying taxes on January 1st of the year in advance of securing our income for that year – a practice that would probably be fraught with anxiety and fear. But, he reminded the congregation as he had been told in his youth, “anxiety and fear are not of God.” Instead, he suggested, just like in the Pentecost story in the Gospel reading from John appointed for this day, Jesus approaches us saying “Peace be with you…in all our anxiety about what will happen next, of not knowing what the next steps will be, God tells us to not fear.”
Not knowing what will happened next is the present reality for this congregation as they strive to stay “centered on the hopeful promises of Jesus Christ, love for one another and [offer] service to the community” as printed on the cover of their newly produced welcome flyer. Admittedly, keeping such a focus can be a challenge when court battles are waging. Parishioner Lee Roussel noted this challenge – she works in a government office with three members of the CANA group – and she believes that “this [property dispute] will only be really settled out of court.” “We have to keep the relationships open with the folks across the street,” she said, “if we ever hope to resolve our differences.” For Jesse Thackrey, a decades-long member of The Falls Church, this day has been particularly poignant. Thackrey was senior warden at the time The Rev. John Yates was called as rector of The Falls Church. As he led the congregation out of the Episcopal church, Mrs. Thackrey became deeply troubled and felt a level of responsibility for the way things had changed since his arrival several years ago. She had really hoped that those who wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church would be allowed to continue worshipping in the historic church building on the property. While she still wistfully remembers that desire, her outlook has changed. “I’ve learned that the church is about the people coming together to worship God. It’s not about a particular building.” She looked up from her wheelchair and smiled, a twinkle in her moist eyes, “I haven’t been this happy in church for a really long time.”
The Rev. Jennier McKenzie recently accepted a call to be associate rector for evangelism, mission/outreach, and adult discipleship at Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia. She keeps the blog The Reverend Mother.