June 21, 2014

Staging the Easter Vigil

As I have written a number of times, the Great Vigil of Easter is my favorite church service and the highlight of the church year. In 2001, I wrote “An Easter Vigil Memoir,” describing how I first encountered the vigil at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. One of my poems in “Haiku Meditations on the Church Year” concerns the vigil:

Easter Vigil

We start in darkness.
New light proclaims the Good News—
Jesus is risen!

For many years, I was Audio-Visual Coördinator, choir member, and secretary of the Worship Commission at St. Paul’s. This led me to become the unofficial stage manager (and keeper of the corporate memory) for the Easter Vigil, a particularly useful function as clergy came and went. In this capacity, I developed and updated yearly an annotated copy of the liturgy to help with vigil planning.

While performing some much-needed file maintenance the other day, I ran across my collection of planning documents for the vigil. For the benefit of others looking to offer an Easter Vigil at their church or to perfect what they have been doing, I am posting the 2008 edition of my planning document, unchanged except for minor edits. (Our present rector, who came to St. Paul’s in the fall of 2008, simplified lighting of services generally and largely discarded the procedures developed at the church over the years. I resigned my Audio-Visual Coördinator position and left the Worship Commission. I have not been involved in vigil planning since then and have taken the opportunity to visit other parishes to see how they run the service.)

In reading “Planning for the Great Vigil of Easter,” keep in mind that St. Paul’s has a very capable lighting system that allows for multiple lighting settings, each with a variable fade. Doug Starr, who is mentioned in the document, is our organist and choirmaster, as well as an excellent singer.

Here are some additional notes:
  1. St. Paul’s has a huge wooden stand for thee Paschal Candle. Its normal position is near the font, on the opposite side from the pulpit. We have been moving the stand to a position near the pulpit, so that readings can be read near the candle. Churches with more modest stands for their Pascal Candle need not agonize over placement as we have at St. Paul’s.
  2. The congregation can gather outside the church and follow the Paschal Candle into the church, or people can be seated inside at the beginning of the service. Each scheme has its advantages and disadvantages. Having the congregation walk into the church together allows a better view of the kindling of the first fire. It doesn’t work for the handicapped, however, and is a bit chaotic for my taste. A carefully orchestrated procession that progressively lights candles from the rear of the church to the front is very dramatic.
  3. There are many possibilities for lighting the fire. I prefer to do it at the back of the nave, but that needs to be done carefully. Some churches actually create a bonfire outside. This can be a bit scarey if it’s windy, but it adds a certain primitive excitement to the service.
  4. St. Paul’s has generally distributed non-dripless candles to worshipers and offered only a round piece of paper for protection. Worshipers’ attention is thereby diverted to the task of avoiding being burned by hot wax. This year, I attended a vigil at a Lutheran church that used dripless candles in a plastic holder that allowed no wax to drop. No artificial lighting was needed before the Easter acclamation.
  5. My arguing for the use of all nine readings during the vigil became a standing joke in Worship Commission meetings. More readings meant a longer service, of course, and this fact was exacerbated by Doug’s insistence on using a significant piece of music—hymn, anthem, etc.—along with each reading. Using brief organ interludes could save time while maintaining a contemplative atmosphere. (Is there some composer out there who would like to write of set of brief organ meditations keyed to each of the nine readings?)
  6. The most distinctive feature of former Easter Vigils at St. Paul’s was the use of a second procession, in which clergy are vested as they would be for a normal Eucharist. This is very festive and is sorely missed of late. The altar party disappears from the chancel almost invisibly as Altar Guild members prepare the church for the Eucharist. The choir, which begins the service in the chancel, does not participate in the second procession.
  7. Also distinctive is the dialogue involving the knock at the nave door. (See note on page 294.) I cannot experience this without tearing up.
I hope my notes will be helpful. I would love to hear about the experiences of other congregations with the Easter Vigil.

