At the building that once housed the Church of the Holy Spirit in Wayland, one chapter has ended and another is just beginning. The closed church has been sold to a Coptic Orthodox congregation, and Bishop Gayle E. Harris represented the Diocese of Massachusetts at the transfer of ecclesiastical authority on Feb. 24.
The Coptic Orthodox service incorporated Episcopal hymns and prayers, and was attended by more than 200 people, including many former members of the church, members of Diocesan Council and of the wider community. Harris, who officially read the transfer of ecclesiastical authority at the service, said that it was a moving experience to see the building passed to another community that would care for it.
“I spoke with a founding member of Holy Spirit, Wayland, who came up to me with tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘This is so beautiful. I was so sad, but now I see how much [the Coptic Orthodox congregation] loves this church, and I don’t feel bad anymore. Yes, I miss my church, but it’s going to be loved,’” Harris said.
The Church of the Holy Spirit held its last service as an Episcopal Church in June 2015. The diminished size of the congregation led to the decision to close and sell the property. The sale of the building is complete. Diocesan personnel, members of the former Church of the Holy Spirit and the Coptic Orthodox community are still working together on the handling of the Holy Spirit memorial garden, where ashes are interred.
A transfer of ecclesiastical authority takes the place of a secularization (sometimes called a deconsecration) in an instance where a church building is being passed to another Christian community with apostolic succession, rather than another faith tradition or a secular entity. Harris was instrumental in accompanying both the Episcopal and Coptic Orthodox communities through the process of the closing, sale and transfer.
“My job of shepherding this was to connect people, and to put it in a theological perspective, of how this is one sister church to another sister church,” Harris said. “We share not just faith as Christians, but the Orthodox and Episcopal Church also share a threefold historic ministry of deacons, priests and bishops. We share the creeds. We share reverence of the sacraments. We also have apostolic succession together, which we don’t see except in the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. I felt we had to make a strong statement that these two denominations are working together and saying, we are part of the same family.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian denomination in Egypt and in the Middle East. Its traditions derive from the teachings of St. Mark the Evangelist, who brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century A.D. The head of the Church is the Patriarch of Alexandria, also known as the Coptic pope, who presides from Cairo, Egypt.
Harris spoke early on in the process with Father Samuel Hanna, the priest of the Coptic Orthodox congregation in Natick, about selling the Wayland property to the Coptic Orthodox church.
“It really was their dream to have this church,” said Harris, noting that the members of the Coptic Orthodox church had spent time at Holy Spirit for ecumenical and interfaith services. She said that the former rector of Holy Spirit, the Rev. Fred Moser, had been very active in building ecumenical and interfaith relationships in Wayland and the surrounding area.
“[Father Hanna] came to me, and I connected him to our offices here, with [chief business officer] Gerry Sullivan and [coordinator for congregational support] Steve Pierce. The whole of the Massachusetts Council of Churches were saying, what a wonderful sign if another church uses these grounds instead of it being torn down, or converted to a school, or housing.”
Harris praised Pierce and Sullivan for being “not just legalistic but pastoral and affirming” in their business dealings with the Coptic Orthodox church. “This was not just a business deal,” Harris said. “The Christ in us was reaching the Christ in them.”
Pierce said that Holy Spirit and diocesan personnel worked with the diocesan Standing Committee and Real Estate Advisory Committee, and people who were knowledgeable about real estate in the area. They determined that zoning and some other technical details made it most advantageous to keep the property as a church. Pierce also pointed to the theological and doctrinal connections between the Episcopal and Coptic Orthodox traditions.
“If you had to close it, this was not a bad way to do it. The Gospel will continue to be proclaimed from that site,” he said.
Harris selected the Episcopal prayers and hymn that were used during the service, choosing “In Christ There is No East or West” to honor the eastern Coptic Orthodox Church and the western Episcopal Church. Coptic Orthodox hymns are chanted a cappella, not sung with a piano or organ, but an organist volunteered to accompany the hymn. Harris said she was moved to see that many members of the Coptic Orthodox congregation joined in. “They did not even have the music, just the words, and this was something alien to their tradition, but by the time we got to the third verse, many of them had joined in,” she said.
Hanna and the local Coptic Orthodox community hope to continue an ecumenical relationship with the Diocese of Massachusetts, Harris said. “They want us to keep being in touch with them. It’s not just an exchange of money or real estate, it’s an indwelling with each other,” she said. She called the transfer one of the highlights of her ministry.
“This is when we are at our best, when we recognize Christ in each other and are living out our baptismal vows,” she said. “We say, ‘Will you seek and serve Christ in every human being?’ and I can say in this service, the vow, the mission was accomplished. This is the way all things should be, and they’re often not, but in this moment we got a glimpse of what it can be.”
--Ellen Stuart Kittle