Means of Grace, Hope of Glory


The "People's Procession" to Communion

Given the centrality of the Eucharist in our lives—and in our parishes—I’ve been reflecting on a basic question: how do folks get from the pews to the altar for communion, and what are the formation implications in how that happens?  In my experience, this one issue—which can seem sort of trivial on the surface—gets at a whole host of assumptions about dependency, competence, and formation.

There are parishes where, as soon as the celebrant says the words, “The Gifts of God for the People of God,” (or similar words of invitation) the people head to wherever they need to go to receive communion.  The ministers of the altar will be receiving communion themselves and finishing up a few things, but the congregation is nonetheless moving forward simultaneous with these activities.  It is clear that the process is understood and owned by the congregation.

There are other parishes where this procession to communion is mostly orchestrated by the “usher” team and the timing and flow is dependent on how the ushers direct those in the pews.  This may be relatively low-key, or it may involve significant directions and usher involvement (also referred to as “the block-and-tackle”).  

Sometimes, if the usher team is new or missing a member, the cues to the congregation won’t happen and there will be a delay in parishioners heading up to the altar.  Heads turn, there is quizzical raising of eyebrows, and a sense of confusion and hesitancy reigns until someone takes charge and lets people know what to do.  You may also see variations Sunday to Sunday, depending on who is filling the usher role.  The underlying theme, though, is consistent: moving forward to communion is properly controlled by the ushers and is not a job that can be reasonably left to the judgment of the members. Just imagine the chaos that could be unleashed!  (Note: I don’t blame or criticize the ushers for this.  It’s a parish-system issue and ushers are just doing their jobs.  It is in turn the job of the clergy and other leaders to pay attention to the health of the system overall, including thinking through the component parts.) 

In my day job I enforce compliance with regulations, so let’s take a look at what the Prayer Book has to say about this, shall we?  It specifies that the priest is to receive communion “while the people are coming forward.”  Another instruction says that the “ministers are to receive the Sacrament in both kinds, and then immediately deliver it to the people.”  Simple enough, but in most cases the functioning of the ushers acts to delay the people coming forward. 

In general, I think it’s important to pay attention to the rubrics, but in this situation there’s a reason that goes way beyond tradition or rigidity and speaks to something important and powerful in the experience of worship.  When we assume members of the congregation can get to communion on their own, we encourage them to be more actively involved in the liturgy and to take ownership of their participation.  We provide a real-life place of responsibility for our own spiritual lives.

So why the differences in the way parishes handle this?  Why do some manage going up to communion without any need for “staff” and in others it seems that no one would move at all if they weren’t prodded?  

My guess is that there are three basic reasons: One is that parishes where the members simply go up on their own have a high degree of competence with participation in the Eucharist. They are used to owning their participation and they understand the basic rhythms and content of the service.  The clergy in these parishes encourage that sense of ownership by intentionally building competence and by refraining from behaviors that reinforce dependency.  They don’t give instructions in general and they don’t give these instructions specifically. 

(A side note on this: Bob Gallagher and I recently visited a parish in Georgia where the congregation was small, made up mostly of retirees, and clearly populated with long-term Episcopalians.  They were quite welcoming, had a clear service leaflet that provided enough information for visitors and members alike, and the service would have been surprisingly good except for the constant stream of directions from the priest.  Really. Page numbers, introductory explanations to liturgical acts, stand up, sit down, kneel, share your toys, don’t eat snack until everyone has some—you get the drift.  Interestingly, though, there were no ushers and absolutely no instructions about coming up to communion.  The congregation just did it.  Despite this obvious competence, however, the priest mentioned that he is actively recruiting ushers! It was clear that once he has them, they will be used to direct and control the communion procession.  Argh!  Back to the three reasons…)

The second reason is our mental models.  The use of the word “usher” itself implies a certain gate-keeping function.  At the opera, the usher is there to help you find your seat, make sure you don’t sneak into the better seats, to shush you if you’re talking, and perhaps prevent your entry if you arrive late.  This image of the role doesn’t help much in the parish church and may lead to some underlying confusion about the degree of control to be exercised.  In fact, in the parish, what we often call an usher is really a greeter and a facilitator of entry—and “Greeter” is probably a more accurate title.  Yet, simply changing the title without helping people understand the differences in function—and how they should actually behave differently in the two roles—doesn’t do much good. 

The third reason is that nobody suggests we do it another way.  It simply doesn’t occur to those involved in the ministry to think about the consequences of control and direction at this critical point in our worship.  Clergy may assume that they will hurt people’s feelings if they bring it up, that there’s not a useful alternative to “the way we’ve always done it,” or that there’s simply no practical and effective way to help the parishioners and greeters learn a new way. 

I’d like to offer some alternatives, as well as a way to think about this as an aspect of spiritual growth.

First, how do we best greet people and facilitate entry?  Certainly we want to be helpful and friendly.  Much of that takes place before the service even begins as we make sure parishioners and visitors have service leaflets, know how to get to the restrooms, where to go if they’re interested in church school, and generally assist with mobility concerns.  This requires some broader prep work that will go beyond the specific duties of the greeters.  It is a worthy area to spend some time on with both the clergy and a cross section of parishioners.

