Members of St. Paul’s Cathedral Church know what it is like to rely on the kindness of others in a time of need. They also know the importance of sharing their abundant blessings with those in need of assistance.
That’s why the Episcopal congregation in Burlington, Vt., has opened its doors to a neighboring Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation located just up the hill on the Redstone campus of the University of Vermont.
St. Paul’s will allow members of Christ Church Presbyterian (CCP) use of its facility to conduct worship services and other special events once the CCP lease with the university expires and its place of worship is no more.
“In our abundance, we have a large building with the ability to host a number of groups, which we do,” said Mark Hatch, interim rector at St. Paul’s for the past 14 months. “We’re lucky to have a lot of space to make available and are more than happy to do so.”
Ending a long stay
Christ Church has been leasing its current facility, a building that has been the spiritual home for a congregation of about 50 members for 35 years, from the University of Vermont. But with the continued expansion of the campus, CCP’s lease was not renewed, leaving Pastor Mike Brown and his congregants to seek an alternate place of worship. The lease originally was to expire in June, but church officials worked out a deal to stay in the facility through the end of December to give more time to determine their future.
“It’s difficult to say goodbye to a place that you’ve been thinking of as your spiritual home for 35 years and to go somewhere else. On the other hand, that’s always been the story of God’s people,” Christ Church Pastor Mike Brown told WCAX television station in Vermont.
A familiar scenario
It wasn’t that long ago that St. Paul’s found itself in a similar situation without a building to call home.
The church building of St. Paul’s was a victim of arson in the early 1970s, and members were displaced until the current facility was constructed and completed in 1973. The congregation just celebrated 40 years in that building last month.
“We’ve been fortunate,” Hatch said. “We were blessed to be taken in by other congregations, including the Presbyterian Church, and now we have an opportunity to return that offering. We’ve got the space, and we told (CCP leaders) if they are willing to work around the scheduling issues, they are welcome to use our building.
“We want to give them space to settle in and worship until they can get on their feet and determine their future.”
In some ways Christ Church’s members have been like orphans without a home since learning of the end of their lease agreement with the University of Vermont. But St. Paul’s adhered to the words of James when he said to “look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:26-27, NIV).
“As big as we are now, we once were orphans as well,” Hatch said. “Some of our people remember that, those days meeting in the basement of a school and at other churches. We were homeless and felt great grief, but we were taken in by others. We wanted a place to call home, and others provided for us. We’ve been given a lot, and it’s our time to give back.”
The agreement reached between the two churches allows Christ Church access to the facilities at St. Paul’s Cathedral for two years. CCP will have to alter its schedule from a traditional morning service to afternoon worship on Sundays (St. Paul’s has three services on Sunday mornings) and work around some other functions of the Episcopal congregation, but it has a place to worship as its members ponder their future. And there is no rent required, only a free-will offering to help defray the cost of expenses related to heating, air conditioning and power.
“Their being here is not dependent on them paying a penny,” Hatch said. “We ask for a free-will offering to help cover expenses, but that is up to them. This is not a business arrangement. First and foremost it is a spiritual undertaking.”
Doing the right thing
Hatch said the easiest thing to do would have been to turn a blind eye to Christ Church’s dilemma and say no to any discussion of an agreement. But that would have proven to be detrimental to a congregation with a long history of visibility and outreach in the Burlington community. And with few Presbyterians churches in an already heavily unchurched area, it would have been counterproductive to fulfilling the Great Commission. Instead, St. Paul’s embraced the chance to cross denominational boundaries and offer fellow brothers and sisters a place to carry out God’s work.
“It would have been easy to just say no, but we’ve been there. You don’t turn away those committed to church life, outreach and ministry,” Hatch said. “We need to preserve all opportunities to share God’s Word. We don’t need to get mired in denominational politics and worry about crossing lines. There’s no use in it. We’re all doing God’s work in one way or another.”
Hatch said there probably will not be any joint worship services, simply because of varying styles employed by two congregations from different denominations. However, he does foresee opportunities for St. Paul’s and CCP to engage in joint ministry programs.
“They have been so incredibly enthusiastic and welcoming about this. And what that says to me is that there will be all kinds of ways that we can collaborate,” Brown told WCAX.
Steps toward moving into St. Paul’s were taken by Christ Church’s members on Sunday, Dec. 8 when they walked from their facility on the Vermont campus overlooking Lake Champlain down the hill into Burlington to meet their new Episcopal friends. The two groups then walked to St. Paul’s Cathedral, completing a 1.5-mile trek as a formal expression of the coming together of two separate congregations into a single house of worship.
Christ Church will continue to have services on the Redstone campus Dec. 15, 22 and 29 before holding its first worship service at St. Paul’s on Jan. 5.