Monday, August 11, 2008

Sunday Morning at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Northwest DC

Yesterday morning I attended the 10:30 summer version of Rite II at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in northwest Washington, DC. This was part of my attempt to attend and write about a different DC Episcopal Church each week, but alas, St. Columba’s is only my sixth church and third write-up in over four months. A few weeks spent in ID, NH, and VA, as well as a great love of sleeping in, has prevented me from making broader rounds. Still, St. Columba’s was a good experience, and I feel fairly confident in saying that it would still be a highlight even if I were up to 12 churches by now.

There wasn’t anything particularly remarkable about yesterday’s service. I just got the vibe, from the various brochures and webpages (see below for a summary), that this is a remarkable parish. It is summer, so things were a bit stripped down. Instead of their pipe organ and full or audition-only choir, there was a piano and a come-one-come-all choir, but they were certainly not untalented. (Update: One Bill Grote writes in a comment below, "It's only the smaller, 22-member Ensemble that is audition-only. It should be noted that the approsimately 80-member full choir and 22-member Ensemble are all volunteers and that they often sing works like Faure and other Requiems as service music, not concerts." See the comments for more wonderful information about St. Columba's from Mr. Grote, including that the Sunday School has over 900 children and teens: 900!!!!)

The crowd was surprisingly large. August doldrums or not, there were a good 150-200 folks there, this in addition to three other Eucharists. Because the AC is apparently on the fritz, the service was held in the Great (parish) Hall rather than the nave. It wasn’t a great place for a mass, but it sure wasn’t bad, either; I felt like I was at a church summer camp service. I did stick my head in the nave as I left, and it was nice. Very traditional – a narrow room, small sanctuary at the front, formal walls, stained glass windows, a very large choir area, etc. The outside of the building was somewhat pretty, but a bit hidden by trees. Alas, I took no pictures and can't find any online, but the building dates back to 1926 and the parish itself to 1874. The congregation was mostly white and appeared to be relatively affluent, but there were a few minorities there, including an African American associate rector.

Thanks to subway troubles, I arrived 15-20 minutes late. (I left my apartment 50 minutes before the service, and it took me 70 minutes to get there – stupid Red Line track work.) This means I missed the processional hymn and the readings, but caught most of the sermon. Associate Rector Rob Boulter preached on the Gospel reading, Matthew 12:22-33, Jesus walking on water and calling Peter to Him. Boulter was an impressive and dynamic preacher. He tied his own life’s story to the Gospel, describing the discernment process through which he gave up his career as a traveling stage actor to become a priest. He said Peter got out of the boat, leaving his uncomfortable-but-familiar seat for the scary-and-unknown waters to which Christ was calling him. Basically, leaving his acting career was a scary move for Boulter and it took him awhile to accept that he was called to the priesthood, but ultimately it was best for him and his family, and he answered the nagging feelings he had that he says were God’s pull. He got out of his boat, just like Peter, and said he prays that we will all get out of the boat and get our feet wet.

This was an interesting sermon for me, as two weeks ago at Christ’s Church on Capitol Hill, I heard another priest speak about discernment from a verse where I never would have expected it (Jacob’s ladder). As I think about my own possible call to the priesthood, I might do well to remember these sermons about unusual discernment coming from unexpected places.

St. Columba’s bills itself as a “large Episcopal parish” that does “what churches do everywhere — worship God with all the energy and joy we can muster, seek deeper faith in Jesus Christ, try to serve Christ in others, welcome those who come through our doors.”