June 17, 2014

Bishop Answers Questions, Explains Same-Sex Marriage Delay

More than 70 people attended the Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP) event in the parish hall of Calvary Church last night to hear and question Bishop of Pittsburgh Dorsey McConnell. Starting time was 7:30 PM, but the program was preceded by refreshments and lively conversation among the early arrivals.

Joan Gundersen, one of PEP’s vice presidents, presided. After an opening prayer, she explained that the bishop had a particular topic he wanted to address and that we would discuss that matter before moving to a question-and-answer session.

What Bishop McConnell wanted first to explain was where the diocese stands in light of the recent court decision declaring the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional and Governor Tom Corbett’s announcement that the decision would not be appealed. The topic was a welcome one for the audience, as there had been some consternation over the bishop’s failure to at least indicate his approval of the altered legal landscape. Bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania Sean Rowe, who is also provisional bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem had made such a statement, yet the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette could only report that Bishop McConnell “plans to consult with clergy and lay leaders on the implications of the court ruling.” That had led to fears that the path from same-sex blessings to same-sex marriage in churches might be a long one. The bishop, in response to a question later in the evening, apologized for the delay in clarifying the status of same-sex marriage in the diocese, explaining that he is not a “let’s-make-a-statement kind of guy.” (Unfortunately, given the recent history of our diocese, we tend to be no-news-must-be-bad-news kind of Episcopalians.)

In any case, the delay in announcing a policy about same-sex marriages is the result of legal ambiguity, as Chancellor Andy Roman explained. It is important that any such marriage conforms both to Pennsylvania law and to Episcopal Church canons. The chancellor is consulting with his counterparts in other dioceses in an effort to avoid unintended consequences, such as couples learning years after the ceremony that they aren’t really married at all.

I had planned to discuss the perceived problems with conducting same-sex marriages in the diocese, but, in the cold light of day, I don’t think I understand them, particularly as regards the civil law. It seems clear that 2012 General Convention Resolution A049 allows bishops to authorize clergy to perform same-sex marriages in states where marriage equality exists, but it is equally clear that what would be done thereby is not, for the church at least, “marriage” as we find it in the prayer book and in Canon I.18. (Both speak of a man and a woman.) Stay tuned; the bishop and the chancellor are trying to resolve the perceived problems as quickly as possible.

After some further discussion on the mechanics of implementing same-sex marriages in the diocese, we moved on to other issues. PEP had advertised the meeting as being about the state of the diocese, but Bishop McConnell did not give a state-of-the-diocese address but merely responded to questions. The main questions had been developed by the PEP board and were asked by Dr. Gundersen. The bishop’s responses led to other questions from the floor, however.

The first question concerned divisions in the diocese. What are the greatest dangers and the greatest signs of hope?

The bishop suggested that the most serious divisions are between large and small parishes, between urban and rural parishes, between rich and poor parishes, and so forth. We do not, he asserted, want to go through what we went through earlier. He said that, under the “previous regime,” parishes got “siloed.” To improve communications, he has established The Listening Committee (TLC, cute), which has been going to parishes and simply listening to what people have to say. About a third of the parishes have been “listened to.” Bishop McConnell indicated that one of the findings of TLC is that some of the numbers that have been appearing on parochial reports are “not accurate.” (One might imagine other, less charitable descriptions.) Anyway, he said that the diocese is getting a handle on this problem.

Dr. Gundersen’s next question was about how we can accommodate theological diversity in the diocese.

Bishop McConnell answered that we are called to unity, even when we disagree. Relationships between people are more important than agreement on issues. We need to know what makes people tick, even if they come to awful conclusions. A number of questions were asked from the floor, one of which elicited a story of the bishop’s discussions with labor leaders leading him to raise the issue of income inequality at a meeting of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania. The response of the assembled religious leaders was dead silence. Roman Catholic Bishop David Zubik, however, is planning to meet with our bishop to explore the matter. (Earlier, I had suggested to the PEP board that income inequality is an issue that the organization and the diocese should take on. Could this become a major diocesan project?)

