On Wednesday evenings this past month, members of my church (that “my” is intended loosely!), St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church, have been gathering to talk about “beloved community.” These discussions have been led by members of the Beloved in the Desert intentional community of young adults at our church that I first mentioned a couple months ago. Now that their series has concluded, I’m feeling nudged by the Spirit to share some elements of the conversations and my reflections upon them.
St. Philip’s is the largest Episcopal church in Tucson, and one of the oldest. In fact, it has helped found a number of the other churches in Tucson over the decades. It has a large, charming, Spanish mission-esque church campus with desert plants, picturesque courtyards, and lots of nooks and corners for prayer and reflection (you can check out the many gorgeous photos of the campus posted by community members here).
I will freely admit that I’m not generally a big-church person. I have preferred belonging to smaller communities. My best conversations happen 1-with-1; that’s my most comfortable style. I’m not a big fan of some of the seemingly inevitable big-church priorities, like brass plaques commemorating who donated what. St. Philip’s is known for its music program, to which dozens have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years—and I’ve sometimes groused to Henry that I don’t love the “worship of music” which means, for example, that I don’t get to join in singing the psalm.
And yet—I have been captivated by the community. This church has a vibrant core community of vastly varied people (at least in terms of age, social status, and orientation) who gather to wrestle with important issues—like priorities in Christian community, which is one of the topics that came up at our table last Wednesday.
St. Philip’s has hosted a copy of the Gospels from the Saint John’s Bible over the past year (for anyone in the Tucson area, there’s an upcoming closing presentation and lunch where all seven books of this illuminated Bible will be present). As its time here draws to a close, some folks are talking wistfully about the (remote!) possibility of someone giving enough money to purchase a copy of this “Heritage Edition” for the church—exactly the sort of thing that a large church might expect to happen.
And yet…someone at our table mentioned that the six-figure funds for that Bible might be much better spent in helping bring down the six-figure school debts being carried by each of our church’s ordained leaders. It costs a lot of money to attend seminary (I know, since both Henry and I have done so!), on top of an undergraduate education. As a Christian community, shouldn’t our priorities be oriented toward supporting present and future leaders, rather than purchasing more expensive objects to care for and insure? (Of course, there’s also the issue of how people’s giving follows their passions, and it’s a lot easier to become passionate about a gorgeously illuminated Bible than it is about someone else’s debt!)
I did a bit of searching online and discovered that the Lily Endowment Fund is paying attention to this issue, but I couldn’t easily find anything on what the Episcopal Church is doing. Unfortunately, US tax laws prevent the designation of donated funds to pay for specific personal expenses of church employees, so I can’t give to the church and expect those funds to end up doing what I want. (I will be writing more next week about how American society actually makes Christian community life more difficult.)
So, I will have to ask around and discover what creative solutions might be possible, because I believe we need to be radically revisiting our spiritual and faith-community priorities. After all, our best legacy lies not in a church building, beautiful though it may be, but in the people who are Christ for each other, in that building and reaching beyond it, into our broader society and around the world.
This week, I invite you to ponder the community-priority issues you have encountered. What creative solutions might God have for you to undertake or discover—large or small—to support your spiritual community?