It’s hard to tell from their website and the various brochures just what the parish’s focus is, but it doesn’t really matter – they’ve got it all. Music is certainly a hallmark. The nave has a “fine tracker pipe organ,” and apparently there is a “well-equipped modern rehearsal facility” in the church. There are five choirs for children and youth and two adult choirs, including an audition-only chamber group. The church has three, count ‘em three handbell choirs, as well as a chamber orchestra and a recorder consort. Amazing! Outreach ministries include (not a complete list!) a “transitional residence and counseling program for [homeless] women” on the church grounds, prison mentoring, various programs for the hungry, and something called the Water Ministry: four days a week for two hours a day, volunteers offer shower and laundry facilities to the poor. There are mission groups for Kenya, Honduras, and South Africa, and a continuing Katrina Relief Task Force. Justice outreach includes an Environment Committee and a Peace Fellowship, and the bulletin asked parishioners to sign a petition asking City Council candidates to support investments in education and affordable housing. In terms of pastoral care, there are seven, count ‘em seven, priests – the rector, a senior associate rector, and five associate rectors. From a crowd like that, I’m guessing there’s someone to suit most pastoral needs. Fellowship groups include an LGBT scene, a singles group, a group for widows and widowers, and more. And although I didn’t grab a youth ministries brochure, programs for kids and teens were listed on the music and outreach bulletins (including national and international mission trips), and there were quite a few children at the service. One assumes there is a large and active youth group, and the bulletin did mention a special pre-school Eucharist at 9:15. The only downside is that the education and prayer groups don’t seem to include Education for Ministry (EfM). But aside from EfM, St. Columba’s seems to have it all. (Update: commenter Julia Bailey says they do actually have EfM, I guess it just isn't well-advertised! So, they do quite literally have it all.)

The one thing lacking at St. Columba’s was that no one reached out to li’l ol' visitor me. To some extent, it makes sense. I came in late and just stood in the back, so there was no way most folks would notice me or invite me to coffee hour. Still, this was the first service I have ever attended where no one offered me the peace, not even one of the ushers standing next to me. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t disheartening, but I was a little disappointed.

I don’t like attending coffee hour when I don’t know a single person there, so I rarely attend them here in DC. Today was no exception. Similarly, I rarely take the time to explore the building. What I saw of St. Columba’s was certainly impressive, though. It’s a very large building, and I’m assuming the downstairs had many classrooms. The upstairs had a large lobby – larger than some parish halls – between the Great Hall and the nave, so there was no way you didn’t at least walk through the coffee hour. And those donuts were tempting, but I was late for kayaking with a friend. Pictures of that to come.

There is something to be said for the community and warmth of a small, rural parish, but a large parish like this (yet still much smaller than an icky megachurch) is able to offer many more ministries and opportunities. All in all, it was a very positive experience. Regularly attending or becoming a member of a church in NW DC would be a stretch for someone in NE like me, but if I became a DC resident and were in NW or SW, I would certainly look more into St. Columba’s.


Leonardo Ricardo said...


Bill Grote said...

Regarding St. Columba's, your observation that "Instead of their pipe organ and full or audition-only choir" could be interpreted to mean that the full choir is audition-only. It's only the smaller, 22-member Ensemble that is audition-only. It should be noted that the approsimately 80-member full choir and 22-member Ensemble are all volunteers and that they often sing works like Faure and other Requiems as service music, not concerts. There are also a Nursey Choir, Boy Choir, Girl Choir, Boy and Girl Chapel Choir, and Gallery (teen-age) Choir. There are more than 900 children and teen-agers in the Sunday School. There is also an adjunct St. Columba's Nursey School.

Eugene Sutton, who was recently installed as the first black Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland, was an Associate Rector of St. Columba's before he was appointed a Canon at the Cathedral. Bill Swing, retired Bishop of California, and Bill Tully, current Rector of St. Bartholomew's in New York, are former Rectors. George and Barbara Bush are former members.

Your comment that Saint Mary's in Foggy Bottom is remarkably integrated should have added that it was founded as an African-American parish.

Nathan Empsall said...

Mr. Grote,

Thank you for this information. I did not know that about St. Mary's, and will make the edit. As for St. Columba's choir, chalk that up to bad writing on my part, and I will also make an edit. And the rest of the St. Columba's - I only knew what was on their webpage and in their bulletins. It didn't mention the Bushes (though I knew they were Episcopalian) or the fact that the Sunday School is THAT LARGE (wow!!!!!); both are exciting pieces of information. Thank you!

Bill Grote said...

