by Jeremy Sierra
On a Sunday in February, I visited Bushwick Abbey, a new Episcopal community that meets in the back of a bar in Brooklyn. The walls were black, and pink and blue light splashed across the room. The band played blues and gospel, but the liturgy was Anglican, with prayers from the New Zealand Prayer Book and The Book of Common Prayer.
“A bar is not the opposite of church,” said the Rev. Kerlin Richter, an Episcopal priest with short blonde hair dyed blue, who founded the church. “Both are places where you come with loneliness and thirst.”
The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was also there on a surprise visit.
“I’m thrilled to see this,” she told me after the service. “I’m convinced the church needs to be doing things like this that fit the context.”
Although I am a lifelong Episcopalian with an abiding love for The Book of Common Prayer, for several years I’ve been attending another small church called St. Lydia’s that meets on Sunday evenings around a dinner table. It is one of several experimental communities popping up in Brooklyn (you might call them “emergent,” though the term is somewhat muddy).
With church attendance dwindling in many places, I wondered what these communities had in common and what role they could play in the future of the Episcopal Church.
After attending church in a bar, in a bell tower, and around a dinner table, what I found were communities responding to the needs of particular contexts, yet firmly rooted in mainline denominations.
Not So Churchy
Not So Churchy meets once a month in Fort Green, Brooklyn. About 25 people gathered in the hall of a Presbyterian Church when I visited on a Monday evening. The musicians rotate, so each month the service is a little different.
“There are a few core pieces,” said founder Mieke Vandersall, a Presbyterian pastor. “The idea that worship is created by the community. That we all have access to uncovering Scripture. That we do it in a different way than we’ve been traditionally taught.”
Instead of coffee there was chocolate beforehand. I ate a piece (well, several pieces) and chatted with some of the members, before taking a seat on the metal chairs arranged in a half circle around a simple altar.
There were no service leaflets or hymnals. Vandersall and a handful of musicians led us through the service, singing the music to us before we sang, a kind of call and response called “paperless music.” This technique was pioneered by Trinity staff member Marilyn Haskel and others at the influential (and experimental) Episcopal church in San Francisco, St. Gregory of Nyssa.
There was a Scripture reading accompanied by piano. Vandersall gave a short sermon, followed by group sharing and discussion and a time to pray. We repeated a short melody again and again as we took Communion, a moving and peaceful moment.
Several of the attendees were worship leaders at other churches, and there were a number of LGBTQ people.
“Some of them are seeking this kind of spiritual place and have been really hurt by the church,” said Vandersall.
Vandersall is the director of Presbyterian Welcome, a group that works with LGBTQ people in the church. As an openly lesbian person, she herself had trouble finding her place in the Presbyterian Church after her ordination.
Not So Churchy came to her as an idea that she just couldn’t shake, a need to create a welcoming community that combined faith and creativity (Vandersall is a musician).
“It’s Presbyterian church in theology, but not expression,” said Vandersall.
Parables meets in the bell tower at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. When I visited on a cold Sunday afternoon, about seven or eight people in their 20s and early 30s huddled around space heaters on folding metal chairs, a table with bread and wine and grape juice sitting between them.
“I want to make sure people have the same type of religious community I was able to experience,” said Ben McKalehan, founder and a Lutheran pastor. “A place of love.”
McKalehan spent much of his childhood in towns where the churches ran the sports teams and Boy Scout troops and the youth group, but the friends he made at Reed College were skeptical of the church. He wanted to create a church that would speak to them.
In the bell tower we sang a few lines composed by one of the members. McKalehan has written some lovely prayers to begin and end the service. We were each given a moment to speak of the “moments of desolation and consolation” from the week, when we felt far or close to God. McKalehan gave a short sermon while passing around an iPad with photos of artwork to get us thinking, followed by some time for discussion. Afterward, we were given about 15 minutes to draw, write, knit, or even make balloon animals, whatever creative outlet worked best for us. I drew some shapes and wrote a bit of bad prose.
The service ended after we passed around the bread and wine and sang again.
McKalehan has long been interested in art and theater and how that intersects with his faith. He tried public art and group art projects, with varying degrees of success. Over time the focus of Parables has shifted toward storytelling and a Eucharistic meal.
Parables is an experiment, though a thoroughly Lutheran one.