Second, do we have adequate signage?  Is it clear how to access the elevator or ramp?  Where the restrooms are? 

Third, do our service leaflets themselves give enough information, such as page numbers, a description of the materials used (e.g., spelling out Book of Common Prayer, and maybe indicating the color of prayer book versus the hymnal), and an invitation to relax and rely on the rest of the congregation if you’re not familiar with the traditions of the Episcopal Church[1]?  

With communion specifically, is there enough information in the service leaflet so that those who are new will have a good sense of how it works?  A simple notation that the people move forward at the invitation is usually enough.  Most of the time, visitors don’t sit in the very front pews, so they can safely rely on cues from others and follow along. 

If the parish needs to direct traffic flow in a particular way, again a basic indication of that in the service leaflet may suffice.  For example, the following could be written at the appropriate point in the service leaflet: “Please approach the altar from the center aisle and return through the doors on the left and right of the altar, returning to your pew by the side aisles.”  Again, most people will be able to get the gist from watching others. 

Another practical issue is that it may happen that some folks are not moving forward to the altar.  This could be because they don’t receive communion, because it will be brought down to them later, or because they weren’t certain about what to do.  In any event, those behind should simply move forward without waiting any longer.  Those in front will be able to catch up, if that’s what they need to do.

Greeters can be coached in a relatively brief session and the process can be reframed.  The rector can make some simple announcements over a few weeks letting people know that the parish is changing the way it handles the procession to communion.  Those who sit right up front can be invited to help with the transition by moving forward promptly, thereby signaling those behind them by example. 

Beyond these issues, though, I want to suggest that making this change is an important act of spiritual formation.  In developing our own spiritual lives, we need to know how to participate in our central practices.  We are a Eucharistic people, a Eucharistic community, and if we are cajoled, controlled, or otherwise minutely instructed about the primary act of our communal worship, we are receiving implicit, unintended, messages about our capacity to be responsible for our spiritual lives. 

There is a major disconnect between the celebrant’s joyful invitation to the altar and the subsequent instruction to sit back down and wait your turn.   Watching people head up one-by-one reminds me somehow of the group inoculations I was subjected to as a kid—we’d hang out en masse in the school gym, and then we’d each get our shot in the arm when our name was called.  To me, the inoculation image runs directly counter to the power of the Eucharistic prayer that asks that we “be delivered from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.” 

Howard Galley, in his book, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist, writes: "The approach of the people is properly understood as a kind of procession: those in the front of the church going forward first, followed by those in the seats behind them in a steady stream.  It is far better that there should be many people waiting in the aisle than to create the impression that the communicants are approaching in 'groups' or 'blocks' of individuals."

Our participation in communion should emphasize the congregation as representative of the Body of Christ, and also speak to our eagerness to participate in the Sacrament—the people's procession, spilling out into the aisles on our own volition, active participants in the liturgy.  The difference in energy is extraordinary.  The aisles full, the Body of Christ together in all its divergent parts, a profound physical expression of what Robert Webber described as the meaning of sacrament in its broadest sense: “…everything in life points to the center, to Christ the Creator and Redeemer in whom all things—visible and invisible—find their meaning.” 

Michelle Heyne

Handout for congregation

Instructions to ushers/greeters


 A List of All Postings

[1] See, for example, St. Paul’s K Street, in Washington, D.C. The parish is known for its beautiful Anglo-Catholic style of worship.  The parish is careful to preserve the dignity and integrity of the liturgy by not cutting across it with extraneous instructions, but it is also careful to be welcoming and affirming of those who aren’t yet familiar with their worship.  Their service leaflet says something about allowing yourself to be carried in worship by others.  


The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life: Part Two - From Hostility to Hospitality

 The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life: Part Two - From Hostility to Hospitality

            The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

            Part One: From Loneliness to Solitude

    Part Three: From Illusion to Prayer

Parish life includes this underlying, very visible, though usually unacknowledged dance. It’s a movement from hostility to hospitality. As individuals and as a parish community we move back and forth along that line, moving into generosity and warmth which is then reversed as we give way to moments of antagonism and resentment. And then, again, by grace, we dance toward hospitality.

I was the very part-time vicar of St. Andrew’s, Trenton during the 90’s.[i] Over time that parish developed two distinct congregations. One was an 8:00 am Eucharistic community – a traditional liturgy, Rite One, done in the part of the space where there were still pews. They were white, the descendents of people who came from England 100 years before to work in the pottery factories. They were older (well, younger than I am now but older!).

The other was at 9:30. It took for itself the name The Community of Julian of Norwich—it was a liturgy that began in one part of the church gathered in a circle for readings and a shared sermon, and then moved in a communal liturgical dance around the altar for the Great Thanksgiving. There was incense, lots of silence, occasional jazz masses, along with a common commitment to the arts and the city. The community self-managed[ii] its life with working groups and occasional meetings of the entire community. This congregation was more diverse in some ways than the 8:00—black and white, gay and straight, younger and older.


