Small is beautiful—more on St. Alban’s

St. Alban’s Catholic Church is doing many things right, including an active Facebook page chock full of videos and photographs.  It is regularly updated.  Go on and take a look and see whether some of these ideas might work for your community.  But there’s more to the story as you’ll see below the fold, in a lovely essay from Andrew N. Jordan, a member of the parish.

Members of St. Alban’s are passionate about their ordinariate community.  In a recent post, Peter Smith outlined some of the steps that the took congregation to grow and eventually be assigned a priest.

That post prompted Pam Smith, who is no relation to Peter, to respond with her perspective on St. Alban’s beginnings.  I have added her full comments to the bottom of the post St. Alban’s Offers a Case Study.   But here’s an excerpt to encourage you to go over over and read the whole thing.

Pam writes:

We eight or ten souls who first gathered in a home as ‘St. Alban’s’ from earliest 2012, through our reception in Oct. 2012 at the old church we used, all thought then that we had a real chance!  We were on a life-raft from the Episcopal and other Protestant denominations which seemed to have left us each stranded, and were heading for the mother ship of the Catholic Church all eager to accept then-Pope Benedict XVI’s gracious offer.  More than four and a half years of fellowship, catechesis then study, and faithful attendance at worship, none of which should be overlooked as a phase of community formation, preceded the calling of our current beloved priest in mid-2017.  When this priest arrived he had this little band to work with, and we had already grown a bit in the four years, though there had been slight attrition and some visitors who did not stay. New babies also had arrived. We have one diocesan layman in particular who mentored us from the 2012 beginnings and has been supportive by frequently video-ing our Masses and giving much other encouragement. The core membership kept on keeping on, coffee hours and all, and in addition to our first two priests who carefully taught and trained us in their time with us, we had a bevy of excellent church musicians, each giving us a grounding in liturgical music and keeping this very important part of the Anglican patrimony vivid among us.  Perhaps that gave us latent parish potential that was discernible to Peter and others who began to arrive by 2015.”

Well, Pam’s comments inspired yet another parishioner at St. Alban’s, Andrew N. Jordan to send along this essay entitled “Small is beautiful” to complement what Pam and Peter had previously written.

“I was inspired by them to write an article praising smallness, as an encouragement to other Ordinariate groups and groups in formation,” he wrote me in an email.   Enjoy!

Small is Beautiful

I was inspired by the recent excellent and insightful articles by my fellow parishioners Peter Smith and Pam Smith (no relation) about the history and recent developments at our church of St. Alban’s in Rochester, NY to contribute an article of my own to the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog.  My purpose is not to discuss St. Albans per se further, but to reflect on my own experiences and conclusions about one aspect of our story that may be helpful to other Ordinariate groups and those in formation, namely the question of size and numbers.

There is a temptation to judge the church by earthly standards.  How many people attend?  How much money do you have?  Are your people the right kind and from the right class?  What kind of property do you have?  However, if we look at our Lord’s example, he did not fare very well in this kind of test.  Numbers?  There were twelve, with one betraying him, followed by an abrupt attrition in attendance at the crucifixion.  Money? Not much. The right kind of people?  His disciples were a rather mixed lot.  Not a one of them from high society.  Where did Jesus worship and teach?  In the temple of Jerusalem, in people’s homes, in the fields and in the roads, or wherever he could find.

So, when we come to our own experience of starting an Ordinariate group, or really any kind of church, we must resist the temptation to judge our success by these earthly metrics.  Our success must be judged by heavenly standards, that of a soul’s relationship to God.  Indeed, the atom of the church is a single soul, and our relationship to God and his church, while having a corporate element is also a very personal one.

Reflecting on my own experience of attending church at different places during the course of my life and in different places around the world, I am struck that the places that made the most impact in my life were not the large, booming, churches with thousands of families and lots of money, but the small church often meeting in humble conditions, with a few faithful people that were devoted to the place.  No doubt a large part of this is my own personality and religious education and experiences.  I was raised in an Anglo-Catholic church in Texas and had an early intuitive experience of heavenly transcendent worship that never left me. That spiritual meat made everything else look rather sparse: there simply is not much there in most church services, regardless of the setting. I feel much more at home attending Divine Liturgy with Romanian Orthodox meeting in a rented industrial facility in the Paris suburbs than I do at my neighborhood suburban Catholic parish.  Or as another example, if I think of my time in Geneva, Switzerland, I was much more at home with the small traditional Latin mass community with young families that set up and took down their worship space every Sunday in a borrowed church than I was with the English speaking Catholic community of mostly American expats.  I think much of it has to do with the ability to pray in the liturgy and our connection to God, as well as the connection and relationship to the people around us in the mystical body.  It is my experience that this is hard to do well on a large scale.

