At the Cathedral Church of St. Paul a few weeks ago, on the second Sunday of Easter, the procession into church took longer than usual to get where it was going.
Rather than the altar party following the crucifer down the central aisle from the back of the church, with people in the pews looking on over their hymnals, the entire congregation instead headed outdoors and made the uphill climb along the Park Street side of Boston Common toward the State House, took a right, and then a left, and continued down Bowdoin Street to the Church of St. John the Evangelist, its new temporary church home.
The congregations of the two churches have officially merged into one and will continue worshiping at St. John's until major renovations now underway at the cathedral are finished. The merged congregation will then return permanently to its renewed home at the cathedral. The St. John's church building on Bowdoin Street is being put up for sale to help pay for the renovations.
Though the two churches are within walking distance of each other, they are, when it comes to their congregations' worship styles, pretty far apart. Liturgy at St. John's represents high Anglo-Catholic tradition; much is sung, and a measure of polish and predictability comes with the adoration and incense. At the cathedral church, where there is a tradition of prophetic preaching, services are typically less practiced and entirely broad in their embrace of variety--a style that one observer recently described as a "both-and-and approach."
So the remarkable thing on that second Sunday of Easter when the two congregations came together was that the service was, in a word, unremarkable.
"It just seemed like a normal thing," said the Very Rev. Jep Streit, the cathedral's dean, "although, I'll confess, it probably felt a little more normal to the people from St. John's than it did to us. But it felt right, something that we're going to continue to grow into and build on," Streit said.
In a sermon preached early last year, as the congregations were in the process of voting for the merger, the Rev. Steven Bonsey, the cathedral's former canon pastor, said the merger was not unlike a marriage of convenience.
"On our side, we have committed ourselves to a major renovation, but we don't have nearly enough money to accomplish it. On their side, they have struggled for years with a declining membership and financial base. We are getting married because we need each other. We have a stable community and a viable infrastructure; they have a building that might be sold to finance our renovations," Bonsey said.
It was not a bad thing, he said, if there was little romance involved "because what this merger will need, if it goes forward, is not romance, but love: gritty, deep, determined, selfless, persevering, messy, brave, reconciling, joyous love," the kind of love, he went on to say, that the cathedral's patron saint described to the Corinthians: Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
"That is to say, Christian love, love that makes possible the great mystery of two becoming one," Bonsey said.
At least one thing that these two churches have in common is that each started out as something else.
The Church of St. John the Evangelist didn't begin as a parish of the diocese and only officially became one in 1985. For a century prior, it was a mission church of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, founded as such in 1883--just a little over a decade after the society's arrival in America from England. It served, among others, the poor and unemployed in Boston's West End. (Before that, the gothic-style stone building on Bowdoin Street, built in 1831 as a Congregational church, was home to the Church of the Advent, now on Brimmer Street.)
For its part, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul wasn't built as a cathedral. Its founders wanted to establish a wholly American Episcopal parish, the other Boston parishes having originated from the Church of England. They commissioned a church to be built on Tremont Street in the style of a Greek temple in honor of the democratic ideals of the new nation. It was consecrated in 1820 as St. Paul's Church. It was not until 1912 that Bishop William Lawrence, envisioning "a house of prayer for all," named it the diocese's cathedral church and put the bishop's seat there.
The current merger, closure and sale, refurbishment and hoped-for renewal between these two churches is happening on the watch of a monk bishop uniquely connected to both places through his religious community and his episcopate.
"I have to think the Holy Spirit is involved in this," the Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE said as he recalled how he wasn't immediately fond of either place upon arrival--neither at St. John's as an SSJE novice back in 1975 nor at the cathedral church when he became bishop of the diocese in 1995.
His appreciation for each has grown over time, he said, just as the potential fruits of the cathedral-St. John's merger will need time to develop.
"We always want it all revealed way too soon, before we've lived it. This is a mystery. We don't know what God is looking for in this yet," Shaw said.
"One of the real gifts the cathedral has given to me has been faithfulness about bringing all kinds of people together, and that's something that's an important example for all of us. With St. John's, there has been a kind of witness about the place that worship plays in our lives, how it feeds us for everything else. I think we should look at what we're being offered through this merger as an opportunity to do things differently. It's an exciting time to be part of the church," Shaw said.
It's possible to believe that, he said, even though membership decline is a reality for all mainline Christian denominations.
"We know that God is calling us into change. We know that's true for us in the Episcopal Church and in the Diocese of Massachusetts. The change we're being called into, it's often pretty hard. We need to be able to say to each other: Nothing may be the same as it was before, but everyone is going to be included. It's openness in our prayer and to one another that helps us move into the larger vision that God is always calling us into," he said.
That, and some practicality, too.
"We have way too many buildings. That needs to be said over and over again. Whenever the church gives up a building, even if it's a building built for another situation or time, it's seen by some as giving in. But what we're giving in to, at least in this case, is new possibility," Shaw said.
"We're all gaining," the Rev. Canon Katharine Black, priest-in charge at St. John's and now canon for liturgies at the cathedral, said of the merger. "We've not yet dealt with saying goodbye to Bowdoin Street and that will be a sadness, but there is also the positive nature of new life that we had not anticipated. I think this is a story about extraordinary providence."