In that strange and wonderful parish people did find their deepest self and they did find community with one another. It was a foretaste of the kingdom described by John Macquarrie, “The end … would be a commonwealth of free, responsible beings united in love.” In the past couple of years several of them have been in contact to express how that time together shaped their lives. One member wrote years later as she was affirming her participation in another Episcopal parish church, “I have always dreamed of one day finding myself in a community like that of St. Andrew's. Our God is an amazing God who joys in fulfilling our deepest wishes for ourselves. Because these wishes will always result in our being and becoming within Christian community, a baptized community of the beloved, who are blessed, called and empowered to serve countless others in a broken world.”[iii]

The pathway into that life came by way of what Nouwen is getting at when he writes of the need for both receptivity and confrontation. 

Receptivity without confrontation leads to a bland neutrality that serves nobody. Confrontation without receptivity leads to an oppressive aggression which hurts everybody.

Scene One - Margaret had been in the parish for several months. We began to learn that she was something of a fundamentalist. It would come out during the shared sermon times and at coffee hour.

One day before Mass she came up to me.  She wanted me to speak with Edd and Alan. She was disturbed by their behavior. They often held hands during the liturgy and on occasion at the Peace would exchange a kiss. She wasn’t against gay people being in the parish but she didn’t want to have to see them expressing it in public.

I listened, asked a few questions, and said something along the lines of, “I’m glad you’re part of the parish, Margaret. And I don’t think I’ll be saying anything about this to Edd and Alan.” So, I didn’t do anything about that.

Scene Two - Edd and Alan would attend the 8:00 Mass when they were taking a trip on Sunday. In that congregation people did not exchange the Kiss of Peace with any physical contact—no handshaking, and certainly no hugging. The reverse was true at 9:30.

After a couple of times at the 8:00 mass Edd and Alan came to me and wanted me to do something—“there should be at least handshaking.” In fact why didn’t we have coffee hour between the two liturgies so the 8:00 people could get to know the 9:00 people? Maybe they would find themselves coming to 9:30 instead of continuing in this cold, distant behavior.

I didn’t do anything about that either.

Scene Three - One Sunday at 8:00 Edd and Alan were present; they were going to the beach for the day. A Black woman came in. There had never been a Black person at 8:00 in my memory. After mass she told the group that she was in town to care for her sister, now in St. Francis Hospital for surgery.

As we came to the Peace I said the usually words, “May the Peace of the Lord be always with you.” And the congregation responded, “And also with you.” And then the visiting African American woman reached out her hand to Jane—at which point all movement in heaven and earth ceased. And then, after just the slightest hesitation, Jane reached back, taking the woman’s hand and enfolding it with her left hand. And then everyone exchanged the Peace with handshakes.

Receptivity without confrontation leads to a bland neutrality that serves nobody. Confrontation without receptivity leads to an oppressive aggression which hurts everybody.

The 8 o'clock community never again exchanged the peace in a physical way.

It wasn’t the touching that mattered; in itself that’s not more hospitable and more open. It was the willingness to go beyond what was comfortable; to not go into a place of hostility because their routine was being disrupted, but in that moment be generous and receptive, accepting and kind.  An act of sensitivity and openness toward the stranger.

It was a small movement toward hospitality; a movement of choosing hospitality over hostility.

Margaret who so much wanted Edd and Alan to be different finally left the parish seeking another place.  Later I learned that we had been the eighth parish in the region she had tried out.

The free and open space we seek is not bland neutrality or oppressive aggression; rather it is openness and boundaries, acceptance and challenge, receptivity and confrontation. God brings us to fullness of life by a mixture of grace and judgment.

I have been the trainer in many workshops using a lab education method of learning.  The process in lab learning is one of learning from the experience of the individual and the group. The methods used are feedback about the impact of your behavior on others and a disciplined reflection on experience.  We mix in a bit of theory and some coaching by the trainers.

One of the theories sometimes used as a lens to help participants see patterns in the group is Will Schutz’s I-C-O Group Development Model.[iv]  Among the issues all groups live with are inclusion, control, and openness.

Here’s one way of understanding the model. The movement is from bottom to top (start with inclusion).



Am I?


Group Development


Underlying feeling







How open will I be? How close can I get?


Likeability, lovability


Being rejected. Being unlikable, unlovable














How much influence, power and responsibility will I have? Issues of leadership and decision-making processes.




Being humiliated, embarrassed. Being incompetent, phony














Inclusion compatibility is central in the early stage. How will I fit in this group?




Being ignored. Being insignificant, worthless


Adequate resolution of an issue allows the group to attend to the next stage up. Note, the word is “adequate” not “compete” or “perfect.” To the extent inclusion is addressed that allows a certain degree of the control issue to be addressed.  As inclusion grows the group’s capacity for handling control grows. To the extent there is resolution the group may move to deal effectively with the next stage up issues. Resolutions are all temporary.

