Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Where Grace Abounds

Grace Episcopal Church, Woodlawn

Having been raised in the Baptist faith, I came to adopt a more ancient Christian tradition after I began to explore the liturgical heritage in the Episcopal Church and then in the Roman Catholic Church. While I have been a practicing Catholic for 15 years, there are still some days when I am more Anglican in my leanings. I am sure that is why for the past two years I have chosen to spend Advent at Grace Episcopal Church in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama.

A Long History in the City

Interior windows
Grace Episcopal Church is a small Anglo-Catholic parish in a part of town that has been declining for decades. It has a vibrant outreach to the community as it seeks to feed the hungry and offer clothing and assistance to the needy. One may encounter a panhandler or two while going to and from the worship service since the church is known for giving aid. Grace’s slogan is, after all, “Where Street and Altar Meet!”

Founded over 100 years ago in the early days of the iron industry boom, Grace ministered to families moving to the area to work in the mills and foundries of “The Magic City.” During the 1970s, the neighborhood shifted from being a middle class white neighborhood to predominantly African-American and Hispanic. Instead of fleeing to the suburbs, Grace shifted its focus to the needs of the neighborhood by starting a daily soup kitchen, a food pantry, and a clothes closet. They also offer emergency shelter and a summer camp for teens in the neighborhood. [1]


Altar in front of Christ the King stained glass window

The Anglo-Catholic Heritage

Grace Church offers a rich worship experience in the Anglo-Catholic liturgy. The Anglican tradition is said to be both Catholic and Protestant. While many parishes are more Protestant in appearance, with services that are somewhat sparse and plain in liturgical trappings ("Low Church"), a few embrace the full liturgical expressions of the historic faith: incense, bells, sung liturgy, etc., with the Mass being central to the worship service ("High Church"). (What many of my Catholic friends do not realize is that the Anglo-Catholic expression of worship is much more “Catholic” than most Catholic parishes these days.)

Advent wreaths at Grace
My Advent experience at Grace was one of re-connecting with some old friends, and a time of waiting in hope for the Christ event. Yes, there was the ancient liturgical witness that included the fragrant rising of incense and the tolling of the bells. There were white-robbed acolytes bearing torches, a cross, and a thurible. There was music from the organ and the choir. The Reverend Robyn Arnold, rector, effectively delivered thoughtful and heart-felt homilies (I found myself jotting notes in the margins of my church bulletin). Then there was the devotional recitation of the Angelus at each Mass during Advent as we honored the Incarnation and paid tribute to Mary’s role in the Incarnation. [2]

 Into the World

In addition to rich liturgical worship, there was the unavoidable connection to the world. For one thing, these people are wandering passers of the peace. That moment in the service in which we greet one another with the sign of peace is for Grace parishioners a time to leave their pews to greet everyone they can with handshakes, hugs (and even some kisses). It may have been a little bit past my introvert "comfort zone," yet I saw it as a sign that they were both a community and a family of faith.  The "sign of peace" is indeed an affirmation of our connection with one another.

The other unavoidable connection to the world was that while driving through the neighborhood, one is confronted with many who are in need. There are people who are not only in immediate need of food and shelter, but are also lacking in vision and prospects for the future. Grace Church dwells with the truth found in the Epistle of James, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2: 15,16)

So if you want to get closer to the liturgy, or closer to the street, Grace Episcopal Church in Woodlawn is the place to go.

Side street view


[All photos were taken from Grace Episcopal Church's website and Facebook site]
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1. For more information about the outreach ministries at Grace, go to http://www.gracechurchwoodlawn.org/outreachministries.html

2. To read more about the Angelus, go to http://www.ourcatholicprayers.com/the-angelus.html



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