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The Church: Social or Sociable?

Central Square Rector Discusses His Parish

By Amanda Bennett

ST. PETER'S Episcopal Church stands diagonally across from the Cambridge City Hall. The building is square and redbricked, squeezed in between storefronts and a narrow alleyway of a street. It is an old church--founded in 1842, four years before Cambridge became a city.

Rev. Ernest D. Thompson has been rector at St. Peter's for 22 years. In that time the composition of the parish has changed. Attitudes toward religion have changed, both in the parish and in churches in general. One of the biggest problems facing St. Peter's is the changing attitude towards the function of churches and of organized religion. In St. Peter's it is a battle between the ancients and the moderns, with the rector leading the moderns.

When St. Peter's was founded, the arrangement of service reflected the social order of the day. There were two sets of services: a morning service for the employers, an evening one for their employees. "About 80 per cent of the members originally came from the Maritime Provinces," Thompson said. "They were basically well-established, conservative people."

"When I first came here, there were three services, and all of them were packed," the rector explained. "We had two choirs, a women's auxiliary, a women's guild, a men's club... Nowadays you could play ping pong or hockey in the aisles at the 10 o' clock service." On a cloudy Sunday in early March, about 60 people were scattered throughout the church which was built to hold 300. Sunny days do not draw too many more people.

THOMPSON maintains that this is partly because St. Peter's is a city church. Episcopal churches do not draw their members from any strict geographical boundries, and city churches lose their members to suburban churches. But part of the reason that this once-bustling church now echoes with the silence of disuse may be because the functions of churches are being taken up elsewhere.

Thompson has two churches, he says: his Sunday parishioners and his weekday parishioners. For various reasons, the Sunday congregation -- made up of the regular church members -- is declining in number. The weekday parishioners on the other hand, are coming to St. Peters in droves. With dwindling membership, money to run a church must come from outside sources. During the week and in the evenings, St. Peter's parish halls are rented to outside groups which meet there. The Greater Boston Peace Action Coalition, a yoga class, a ballet class, and a Sufi group are currently using the church as their meeting place. "St. Peter's is well known by all kinds of groups and organizations," Thompson said. "They call up all the time to rent space, but our walls are bulging during the week."

Thompson said that in some ways he felt that the weekday congregation was more devout and more genuinely religious than the Sunday congregation. One of the reasons, he said, might be that Sunday worship in an organized church has lost some of the mystique of religion. "Familiarity breeds contempt," he explained.

A certain "contempt" for organized religion on the part of younger people, Thompson said, may be decreasing the church's Sunday population. "Most of our old members are dying, and there are not many younger ones to replace them," Thompson said. "The younger people say they're not interested in the double standards and hypocrisy of the organized church. I think they may be right."

The "double standards" in religion that Thompson talks about, are for him, the fact that people try to isolate their religion in their churches. "The people are dedicated to their church -- building," he said.

Thompson said he feels very strongly that the church is far more than social gatherings and that religion means more than praying. "People who come to church regularly every Sunday but then just forget it the rest of the week are trying to make a sucker out of God. There is a big difference between being 'religious' and being 'good,'" he said.

Thompson preaches on Sundays in the regular cassock of a high church minister, with one exception. On one side of his robe is a large embroidered peace symbol: the circle with the "chicken track" inside. For many years he has been using his Sunday sermons to preach strong antiwar messages. This, combined with his insistence on preaching involvement in other current social issues, has been an area of contention between him and some of his parishioners.

CERGYMEN are turning over faster than parishioners--some of them because they can't take it. The clergy today are much more liberal than their parishioners," Thompson said. "People only want a nice warm feeling in the pit of their stomach from a sermon. You can see them close their minds when you try to convince them of anything different. The older members of the church think the church belongs to them and they just want to be left alone. I've been beating my head against the wall trying to get them to change that idea."

