The Mission of Saint Mary’s
From time to time I am challenged by the question of what is the mission of Saint Mary’s. The Parish Profile, written in 1998, has a statement of “Our Mission,”
The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City, was founded in 1868 with the mission of setting forth Catholic doctrine and ritual within the Episcopal Church.
We have remained true to our founding principles and have avoided splintering on such issues as female clergy and human sexuality because we believe that just as each of us is on a journey toward achieving fulfillment of the spirit, so also is the Church Catholic.
Eight rectors have led us on our mission thus far. We now seek as our ninth rector a priest who will articulate a vision that will increase our numbers and lead us into the new millennium in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and His Gospel, our ultimate authority.
My own sense of the current mission of Saint Mary’s was shaped by my first meeting with Gerald McKelvey, acting president of the Board of Trustees, after Father Wells retired. I had dinner with Gerald and Linda Bridges, trustee and chairman of the Search Committee. After the meal was ordered Gerald’s first question to me was, and I will never forget the exchange, “What are you going to do to save Saint Mary’s?” My response was, “What are you willing to change?” He replied, “Everything.”
“Everything?” “Everything is on the table.” “Even music?” “Especially music, the most important thing is for Saint Mary’s to survive.”
“Catholic doctrine and ritual” has never filled the pews and paid the bills at Saint Mary’s. For its entire history Saint Mary’s has not only lived beyond its means but, in Father Weiler’s phrase, “worshipped beyond its means.” This has usually been a powerful and glorious thing. It has never been easy.
Budgets are always balanced one way or another, even if the church is never full. At Saint Mary’s budgets have been balanced since its inception by deferring maintenance and underpaying its clergy and staff. Despite the glories of the church itself since its repainting, the year is now 2003, there is no handicapped accessibility at SMV. There’s not a window or door in the plant that doesn’t need to be replaced. Did I mention the restrooms, the shape of the parish kitchen, the parish offices? How can a place that is so wonderful and touches so many lives so deeply seem unable to take care of itself decade after decade? Did I mention how sacrificially the staff at Saint Mary’s works, under great pressure, week after week, year after year?
I for one don’t think Saint Mary’s has ever really been about doctrine and ritual, at least doctrine and ritual are not what has really held the parish together. The tributes paid to the first rector and to all of my predecessors are rarely about their ritual prowess. The Father Founder, the Reverend Thomas McKee Brown, was so ungifted a preacher that people felt free to say so in death notices extolling his work at Saint Mary’s. The lengthy and heartfelt tributes paid to Father Brown without exception focused on his love for people. I cannot begin to count the number of times people have been moved to tears when they have spoken to me of the care that a priest here has had for them or their parent or spouse or child or partner or friend in times of pastoral need. It has been love that has been the key to Saint Mary’s continuing existence. It has been love that saved it from bankruptcy over and over again.
I have been rector here for over four years now. If I have a contribution to make as rector it is that I want to bring into the open what has also been true at Saint Mary’s from the beginning, the love and care people here have for each other. There are some members of this parish who still see their Christian faith as an essentially private and interior journey. There probably always will be. But that is not Christianity. I remind you that our Scripture and our tradition are unambiguous about us being living members of the same Body. There is a reason we have a common cup. We are all sisters and brothers.
I do believe it is long past the time that Saint Mary’s needs a new way to talk about itself and its mission. If you doubt that, once again, for the umpteenth time in its history, Saint Mary’s is hurtling towards bankruptcy. During the 1990s the structural deficit was masked by the extraordinary returns in the stock market. We have three or four years perhaps to turn this parish around financially or Saint Mary’s as we know it cannot exist.
If we double our membership and giving in four years (without spending any more than we are today – something that is almost impossible) we will still go bankrupt without other sources of income. So we are going to have to do much more. When Gerald McKelvey asked me what I was going to do to save Saint Mary’s, I know he didn’t speak for everyone when he said, “Everything’s on the table.” But I think he did speak for most. I suspect we are going to have to risk a lot to save Saint Mary’s.