Ann Page Stecker, a St. John's vestry member who serves on the joint council for the merger, recalled that back in November 2012, when the merger idea was proposed, "We would have been, in another year or two, handing the keys to the bishop. We didn't have enough to sustain ourselves. There was within the vestry an almost immediate and unanimous sigh of relief and an idea that we could look ahead. It seemed to me this was such an opportunity for our parish to not die on the vine but be able to return, in new company, to our social mission, which we had practically had to abandon."
Even though St. John's was agreeing to give up its building, and its small congregation (about 25 on an average Sunday) would be joining a larger configuration at the cathedral, it still felt from the beginning like a merger and not an acquisition, Stecker said.
"I've been attracted to the thorough nature of the process and the pastoral way in which our friends at St. Paul's have looked at what we're losing. We also understand they are losing their worship space for a year, and when we return, it's going to be different. Beautiful, but different," she said.
The Cathedral Church of St. Paul is home to the varied worship life of Sunday English and Chinese-speaking congregations; a young adult community, The Crossing, which worships on Thursdays; and guests of the weekly lunch program, many of whom are homeless, who worship on Mondays, as well as a Muslim congregation numbering several hundred who pray at the cathedral on Fridays.
"Our building is not as welcoming as the people who gather in it," cathedral dean Jep Streit said of the need for renovations, citing a litany of the building's impediments: "Our front is intimidating; the interior feels dim; there's no flexibility in how we can use the space; our heating system is the most expensive and inefficient, with the largest carbon footprint possible; and our tiny, claustrophobic lift is technically legal but morally bankrupt, in that anyone who has difficulty with stairs is made to feel unwelcome.
"I believe Episcopalians in the diocese are proud of the ministry and witness the cathedral makes, and I want them to be proud of our building as well," Streit said.
Soon after services on Easter Day, the furniture and liturgical appointments went into storage, and crews dismantled and sealed off the organ and its pipes. Workers are removing the box pews, for good, and demolition is underway to make way for a glass elevator so that all levels of the building will be fully handicapped accessible; an energy-efficient heating and ventilation system; a skylight, LED lighting and chandeliers to brighten the sanctuary; new glass doorways and a new glass-enclosed chapel.
A labyrinth will be incorporated into the cathedral's new floor, as will tiles engraved with the names and founding dates of all the parishes of the diocese since the cathedral's founding (including those that have closed).
There will also be improvements to Sproat Hall in the lower level, including new bathrooms relocated to the front of the building where they will be accessible and easy to find.
The renovations, by Delphi Construction of Waltham, are expected to take 10-12 months and will cost about $9 million, according to Streit. The project received $4 million from the diocese's Together Now fundraising campaign. Streit said the intention is to make up the gap through the sale of the St. John's property, being marketed by Jones Lang LaSalle, and, if necessary, some combination of endowment funds or other fundraising.
The project's architect, Brett Donham, a principal of the firm Donham & Sweeney, said one of the biggest challenges has been "to meet as many of the needs and desires of different constituencies as possible--and I think we have done that--without losing a sense of a unified vision for the building."
A key request from the building committee, he said, was "to make the building function better, particularly in terms of flexibility required by different activities that take place here, from a small service on a Thursday night all the way up to a Diocesan Convention." Part of the solution was to replace the front-facing box pews with chairs that can be configured around a centrally positioned altar.
"Episcopalians are a little like mercury. You put them in a room and they go to the far corners," Donham said. He and his firm are experienced with church renovation projects and how physical space informs people's worship experience.
"I believe very strongly in the importance of worshiping in community," he said. "It is a big space, so the patterning of the seating and the concentration of light in the middle over an altar will enable people to bond around the worship experience in a way that they won't scattered throughout directional pews."
(The hardwood moldings from the old box pews will be reused as stair railings, Streit said. The boxes themselves are not original to the building and not made of high quality wood. "Still, they're precious to those who have prayed in them for decades, so I've asked the crew to see if there's some respectful way to repurpose the wood in another project," he said.)
Incorporating glass into the Tremont Street-facing front was a way "to make the many ministries that take place here visible to the wider world," Donham said.
The new glass-enclosed chapel will enhance that visibility, and it will extend St. John's presence into the new space. It will be named the St. John the Evangelist Chapel and will incorporate the black madonna sculpture from Bowdoin Street that Bishop Shaw spent many hours praying with as a novice there.
"People on the outside can look in and see that this is a church and not a bank," the Rev. Canon Katharine Black said.
"And we can look out and see the world that God is calling us into," Streit added.
--Tracy J. Sukraw
While the Cathedral Church of St. Paul is closed for renovations, Sunday services are at 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. at the Church of St. John the Evangelist (35 Bowdoin Street) in Boston. St. John's is also hosting the MANNA/Monday Lunch program. The Chinese congregation will continue to worship on Sundays at 12:30 p.m. in the Lawrence Room at 138 Tremont Street. The Crossing will meet on Thursdays at 6 p.m. in the Lawrence Room. The Muslim congregation is praying at the Paulist Center on Park Street during the renovations.