However, the people of St. Peter's seem to agree with many of the things Thompson says. After the service on Sundays there is a coffee hour and people meet to discuss the sermon and the week's happenings. It is a friendly gathering. Most of the people have known each other since childhood. They are eager to make a stranger welcome in their church, and equally eager to talk about the problems of the church. For them, as well as for their rector, some of the problems stem from "the older members of the parish."

THE YOUNG members have to make the older ones change," Phillip Green, a member of St. Peter's said over coffee. "We have to learn to give a little more. St Peter's hasn't been a giving church."

"That's because at first there was the attitude, 'This is our church,' "Ruth Marshall said. "I think that attitude is changing, though," she added.

But even the younger, and middle-aged members of the parish are cautious about condoning too much church involvement with outside activities.

"It's probably better not to discuss the issues of peace around here," Green said. "That's a sore subject. We think maybe that the rector overdoes it a little. If he feels like wearing a peace symbol, that's okay. People should get involved, but it shouldn't be overdone in church."

"I've lost very few members because of my attitude on Vietnam," Thompson said. "My people will disagree vehemently with what I have to say, but they are fond of their rector."

He said that he even won a few "converts" to his way of thinking. "In the early days of the war, some Vietnam veterans in the parish were really down on me for my way of preaching. Now they say I'm not strong enough in my stand."

The older members seem to be happy with the church as it is today. Many of them have been in the church for 40 years or more. May Folger said that the only change in the church that really affected her was the change in the liturgy of the services. During the service that Sunday the congregation had all filled out questionnaires concerning the new trial rites being instituted in the Episcopal services. She said that she thought the changes in liturgy were important changes. She also said that St. Peter's was "the only church to go to." "I'd die if I ever had to leave St. Peter's," she said. She remembered, a little sadly, however, a time when the congregation was bigger and there were "over 500" children in the Sunday School.

Some of the problems the church has to face today may not seem nearly as forboding as problems it has faced in the past. For all practical purposes, these problems are solved now, apparently to the satisfaction of all concerned. In the early part of the century, Thompson said, there was an influx of blacks into the church, which caused some strife among the conservative middle class members of the parish. "Around the turn of the century, the bishop agreed to establish a mission for the blacks," he said. "But the mission grew--like Topsy." That mission that grew out of St. Peter's church has itself become a church.

ST. BARTHOLOMEW'S church stands at the intersection of Harvard and Essex Streets, barely two blocks from St. Peter's. Today it has about 645 members, almost all of them black. Somewhere in the past, there was a degree of animosity between the two churches, because of the nature of the split. But here too, it seems, only the mythical "older members of the parish" remember that time. "When I first came here," Thompson said, "there were a few blacks who refused to leave. I was asked when I was going to make them leave. I used every theological argument in the book to convince my parishioners that they were wrong. Finally I told them to pay back all the money that the blacks had given to the church since I had been there, and I would ask them to leave. Then they shut up." In some ways, Thompson said smiling, "The church is just a large business institution on a national level."

Rev. Alvin Robinson, the rector of St. Bartholomew's, said that some members had once been reluctant to get together with St. Peter's for services. "There was a kind of feeling that 'they didn't want us 30 years ago--why should we go back now?'" He said he felt that that time was over and that among the younger members, there were many who did not even remember the origins of the church. "We are having a joint confirmation with other churches, including St. Peter's. The young kids don't care where they go -- they just want to be confirmed," he said.

Robinson said that his church was not facing the problems of membership in the same way that St. Peter's is. "On any given Sunday we have about 250 people. There's no problem here whether or not the church will survive."

Some of the younger members of St. Bartholomew's, however, echoed Thompson's attitudes of the "moderns." Larry Brewster '76, who was a leader of the youth group at St. Bartholomew's last year, said he felt that young people went to church for "10 per cent religious reasons and 90 per cent social reasons. A lot of us just come because our parents make us."

"I think if I had my way, I might have the whole thing razed so we could start over," Thompson said. "I feel the organized church is on its last legs."

With his own parishioners, however, Thompson says he feels more hopeful. The organized church and the people of whom it is made up are two different things to him. "When I give a service, there is a blessing at the end. I can always give my people a blessing -- and mean it."

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