I assume you see the relationship between the work of Nouwen and Schultz, especially in regard to how inclusion issues are connected with loneliness and solitude.

What I’ve noticed again and again is that expressions of hostility in labs, especially early in the experience, seem rooted in the person’s own loneliness and difficulty with solitude. Often the person can’t acknowledge, and may not even see, their hostility as hostility.

When explored what sometimes comes to the surface is anger and blame. At times it is set-off by having been required to attend the program. In almost all cases there is an unwillingness to accept the culture of the learning group. Frequently there is a history to the stance; the person has experienced something familiar to this again and again. They often remain convinced that the experience is grounded not in themselves but in the ways of others.

Early attempts to influence, another word for “control” in this context, the direction and ways of doing things may be made. In my experience they never get anywhere. I’ve never seen a time when the training staff had to protect the lab way of doing things; the group took care of it. The participant was jumping to an attempt to control things before there was an adequate degree of resolution to the inclusion issue.

Groups with a reasonable amount of emotional intelligence usually ignore the attempt at control and any overt hostility that comes along with it. The attempt is greeted with a lack of response. In time what usually cuts through things is either a series of self disclosures in which people end up introducing themselves to the group with a mix of appropriate emotional openness and stories about what they have left behind in order to be present this week or someone boldly entering into the experience by requesting feedback on what people have experienced of them in just the first part of the workshop. Which is to say that what happens that “works” is something that fits the workshop’s culture, the lab’s way of being and doing things.

It’s the same in all parishes, groups and organizations. They all have ways of being and doing; ways in which people get to include themselves and exercise influence. They all have ways that will “work” to move toward hospitality and away from hostility.

Hostility brings with it a kind of blindness. The person or group misses their own desire for unity and experience of alienation; they don’t see the actual choices in front of them.  They lack a sense of awe and wonder; they can’t acknowledge their feelings of lostness, loneliness and hostility; and they are unable to be still and silent in a gentle and reflective manner. Instead they get caught up blaming and anger, in resentments and fear. Their intellect, which may be considerable, is used in the service of defense and separation rather than figuring out how in this particular setting they might include themselves in this specific human community.

And then, sometimes it happens, with hesitation or confidence, the person steps into the dance. It may be graceful or awkward but there they are doing a new thing. They have heard and seen something that draws them forward into the place of communion.

The free and open space we seek is not bland neutrality or oppressive aggression; rather it is openness and boundaries, acceptance and challenge, receptivity and confrontation. God brings us to fullness of life by a mixture of grace and judgment. 


 A handout on the movement from hostility to hospitality


A List of All Postings

[i] It’s now a Nigerian parish in the Diocese of NJ. Back then I was a Sunday plus vicar making my living by consulting with non-profit groups: affordable housing, social services, women’s shelters, performing arts.

[ii] As in almost all organizations using self-management structures the degree and form of self-management was interdependent with accountability to the traditions and norms of the wider church, focused in the vicar, and responsiveness to the vision and culture of the congregation, as focused in congregational meetings.

[iii] Nanette Woodworth also wrote, “I completed my degree at Union Theological Seminary in 1998, …That was a fruitful spring! I became a member of the Community of Julian of Norwich at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in 1993. This was something that surprised everyone in my family! However, I found something at St. Andrew's that I needed at this very demanding time of my life...a small church community that did not ask more from me than I could give; a focus on the spirituality of Julian; inclusive language; alternative jazz worship; a diverse community that reflected my urban seminary community; and a deep sense of church as family with respect for the individuality of each brother and sister.”

[iv] The earlier version of the theory was I-C-A” Inclusion, Control, Affection. The FIRO B instrument is based on that model. For related articles. Also an paper “My Teammates are Driving Me Crazy"


the world itself begins to turn into renewal

The Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas sermon caught my attention this year.
Many parishes struggle with where to give their attention. We try to manage our fears and our passions. Parish sub-groups press their interest upon the whole wanting more people to attend their programs and more money to use. The budget is made by now, or not. The liturgies of Christmas Eve and Day were graceful and beautiful or tense and disappointing. 


Rowan Williams suggests that we -- "look at Jesus, who asks of us initially just to stop and reflect, to stay for a moment in the light" ... "That’s where faith begins, beyond the answers of a system, or the disciplines of a ritual, or the requirements of a moral code."  He affirms that all that has a place and they will all be worked out. But his starting place is the need for us to become more reflective. To gaze at the child.

Jesus does not come just to answer the questions we think important. (One of the great features of all the gospels, specially St John’s, is how often Jesus refuses to answer the question put to him and asks a question in reply.) He does not come to give us a set of techniques for keeping God happy; and he certainly doesn’t come to create a harmlessly eccentric hobby for speculative minds. He comes to make humanity itself new, to create fresh possibilities for being at peace with God and each other; and he does this by summoning us to be with him. ... Yet if – if we can let go of our conviction that our questions, our priorities and worries, achievements and failures aren’t after all the most important thing in the universe; if we find the freedom to stop and turn aside, then the world itself begins to turn into renewal. ‘O come, let us adore him’, says the carol. That adoration, that wondering gaze at the child in the manger, is where faith is born; and where faith is born, so is the new world of Jesus and his Spirit.