Research has shown repeatedly that churches only grow when the members of the parish welcome new members, recruit new members and find ways for new members quickly to become involved in the life of the community. I don’t think we are far from being the kind of parish that really can grow. I think our common liturgical life reflects in many, many ways the best thinking of today about what it should be. I think the love people have for each other in this place is genuine. I think we need purposefully to remove the barriers for newcomers in all areas of our life. And, I think we need to be able to say our mission is something more than ritual and doctrine.
Ritual and doctrine do not visit the sick, comfort those whose hearts are suffering, or give hope to the living and the dead. Only the living Body of Christ can do this. Rituals and doctrine do not smile; they do not eat and drink. Only people smile and cry, laugh and touch. Perhaps I’m thinking of this particularly because of this Sunday’s Gospel where the Temple is no longer a building but Jesus himself (John 2:13-22). A new mission statement, of course, can only be useful if it is true and we act on it. You and I were baptized to be a part of that living Temple and to invite others into its eternal life. Stephen Gerth
PRAYER LIST . . . Your prayers are asked for Adele who is hospitalized and for Bart, Brett, Nora, Nicole, Jack, Thomas, Sarah, Grover, Annie, Patricia, Paul, Robert, Gloria, Jerri, Margaret, Marion, Olga, Rick, Charles, priest, and Paul, bishop and Walter, bishop, and for the members of our Armed Forces on active duty, especially Timothy, Patrick, Edward, Keith, Kevin, Christopher, Andrew, Joseph, Mark, Ned, Timothy, David, John and Colin . . . GRANT THEM PEACE . . . March 24: 1952 Ida Mary Steifel; March 26: 1966 Frances Duckworth Young; March 29: 1964 Robert Edward Cerra; 1997: Brice Linville.
NOTES ON MUSIC . . . This Sunday at the Solemn Mass, the setting of the Mass ordinary is Missa Morus by Elliott Z. Levine (b. 1948). Mr. Levine is a New York composer and singer who is currently in the choir of the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields. The motet at Communion is O, where shall wisdom be found by Joel Derfner (b. 1973). Mr. Derfner is another New York composer and singer, and he is currently in our choir. His setting of the text from Job was inspired by William Boyce’s verse anthem that sets the same text. On Tuesday, March 25, the Annunciation, Robert McCormick will play the organ recital at 5:30, featuring works of Bach, Dupré, Tournemire and Franck. The setting of the Mass ordinary is The Mass ‘Western Wind’ by John Sheppard (c. 1515-1559).
This is a parody Mass based on the (then) popular song “O westron wynde.” His setting, likely written for the Chapel Royal during the reign of Queen Mary, joined Mass settings by John Taverner and Christopher Tye that were based on the same song. The motet at Communion is Dixit Maria by Hans Leo Hassler (1562-1612) and the postlude is Pièce pour grand orgue by Joseph Jongen (1873-1953).
AROUND THE PARISH . . . A Memorial Mass for Philip Dean Parker’s father, Glen Lawhon Parker, will be held at Saint Mary’s at 6:20 PM on Wednesday, March 26 . . . Skating in Central Park on March 27. Contact Father Weiler for details . . . Attendance last Sunday 270
The Calendar of the Week
Sunday The Third Sunday in Lent
Monday Weekday of Lent
Eve of the Annunciation 6:00 PM
Tuesday The Annunciation
Wednesday Weekday of Lent
Thursday Weekday of Lent
Friday Weekday of Lent
Saturday Weekday of Lent
The Parish Clergy
The Reverend Stephen Gerth, rector,
The Reverend Matthew Weiler, curate, The Reverend James Ross Smith, assistant,
The Reverend Rosemari Sullivan, assisting priest,
The Reverend John Beddingfield, The Reverend Robert Rhodes, assisting deacons,
The Reverend Canon Edgar F. Wells, rector emeritus.