Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Church of the Epiphany in DC

As I’ve mentioned before, I am interning in DC until September. While here, I think I might attend a different Episcopal Church each Sunday morning, in order to gain a new appreciation for the church’s diversity. I will be looking for Rite II services with music. Today I attended the Church of the Epiphany in downtown DC at 1317 G Street NW. Although I chose this church for its convenience to the orange/blue Metro line (it’s all of a five second walk from Metro Center), I later learned that it is an incredibly historic location.

Epiphany was built in 1844. A number of Senators, including future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, were members. Its Union loyalty was questioned, but after a passionate meeting with the rector, Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edward Stanton began attending, putting those questions to rest. The church is the only pre-Civil War Washington church still standing.

Two things really stood out to me during the service. The first was the makeup of the congregation. It had a healthy racial mix – mostly white, but blacks were well represented – and a large number of homeless people. Some just sat and rested, but some actively participated in the service, right down to Communion. It was good to see them so welcome in this house of God. The second thing to stand out was the Prayers of the People. Instead of just a few mumbles from the congregation in the time for personal petitions, at least a dozen people loudly spoke up. They would end their prayer request with, “Lord, in your mercy,” and the congregation would reply, “Hear our prayer.” I have never seen an Episcopal Church so engaged and interactive in its Prayers of the People. I can see how that would intimidate some, but I liked it. It was also noticeable how many people received a Healing Rite following Communion.

The building is beautiful, but in many ways shows its age. It is very large, and the pews are divided down the middle into old-style pew boxes. Most of it is well maintained – the pipe organ looked and sounded beautiful, the stained glass windows were gorgeous, and everything was clean. The ceiling had that common Episcopal style of white paint and brown beams and rafters. The vaulted ceiling, however, was peeling and showing its age in many places, and I thought the place was too dark – it needs more light fixtures, and they could have been better placed.

I wondered to myself if the preacher was a seminarian, and sure enough, that’s what the website says. Her sermon, to say the least, did not speak to me. I look for bold preaching that shows me new Scriptural meaning I hadn’t previously heard or considered, or that encourages me to get involved in the world and carry Christ’s work beyond the church doors. Today’s sermon was very standard and a bit lackluster, talking about what kind of gate Jesus is and why we are all welcome. This is a good message, and I don’t mean to knock the preacher – know thy audience is an important part of preaching. I just wasn’t part of that audience, I guess.

The music was good. I enjoyed both the processional – “Alleluia! The strife is o’er, the battle done” – and recessional – “I come with joy to meet my Lord.” The hymns and service music were a little on the slow side, but perhaps that varies from week to week. The choir and organist were certainly top-notch. As I left through the narthex, the rector, Father Randolph Charles, was very enthusiastic in inviting everyone to coffee hour. I did not attend, but perhaps I should have just to see the parish hall. There certainly is a lot more to this large church than the nave, which is all I saw. There is no need to describe the beautiful steeple or exterior; you can just look at the pictures I've posted.

Obviously, without hearing Father Randolph preach or learning about the church’s study groups or outreach ministries, I have no way of knowing what Epiphany is truly about. But, I can tell you that between the parish’s involvement, Father Randolph’s greeting, and the diverse and homeless population, I certainly felt as welcome as a newcomer can feel. That message of welcomeness is certainly felt in the parish’s Mission Statement and Stewardship Statement. Perhaps I will return some future week to hear more of that organ and hopefully a sermon from the rector, but given how dark the nave was, I doubt I would ever be a regular or a member.

I don’t like the church’s homepage, but the rest of their website is very detailed and user-friendly, featuring easily-navigable information on the church’s history, architecture, ministries, and more. It is one of the best church webpages I have seen. Epiphany certainly seems, based on their webpage, to be involved and engaged in justice, community, and street ministry, which is exciting, and theologically well-founded. Unfortunately, I found no mention of the MDGs. But who knows, a good local outreach program and a bright parish hall might well be enough to overcome the dark lighting.


liturgy said...

Thanks for this reflection
on a service
and a webpage.
Hope you'll pop by "Liturgy"
& if you like it we could link :-)

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Christ Church and St. John's in Georgetown as well as St. Paul's K Street.

Bill Grote said...

Saint Paul's Rock Creek Parish's pre-Revolution building is older than Epiphany's. Per its website:

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, also known as Rock Creek Parish Church, is an historic church located on Rock Creek Church Road... The church was built in 1775, incorporating parts of an older church built in 1719. It was remodeled in 1853 and restored in 1922. On March 16, 1972, St. Paul's was added to the National Register of Historic Places...Founded in 1712, St. Paul’ the oldest congregation in the District of Columbia. ...

Bill Grote adds: Located in Rock Creek Cemetery, it completed another major remodeling with marble floors and a new organ located center front in 2004. It has one of the highest-caliber paid professional choirs in the area, Be sure to attend semi-monthly 4 PM Evensong followed by lavish reception. The parish was integrated when an African-American lady en route to St. George's stopped at St. Paul's because she was late. The Clover Adams Memorial by St. Gaudens frequented by Eleanore Roosevelt is within walking distance.

Nathan Empsall said...

Bill, thanks for the information. If I were going to be in town for much longer, I would take your advice and attend St. Paul's Rock Creek, but alas, my time in DC ends on Sunday morning. I have several more reviews to write (St. Paul's K Street, Christ Capitol Hill, Christ Georgetown, and St. Mark's Capitol Hill), but no time to attend more churches. Which is a shame, because there were several I wanted to see, and you just added one more. But thanks!

Anonymous said...

Good comments for Epiphany Church on G Street in DC. But, I think you will find that St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square and St. Paul on Capitol Hill are older---and pre War between the States, ca. 1818 and 1809.