The full text is at -


It might be an interesting and rewarding piece of strategic work to help our parishes become just a bit more reflective in the coming year. To shape a critical mass more familiar with the ways of stillness and silence, listening and conversation.
Blessed Christmas



The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life: Part One - From Loneliness to Solitude

   The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life: Part One - From Loneliness to Solitude

      Reflections based on the work of Henri Nouwen in Reaching Out

             The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

             Part Two: From Hostility to Hospitality 

             Part Three: From Illusion to Prayer

In our loneliness we rage. Loneliness is a very self-absorbed, self-centered condition – one that all human beings know. In our loneliness we are resentful, angry, torn apart, in despair. And from the places of fear and confusion – we use one another in hurtful and cruel ways. Often we are unaware of what we have done (“Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”)

In our solitude we engage life from “A quite inner center” (Nouwen)

 Kenneth Leech makes the same point in Soul Friend,  

Prayer must involve the unifying of the personality, the integration of mind and heart into one center.... Without self discovery there can be no further progress. ‘In order to find God whom we can only find in and through the depths of our own soul, we must first find ourselves.’ Without self-knowledge our love remains superficial.”  


I am going to tell you about Father Paul Washington

I’ll begin by having his wife tell you --

When Christine met Paul Washington in 1946, she was a teenage church pianist and he was an Episcopal seminarian.

It wasn't love at first sight. She described it this way--

"I think it was respect and awe at first sight,"

"When you first met him, you were immediately impressed with his presence."



Henri Nouwen wrote …the solitude that really counts is the solitude of heart; it is an inner quality or attitude that does not depend on physical isolation…

That’s what I saw in Fr. Paul—a “solitude of the heart.” I along with many others was “immediately impressed with his presence.”  He appeared to be a person who knew who he was; who had, as much as one can, come to terms with an identity as a black man and an American. He was a priest and prophet.

With Fr. Washington’s leadership the Church of the Advocate became a center for the struggles for liberation and civil rights. There was an early relationship with CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and the church was the site of events such as the National Conference of Black Power (1968), the Black Panther Conference (1970) and the first ordination of women in the Episcopal Church (1974). He was a chaplain at Eastern State Penitentiary, served on the city’s Human Relations Commission and later on the MOVE Commission[i]. 

In Two Locations

When I think of him in more personal terms I have him in two locations—one is in the small upstairs room above the parish office and the other was in the pulpit.

In that small room he would smoke his pipe, read, write, and meet with people.

There was the time when he gathered the entire summer day camp staff up there. We crowded in, excited, black and white together; energized about our work with the children teaching them from some of the same materials being used that summer in the Mississippi Summer Freedom Schools; and looking forward to the times when some of us would go off to demonstrate with CORE for jobs and the enforcement of public accommodation laws in Philadelphia. It was all very heady stuff for us high school and college kids.

All I remember from what Fr. Washington said that day was this,

“By your presence you influence these children. By the expression on your face and the tone of your voice you shape how they feel about themselves. Everything you do, every word and every look, is experienced by them. I want you to be aware of that.”

From the large cathedral-like pulpit he stood above the congregation and preached of compassion and justice. He annoyed the more conservative doctors and teachers who would tell him how much his words disturbed their peace. And he bothered many of us because he would preach for 30 or 40 minutes if he felt called to do that.


I can’t recall anything he said from that pulpit but I do remember something he did. He was a few minutes into the sermon and he saw a young man grab the purse of a member and run for the door. Paul was out of the pulpit in a flash, in Eucharistic vestments, chasing the man onto Susquehanna Avenue.  Paul recalls yelling, “You better drop it, kid, because I’m going to catch you.” He returned to the church with purse in hand and continued the sermon.[ii]

It seems more important than ever to stress that solitude is one of the human capacities that can exist, be maintained and developed in the center of a big city, in the middle of a large crowd and in the context of a very active and productive life. –Nouwen

See the gospel reading[iii] -

Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others

 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?’ Jesus asked them, ‘How many loaves have you?’ They said, ‘Seven, and a few small fish.’       From - Matthew 15:29–39


Again -

It seems more important than ever to stress that solitude is one of the human capacities that can exist, be maintained and developed in the center of a big city, in the middle of a large crowd and in the context of a very active and productive life. A man or woman who has developed this solitude of heart is no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but is able to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center. - Nouwen


Fr. Dave Gracie retells a story[iv] about Paul Washington that he heard from Tom Cronin, a Philadelphia labor union leader. He and Paul where in a demonstration for the homeless that lead to their arrest.

After sitting down on the sidewalk around City Hall they were arrested for disorderly conduct and placed in a police wagon. I remember growing up in that city when we still called them “Paddy Wagons.”[v] They were to be transported to police headquarters to be booked.

