It is said that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there [Christ is] among them,” according to Matthew 18:20. One wonders what that means you walk into a church where the spirit has seemingly forsaken the congregation. There are few experiences more draining than stepping into a dying church. There is an air to a place where Christianity is alive and well, a feeling of communion and presence that can be hard to describe.
I’ve encountered this more times than I can describe. The difference between a living church and a dead church is a sense of moving, breathing energy that enraptures a congregation and draws them together. This can happen in any denomination, from sweeping charismatic churches where the spirit is alive in the hearts of the people to the serene grandeur of liturgical churches where the parishioners honor Christ through the meaning of their words and actions.
I’ve seen a dozen dying churches in my life and it’s always depressing. The building feels hollow. The mass or service feels tinny and pointless, a service being perfunctorily performed at the behest of an aging churchman who knows his days are numbered. He knows his building will be closed and converted into a new age hipster bar in the near future, and that none of his congregants have children. There is no future in this place. It reeks of death.
It is something I noticed firsthand this past month on a recent Sunday when I visited two churches on one Sunday morning. I was invited by a friend of mine down in Murfreesboro, TN to attend his Antiochian Orthodox Parish and see what it was like. Normally, I attend an Anglican Church of North America parish, but I always enjoy new religious experiences. I happily took him up on the offer. I had never been to an Orthodox parish and I only knew that their liturgy was more intense than Protestant or Catholic liturgy.
Wanting to make the most of my drive though, I decided to double up the trip and visit a second service that morning as well at one of Nashville’s most historic and beautiful Cathedrals. So I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30am, ate a light breakfast, and left early for early mass at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Nashville.
I’d driven past it a hundred times. Built in the 19th century for the Episcopal Church, Christ Church Cathedral is one of the oldest active congregations in the state. It’s a massive 150-year-old building and one of the most impressive houses of worship in the state of Tennessee. It is ironically located five blocks up the road from Lower Broadway, the hive of scum and villainy where millions of tourists flood into hedonistic bars, honky tonks, and tourist traps to listen to country music and indulge their other sinful vices. One need only ascend up the hill to pay penance for their drunken antics, although few seem to indulge this option.
Sadly, the church reflects modern Nashville more than classical Nashville. Half of the (VERY FEW) congregants were still wearing masks when I attended and the streets outside the cathedral were lined with dozens of stumbling homeless people. One of them even wandering into the cathedral DURING MASS, walked up to the altar and asked the priest for wine, only to be politely escorted out. A church should, of course, be kind to the homeless and offer them refuge and help. That said, a church is not required to permit addicts to shoot up heroin on their doorsteps.
Episcopalianism is a dying denomination. At one point, the American arm of the Church of England was one of the most respectable churches in the country, but the organizational decay brought about by progressive Bishops has made it undesirable for the faithful. In 1980, the church had over 2,556,926 congregants. It now has less than 1,637,945, as of 2019. Its base is dying off or fleeing to conservative breakaway factions like the Anglican Church of North America. It is being replaced mostly by non-religious children. Meanwhile, its decadent Bishops are happy to ride out the decline, managing it by holding onto their empty cathedrals, and attempting to pander to atheist leftists by embracing the LGBTQ+ and BlackLivesMatter lobbies. Here is a local parish in Lebanon, TN bragging about its female priest (a blatant heresy). The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York regularly hosts Muslim and Buddhist ceremonies.
Christ Church Cathedral is in many regards the epitome of the modern Episcopal movement, beautiful but dead, enormous but empty, monolithic, and historical but wasted. Admittedly, I was in attendance at a very early mass and I can’t speak to the church’s regular attendance. The early mass didn’t give it a good look though. Even if this particular cathedral sees large weekly crowds, it will remain an outlier. The Episcopal movement is dying, a victim of progressive indoctrination and universalist heresies.
