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.