Cronin said, “It was a very hot day, and the first thing we noticed was that the ventilator on top of the wagon was not working. They kept piling people in until we were simply jammed up against each other.  Cronin goes on to describe how they tried to get the police officers attention by pounding on the side of the van and gesturing. The police response was to laugh at them. This went on for half an hour and those in the van felt panic coming on. “We worried most about one of our number who was ill—a person with AIDS. Father Washington looked frail, too; he was obviously struggling to breath.”

When they started moving the driver would hit the breaks at each stop in a way that banged people up against each other. He goes on, “We knew our destination and understood the arrest process, so when we arrived we expected to be let out immediately. That was not to be. It was another fifteen minutes in the van (about an hour, all told) before anyone opened the back doors. When they did, our friend with AIDS, who was jammed up against those doors, simply dropped out. A policeman stuck his head in the opening and said: ‘We understand Father Paul Washington is in there. He can come out.’ ‘Not until everybody comes out,’ said Paul. Then we were all released.”

From a place of solitude Fr. Paul was able to bear his own suffering and express hospitality through solidarity with his companions. 


Parish Oversight and Solitude

Father Paul describes himself as going through a time when he “was deeply troubled.” He connected it with the decrease in attendance at the Advocate, a decrease he attributed to his advocating racial unity among black people and his involvement with people and movements some in the parish were uncomfortable about.

From the description he offers I think he was struggling with these poles of loneliness and solitude. He had to think and pray things through. He had to find his own comfort. 


Any authentic priesthood must derive from an inner core of silence, a life hid with Christ in God ...Only those who are at home with silence and darkness will be able to survive in, and minister to, the perplexity and confusion of the modern world.  Kenneth Leech, during the 1988 retreat of the Order of the Ascension.



Every priest, in fact every Christian, engages the world from whatever capacity for inner silence they have come to in life. We all have some capacity. I think Paul had more than most. “Our ability to be reflective depends on nurturing the inner life, on creating internal stillness and thereby a capacity to listen.”[vi]

In this case he seems to have found a place to stand in two ways; both connected with the fact that he was touching the lives of people—“often angry, indignant, hurting people.” He came to see that what he was doing was the church’s ministry—“good tidings to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, the opening of prison to those who are bound.”  And he saw the difference between a focus on the “congregation” and a focus on the parish. When asked “How big is your congregation?” he responded, “Well, only about a hundred congregate at the Advocate at 11:00 on Sundays, but during the week we have a congregation of about 1,500.” 

The oversight ministry of a parish church has the priest taking into account three interrelated elements: the congregation, those vicariously connected, and the property.[vii] The congregation and the building are a stable and relentless demand system. Clergy have been known to become resentful toward one or both of them. I can see that temptation in Fr. Washington’s work. But he never quite gives way to it; not in the full-blown manner I’ve seen in others. Paul keeps dealing with the congregation and its lay leadership in a respectful and compassionate fashion. And even though the massive buildings of the Advocate were a concern from early in his 25 years there, he learns how to use the space to good purpose and finally as he nears retirement he faces into the need for a massive fund raising effort to deal with the property.


There is no right way for a rector to balance the three elements. The needs we face will mix with the opportunities available; a formula that will change over the years. Each priest will come at it somewhat differently according to their own solitude. 

Dealing with these three elements in a productive way involves a mix of virtue and emotional intelligence. Virtue in the sense that patience and courage were called for; emotional intelligence in his self-awareness, ability to manage his moods and emotions, his empathy for others, and his ability to build relationships and bring people along in a difficult journey.

A task for the parish priest is to accept responsibility for his or her inner life and for developing that capacity.


The Parish Church

Parishes exist in the space between loneliness and solitude. Some are fragile communities of loneliness. Others are stable communities grounded in solitude. Many drift between the poles with limited awareness of their condition, no vision about what’s possible, and lacking in the skills and knowledge needed to shape a new and better future.

Parishes of loneliness have an investment in their dependence and sentimental orientation. They seek immediate and short-term gratification at the expense of long term and wise stewardship. For them the parish exists to save us from our loneliness; “togetherness” is the solution to our confusion and our emptiness.

Parishes of solitude have an ability to listen to one another even when what is said brings uncomfortable feelings; to be still and silent both in worship and in meetings; and to allow space and time for people of differing temperaments.

To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. - Nouwen

Parishes of solitude have leadership that advances and protects space for silence, stillness and listening. They nurture the baptismal identity and life -- "An inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works" – by the climate established, the guidance offered, and programs to equip members for Christian proficiency.

I think that what eventually emerged at the Church of the Advocate was a community of solitude that offered hospitality to, and solidarity with, marginalized and oppressed people, and was grounded in deep prayer and reality.

When Nouwen writes about the movement from illusion to prayer (which causes me to think of a movement from illusion to “ultimate reality” which is prayer as relationship, prayer in the company of the Blessed Trinity, the whole company of heaven and the communion of saints) he says, “To the degree that our prayer has become the prayer of our heart we will love more and suffer more, we will see more light and more darkness, more grace and more sin, more of God and more of humanity.”

