St. Mark's Stories
The Cathedral of the Working Class - “There is considerable freedom, but greater responsibility, that comes with being the cathedral of the working class.”
The most recently built span across the Thames River in London is the Millennium Bridge, a slender, elegant steel suspension bridge—for pedestrians. There are Anglican cathedrals near both ends of the bridge, St. Paul’s at the north end and Southwark at the south. A show of hands, please: how many of you have heard of St. Paul’s Cathedral? [Many hands] And how many of you have heard of Southwark Cathedral? [Few hands] There are good reasons for that.
St. Paul’s was built by Christopher Wren, England’s pre-eminent architect; the English Baroque cathedral is his masterpiece, sited majestically on Ludgate Hill. Famous people are buried in the cathedral, and members of the royal family have been married in and buried from St. Paul’s.
Southwark, on the other hand, finds itself surrounded by large nineteenth century warehouses; a railroad trestle passes within yards of the structure, and a farmer’s market sprawls just outside the main entrance. Members of the royal family are not married in or buried from Southwark. There are two areas, however, in which Southwark holds its own or eclipses St. Paul’s: age, and its commitment to radical inclusion. In 1006, the Priory Church of St. Marie was founded by the Bishop of Winchester on the Saxon foundations of a church built in 886. In various incarnations, Southwark has existed on the south bank of the Thames River for over a thousand years.
When Tommy and I visit London, we sometimes attend services at St. Paul’s, especially evensong, which is achingly beautiful. But we always make our way to Southwark. Why? Why Southwark?
At the extreme east end of the vast interior of Southwark, beyond the chancel, beyond the retro-choir, are three chapels. The most appealing, to my eye, is the Chapel of St. Andrews. More than a decade ago the decision was made to rename, though not rededicate, the chapel. For those hearty souls in fundraising, a naming opportunity quickens the pulse—and makes the palms itch. I know exactly for whom I would have named the chapel. A short distance from the cathedral is the reconstructed Globe Theatre. Shakespeare was parishioner at Southwark, as was his brother, who is buried in the cathedral: I would have had a Shakespeare chapel. I mean, hello, think of the tourist dollars! But no, the chapel is not named for him or indeed for any other luminary in the cathedral’s long history. The chapel is now a memorial to those who died from AIDS: the AIDS chapel. Tommy and I both lost people we were close to during the height of the health crisis; we return to Southwark to remember and pray.
Tommy had left the chapel, only a priest and I remained. We walked out together. I learned he was one of the cathedral’s cannons, a kind of senior administrator. I asked him how much resistance there had been, in the larger community of the cathedral, to the naming of the AIDS chapel, and he immediately responded, “None at all.” Frankly, I was incredulous and pressed for an explanation. He stopped walking and stared at the floor. He finally answered: “I’ll give you four reasons there was no resistance. First, we know who we are. Second, we know whose we are. Third, we know where we are. And fourth, we know what our mission is.” The good cannon veered off into his office but returned almost immediately to the hallway and added: “There is considerable freedom, but greater responsibility, that comes with being the cathedral of the working class.”
The Long-Range Planning Committee has been working very hard for over a year to create a strategic plan for this church. The plan it lays out is collectively ours: we have met with the committee in focus groups; we have spoken with, emailed, texted individual members to share our concerns, our hopes for this church. I have read the document closely. The goals are ambitious, as indeed they should be. We are a healthy, growing church with exceptionally strong leadership. Do I think the stated goals are achievable? Yes, yes I do. And I can give you four reasons why: we know who we are, whose we are, were we are, and what our mission is.
We know that we were founded soon after the Civil War to serve the working men and women of Richmond. But we know more than that, don’t we? We know there is a prophetic vein that runs through the muscle of this congregation. There is a fearlessness in in our proclamation of the Gospel, in our commitment to dismantling injustice, in our embrace of responsibility for those in need, especially the marginalized. We know who we are.
We know we are not here this morning because this is the church where our great-grandparents worshipped, or our grandparents, or, except in a few cases, where our parents worshipped. We are here because our spiritual journeys brought us through the doors of St. Mark’s, and we stayed. We know we were led here by the Holy Spirit. And if we know that, we know whose we are.
