‘Together in faith, bringing God's love to the world,’ as their website describes them, the ‘Two Churches,’ as they call themselves, occupy a single story building, previously home to the Episcopal congregation, with a simple red brick exterior. The worship space is simply appointed, with natural light coming in from a narrow window in the center of the ceiling, running the length of the nave. There is a large crucifix behind the altar and a communion rail in front of it. Musicians and a small pipe organ are in the rear of the church.
In March 2011, the Holy Cross Episcopal congregation and Ascension Lutheran congregation called a single pastor to serve each parish on a part-time basis. In June 2014, the two congregations agreed to become partner churches in one building. While maintaining their separate identities, they nevertheless work together in common ministries and worship together. Each parish retains its own vestry/parish council and denominational identity. They offer classes in English as a second language, and support a number of hunger ministries. Their Diaper Depot offers diapers free of charge to families who cannot afford to buy them. There are two celebrations of the holy eucharist on Sunday morning, one spoken and one with music, and a mid-week eucharist on Wednesday morning, followed by Bible study.
Kentwood, named after the county in which it sits, is one of the larger suburbs of the Grand Rapids metropolitan area. Kentwood was the site of an underground gypsum mine operated by the Georgia-Pacific paper manufacturing company up until 2000, when the mine was closed. The area surrounding the church is heavily commercial, with the occasional apartment building.
The pastor/rector presided at the eucharist. In a nod to the two denominations' traditions, there was both an assisting Lutheran minister and an Episcopal deacon who read the gospel, preached, and prepared the altar. There was also one vested acolyte, as well as two lectors and an organist.
What was the name of the service?Choral Eucharist.
How full was the building?
It's a small building, but perhaps three-quarters full. There were between 40 and 45 in attendance.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
By the time I reached my pew, at least three parishioners had welcomed me warmly.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A bit chatty when I first arrived, but quite reverent once the organist began her prelude.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The pastor said ‘Good morning,’ and then pointed out that the sequence hymn would be the first two verses of a hymn, with the third and fourth verses serving as the hymn of the day. The altar party processed to the sanctuary in silence, and then ‘Let us confess our sin in the presence of God...’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only a carefully-prepared service leaflet. The hymn racks in the pews, though, were full of books: Evangelical Lutheran Worship, a combination worship book and hymnal; the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1982; Gather, a Roman Catholic hymnal; and the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
What musical instruments were played?
A small pipe organ. If I win the lottery, I'm buying them a new instrument.
Did anything distract you?
A liturgy that, in quite a bit of its detail, was different from what I usually experience. I had to pay attention.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Informal, and in many ways unique to this community. Today was the First Sunday in Advent – at least this year, Two Churches is celebrating a seven-week Advent season, with one of the ‘O’ Antiphons (the antiphons to the Magnificat for the last seven days of Advent) serving as the theme for the seven Sundays (today was ‘O Wisdom’). The order of service seemed on this particular Sunday to be more Lutheran than Episcopal. Following the confession and opening hymn, we had a lighting of the Advent wreath (yes, it had seven candles, six blue and one pink), followed by the singing of ‘Maranatha, Lord Messiah.’ The ‘O Wisdom’ antiphon was chanted by the pastor after the reading from the Hebrew scripture, and before the psalm. Other ‘O’ Antiphons were interwoven with the intercessions. The ecumenical bent of this congregation goes beyond just joint Lutheran-Episcopal worship: liturgical texts were taken from Evangelical Lutheran Worship; the Episcopal Church's BCP and Enriching Our Worship; the New Zealand Prayer Book; the Iona Abbey Worship Book (from the Iona community in Scotland); and Mishkan T'filah, a worship resource for Reform Jewish congregations. Hymnody and service music were taken from Lutheran and Episcopal hymnals; plus Lift Every Voice and Sing II, an Episcopal resource for African-American parishes; and Gather. Real bread for communion. I was a bit surprised that most of the congregation knelt for communion and that there was no singing during the distribution – it seemed a bit conservative for this congregation. We could receive the wine by intinction or sipping from a chalice.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 — The deacon took a very scholarly approach to the gospel for the day (Luke 20:27-38 – the Sadducees question Jesus about the resurrection of the dead).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Sadducees were a very conservative sect who did not believe in the resurrection, or angels. And this was very sad, you see. (Groans from the congregation.) The way the Sadducees framed the question – the seven brothers who all married the same woman successively – was outlandish. It may have come from the story of Sarah in the Book of Tobit. Jesus has two responses: The afterlife is not just a continuation of this life; marriage is not needed in the afterlife. And Moses spoke of God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and God is God of the living, for whom Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive. This is a story that gives us hope. Resurrection is central to the Christian life.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The real sense of community one feels in this congregation while worshipping with them.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This says more about me than the parish, I suppose, but I do prefer to receive the Sacrament standing. Kneeling seems so old-fashioned. But of course receiving the Sacrament is never hellish.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
In a congregation of this size, I'm sure I stood out as a visitor, and several people introduced themselves and started to chat. This congregation really does know how to welcome the stranger in their midst.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I ended up in a lengthy conversation with a former parish council president, and never quite made it to what I think was a coffee hour at the end of the hallway. His wife is a Lutheran pastor, and I was involved some years back in a discussion between two other parishes, Lutheran and Episcopal, who were considering an arrangement similar to the one Holy Cross and Ascension are involved in. (It never happened.) There was much for us to discuss.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — Even though, as noted above, there is a unique approach to liturgy at Two Churches, the eucharist was celebrated reverently, and it never devolved into happy-clappy. I could get used to seven Sundays in Advent.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
An Advent wreath with seven candles.