Along the way Fr. Washington saw many members of the parish leave, unable to be part of what was emerging. In the world of hypothetical options he might have chosen to shape the parish as a community of renewal and support for those teachers and attorneys and others many of whom were relatively well off. I’m sure that parish would still have served many who struggled to survive. And in one sense such a parish would have its own integrity. Nothing wrong with that. Except for one thing; in his solitude Fr. Paul came to believe that God wanted something else.


Two things to consider

How can each of us “find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude?”


How can this parish shape its life—its ways of being and doing—so that people are invited into and support in, that journey?




A handout on the movement from loneliness to solitude 

 A List of All Postings

[i] The Commission was established by Mayor Wilson Goode after a confrontation  between the police and MOVE, a Black liberation group. The Commission’s report condemned the city government’s actions—“Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.”

[ii] This differs slightly from Paul Washington’s own recollection in his book. It’s what I was told later that week. It embedded itself in my memory so clearly that as I wrote this it took me some time to realize that it was something I was told and that I hadn’t been there at the time. Even now as I write these words I’m still not sure that I wasn’t standing there when he returned with that purse feeling stunned and speechless.

[iii] Wednesday of 2 Advent

[iv] David Gracie in the introduction to Other Sheep I Have: The Autobiography of Father Paul M. Washington, Temple University Press, 1994.

[v] Paddy Wagons obviously have to do with a usually derogatory term for the Irish. Some say it comes from there being so many Irish on the city police forces through much of the 20th Century, others suggest it was related to the high crime level among Irish immigrants, and still others say it was from “P.D. Wagon” which was turned into “paddy wagon.”

[vi] “Reflection—Inner Stillness and Silence Allowing Deep Listening” Chapter 4, In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practice, Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2011

[vii] See an earlier posting from October 30 The Parish Church: worship, building up the living, and remembering the dead



What can a parish church do?

When faced with events such as the Sandy Hook shootings, what can a parish church do?

The first responses are rather obvious – if you’re the parish in that town you comfort the afflicted, you bury the dead, you grieve with those who grieve.  If you are someplace else, you show solidarity, you change the sermon you had planned, you listen to the anxious, and you sing the names of the departed in the Prayers of the People.

And we cry.

And what about after the first responses? What then? 

Three thoughts:

1. A parish can encourage conversation.

Part of that needs to be encouraging the public discussion about guns.

I’ve never owned a gun. I did handle rifles when in the Scouts and during my brief stay with the USMC. I remember that the trainers at Camp Hart B.S.A. were from the NRA. They focused on safety. Nice guys.

I lived in Philadelphia for the first half of my life. I recall Uncle Dick coming by our house in his police car and showing us a machine gun. I think my parents had a handgun in their dresser. It came from an inheritance. There were no bullets in the house. I think they didn’t know what to do with the thing.

Living in Philadelphia and later in NYC and Trenton, I knew about the damage guns could do. I recall burying the son of a parishioner killed by someone with a handgun. When I was a parish vicar in South Philadelphia there was a man who interrupted a meeting with a handgun. I'm slightly embarrassed to say that when he announced that he was going to kill himself I felt relieved.  I told him he wasn't allowed to do that in a church. He bought that and walked out. I saw him hanging out at Broad and Snyder the following week. 

I’ve been around people who hunt—there were a few of the fathers on Augusta Street when I was a kid, there were people in Connecticut and Maine when I lived in those states.  I never had any interest in hunting myself. My father seemed repelled by hunting but had close friends who did hunt. I think his reaction had something to do with his service in the Philippines during WWII.

I think that’s the extent of my personal relationship with guns. I haven’t had my hands on a gun in 49 years. I have the typical knee-jerk left wing response to guns – control them, ban most of them. I don’t understand how anyone can support having weapons that can do this kind of damage.

While our conversations have to be informed by what we each make of the experiences we have had, they need to be more than that. What I think, feel and want aren't the only or even the primary considerations. Of course, I'm right about gun control (and a variety of other issues). The problem is that others think they're right, too.

A parish church can help the society by not starting out with a gun control stance. It’s too expected and too easily discounted when coming from us Episcopalians. If the point is to reinforce our self-righteousness I’m sure it will have that effect. But if what we want to do is both show our community a way to be in conversation about any difficult issue and make a contribution to this particular issue, we might be more faithful and more effective by inviting a more reflective conversation.

Events do sometimes break open the possibility of new ways of thinking.

Senator Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va) is a longtime gun rights advocate. It’s reported that he would be open to a discussion on restricting assault rifles. The Senator is reaching out to the NRA, saying that he wanted them "engaged in this dialogue" and that they "need to be at the table" to help craft a 'reasonable' solution." In an Associated Press report Manchin said, "This is bigger than just about guns." He added. "It's about how we treat people with mental illness, how we intervene, how we get them the care they need, how we protect our schools. It's just so sad."


