This past Wednesday, Doan and I gathered with some of the Anglo-Catholic clergymen of the diocese down in Atlantic City, not to gamble but to visit, honor, and mourn the closing of one of the great Anglo-Catholic parishes of the diocese, the Church of the Ascension. Ascension Atlantic City is a large place, large enough that Diocesan Convention used to be held there. The convention Mass must have been spectacular, having been said at an altar that wouldn’t even fit in our sanctuary, a massive block of marble.
More than a hundred years worth of stuff, sacred and profane, is and now increasingly was contained within her walls. We were there principly to get one last moment in that godly place, but also to salvage what we could of that stuff, objects given to the parish, much of it memorials to people lost or thankgivings made. Crosses, statues, paintings, books, tables, chairs, linens, vestments, silver, and marble; we packed three cars and one Ram 1500 full of the sacred and sentimental, a lot of it a bit worn by time and disuse, but all of it precious.
Ascension is closing for all manner of reasons, but in the end there’s just not enough people there to support the parish, haven’t been for a long time, and the building is literally falling down. At some places in the nave, you can see the outside through some accidental windows, holes right in the side of the brickwork. The bell tower is separating from the main building to the point that you can actually see it falling over.
All of this is incredibly heart-breaking; Doan had planned on taking lots of pictures of Ascension but didn’t take nearly as many as planned, such was the sadness that surrounded the place. That said, there was a strong, almost physical sense of God’s Presence in that place, despite the emptiness of her tabernacles.
St. Paul told us today in his second epistle to the Corinthians that this sense of God, even amidst things that are passing away, is there so that we do not lose heart. Paul reminds us that “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed everyday. For this slight momentary affliction,” he tells us, “is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
Fr. John Lock, the rector of my sponsoring parish, Trinity Church Red Bank, was published this week in the Living Church magazine, writing on the closure of so many church buildings. Fr. Lock noted “a certain glib reaction to these closures and departures that (he finds)to be increasingly unsettling.
The rhetoric often goes like this: God is using these departures and closures to remove from our grip the precious idols of our church buildings. God is casting down the images of what the Episcopal Church has been in order to rebuild it for its future. This line of argument appeals to some of the motifs of the Bible, and because of its religious language, it can sound rather convincing.”1
But this line of argument, as Fr. Lock notes, is to take the words of St. Paul and twist them, to make the things that are seen not just transient but without worth, and that is utterly false. As Fr. Lock said, “There is something deeply moving and very awesome about worshiping in a space and using ornaments that have been used by preceding generations of Episcopalians. In this space, God’s people have come to say their prayers and be fed in Word and Sacrament. By these ornaments (which you and your predecessors gave as memorials), they (and we) have made their Communion, or been baptized, or been moved by a visual representation of our Lord.”2
These too will some day waste away, just as one day we are all appointed to die. But just as we experienced at Ascension Atlantic City, here in Bordentown the seen cannot help but point to the unseen; the Presence of the Lord can’t be avoided when we’re in the presence of so rich a heritage as this place and memorials found within. As we care for this place, even as we ourselves waste away, we are reminded of the eternal weight of the glory of God’s kingdom reflected here. Pray, please, for Ascension, for all the parishes in the diocese that are closing; pray for the people of those places as they mourn, and pray that the Lord will move us, and those who will inherit this place, to care for her.
1The Rev. John Mason Lock, http://livingchurch.org/covenant/?p=6099