Last year Tommy and I had a friend visiting from Bristol, England. John had begun as a seminarian but ultimately became an architectural historian with the National Trust. John was attempting to come to terms with the perplexing geography of Richmond. I unfolded a flat map in front of him, identifying major arteries and points of interest, not least our house and our church. He studied the map intently, eventually laying the edge of his thumb on North Boulevard and slowly drawing his thumb southward, then on West Broad and slowly drawing his thumb eastward. He then rested his thumb at the point of intersection, on St. Mark’s. He looked up, smiled, and observed: “St. Mark’s is the body of Christ.” Yes, in fact, it is.
This church is not in the leafy suburbs, my friends. It is here, at the crossing of this city. I have long thought that if Jesus were to visit St. Mark’s, we would not find him in the sanctuary. He would be at the back door, helping us feed the homeless. Or he would be in the parish hall on Wednesday evening, exorcising the daemons of drug addiction, which begs the question: why do our parishioners volunteer to stand in the kitchen preparing food for the homeless, or volunteer to open the church for twelve-step groups? We are a compassionate, generous people; we know who and where we are.
Take the coming weeks before Pledge Sunday to consider how you give back, in time, talent, and treasure. The average pledge goal for 2019 is $2,822. For some of us this range of giving is not possible; there are others who already give five times this amount. We simply ask whether—given the remarkable potential evidenced by the strategic plan—you can increase the level of your financial support. We would very much like to increase the percentage of St. Mark’s households that pledge. We are currently at 69%. I would like to see at least 75%. If you are pledging for the first time, begin where you can. We ask no more than that.
David Jones, the former bishop suffragan, was visiting St. Mark’s. It was confirmation Sunday. He was standing in the narthex, waiting to process. I was an usher and happened to be standing next to him. Staring the length of the nave, and without turning his head, the bishop announced: “St. Mark’s is our medieval cathedral.” We are not the diocesan cathedral, and the architecture of St. Mark’s is not gothic. I said nothing, but the bishop could see from my expression I was confounded. He gently explained: “I see St. Mark’s as our cathedral because this is where the pilgrims come, and they are always warmly welcomed.”
There is considerable freedom, but greater responsibility, that comes with being the cathedral of the working class.
Homily excerpt from Sunday, October 14 by Howard Pugh, Stewardship Chair
To be the church is to be the people of God, not just comforted by God but called and claimed by God to bring healing to all.
We are stewards of God’s world. All has been given to us – our lives, time, talents, and resources – by the Great Giver. To be the church is to be the people of God, not just comforted by God but called and claimed by God to bring healing to all. Your generosity has built up all the ministries that offer that healing and are so much a part of St. Mark’s. We know that there was a time when financial support for the church was the norm of our society, just like being at church on Sunday. But that is no longer the case. In a way, that change causes us to reflect on why it is important to continue to invest through the financial support of this church.
Research shows that for most adults the action of doing ministry, seeing a community putting the Gospel into action, is the most important criteria for even thinking about stepping into a church. Our financial support of St. Mark’s makes it possible for us to do that work which reflects what our values are and supports them in our ministries. We give financial support to our diocese which in turn supports ministries on a wider scale. In our Feeding Ministry and Food Pantry we offer food and welcome to those who are routinely told to move along. We offer assistance without judgment. We support ministries of justice such as the Virginia Center for Inclusive Community and Equality VA. We give financial support to ACTS and provide hands on ministry to CARITAS. We visit the sick, teach our children, and care for one another. This building provides a place of prayer and spiritual growth through worship and welcome for our members and the visitors among us. To those passing on the Boulevard and those who enter, this building is a sign that the Jesus Movement is alive and well. We want everyone to know that the Lord is among us and to know God’s grace.
It seems that Jesus deems it essential that we who follow him help spread that good news of God’s healing presence by our words and deeds. At St. Mark’s we make every effort to live into the message that God is good and merciful and loving and generous. God does incredible things through hearts and hands that are willing to be generous and trust that God is working through us to be that loving, healing presence to one another and the stranger among us.
There is a community of support for you. “The Episcopal Church is a very open and inclusive denomination, and St. Mark’s has always been in the forefront of gay and lesbian issues.”
Saturday’s VA PrideFest on Brown’s Island was the first for 15-year-old Nic Carwile.