There’s an interesting article posted on the New York Times website about the relationship between guns, individualism and our ability to have conversations. While it seems to be primarily about making a case for the need for some gun controls, it does come at the question in a unique manner. Thinking that moves beyond us yelling at each other might be useful. There was another one about young men and empathy. Both try to think about this in ways that may be useful to our hard hearts and very correct minds.

While we need to participate in such conversations in the broader society as citizens, and be willing to use the common language of citizenship, we may along the way offer something from our tradition’s wisdom. When I said the Office on Friday the words of the psalm became for me a mantra – “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? *and why are you so disquieted within me?”  I found myself stuck there, repeating the phrase, Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? *and why are you so disquieted within me?”

Later I read Ross Douthat, a Times columnist I love to disagree with, and found myself appreciating his speaking to this out of his Christian tradition.

In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains. That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.” In "The Loss of the Innocents," NYT April 15, 2012

Just how difficult it is to have the needed conversation can be seen in the comments after his article. Most move into their corner of the gun debate. Those not doing that want to make points about religion, for and against.

I know that I have mocked the idea that schools would be safer if teachers had guns. That’s still what I think, at least in the sense of what I’d vote for. But I paused for a moment when I heard that the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, and the psychologist, Mary Sherlach, tried to tackle the shooter. Just for a moment my mind opened to the thought, “What if they each had a gun?” That’s a conversation within me that needs to happen. I, and maybe we all, need a bit more openness to the complexity of this.

How can we begin to have real conversations in our parishes?


2. We can contribute to the conversation by saying what we know about the spiritual life of people.

That’s to say we can offer insight in a place where we have some expertise.

As an introvert (“the MBTI tells me so”) I am creeped out by the regular references to the shooters being “introverts.” In a day or so the stories may shift off that word and use “shy” or “a loner.” But really!!!

So, this isn’t entirely about defending myself and the 50% of us that score as an “I.”

The parish can in its preaching, pastoral care and education help people see that the issue isn't that these people are introverted or shy but that they were, in Henri Nouwen’s framework, consumed by, and resentful about, their loneliness.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll offer the promised first part of the exploration on Henri Nouwen’s “Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.”[i]  That will be on the movement from loneliness to solitude.

For now –

“The roots of loneliness are very deep and cannot be touched by optimistic advertisement, substitute love or social togetherness. They find their food in the suspicion that there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used.” - Nouwen

It’s not introversion but accumulated resentment and lack of emotional control that we face. Or as the Great Litany says,

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory,
and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want
of charity,
Good Lord, deliver us.

In our loneliness we rage. Loneliness is a very self-absorbed, self-centered condition – one that all human beings know. Nouwen suggests that, “To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude.”

The church knows something about these things.


3. We can take on the task of reshaping parish cultures where there is the illusion that the solution to loneliness is togetherness.

There’s a need to turn around our own tendency to approach the loneliness of people by togetherness instead of by solitude.

Many parishes seem driven by a superficial understanding of inclusion. People are pressed toward togetherness, and because we speak about the importance of diversity and uniqueness, we may think we have avoided the danger. That’s our illusion. 

Nouwen wrote, “Real openness to each other also means real closedness …When we do not protect with great care our own inner mystery, we will never be able to form community.” Can we shift our mental model so it contains more complexity, more paradox?

Most people in any parish are likely to be convinced that togetherness is the solution.  That’s not going to change. We are not going to preach people out of it.

People are in different places in the spiritual life. Not all will be apostolic in faith and practice. Any attempt to make it so damages the sacred dynamics of the Body. It also will nurture our own illusions about the perfect parish (and such illusions are grounded in loneliness and hostility).

However, that doesn’t mean we are to do the reverse and nurture the illusion of “togetherness as a solution.”

What parish leaders can do is shape the parish by nurturing a strong core of apostolic faith and practice and create a climate that nurtures solitude. We can do that without overwhelming those with little tolerance for it. Leaders can hold in mind several spiritual maps to help them navigate that work.

Specifics? I’d start with the obvious and simple. Real silence and stillness in each Eucharist. Not a lot, just some. Grace, beauty and flow in the Eucharist on the part of the congregation and those serving the liturgy at the altar and in music. An Advent Quiet Day even if only 4 attend. Maintaining a Christmas Eve Mass that happens late that night; suggesting that children might take a nap and attend, so they have this experience of liturgy that feeds solitude.

We can teach people, including children, the spiritual practice of silence and stillness. We can teach people, including children, the spiritual practice of reflection.[ii]  Of course children will only develop the competence they are capable of as children. It can’t be what it might be when they are 45 or 70 years old. But it’s something, it’s a beginning.

By its nature parish life and worship is an activity of togetherness. The art is to weave into the parish’s very external life moments that call us into solitude, that invite reflectiveness, and nurture the inner life.




A List of All Postings

[i]  Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen

[ii] Michelle Heyne and Bob Gallagher offer an approach on such practice in In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today's Christian Life  and In Your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practice  . See Chapter 4 in each