PEP’s next question concerned lay leadership, one of the foci articulated in the bishop’s address to last year’s convention. What are we doing about lay leadership?

The bishop said that our church is too clergy-centric, but he admitted that, although he thinks of himself as lay-leader-oriented, that is not always a good description of how he acts. He mentioned two specific lay leadership programs, one from The Episcopal Church and one from The Leadership Development Initiative. I noted that Dwight J. Zscheile recommends greater communication between parishioners of different parishes in People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity. How can such communication be encouraged? The bishop responded that laypeople had to make that happen. Another question—really more of a comment—suggested that parishes often have individuals who refuse to relinquish control. In response, the bishop explained that he was seeking a canon to allow him to intervene in parishes on the brink of disaster. (The idea of such a canon was raised when I was on the Committee on Constitution and Canons. We seem to be no closer to formulating such a canon.)

PEP’s next question was how can he, in good conscience, do mission in Uganda, where both the government and the local Anglican church have appalling attitudes toward gays.

The bishop replied that Jesus said to love your enemies, and he insisted that he engages with clergy in Uganda, trying to get them to see that their attitudes are less than Christian. (Bishop McConnell has long been associated with Pilgrim Africa and makes regular trips to Uganda.)

For PEP’s final question, Dr. Gundersen asked where we stand on recovering property 5½ years after the diocese split.

No one expected a very detailed answer to this question, and we were not disappointed. Unsurprisingly, it was Chancellor Andy Roman who answered the question. He pointed out that we recovered all diocesan property—I later pointed out that we didn’t get back our telephones and desk chairs (or computers, for that matter)—and that we own a number of properties that we are allowing Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh congregations to use. An additional 15 properties or so are titled in the name of their congregations, and ownership of these churches has yet to be resolved. I asked if it was our intention to reclaim all off our property. (I particularly want us to recover the property of Ascension in Oakland and of St. Stephen’s, Sewickley.) The inquiry received no real answer. The decision, the chancellor declared, will be made by diocesan leaders.

Bishop McConnell closed the meeting with prayer, and people resumed their individual conversations before heading home.

June 14, 2014

Bishop McConnell to Speak at PEP Meeting

On Monday, June 16, Bishop Dorsey McConnell will be speaking on the state of the diocese at Calvary Church, sponsored by Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh. Everyone is invited to hear what the bishop has to say and to ask questions. Details are below—click on the graphic for a larger view—and on our PDF flyer.
PEP meeting announcement

Baseball Conventional Wisdom Is Sometimes Stupid

The Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Miami Marlins 8–6 last night in 13 innings thus breaking a streak of 11 consecutive losses on Fridays the thirteenth. Good news, right.  Well, only sort of.

Perhaps the best news was that the much-anticipated right fielder Gregory Polanco, called up only days before to fill in for Neil Walker, who underwent an emergency appendectomy, ended the night with five hits, including a game-winning home run in the top of the thirteenth inning. Polanco looked pretty good in the field as well, saving a run in the third by making a diving catch of what seemed a sure hit by Reed Johnson. The night was made sweeter for the new Pirate by his mother’s presence in the stands for the first time in his major league career. (See the MLB.com story here.)

Overall descriptions of the game are available from MLB.com and from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As can be seen from the box score, Polanco went 5 for 7; Marte 4 for 7, including a first inning two-run homer; McCutchen 2 for 7; Davis 2 for 3; Martin and Mercer each 1 for 6; and Barmas 2 for 2.

What was most extraordinary about the game was the bottom of the ninth. Jeff Lock had pitched eight innings, given up 2 runs to the Pirates’ 6, and walked none. He had thrown 101 pitches and had not allow a run since the third inning. His effectiveness did not seem to be diminishing as the game wore on.