“Because we have less institutional structure we have the freedom to take risks,” said McKalehan. “Ultimately we are one congregation within the denomination. The most local expression of the body of Christ.”
Can communities like these exist within the Episcopal Church, tied as it seems to be to The Book of Common Prayer? I asked the Rev. Daniel Simons, a priest and liturgist at Trinity Wall Street.
“In a word, yes,” said Simons. We have misunderstood the idea of “common prayer” to mean we all use the same words, when in fact people use different prayers all over the Anglican Communion, he said. The Episcopal Church is joined through relationship, a fellowship of churches and dioceses and bishops, as well as our participation in word and sacrament in our worship. Within that, there’s a lot of flexibility.
Bushwick Abbey is an example of this. “It comes out of loving the Episcopal Church but not being sure it made sense to the people I loved in my daily life,” said Richter.
Although some may be tired of shallow stories about churches that meet in bars to attract young people, Richter was simply looking for a place to meet and knew the owner of the bar, Tari Sunkin, who was looking to connect with the community. Vince Anderson, who leads the music, was a friend who was already performing gospel music as Vince Anderson and His Love Choir every week at a bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Bushwick Abbey is an expression of Richter’s vision and love of the church and the people in it.
“We want to be really authentic and ask what it means to be a church here at this time and to these people,” Richter said.
Is This New?
“The church has always been changing,” said Bowie Snodgrass, who cofounded a small community years ago called Transmission. “The church is 2,000 years of evolution and revolution.”
There are other churches experimenting with community and liturgy around the country, many of them in dialogue with the more evangelical, conservative branch of Christianity.
Bushwick Abbey and the other communities I visited, on the other hand, are ultimately rooted in traditional mainline denominations. The theology in each is firmly Lutheran, Anglican, or Presbyterian. The emphases are somewhat different, perhaps, focused a bit more on the idea that God’s love extends to everyone rather than on the question of how to live righteously, worship correctly, or get to heaven. They are all explicitly, openly, and deeply progressive and welcoming.
So is this just a matter of a change in style, eschewing a building and some of the trappings of mainline Protestant worship?
“Liturgy is theology,” McKalehan said when I asked him this. Experimenting with liturgy will lead to new theologies and deeper understanding.
In that case, it’s worth noting that all these communities have landed consistently on worship that includes singing, sharing stories, and a Eucharistic meal, revealing perhaps the deepest and oldest kind of communal worship.
St. Lydia’s, the church that I have attended for the past four years, fits firmly into this mold.
I found St. Lydia’s shortly after I moved to New York to attend graduate school. When I arrived I was immediately put to work cutting vegetables and setting the table. Emily Scott, the Lutheran pastor who founded the church, led a liturgy based on early church practices, most of it sung using the paperless music technique with the help of a congregant song leader. We passed the bread around in the circle with the words, “This is my body.”
Afterward we all sat down to eat and talk, followed by a sermon, sharing, and more prayers and singing. Then we all did the dishes together.
I wasn’t looking for an emergent church or anything like it, but I felt immediately noticed and welcomed at St. Lydia’s. It quickly became the bright center of my week during the early, lonely days in a new city.
“The desire to start St. Lydia’s came when I observed a hunger in New York for spiritual connection and connection with one another,” said Scott.
The community started meeting about five years ago in Daniel Simons’ apartment. Now it is affiliated with the Lutheran Church, with ties to the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, and it is growing quickly.
St. Lydia’s, like Parables, Not So Churchy, and Bushwick Abbey, began as the vision of individuals responding to the needs of a particular community.
“I think St. Lydia’s has a role to play as a source of inspiration,” said Joel Avery, a seminarian at Yale who is also an intern at St. Lydia’s. These communities are models of what the church can be, not answers to the problem of dwindling attendance and changing cultural attitudes toward the church.
“I believe that the experiments occurring at the edge of the pool are sending ripples back into the middle of the pool,” said Scott. “The church is being changed from the outside in, but also being transformed slowly from the inside out. There’s a good dose of death and resurrection at work.”
Perhaps creating a taxonomy of the church is an increasingly pointless exercise. What matters is that people find a place where they encounter God and connect to one another.
St. Lydia’s is where I met my fiancée. I continue to go every Sunday, and as I sing and pray and share a meal in the company of my community, I feel the presence and the peace of God.