“I came out to my mom last year,” said Carwile, of Chesterfield County, who identifies as transgender. “It’s really nice to see people who are the same as you.”
Carwile and a group of friends stopped at a tent hosted by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. “It’s just really nice to see that a lot more churches are opening their hearts.”
Festival-goers spent a muggy day enjoying live music, food and beer at the annual LGBTQ celebration, one of numerous held across the state throughout the year. Businesses and corporations continue to increase their support for the festival and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“The Episcopal Church is a very open and inclusive denomination, and St. Mark’s has always been in the forefront of gay and lesbian issues,” said Bill Martin, a church member who was helping staff the tent. “Every PrideFest is helpful. It gives you an opportunity to see that there are other gay people around, and it shows that there is a community of support for you out there as a gay or lesbian person.”
Parker Palmer writing in his recent book, On the Brink of Everything reminds us, “We all live at the intersection of our small worlds and the big one around us. If we want to serve others, we must attend to both.”
Yes, empire looks big and overwhelming – that is what empire does to control and contain. Empire wants acquiescence. But what Parker Palmer tells me is that I am to do what I can do. I am to get out of my bubble, and speak up, stand up like I did in sixth grade – it’s the old phrase, “be the change you want to see.” Yeah, you are rolling your eyes about now.
But you know I think we have in this church the living example of the intersection of our small world and the big empire around us – of being the change we wanted to see. Back in the day we as a church could not stop the Downtown Expressway development from destroying the historically African –American neighborhoods of Richmond, but we could offer one displaced community of black Episcopalians a new church home. We did this – welcoming the members of Osgood Memorial Church to join us when their church was plowed over. In doing this we were the first Episcopal Church in the city to integrate. Was it easy, was it universally popular – no – it was 1967 in the capital of the Old South. There are stories of the rector and curate welcoming people in one door as white members were walking out the other. But we did it, we survived it and more, we thrived. There was a time when the diagnosis of AIDS literally put men on the streets, their families ashamed or afraid to touch them. There was from the empire a chorus of voices giving the pronouncement of a “gay plague,” the punishment for love viewed as wrong, as other. St. Mark’s didn’t accept the verdict of empire. Instead we responded with compassion, with helping hands and healing touch - working with other churches and the then Fan Free Clinic to establish the Richmond AIDS Ministry that for years provided these desperately ill men with a safe and caring place to live, and to die. And according to the Fan Free Clinic, St. Mark’s offered burial and memorial services to more who died from AIDS than any other faith community in the commonwealth. Could we cure HIV-AIDS, no. But we could reach out in love and faith to those many shunned. And when it came to gender and marriage equality St. Mark’s stood for the equitable treatment of all by the church, bearing witness to the belief that all are created in God’s image, all are worthy of love and to love. St. Mark’s was one of the first in our diocese to offer the sacrament of marriage to same gender couples – with and without permission. Could we change the laws of the land to be more equitable and just – well maybe on this one, we did – or at least one of our members did by risking her privacy and that of her family to be the change she and we wanted to see.
These I believe are the intersections of our small and big worlds, the space between individual action and imperial status quo. And we inhabit it. As we have looked to our future through the long-range planning process much of what has come out of the discussions is the desire to be engaged in our community, to be doing the work God calls us to as individuals and as a faith community – to be present and willing to answer when called. This does not surprise me. It may not at first look like the big world changes that are so desperately needed, but all that we do to change the life of even one person is answering the call of God – and that changes the world. Maybe this place is the armor store – where I get fitted for my breastplate of righteousness, my shield of faith, and the shoes that are the gospel of peace. And with these go out to do the work God has given me as one person to do, knowing that I have the courage, strength, and faith of this community with me.
The church must insist that the public policy and public practice of the US be measured against covenantal requirements of neighborly justice, mercy, and generosity.
Such a society might be expected to organize is life and its resources around the shared destiny of haves and have nots. For as far back as the tradition of Deuteronomy, the notion of "chosenness" had to do with attentiveness to needy neighbors. If the "year of remission" in Deuteronomy 15: 1-18 is central to who Israel was as a chosen people, then even its own economy was subordinate to its obligations to its neighbors. Likewise today, the church's challenge is to summon civil society to its best self. Walter Brueggemann, Out of Babylon