But baseball conventional wisdom says that it risks the health of a pitcher for him to throw more than 100 pitches in a game. It is also conventional wisdom to bring in a specialist pitcher in the ninth inning when your team is ahead. In this case, Manager Clint Hurdle took out Locke and brought in Justin Wilson. Since there wasn’t a save situation, Hurdle did not select closer Jason Grilli or Grilli-substitute Mark Melancon.

Wilson, who seemed nearly incapable of throwing strikes, walked two and managed only a single out. Hurdle had had enough; he brought in Grilli, a move that, in times past, had seemed to make shutting down the opposition pretty much a sure thing. Grilli couldn’t throw strikes, either. He got one ground out, but he walked two and gave up a two-run single. He then intentionally walked Casey McGehee, a serious threat at the plate, to load the bases. With the score 6–5, Grilli was pulled for Melancon. The formerly reliable closer was seriously and visibly upset. Malancon wasn’t much better than Wilson or Grilli. He walked in the tying run before scoring the third out. A seemingly certain Pirate win had suddenly gone from a comfortable 6–2 lead to a 6–6 tie. Pirate pitchers had walked 6 batters in a single inning!

Jeanmar Gomez, who proved to be the winning pitcher, throw 4 scoreless innings for the Pirates, allowing the team to retain the two-run advantage earned by Polanco’s home run in the thirteenth.

Clint Hurdle went with the conventional wisdom in removing Locke after 8 innings, but I think doing so was a serious mistake. Bringing in a new pitcher, irrespective of his record, is always something of a crap shoot, and why would you want to roll the dice rather than stick with a pitcher who is doing a fine job and who has just barely crossed the arbitrary line of maximum allowable pitches? This is not the first time I have seen games fall apart when a successful pitcher has been removed near the end of a game.

Instead of going with the conventional wisdom, baseball managers should spend a few moments realistically weighing the odds of their decisions. They just might make different, and better, choices.

Update, 6/15/2014. Yesterday’s game was alarmingly similar to Friday’s. Charlie Morton pitched seven innings and left the game with the Pirates ahead 8–2. He threw 108 pitches. Stolmy Pimentel came in in the eighth and gave up a two-run home run in the ninth. He was replaced by Grilli, who gave up another two-run homer. The final score was 8–6.

June 7, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

I am usually disappointed in movies made from books I’ve read. Such disappointment is not inevitable, but the limited length of movies does make it difficult to reproduce all the subtleties of a substantial novel.

Thursday night, I attended a special showing of The Fault in Our Stars sponsored by my church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon. A number of scenes in the movie, which is based on the John Green young adult bestseller, were filmed at St. Paul’s. Knowing that I would be seeing the movie, I read the book two weeks ago.

Gala at Galleria Mall
Red Carpet gala ramps up at Mt. Lebanon’s Galleria Mall Thursday night

The Galleria Mall event was covered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, KDKA-TV, and WTAE-TV. Wikipedia provides a good summary of the book here and offers information about the movie here. I won’t attempt to summarize the plot.

I liked the movie, but I cannot say that I loved it. I can say the same about the book, which the movie follows closely. Hazel is a clever and unusually sensitive teenager who is concerned about her effect on others, even if her evaluations sometime miss the mark. Augustus is handsome and less cautious, and he is, for a teenager, especially respectful of Hazel’s needs. Both characters are preternaturally witty and sympathetic. Neither book nor movie is offensively sentimental, not another Love Story. The plot, or that part of it concerning Peter Van Houten, however, is a bit farfetched, though it is engaging.

In any case, I am inclined to agree with the review on RogerEbert.com that contends that the movie—and one might argue, the book—“feels emotionally inert.” I did not cry at the end of the movie, and I am not above doing so in response to a particularly affecting film. (I wept uncontrollably after watching The China Syndrome, but many would consider that reaction weird.) Perhaps I did not feel devastated by the death of Augustus because narrator Hazel didn’t.