As my friend at the Nashville Pamphleteer wrote, “Christ Church seems more concerned about preserving a dwindling congregation with similar political views than carrying out its stated mission. ”
The church as a whole has very little to offer and the few remaking Episcopalians are all older generation ones who are going to die off and take the church with them. Their feeble attempts to adapt the church to modernity have pushed away the religiously starved youth, the open-minded progressives, and the religious alike — leaving only a husk where a great Cathedral used to be. The spirit of God did not move in that mass.
Compare this to my experience with St. Elizabeth’s Orthodox Church of Murfreesboro. After morning mass, I drove 45 minutes south to this unassuming little church building in the country. It was very different. It was clearly a smaller parish building, from the inside though it was packed. This small community was deeply engaged and energetic.
I’m not Orthodox so I should say that everything about the experience was terrifying and different, no offense to my friend who invited me. I’m sure he would’ve had a similar experience to myself the first time he visited an Orthodox service. The service was nearly three hours long and the congregation was standing. Orthodox services don’t use pews, unlike modern Catholic and Protestant ones. Instead, the entire parish stands and sits in the direction of the priest.
The service was evidently clearly structured but I couldn’t make sense of it. A small choir of Gregorian Chanters stood at the edge of the room, repeating a handful of hymns in Greek and English in some of the most beautiful singing I’d ever heard in a church. The air was thick with the smell of incense, which was regularly paraded around the room. For long stretches of time, the priest would close the curtains surrounding the altar at the front of the room and bless the holy sacrament away from the eyes of the public. There was a short 20-minute sermon, but the rest of the event was focused on chanting, parading holy objects around the standing crowded room, and waiting in line to partake in the eucharist, which had to be fed over a cloth so the crumbs of the body wouldn’t fall onto the floor.
I even got to see an infant baptism, which lasted nearly 30 minutes as the parents repeated several phrases three times in a row back to the priest before being invited into the room, and watching the baby get his entire body dunked in a large bowl of water.
The entire event felt like stepping back into a medieval monastery. It was ethereal, otherworld, meditative, something more participative than comprehensible. That seems to be mostly in line with what I’ve heard about Orthodoxy, that its a religion less focused on the written word of theology and is more about the ritual and symbolic understanding of the creator, that he’s not something to be limited by words but obeyed and experienced, unlike the western tradition which embraces scholasticism more deeply.
As one would expect, I emerged from the service with sore feet and an empty stomach. Thankfully, the parish actually feeds its attendees, or at least fed them the day I was in attendance as there were several out-of-town families in the room visiting for the Baptism. The small little old church building could barely fit all of the people in attendance, who gathered inside for tea, coffee, and beef sandwiches while children ran around the enormous open yard out back.
I emerged from both masses an unconverted man. I remain convinced in my conviction that the one true church is clearly the Church of England and that all souls who refuse to submit to Canterbury have committed a damnable heresy worthy of an eternity in Hell (ha ha ha). The experience hadn’t deterred my current religious path of seeking Christ through Protestant high church liturgy. It was quite an affecting experience though.
The effects of both masses should be evident. St. Elizabeth was a thriving church, a living place with dozens of young families, children, and people who had crawled into this space looking for truth and wisdom. Many of the adherents were covered in tattoos beneath female headscarves, a symbol of radical modernity being overtaken by radical tradition. It was a church brimming with life, youth, and vitality. While the old miserly codgers at Christ Church enjoyed the beauty of stained glass windows and empty seats, this poor little parish with wood icons and hand-drawn paintings of the apostles felt like a space the Holy Spirit was actively moving through.
It was the closest I’ve ever felt to imagining what it must’ve been like to walk through the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament, where God himself would sit on his throne as the Jews would pour the blood of animal sacrifices over it to pay for the sins of Israel, a place where the glory of the lord could be seen and felt among the people.
Of course, the spirit of God is not limited to such places. I felt it when I was a boy I remember feeling the same warmth and movement whenever my grandmother and grandfather would sit me down at night and make me read the Bible with them. The spirit of God moves wherever his believers are, and if that is the case, Christ Church Church has a lot of explaining to do. There is a distinct possibility that the Episcopal Church no longer has two Christians left…