Saturday, April 20, 2013

Anglicanism Future: Church of the Incarnation, Pittsburgh

Last week, I was on the stand in Quincy, Illinois, testifying to the condition of Anglicanism past; on April 13, I listened enthralled to Bishop FitzSimons Allison (a sprightly eighty-nine year old retired bishop of South Carolina) on the Scylla and Charybdis of Anglicanism present; and on April 14, I observed the state of Anglicanism future, as manifested at Pittsburgh’s Church of the Incarnation. While my focus here is on Church of the Incarnation, Bishop Allison’s remarks threw Sunday’s worship experience into sharp relief.


In 2011, when Trinity Cathedral withdrew from its earlier commitment to dual membership in both the TEC and ACNA dioceses, a significant section of the congregation felt unable to remain. Initially meeting as a house church, Incarnation’s founders – foremost among them, Fathers Paul Johnston and H. Lawrence “Laurie” Thompson and their wives Sharon and Mary – worked to assemble the necessary mission structures even as they searched for a suitable building for Sunday worship. Initially, the mission explored possible sites in the Johnstons’ neighborhood of Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh’s downtown community (known as the Golden Triangle), but without success. Instead, there came an entirely unexpected offer from the owners of Bar Marco, an upscale wine bar located in a former firehouse in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The upper level of the firehouse, then used for art exhibitions, would be available on Sundays after 3:00 PM (when Bar Marco closes for the day). To Incarnation’s leaders, it seemed an answer to a prayer.

To see this former firehouse for the first time dramatically alters one’s perspective on the nature of liturgical space. As with most missions, the weekly need to set out congregational seating and vest a table (purchased from IKEA) to serve as an altar helps emphasize the priority of the Body of Christ over the church building as sacred space set apart from the world (while there may be a spiritual downside to this, it is the nature of this community). The room itself is long and rectangular approached by two rear staircases one rising from the bar and the other from the rear kitchen. Above the congregation looms an impressive cast tin roof installed in a less utilitarian age when form mattered as much as function (even for the emergency services). At the west end (the liturgist may deplore it, but Church of the Incarnation celebrates the Eucharist at the West End) are three large glass windows looking out onto the Strip. In a reminder that worldly and sacred space intersect at Incarnation, the art on exhibition remains in place (except for one painting temporarily taken down to accommodate the Cross), but Incarnation also proudly celebrates its own individually crafted Paschal Candle (the work of Suzanne Trenney).

Incarnation is a church of artists and musicians, actors and dance professionals, and even an architect who is presently working on developing movable screens to make best use of the temporary space. Many of Father Johnston's students (he teaches music at Carnegie Mellon University) have blessed Incarnation with their professional skills (last Sunday’s worship, for example, featured a euphonium quartet) and the congregation boasts a portable keyboard – acquired by Father Johnston – with a musical character much closer to an organ than one might expect. It is also privileged to have two seminary professors – Laurie Thompson and John Macdonald of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge – and a professor emerita of English literature at Geneva College – Ann Paton – providing pastoral support. Such personnel advantages are, however, no substitute for congregational participation and in that Incarnation is well supplied, from the choral team to the altar guild and hospitality ministry. Other ministry teams are already being planned, since the possibility of burnout increases exponentially with a congregation that has no institutional footprint.

For a congregation whose average Sunday attendance has been steadily rising in the past year (more than sixty were in attendance on Sunday) the setting presents a truly different perspective on evangelism. If it is not Anglo-Catholic, neither is it the archetypical Evangelical mission. Tradition, in its broadest sense, and the confluence of spirituality and the arts both matter. The world is literally just a staircase away. The communicant approaching the altar is greeted not by stained glass windows that shield the Body of Christ from the World, but clear glass opening onto the somewhat grubby reality of an urban commercial district. That reality is also the mission field and those receiving the Sacrament also receive an emphatic reminder of the end to which the Eucharist is intended.