As I said, the movie follows the book closely, which is not a criticism and which partially explains the film’s more than two-hour running time. This is reasonably long as movies go, but it did not seem excessively so.

And this brings me to my main criticism of the movie. A number of elements of the book that provide the glue holding the plot together failed to make it to the screen, yet it seems that they could have been included without unduly increasing the movie’s length. In the film, it is never explained that Augustus originally stares at Hazel because she resembles a former girlfriend. Van Houten is independently wealthy, but this fact is, at best, implicit. In the book, Lidewij actually quits her job over the way Van Houten treats the teenagers, but her anger and tears didn’t effectively make it to the screen. Hazel’s mother, played by Laura Dern, perhaps my favorite character in the film, never explains that she was often doing schoolwork while waiting in the church parking lot for her daughter. And Hazel’s father, who cries a lot in the book, is a passionless spectator in the movie.

I enjoyed the book, and I enjoyed the movie, but I suspect that I would have liked them a good deal less were it not for the connection to St. Paul’s. If looking for a movie to see this summer, however, you could do worse than choosing The Fault in Our Stars.

Update, 6/9/2014. NPR’s David Edelstein has produced a helpful review of the movie, which you can read or listen to here.

June 4, 2014

The Episcopal Church Center as a Symbol of Episcopal Unity

Del Glover has published “Should We Sell the Church Center? Part 1” on Daily Episcopalian.

Personally, I am undecided as to whether the church should move its headquarters from 815 Second Avenue in New York City, but I am interested in what people have to say about the possibilities. The practical and financial implications of a move, of course, are complex. Glover does not express an opinion but suggests questions we should be asking ourselves.

I was particularly struck by this observation in the Daily Episcopalian post:
The Church Center for Episcopalians is not a symbol of our unity; regrettably, we have no such site that functions to symbolize what it means to be an Episcopalian. It is not a pilgrimage site and so to many Episcopalians its significance is minimal.
June Butler, in a comment on the Glover post, suggested that Washington National Cathedral is a symbol of our unity, and she suggested that the cathedral close might be an appropriate location for the Episcopal Church Center. I know that, when I have visited Washington National Cathedral, I have very much felt like an Episcopalian and have been grateful to be able to claim a connection to such a magnificent spiritual landmark.

That the Episcopal Church Center is not a symbol of our unity is illustrated by a story told by Daniel Ennis in another comment:
As a South Carolina Episcopalian, I’ve been involved in the transition of our diocese, and much of that transition has been informed by the need to reconnect with our Episcopal heritage, since many of our now-departed leaders dedicated themselves to tearing TEC down.

I was in Manhattan on business a few months ago, and decided to visit 815. I’d never been, and I figured I could pick up some materials (like the tracts one finds in TEC churches), browse the bookstore, or even pray in the chapel.

Admittedly, I didn’t have an appointment. But I didn’t really have an agenda, either—just wanted to visit the HQ of my Church … feel connected to the larger organization. You can’t imagine how precious that connection is in our diocese these days.

So I enter the lobby of 815 at about 1pm on a Wednesday. A security guard who I can only describe as annoyed asks me my business. I’m a little thrown—there’s no welcome center, no sign beyond the facade that I’m in a place associated with religion. I ask if there’s a reading room or information desk


I ask if there’s any brochures, newsletters, or TEC printed media I can take back home.


So I stand there like a chump and then head back out onto Second Avenue.

I’m not qualified to comment on real estate values, but selling the current “church center” might allow our leaders to re-imagine what a “church center” can be. If right now the “center” of our church is little better than Trump Tower in terms of atmosphere and outreach, what good is it?
I find this story very sad. Clearly, the Episcopal Church Center is in no way a worthy pilgrimage site for Episcopalians. It could, however, be otherwise if we thought it should be.

Perhaps, however, relocating to Mount St. Alban would be a wise and spiritually productive move.