Hangin’ with Katharine

Amanda and I had the pleasure on Saturday of traveling to Birmingham with John and Kathy Haynie, Janet Bray, and Ann Easley to see Kee Sloan invested as our new bishop. The picture at the right shows the group with a new friend we made later that day, Darrell Ford. There were many features of the day that stand out in our minds, so I’ve collected them as well as I can here.

We thought we were leaving in plenty of time to arrive at the church and get a seat for the 11:00 service, with John graciously agreeing to drive, but I made the wrong call on where we should park, which meant a long walk between the truck and the church. By the time we arrived at the church it was 10:15, and we had hoped to arrive there at 10:00. We anxiously looked around for restrooms, because all of us were tired and needed to use the facilities. The first delight was a forest of helpful people wearing signs saying “Cathedral Church of the Advent – Ask me” around their necks. We instantly got instructions about the nearest restrooms and how to enter the nave and set about our business. Fortunately, there were still seats available in the nave at 10:25 when we made it there. We had to break into two groups, but we all were able to seat ourselves about 3/4 of the way back on the left hand side.

The congregational singing was wonderful, although a tad slow for my taste. The organist observed the Anglican custom of a short pause between verses, and it was fun to hear the sound of the last verse reverberate through the large room before beginning the next.

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the service for me was Kee’s entrance to the nave. By custom, he knocked three times on the back door of the nave. The President of the Standing Committee inquired of him, “Who seeks to enter here?” His first answer was “John McKee Sloan, Bishop Suffragan of the Alabama Diocese.” Silence. Then again he knocked three times. “Who seeks to enter here?” “The Right Reverend John McKee Sloan, Bishop-elect of the Alabama Diocese of the Episcopal Church USA.” Again silence. Again he knocked three times. “Who seeks to enter here?” “Kee Sloan, a child of God and a servant of Jesus Christ.” That did it. The door opened. “The Lord prosper you; we wish you well in the Name of the Lord.”

Another gift from the day for me was that I learned to love our kneelers at Epiphany. It has been Amanda’s and my custom to kneel during those times when congregants can choose whether to stand or kneel, so I chose to kneel during the Litany of Prayer. The kneelers at Advent rotate on a locked axis, which means you cannot adjust their position. And they’re tucked way under the pew, which meant that I had to grip the pew during the prayer to avoid falling backward. MOST uncomfortable. Is that by design? Are we striving to create discomfort to give us a taste of the Passion of Our Lord? Perhaps, but I learned my lesson. No more kneeling at the Cathedral Church of the Advent!

During the Eucharist each congregant got to choose whether to walk to the front of the nave and be served the elements at the altar rail or to take advantage of one of the stations on the side of the nave. Amanda walked to the rail, but most of us filed by the station on the left, where Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was administering the host.

There were no smells or bells during the service, which was surprising to some of us. However, the Cathedral more than made up for that after the service by ringing the large bells in the tower. L-O-U-D-L-Y.

We opted to stay after the service for the reception. Standing in the crowd packed into the Commons, we were told by one of the hostesses that there was plenty of food and more space in a side room. Best advice of the day. We were able to get something to eat and something to drink quickly and actually found a place to sit. A few minutes after we got seated, Katharine strolled in and stood talking to several people, so we all got a chance to visit quietly with her and with each other.

Father Arnold invited us to his house to rest up, so we drove out to his house near Liberty Park and had a brief, warm visit with him and Zoe. I sneaked into a side room and changed into my jeans, which was a wonderful relief for me.

We had decided as a group to stay for what was billed as an informal question-and-answer session with Katharine at the Trinity Commons Episcopal student center on the UAB campus. We had enjoyed our visit with Arnold and Zoe so much that we were late getting away from their house. We knew there would be a large crowd and that we might not get a seat because we were not due to arrive at the reception until 4:15 or so, but we decided to give it a go anyway. SO glad we did. The huge crowd we were expecting turned out to be a couple of handfuls of people standing around who looked really glad to see us arriving. Not sure what happened with the publicity for the event, but even at 4:30 there were plenty of seats available. The six of us could sit anywhere in the room, so we sat on the second row. I took this photo of Katharine from my seat with available light and no zoom. We really were this close to her.

Our presiding bishop is an impressive person. Blessed with a wonderful speaking voice, an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Anglican, and the calmest of demeanors, she entertained questions from our little group and answered them thoughtfully for about an hour and a half. She invited us into “conversation,” taking time to define true conversation as much more than exchanging words. In answering our questions, she talked about the state of Anglicanism today and noted that the Episcopal Church churchwide is growing in some places and losing members in other places. She said that in her experience, churches that focus their ministry outward to respond to the needs of their community and the world tend to grow, and churches that focus on the needs of their own members tend to shrink. She described the joys and challenges of reconciling the disparate provinces in the Anglican Communion, talked about her own process of discernment about her role after she is no longer presiding bishop, and offered advice on how to talk to atheists and agnostics.

This last issue was one of the more helpful for me. Responding to a question from a young college student about how to talk to her atheist friends, Katharine began by acknowledging that much harm has been inflicted on people in the name of the Christian church, with the result that there are some twisted ideas about God that have permeated our culture. “I encourage you to engage people and find out more about what they know of God. If you are willing to be changed by them, you may find they are willing to be changed by you as well. I like to ask this: ‘Tell me more about this God you don’t believe in.’ It could be that once you learn more about the God they don’t believe in, you won’t believe in that God either, and then the two of you can begin exploring together what kind of God you CAN believe in.” Now that’ll preach.

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