By Sharon Sheridan
In a liturgy celebrating its inclusive theology and worship style, its commitment to justice and its connections to the Morristown community and the wider Episcopal Church, the Church of the Redeemer on South Street officially installed its 16th rector on Thursday, Sept. 29.
Community leaders, including Mayor Tim Dougherty and Pastor Sidney Williams of the Bethel AME Church, and laity and clergy from throughout the Diocese of Newark and beyond joined Redeemer members in welcoming the Rev. Cynthia Black.
Returning after 20 years ministering elsewhere to the diocese where she was ordained a priest, Black began her Morristown ministry in June.
She was attracted, she said, by the combination of liturgical innovation and commitment to justice in a church that describes itself as “a Christian liberation community in the Episcopal tradition” that practices “radical hospitality.”
In word and song on Thursday, Redeemer proclaimed that identity.
“Tear down the walls that divide us,
Unbind the chains that confine us,
Remove the labels that define us,
the fear that undermines us.
All people, all people,
all God’s people are welcome in this place,”
the choir sang to begin the liturgy.
The evening’s three preachers called upon the church to stand at the meeting place of heaven and earth as prophetic witnesses and holy questioners.
Diocese of New York Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam evoked the image of Jacob’s ladder with angels ascending and descending, describing it as a staircase uniting earth and heaven, a coastline or “what the Celts would call ‘a thin place.’”
“That’s where we plant our churches,” she said. “We don’t really, at our best, build them on strong pylons … We rather float on that changing coastline in between heaven and earth. It’s what makes us who we are. It’s why on 9/11 people came to us.
“I know you are wise,” she told the congregation, “because you have chosen Cynthia to be your rector … who will stand with you on that precarious and fascinating and exciting shoreline.”
Following a reading by Judith Dickerson of his poem Let Us Now Praise Caustic Persons, Louie Crew of Grace Episcopal Church, Newark, lauded the “holy union” of what he called one of the most visionary parishes in the country and one of the most talented and visionary priests in Christendom.
“You are prophets – not the kind who foretell the future, but the kind who prepare us for it,” said Crew, founder of Integrity, which works for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Episcopal Church. He recounted some of the prophetic work of Redeemer’s past, from promoting peace and blessing same-gender unions to opening the Eric Johnson House serving people with HIV/AIDS and supporting the Morristown Community Soup Kitchen and the Interfaith Council for Homeless Families of Morris County.
The church’s new rector, he said, is “not a careerist.”
“Self-promotion is not what Cynthia is about. She does what is right even when it is not helpful for her professional advancement,” he said. “Cynthia is not at the center of her ministry. You are. But beware, this same re-centering can and should happen to all who serve here. You’re not clients … but disciples of Christ.
“Prophets, unite! Go tell it on the mountain and everywhere: Grace is amazing still.”
Redeemer parishioner Leah Thomas preached from John’s Gospel about Jesus’ invitation to discipleship to Nathanael, who initially asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” but then proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God.
“Nathanael’s a questioner,” Thomas said. “He wants to probe deep. He wants to know what’s really going on. He asks the hard questions.”
“[Jesus] sees him for who he truly is. He sees into his heart. … It frees him to recognize Jesus and to name Jesus for who he really is. He experiences what we might call a conversion.”
This sort of transformation “happens throughout the course of our lives,” said Thomas, who called Redeemer a “Nathanael parish.”
“Redeemer has been the place that has asked the difficult, somewhat painful, often irreverent questions,” she said.
But, like Nathanael, “sometimes we feel like we know the way the world works,” she said, cautioning listeners against holding so tightly to the past they miss the moment’s encounter.
The Gospel reading “calls us to stand on a precipice of great things to come,” she said. “I can’t wait to see where we’ll go from here.”
After the sermons, the congregation joined in prayer for the church and the world and for Black’s formal institution as rector by Diocese of Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith.
The bishop himself is no stranger to Morristown, having once served as assistant at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church down the street from Redeemer and having been instrumental in starting the Community Soup Kitchen.
Black later was joined in the service by her partner, Becky Walker, who will join her permanently in Morristown after completing this year’s teaching contract at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.
The service included an exchange of gifts, from the parish to Black and from her to the parish and the community organizations associated with Redeemer.
She presented colorful soup ladles to representatives of the soup kitchen, homeless council, Bethel AME, Empty Bowl Zendo, the Eric Johnson House, various recovery ministries that meet at the church and a Cameroon orphanage the church supports.
The congregation’s children — who, according to the service’s prayers, said that “the next rector should be funny, smart, creative and nice” — gave Black a multi-hued stole they made with the help of quilter and vestment-maker Colleen Hintz, who headed the church’s rector search committee.
The offering collected during the service will benefit the ministry of Christopher Senyonjo, retired bishop of the Diocese of West Bugunda, Uganda, through the St. Paul’s Center for Reconciliation and Equality in Kampala, Uganda.
Senyonjo, who will visit Redeemer on Oct. 23, is “one of the most courageous people I know, who has been deposed by his church for his courage and willingness as a straight man to stand up for gay and lesbian people in the country of Uganda,” Black told the congregation.
The service music featured hymns with words written by Redeemer members and two anthems composed for the occasion by church Director of Music Ed Alstrom. The first, “Eternal Spirit,” was based on what people often call the “New Zealand Lord’s Prayer,” which begins:
“Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven …”
The other anthem set to music words from a prayer from Guerrillas of Grace by Ted Lowder: Praise for All Creatures, Laughers and List Makers.
Welcoming a new rector who also is a filmmaker, photographer, trumpeter and woodworker, the service ended with a hymn celebrating the creative spirit of God, and of people in response, set to the traditional English melody Forest Green that sometimes is used with the words of O Little Town of Bethlehem.
“We seek, each by our discipline, by music, art and verse, to use the talents You have given, so splendid and diverse. We seek to emulate your skill with dance and brush and song; and so we strive to create still, All thanks to you belong.”