It was a coolish Sunday morning. I hurried through the churchyard being careful of the jagged stones underfoot and tried to smile big for the tourists as we each turned sideways, allowing the other to pass. They were likely seeing it for the first time; me for the hundredth time. In the moment, I expect they had more awe. It is easy to take beauty for granted.
Then the bells started to ring and what usually brings a deep inexplicable peace, suddenly brought a sense of loss. My heart sank, my eyes welled with tears and a question emerged: What about the bells? What if we have to move? What will happen to the bells?
In I Peter 4:12 we learn, “Do not be surprised by the fiery trial when it comes upon you”; interestingly, Peter was writing to the exiles. As one of some 24,000 worshippers struck by the South Carolina Supreme Court decision to expel worshipers from our buildings, I must confess the word surprised is an understatement.
Since the decision, I have read numerous articles from The Episcopal Church (TEC) perspective and some from TEC members offering an eloquently stated happy-dance. Countless legal entities have weighed in. Yet, it seems the heart of the homeless worshipper has not yet been uttered, much less echoed in print.
Most of those on the outside looking in, paint a picture of comeuppance. Like, “that renegade bishop getting what he deserves.” I can’t speak for all of the worshippers caught up in this, only for me. For me, Bishop Lawrence is far from renegade. He is steadfast, willing to fight renegade teaching when it is counter to scripture and what the church has taught for hundreds of years. He runs interference and keeps the culture warriors at bay week-by-week, providing just enough space to worship in Spirit and in Truth — one more Sunday.
We moved here for worship. After 23 years in Charlotte, where it is increasingly more difficult to find a place where Worship is all about God and teaching is true to scripture — we found St. Michaels. Here, we have met hundreds of others with a similar story. When other churches and denominations stopped preaching Truth, God called us out and for reasons only He knows, we gathered here.
We are like those photos of polar bears all huddled up on the last remaining iceberg - except it is far from cold. What joy it has been to actually worship and rest in knowing the words from the pulpit each Sunday will be TRUE — biblically true, not merely culturally convenient and designed to tickle the ears.
Collectively, we are tens of thousands of Anglicans and those from of other faith walks who still do our best to stay true to what the church has taught for thousands of years. We haven’t changed. The same words of scripture are taught today as in generations past. Still, what presses like a powerful force of political activism wants us to accept just a few new twists on scripture, you know, make it a bit more palatable for todays modern ears.
Oddly, one of the differences seems to boil down to how we define love. The TEC website is resplendent with the word, love. Whilst one can’t argue against — love; how we define it matters. The best definition I have heard comes from Dr. Kenneth Boa. He defines it as My steady intention toward another’s highest good. We Anglicans love too — toward “highest good.” Such love includes the courage to tell the truth with compassion, to want more than acceptance for people, to want eternal good. Transformation only comes when we are under the Word — not over it. And, yes sometimes the word of Truth, hurts. Yet, any light momentary affliction in hearing the truth does not compare to the eternal weight of glory. Highest good is also longest good. It is eternal.
But, what if we have to move out of all the buildings? What will happen to the bells?
On this one Sunday morning, my mind went to the bells. If we leave, who will ring the bells? After hundreds of years, multiple wars and worship every Sunday … the bells will go silent. The Holy City will no longer have the heart of its holy ring of bells. For you see, social activist teaching rarely comes with the likes of campanologists who are eager to climb the tower each Sunday and pull on ropes as the invisible leaders of worship. Bell ringers don’t get paid, don’t have a stage or amplifiers or adoring fans or even a Facebook page with likes. They just ring the bells to the glory of God.
A few weeks ago, I heard bestselling author Eric Metaxis speak twice in one day. First at St. Michael’s. He also spoke Sunday afternoon at a lovely tea, hosted by Lori Moore with Holy City Speaks. We were in the home of Steve and Mary Hammond on South Battery with a beautiful sweeping view of the harbor across White Point Garden. As Eric spoke, he said something that resonated with me. He spoke of the beauty and joy of the people of St. Michaels and the beauty of the building and then he said, “The building is lucky to have you.”
That’s it! In my mind, it is easy to envision different scenarios as the outcome this present fiery trial. One vision is the processional of joyful saints filing out of the building and going to who knows where. It is easy to feel the weight of glory traveling with us and exciting to imagine what God will do through this season of persecution. I can envision the magnitude and movement of the Spirit should we need to move out for a new place of worship.
The sadness is for the old building. Oh sure, some folks would stay and others would come back to stake their claim and a few tourists will come each week. Throughout time — the burden of upkeep will weigh heavy as it has for other sparsely filled sanctuaries in Charleston. Then TEC will sell the building to the city as a museum (if we’re lucky). Then we’d need tickets and turnstiles and yet one more colonial church can be part of how children learn about the quaintness of America’s religious past.
Absurd, you say? On your next trip to Boston, visit Old South Boston. But before you go, pull up some of Thomas Prince’s sermons online. He preached there for 40 years and oversaw the building construction. When you visit the museum, an artist’s rendering of him will be just inside the door to the right. Be sure to compare the supposed “historical” displays in the room to the rigor and glory of his sermons. Among the historical displays, George Whitfield gets an honorable mention. His space is about ten square inches. But, then again, it’s more space than the words God or Jesus garner.
Ironically, it was nearly 70 years ago that Archbishop, Arthur Michael Ramsey wrote so beautifully about God’s tabernacling with His people. For you see, Christ came to create a new tabernacle in the hearts of men and women.
If the saints leave, the weight of glory, lifts, travels and takes up new residence. But, “What about the bells?”
The building is lucky to have us.
Linda Prince is president of PRINCE consulting services — design, build architects of organizational change; lindaprince.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.