No mission – like no human being – will ever get everything right, but it’s hard to fault Incarnation on the essentials. Much remains to be done, not least the manner in which the congregation will actively relate to its secular neighbors, but to be present is to see twenty-first century Anglicanism in action. If you live in Pittsburgh, pay them a visit. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.


The Rev Canon Dr David Wilson said...

Nice story Jeremy and thanks for all your work in Quincy. Too bad you can't be compensated at the same rate as the other side's expert historical witness!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article, will be sharing it. Great to meet you on Sunday!

Jeremy Bonner said...

Thanks David,

However, I'm quite satisfied with my level of compensation. Now if you join the chorus of those pressing for me to write the definitive history of ACNA, my talents can actually be put to something constructive.


Good to meet you too. May it be the start of a long connection between St. Matthew's and Incarnation.

I've only recently started a blogroll, but you and David are now linked.

Elena Edelstein said...

Thank you, Jeremy, for your eloquent witness and steadfast friendship! You and Jennifer will always be near and dear to us at Church of the Incarnation!

Bruce Robison said...

A great story, Jeremy, and thank you. An interesting "Anglican Future" aspect of Incarnation is that while the parish is functioning as a plant of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, one of its leading clergy members, Paul Johnston, is a priest in good standing of the Episcopal Diocese--and serving at Incarnation with the permission of Bishop McConnell . . . .

Bruce Robison

Paul Johnston said...

It's marvelous seeing the bipartisan interest Incarnation is generating. It's more than bipartisan, actually. The Roman Catholic Diocese and especially our neighbor parish of St. Stanislaus/St. Patrick have been immensely supportive, as well as Pastor Don Green and the ecumenical Christian Associates, among others.

A clarification on Fr. Bruce's post. At least half our clergy are in good standing with dioceses in both provinces, ACNA and TEC. This surprises many people, but it shouldn't. We have clergy, including myself, who served at Trinity Cathedral. We fought hard to preserve its Special Resolution to serve as mother church of both dioceses. We believed in the wisdom of it. We mourn the predictable but tragic consequences of the manner in which it was undone.

But it is meet and right so to say that while the blessing has been nonpartisan, the material and administrative and strategic support has been entirely from the ACNA.

Incarnation is immensely grateful for the missionary-mindedness of the ACNA and Archbishop Duncan which has unleashed such creativity across the province-in-formation. Happily for Pittsburgh, Bishop McConnell, too, is an ingenious evangelist and catechist. I trust no one is so churlish as to not pray for him, that he be wise and harmless enough to rebuild a diocese that will be both functional and faithful to the Gospel without running afoul the national church.

How effectively Pittsburgh TEC can, as Fr. Jim Simons used to say, "circle the wagons," even as 815 redefines the autonomy of dioceses, shall be something to watch. I believe we should rather hope that there will be such a level of reformation--including a withdrawal of legal challenges--that shared mission on common ground would someday again be possible.


Elizabeth Asche Douglas said...

As an art historian with a special interest in Christian iconology/iconography, I take issue with your descriptive evaluation of the worship space of the Church of the Incarnation, Pittsburgh: "The communicant approaching the altar is greeted not by stained glass windows that shield the Body of Christ from the World,.." I contend the opposite, that it does not shield, but instead illuminates,and signifies the glorious transformation of the Body of Christ. Going back to the monk Theophilus Presbyter in the early 12th century, and expanded upon and developed into the controlling aesthetic of Gothic stained glass by Abbot Suger from the mid-12th century rebuilding of the Abby of St. Denis, stained glass has played a profound part in the aesthetic dimension of worship.

Jeremy Bonner said...


Thanks for your comment, which admirably elucidates the iconic character of Gothic stained glass. I can only say that it has frequently not had that effect on me (which perhaps indicates a personal deficiency). I find the contrast between Incarnation's windows and those of every other church in which I have worshipped to be profound. Others may not be so affected.