Concerning the development of St. Albans and our experience of the Ordinariate, the days of offering mass faithfully with a few people at a small neglected Catholic chapel were very blessed times for me.  Hard, but maybe that is why they were blessed.  That experience also resulted in spiritual growth and maturity.  St. Albans is now different and larger, thanks in no small part to the visionary leadership, good work, and Catholic teaching of Fr. Simington, and while growth is good, the smallness of the early years created intimacy that resulted in very close friendships forged by adversity and a passionate commitment to building our church to exemplify the true, the good, and the beautiful.  This was for the simple reason – for me at least – that we had something very important and precious to carry on and live out in our lives.

Sometimes people ask why we go through so much trouble to build a new church, while there are so many other Catholic churches around that are well established.  My view is that this question is wrong minded.  My reaction to this question is similar to if I told someone that I wanted to open a new restaurant that featured my grandmother’s best recipes and the reaction was to wonder why, when there is a perfectly serviceable McDonalds down the road.  Now I can understand this reaction in a way.  Many people like McDonalds.  They serve “billions and billions”, and how can billions be wrong?  But what if I don’t particularly like McDonalds, and think my grandmother’s recipes are much better?  Am I foolish for opening the restaurant anyway?  What if more people still go to McDonalds than my restaurant? These utilitarian questions do not yet get at the questions of history, culture, art and identity that are also at the heart of the matter.

This simple example illustrates a larger point, which is why does anyone start anything?  It is because of vision, passion, belief, conviction, and determination to make something excellent and needed in this world.  All living things must have a beginning.  They start small, and grow by God’s grace.  As part of the Catholic Church initiated by our beloved Pope Benedict XVI, we ask God’s blessing and protection.  In the case of starting a new Ordinariate mission, I want to encourage any readers that are considering this to do it.  Do not be deterred by your adversaries no matter where they come from – anything important you do will be opposed by someone. No one will care if you do inconsequential things.  I have no doubt that the starting of our Ordinariate group is one of the most important things I have done, and certainly the most difficult among my accomplishments.  The experience has been a formative one in my life, and has resulted in many spiritual blessings.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Small is beautiful—more on St. Alban’s

  1. I completely understand and sympathize with Andrew Jordan’s sentiments. Small doesn’t mean tiny, though, not so tiny that a community can’t support itself, not so tiny that it must forever borrow space from neighboring Catholic parishes.

    I remember vividly the years (and years) when Father would show us the light bill and tell us that Texas Electric was going to shut us off if we didn’t pay up by Thursday — and many of us were already giving sacrificially to make sure that our priest and his family could buy groceries! But we all contributed in non-monetary ways, as well — mowing the lawn, clearing away the cups & saucers after coffee hour, decorating the church at high holy seasons, etc. Time and talent are as valuable as treasure — and, in some ways, more valuable.

    We need to find ways to grow enough to achieve stability, while maintaining that sense of family, where all are valued members and all are asked (and expected) to pitch in and participate, according to their abilities. Integrating service — to the parish as well as to the larger community — is another of the things that seems to mark the Anglo-Catholic ethos historically and that I think should be a part of our Ordinariate life as well.

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    • I agree that “small” should not mean “tiny” — but many things start small and grow large just like a towering oak tree starts as an acorn. Living in space borrowed from a diocesan parish is okay, albeit not optimal, for a new ordinariate community, but it should not be the end game.

      Here, the celebration of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord last Sunday is instructive. It’s no accident that, in all four gospels, our Lord’s baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry. This says something very profound about the significance of the sacrament of baptism and the responsibilities that we incur by receiving it. It is not solely the province of the clergy to work to build up the Body of Christ, but rather the province of all of us who are baptized. If we all do our part under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a community of worship will not remain tiny.

      Norm.

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