The first bishop I ever met was John Shelby Spong. He was getting vested for worship in the church where I was an interning as a student from Princeton Seminary while in exile from my own church. I’d come out to the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pitman, my sponsoring congregation over lunch at a diner the year before. He paid the tab, gave me a hug, drove away and never returned another call.
I knew Bishop Spong was notorious for being a heretic to many inside the institutional church for ordaining a gay man and other things like rejecting the virgin birth and pooh-poohing the inerrancy of Scripture. But to anyone who ever got kicked out of church for who they were or for asking questions, Bishop Spong was a prophet right up there with Ezekiel. He looked the part: tall enough to tower over most mortals, from under those bushy eyebrows his piercing blue eyes felt like flood lights scanning your person in search of a soul. Bishop Spong looked like someone destined to have his face cast in bronze, which he was. I tried not to stare at him, but seeing as I was to be his chaplain during worship I had to at least nod and give him enough eye contact to confirm I understood my job.
As we lined up to process he handed me his crozier which is the staff bishops carry that identify them as shepherds of the church. Noting that in my hand the crook was pointed backwards he turned it around and said, “No, hold it like this. Let’s pretend the church is moving forward.”
Among the chairs beside the altar in any Episcopal church there is always a larger, fancier chair that no priest or acolyte ever sits in because it’s reserved for the Bishop. Even though it only gets used once every few years that chair stays where it is, Lest we forget and start to think we are in charge, the waiting chair is a reminder that whether we’re at the church for eight or eighty years, our only job is to watch out for the interests of the actual owner.
As a matter of fact, Jesus tells a story about what the church is supposed to be doing till he gets back.
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work,
and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake.
Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come.
- Mark 13: 34-35a
As far as I know, Grace Church Van Vorst raised up at least two bishops and one Dean. All of them used their spiritual imaginations to figure out what it meant to “stay awake” and protect the Master’s interest in downtown Jersey City and so did the clerics and lay leaders who came after them.
In the 1950’s it meant making over what had been an all-white congregation and integrating it. In the 1960s it meant buying a bus to pick up kids with nowhere to be and nothing to do and bringing them to Grace for homework help, basketball games, dinner and fun. In the 1970s it meant taking over eight decrepit apartment buildings on the same block as the church and turning them into decent, low-income housing. In the 1980s it meant inviting artists to use the church and holding parties for all of our neighbors. In the 1990s it meant using our parish hall to start feeding everyone who’s hungry and to be a gathering place for seniors to get out of the house, exercise, share a meal and find out that they weren’t alone after all.
One of the things I cherish about Grace Church Van Vorst is that when we get to the part of the Lord’s Prayer where we say “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” it seems like most everyone is eager to get a head start by acting out what heaven is like.
During my first year as the Rector of Grace Church Van Vorst I asked James Parks Morton, retired Dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine to come back to Grace where he started his life as a priest. Before mass we stood together in the back of the church, listening to the praise band, watching people laugh and hug each other while several little kids ran around by the door.
Just as the procession music began I whispered in his ear, “This is my dream church.” This distinguished, eighty-something year old man smiled at me like a little kid with a train set on Christmas morning.
“Me too!” he said.
Keeping awake and saving your seat till Sunday.