Saturday, March 26, 2016

An Especially Good Friday

Not even sky-high pollen counts could keep this Episcopalian away from Good Friday services.  St. James', Marietta, GA did it right:  nave stripped of candles, vestments, and cushions; silent prayers and somber readings from Isaiah and John; slow procession with a human-sized cross during recitation of the reproaches; chanting of tunes, from ancient tones to the rich spiritual that asks "Were you there?" with the answer implied: "It causes me to tremble."  We left in darkness, our tower bell tolling thirty three times for Jesus.

Yet every Good Friday for me is a return to what I experienced at St. James' in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1982.   [Photo; Good Friday, St. James' Jackson] To borrow an image from an Anglican novel I read at the time, Robertson Davies' The Rebel Angels, the Episcopal church "is not a river to be fished, it's an ocean in which to bathe, and give [ourselves] up to the tides and currents" (Davies 62).

Davies' character was talking about a university education, but I can identify with the idea of full immersion Episcopalianism.  That's what I experienced for the first time that Good Friday.

Since Palm Sunday, I'd been at church nearly every day for a week by the time Good Friday came around. Singing in the choir, I was stunned to silence by our rector Charles Kiblinger's tight-lipped efficiency stripping the altar at the end of the Maundy Thursday service.  For the next day's noon service, two upper-middle-aged tenors McCarrell Ayers and Joe Powell, Sr. took turns singing the words of the Lord in Vittoria's setting of the Reproaches:
I did open the sea before thee: and thou has opened my side with a spear.... I did give thee to drink the water of life from the rock: and thou has given me to drink but gall and vinegar....  I did raise thee on high with great power: and thou has hanged me upon the gibbet of the Cross.
We sang the refrain, "O My people, what have I done unto thee?  Or wherein have I wearied thee? Testify against me," and, in Greek, "have mercy on us." I remember the soloists' distinctive voices to this day, with the emotion of that Renaissance piece.

Joe and his wife Linda invited me after the service to a restaurant at "The Quarter," several cuts above the usual fast food I could afford in those days early in my teaching career.  While we laughed and had serious conversation with our wine, outside were torrential rain, black sky, and thunder that shook the skylight.  I'd taught the Powells' daughter Emily, and I sang with Joe in choir; but my parents were hundreds of miles away, and the Powells took care of me for years.  Joe got me involved in Education for Ministry, a four-year theology extension program of The University of the South; Linda broadened my idea of "religious" literature to include Davies, Updike, and agnostic Iris Murdoch.  Linda covered her refrigerator with cartoons and quips, including one to the effect that true evangelism is to live one's life in such a way that anyone seeing you must believe in miracles.  Linda's own family wrote about her better than I could do in their tribute after her death in 2013:
She will be remembered for her formidable intellect, wit, and devotion. She lived her faith by being part of the daily life of so many people over the course of her 80 years, making each of those lives richer and better. Friends will miss a seat at her table with a full pot of tea, a view of the tranquil setting of her home she tended so lovingly, and her, perched eagerly waiting to listen with care and good counsel. (See more at:
Neither Joe nor Linda, nor the rector, nor anyone else I knew well at St. James' had been "cradle Episcopalians."  This was a peculiarity of the church in Jackson, where Bishop Duncan Grey Sr. had made a stand against racial segregation long before the rest of the state was forced to fall in line.  Joe and Linda, along with my principal Dorothy Kitchings, had lent their names to a public letter against segregation; for their stand, Joe and Linda had literally been kicked down the stairs of their Methodist church. 

The Powells, always challenging but never judgmental, showed me first, and best, that being religious didn't have to do with correct belief.

Now, thirty-four years later, the Episcopal church is for me a presence the way ocean is for a coastal town.  No, I don't go "fishing" for particular doctrines or beliefs.  Rather, the church envelopes my life with music grown familiar over decades, stories continued day by day across the years, beliefs enacted in rituals week-by-week, liturgical seasons, fiction and essays growing out of the tradition, and, always present in memory as an ocean's waves are present in sound, the Powells' hospitality.  

Davies, Robertson.  The Rebel Angels.  New York: Viking Press, 1981.  See my other blogposts about Robertson Davies' works.

St. James' Episcopal Church. Facebook page

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