Why Are We Here? Sermon for the anniversary of the Advocate

September 20, 2015
Lisa Fischbeck @TheAdvocate

 Why Are We Here?

The Advocate was launched on September 21, 2003 not only because it was the Feast of St. Matthew, but because the Feast of St. Matthew that year marked 250 years of Anglican/Episcopal ministry in Orange County, North Carolina.

St. Matthews Church in Hillsborough was formed by an act of the Colonial Legislature in 1753. St Matthew’s started the Chapel of the Cross a hundred or so years later in order to provide Episcopal ministry and presence at the largely Presbyterian University of North Carolina. Roughly a hundred years after that the Chapel of the Cross spawned Church of the Holy Family in 1952, in order to provide a church for all the young families coming this way after World War II and the expansion of UNC.

All three of those churches gave birth to the Advocate in 2003.

One of the first questions that had to be answered before and even after that launch was “Why another church?” What can this new church do that isn’t already being done, or that can’t be done another way? What can this new church be that justifies the human and economic resources it will take for this mission to flourish? Or, as one Diocesan official asked, “Why can’t you just be a congregation within the congregation of The Chapel of the Cross?”

Reasonable questions, reasonably asked of every church at its beginning, or even for years to come.

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All churches exist so that people, will discover the Way of God made known in Jesus the Christ: Loving and being loved, forgiving and being forgiven, transforming and being transformed.

Ideally, all churches regularly consider anew how they are to respond to the people around them, how to encourage those in their midst, to seek God and a deeper knowledge and love of God.

The particular setting for a new church, though, the time and place in which it begins, in which it exists, usually helps to determine just how that particular church is to do these things.

For the Advocate, the particular setting was a region growing in both numbers and diversity, with no end to that growth in site.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a University town with a population of less than 60,000 people and more than 50 churches. In 2000, there were two established and thriving Episcopal Churches in Chapel Hill, with a third less than 10 miles north in the County Seat of Hillsborough.

Yet at the turn of the new millennium, there was also a confluence of circumstances that caused the Episcopalians of Orange County to start yet another church.

First, the three established Episcopal congregations in the County were all flourishing, yet limited. By the start of the 21st century St. Matthew’s church in Hillsborough was limited by the size of its historic church building and had just started to have three services each Sunday to accommodate its growth. The Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill had grown to a membership of more than 1500, with a strong sacred music program and extensive opportunities for Christian formation. They were holding four services each Sunday. Church of the Holy Family, also with extensive Christian education and a congregation of more than 600, was in the process of building a new nave.

But even that new space could not accommodate the growth it was experiencing. All three of these churches were healthy and thriving. All had strong, capable, established rectors and lay leadership.

At the same time, a movement was stirring in the Episcopal Church nationally for the creation, or “planting”, of new churches in just such areas of growth.

Then along came a new bishop to the Diocese of North Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, a man passionate about the Gospel, justice, social change, and “following Jesus for real”; a man passionate about inviting all people to live into the Dream of God and to make that dream known.

The Episcopalians of Orange County got inspired. The three established churches in Orange County, as well as the Diocese, determined to go in together and give birth to a new mission.

This says something significant about our beginnings: The Advocate was born out of health and vitality, not schism and anger. We were born with the strong support of our sponsoring congregations and the Diocese.

And we were launched to extend the Anglican/Episcopal mission and witness in this part of North Carolina.

The Advocate was launched with a clear denominational identity. We were launched to be a mission of the Episcopal Church, which is historically part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. This means that the Advocate is part of a tradition of rich and thoughtful liturgy, theology, and spirituality – a liturgy, theology and spirituality that is distinct from the prevailing Christian theology and spirituality of our surrounding region.

At the same time, the Advocate was also launched to be a church for those who might not be drawn to a more established church setting. We symbolized this for the first ten years by holding our principal liturgy at 5 PM. We also developed a liturgy that is less formal without being less thoughtful and intentional. We welcome questions and doubts, and look for ways to encourage conversations.

There is a certain tension inherent in being rooted in a very established branch of the Christian church, while being created for those not drawn to established church!

This was challenging enough when we were a new and worshiping in rented space. It is getting even more challenging now that we look, from the outside, like a more established church!

Nonetheless, we were launched to be an Episcopal Mission for those not drawn to established church, and called to do so in a particular place: Orange County North Carolina in the United States of America.

Orange County is in a region called the New South – a region exploding with innovation, education, and technology, with immigrants, newcomers, suburban sprawl, a region with a history of racial tensions, and a socio-economic divide. We are in a University town, a relatively liberal pocket of the New South, which means that Bible Belt Protestant Christianity that dominates the Old South is not the dominant spiritual force in the community around us. Being in a progressive affluent University town also yields some particular issues of justice – affordable housing, care for chronically mentally ill adults, an achievement gap in the schools.

And we were launched in a particular time – the start of the 21st century, and therefore called to be mindful of how 21st century culture, practice and values are different from the culture, practice and values of our 18th, 19th, and 20th century colleagues.

We were launched in September 2003, two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – attacks which raised us all to a new level of awareness of the complexities and realities of diverse powers and cultures and religious passions in the world and to a new level of awareness of our place in the thick of it all.

September 2003, was also three years after the pre-dominantly white, southern Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina elected a black man to be our bishop. Michael B. Curry, who came of age in the south during the Civil Rights era, was shaped by it and preaches from it.

September 2003, was one month after the Episcopal Church voted in its General Convention to approve of the consecration of an openly gay and partnered man to be a Bishop of the Church.

These events, each part of our season of incubation, inform who we are. Add to it the five years we spent worshipping in a synagogue. And it becomes clear that the Advocate is called to find new ways to relate to those of other faiths and identities in this world in which we live, to honor and to model what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “The Dignity of Difference”.

We are called to be an open and inclusive church, bearing witness to the radical hospitality of God, to the assurance that in the Promised Land to which we are being led, all God’s children have a full and equal place at the table.

As a 21st century church, in addition to having a global awareness of church, religion and society, we also understand “outreach” to be based on relationships; we are environmentally conscious at every level of our life and ministry; and we are relatively internet savvy.

There is a certain liberation that comes from “starting a church from scratch”. Unconstrained by local or parochial customs and practices that may have lost their practicality, the Advocate has been free to consider the ancient practices of the Church afresh, and to apply them in our own time and place.

And because we were launched specifically to consider new ways of being church,  it can be said that the Advocate was created to always be new,  to always be listening to what God is calling us to do and be as new people and ideas come into the community year by year.

Things have changed at the Advocate in the past 12 years. Especially in the last 2, since we have been perched on the bricks here by the train tracks! But in the years since 2003, things have changed in the Episcopal Church at large as well.

New prayers, new liturgies, new music, new settings for worship, greater inclusion and global awareness in all these things.

Like the God we worship, neither the Episcopal Church nor the Advocate, at our best, are static, but are rather dynamic. Change, change, change!

But while, as a mission launched in a university town in Orange County North Carolina at the start of the 21st century, we are called to be alert to the changes around us, and to those who might not be drawn to a more established church for whatever the reason. And while we are ever on the look-out for new ways of being an Episcopal church, we need always to be mindful of why church at all: to seek God and a deeper knowledge and love of God, to be at peace with one another, and to do so by being transformed and conformed into the Way of Christ.

This is at the heart of why we do what we do. This is why we are here.

Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus, forevermore.

Amen.