PASTOR The Reverend Jeffrey Walker
ADDRESS 1941 Webberville Road
PHONE 512-926-6339
MAIN SERVICE Sundays at 8:00 A.M. (Rite I) and 10:15 A.M. (Rite II with music)

One seldom encounters the Nicene Creed and the gospel-country classic “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” in the same worship service. But Austin’s St. James’ Episcopal Church, “an inclusive multicultural community,” is not your average Anglican assemblage. In the early forties, when a small group of African American Episcopalians found themselves unwelcome at the city’s all-white churches, they enlisted the Reverend John D. Epps, the dean of the Colored Convocation of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, to help them form a “Negro” congregation. Today, the five-hundred-plus-member church is fully integrated, flourishing, and such an exemplary parish that its former rector, the Reverend Greg Rickel, was installed this past summer as bishop of the Diocese of Olympia, which includes Seattle and the rest of western Washington. As an even more visible sign of its vitality, the church, which had outgrown its facilities on East Martin Luther King Boulevard, recently moved into spacious new quarters a few blocks away, on Webberville Road.

Although most of those present on the day of my visit, especially the white folk, were dressed quite casually, and the choir robes were red T-shirts, the priests, lay ministers, and acolytes wore traditional vestments, and the service followed the formal liturgy for “Holy Eucharist: Rite II” in the Book of Common Prayer. Under the direction of the Reverend Amy Donohue-Adams, the presider for the day, we recited opening sentences, sang hymns, read a prayer, heard some Scripture, and intoned those little chants that I’ve sometimes suspected were designed to help differentiate Episcopal sheep from visiting goats.

The Scripture readings, from Amos, 1 Timothy, and Luke, dealt with economic inequality, social injustice, and shady business practices, so it came as no surprise that the Reverend William Seth Adams, professor emeritus at Austin’s Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest and the “priest in charge” until the arrival of interim rector Jeffrey Walker, touched on all these in his homily. Citing a sermon by William Temple, the archbishop of Canterbury in the early forties, he asserted the church’s responsibility to speak out on political and economic matters and called for a distribution of wealth that enables all members of society to have, at a minimum, decent shelter and enough to eat. Adams also spoke of the summer’s racial friction in Jena, Louisiana, stressing that it was not a problem of “those people” but an example of the consequences of white privilege, itself closely tied to economic inequality.

Indicting though it was, especially to affluent whites, the sermon was not a harangue. Adams asserted that the Eucharist, in which everyone gets to eat and drink, is a symbolic reminder of God’s dream for society, a foretaste of the “reign of God” (a term that has replaced the male-gendered “kingdom” in churches using “inclusive language”). At a more concrete level, he recounted the history of St. James’ School, which arose from a desire to establish an institution in East Austin comparable in quality to the three Episcopal schools (St. Stephen’s, St. Andrew’s, and Trinity) that serve the predominately white population of West Austin. With 53 students, primarily African American and Latino, the school is small, but its move to the church’s new facilities will enable it to serve more families “eager for solid early-childhood education and almost universally unable to afford it.” Adams proudly noted that contributions from this and other parishes had provided scholarships to nearly 70 percent of the students. Every day, he said, one can see “the distribution of wealth and the integration of hearts and mind, an integration that will help to dismantle the malevolent substructure of racism.”

Following the sermon, we recited the Nicene Creed, a fourth-century reminder of a time when church leaders struggled over concepts more abstruse than whether gay priests should become bishops. Next came the Prayers of the People, another recitation prescribed in detail except for a few fill-in-the-blank segments. We prayed for presiding bishop Katharine; bishops Don, Dena, and Rayford; priests Ed, Hugh, Margarita, Amy, and Bill; and political leaders George and Rick. We prayed for St. James’ School, Huston-Tillotson University, the Seminary of the Southwest, and a hospital in Gaza, perhaps reflecting the Episcopal Church’s long-standing concern over the plight of Palestinians. We also prayed for “our armed forces . . . and for those who worry and wait for them.” Since the church bulletin listed 29 parish members who are in the military, 17 of whom are deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan, I’m guessing that this portion of the prayer was said with greater fervency than in most Episcopal churches west of Interstate 35.

At that point, it appeared we were just a few minutes away from the Eucharist and that the service would be over within the customary hour or so. I was mistaken. Adams had given special attention to the school because it was the day for the commissioning of its entire staff. Introducing each one, explaining their roles, and pronouncing an appropriate blessing took a while. Then came the Exchanging of the Peace. That pleasant ritual usually involves little more than mumbling something like “The peace of the Lord be with you” or maybe just “Good morning” to a few people in easy reach. Not at St. James’. I didn’t check my watch, but I’d guess we spent at least ten minutes meeting most of those within twenty or thirty feet, while the organ played “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.”

After that, all visitors were introduced and greeted with warm applause, followed by a mention of birthdays and anniversaries. Then came announcements. The first item amounted to a celebrative recollection of Rickel’s ordination the previous weekend. Next, a lady enthused about Jazz at St. James’, a weekend of entertainment and worship that would feature such notables as Cedar Walton and the Ephraim Owens Quintet, as well as—I’m not making this up—“the Brazilian sounds of the Crying Monkeys.” Other announcements included a reminder that an oncologist would lecture the following Sunday about common cancers. It all bespoke an active, vibrant community, though I understood when a young woman turned to me with a smile and said, in a rueful tone, “I was raised Catholic, and I still can’t get used to this right before Communion.”

The time for Communion did eventually arrive and, like the congregation itself, was openhearted; all present were invited to partake. As those who wished to do so received the bread and the cup, the choir sang a spirited set of songs, some with a definite gospel sound. The service ended in a grand manner, as we sang James Weldon Johnson’s rousing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which the NAACP designated “the Negro National Anthem” in 1919 and has long been a standard in black churches. It was a fine way to climax two hours of encouragement, worship, and fellowship, acknowledging the deep imperfections of our country but refusing to surrender to despair—and recognizing that churches, Episcopal and other, can be a bastion of privilege or a beacon of hope.