An additional comment: Director of Music Judy Dodge is one of the best choir directos in Christendom and Associate Director John Hurd, one of the best organists in that realm. Kudos also to Music Associate Diane Heath, who directs several choirs and provides music for Great Hall services for parents with young children.

Julia Bailey said...

I'm sorry to hear that no one reached out to you, but I'm delighted that St. Columba's uniqueness could be sensed by a newcomer on his first visit! One minor correction -- St. Columba's EfM class is starting it's 2nd year this Fall. In addition, during the academic year St. Columba's offers Wednesday Night Adult Education classes with 6-8 week long courses on various aspects of scripture, liturgy and spirituality. We've got something for everyone!

Searcher said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the service at St. Columba's, but please be aware that a number of long-time parishioners have left since the arrival of the new rector 2 years ago. I am one of those parishioners. I grieve for the loss of the St. Columba's I once knew. Happily, I have recently found welcome and peace in one of the smaller churches in the Washington area.

Anonymous said...

Dear Wayward.... While you had a mostly good experience at St. Columba's, it might be of interest to seek to understand why a large number of long-time St. Columbans have gone elsewhere in the last year in order to find the joy and Christian love that was for many years a strength of St. Columba's. For certain you won't get any truthful answers from the clergy or the vestry..... just like the Rector won't give Bill Grote the attendance figures! As for the "fine organ", only time will tell whether it survives a Washington summer in a sanctuary without air conditioning and humidity control. What you saw was mostly a church running on fumes because pledges and contributions have dropped dramatically. God does indeed work in "mysterious ways".....

Nathan Empsall said...

Searcher and anonymous, thanks for your comments. I'm sorry to hear about the turbulent politics at St. Columba's, but my review is from the point of view of someone who dropped by on a Sunday morning and took a look at church bulletins, the same POV any visitor would have. Visitors are considered with the current rector and congregation, not the rector and congregation of five years before. But, thank you for the info! Searcher, if I may ask, where did you land?

Also, tells me I've had about 100 people find my blog in the last two days by googling "wayward episcopalian visit to st. columba's." Did someone e-mail this post out in a church newsletter or something?

Thanks again!

Bill Grote said...

Following is the email I sent to St. Columba clergy, vestry, staff, and the 122 email addresses of members who represent a fraction of those, including me, who are dissatisfied with the leadership of our current Rector:

8/27 from Bill Grote to St. Columba Clergy and Vestry--

I recently learned from Fran Albrecht about The Wayward Episcopalian website, which includes comments about a visit to St. C’s on August 10 and Rob Boulter’s sermon. It now also includes my comments supplementing what the author said about St. Columba’s.

You can reach the website by Googling Wayward Episcopalian visit to St. Columba’s.

I have also sent this info to Anne Stone for possible publication in the Newsletter.


I'll email the complete St. Columba section of your website to the same people after this response is posted. . I’ll also email them your website address so they can read your comments about other parishes.

Nathan Empsall said...

Well thank you, Bill! The link that has no Lambeth or politcal rants, just church reviews - of which there are four now and four more to come, probably one on Wednesday once I get through some more political stuff - is

Anonymous said...

Hi, Nathan......Anonymous here again. Yes, you're absolutely right, WYSIWYG to the visitor, as you astutely say, "not what the parish was five years ago". What the visitor misses is that those who have left St. Columba's include a number of former senior and junior wardens, and an awful lot of people who gave an awful lot of their "talent, time, and treasure" to St. Columba's over the years. What that visitor does not see is the strife that's going on beneath the surface, and it's not just "politics". Those of us who have gone elsewhere respect the decisions of those who have stayed, mostly because of involvement in youth programs and choir. For that reason, St. Columba's will probably survive, but in a twisted, diminished, crippled form relative to what it once was. When a widely-published associate rector, from the pulpit, denounces as "evil" those who have dared raised questions and concerns, that's hardly Christian forbearance and love, wouldn't you say? The reality is that the Rector is a narcissistic, arrogant, disconnected (PTSD?) person who is so case-hardened that nothing is going to get through, and she's got a bunch of toadies in the Wardens and the Vestry . Again, ask Bill Grote what his experience has been getting public information from her. D'oh!