To discuss the Episcopal Church as it now is may be, to borrow from Dr. Johnson, “to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility.” Still, it clarifies thought to consider the present state in America of an institution that once expressed the spiritual life of much of our branch of European civilization. Maybe the Episcopal Church still does express our collective spiritual life. It certainly tries hard enough. However that may be, here’s something from Episcopal Life, a national publication included as an insert to the monthly fishwrap put out by the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, that shows where the church is at now. I find it beyond comment:
Finding equal footing: Giant pew provokes intergenerational innovation
By Russ Barnes for Episcopal Life
“I FEEL AS IF I’m flying,” exclaims Maurine Holbert Hogaboom, 90, sitting in the giant oak pew at a church in St. Mary’s City, Md., her feet dangling way above the floor: She sits, rocking back and forth a bit, on an equal footing with 8-year-old children whose feet are accustomed to dangling from ordinary-sized pews every Sunday.
The giant pew, complete with a “modesty panel” in front, is becoming an icon for a new movement in liturgical reform. The meaning it telegraphs is the need for intergenerational communication within worship, according to the Rev. Caroline Fairless, founder and director of the organization Children at Worship.
“The purpose of Children at Worship is to devise ways to shock ourselves into realizing that children are not only capable of experiencing the divine, but are also key members of the community needed by adults to understand God,” says Fairless.
Jim Sims, Fairless’ husband, says faith affiliation is declining among teens and children in the United States. One solution may be the giant pew.
“The pew provokes you to consider who you are,” says Sims, its creator and builder. “It’s humorous. The pew brings out the humanity of everyone who sits in it; young and old.” The pew is now on the road to as many as 20 church-conference locations a year.
“Once you sit in the giant pew, there is no turning back to your old ways of thinking about church,” says Suffragan Bishop Catherine S. Roskam of the Diocese of New York.
That’s just why Sims, a former construction contractor, built the pew. Modeled after one he studied at his parish church in Wilmington, N.C., the pew is built in eight sections, each small enough when disassembled to be shuttled around in his van. It is twice the size of an ordinary pew, so that, when sitting in it, a six-foot-tall adult feels like a three-foot-tall, 8-year-old child. The leveling of age status by means of the pew has spiritual and psychological implications.
“No one is more marginalized than, say, a 3-year-old,” says Roskam. “If we are able to identify with a 3-year-old, we are able-lo learn from anyone marginalized”—including the 3-year-old we, as adults, feel within ourselves.”
While the liturgical reforms being. promoted by Children at Worship have a theological basis, the experiment also is practical. Although membership in the Episcopal Church has grown slightly over the past several years, there are gaping age inequities. Leaders in the Episcopal Church are on average 57.9 years old—a decided contrast to the 36.4 average age of the U.S. population. Such an age gap drains younger age groups out of the church.
“Children, as they grow up, vote with their feet, and many leave the church,” says Fairless. “Young generations are not being nourished in the faith. So this tradition is losing generations.”
While dramatizing some of the liturgical problems in conventional worship settings—and suggesting possible solutions—with the giant pew, Children at Worship stages workshops and experimental liturgy at such locations as Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s City.
At an early summer conference, Fairless and Sims set up the pew and led a dramatic approach to liturgy including adapted, interactive Bible readings. The leaders made the drama conform to the traditional order of service for the Eucharist.
The experiments were staged using a variety of seating arrangements. Fairless says it “takes much more work to prepare for a structured alternative liturgy than it does to perform readings from the prayer book.”
As members of Children at Worship loaded sections of the giant pew into the van, Sims looked at his creation and said, “I am a person who has stayed in touch with the lad I used to be. I know many who have locked away those children within themselves. The pew, I hope, may liberate some of that childlike energy and allow it to flow among.the generations.”
Children at Worship may be reached at www.childrenatworship.org.
Russ Barnes is a uniter and playwright from Bethesda, Md. He is currently working on a book, “God, Computers, and Us: Information Code of Boundless Blessing. ‘