By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Thomas Alexander was finishing breakfast and preparing to join fellow members of Executive Council for Morning Prayer one day in November when he demonstrated two gifts he brings to that body: a wry sense of humor and a knack for understatement.
“I seem to be younger than a lot of the other people,” said Alexander, 19. The average age of Executive Council’s members is closer to 60 than 20. He is the lay representative from Province VII.
A sophomore at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, Alexander is the only council member who needed an undergraduate dean’s permission to serve on the governing board, because attendance at council meetings requires him to leave campus for four or five days each year.
Alexander is confident that what he brings to the table is not an ability to speak for his generation. What he provides, in addition to a sharp wit, might be a clear sense how the church can meet 21st-century needs without pandering or compromising its identity. He believes council members appreciate him in that capacity and not as a youthful token.
“They’re not, you know, putting words in my mouth as a young person,” he said, noting that 19-year-olds are not monolithic and no one speaks for all of them. “There hasn’t been any, like, Let’s ask Thomas because he’s young. They kind of get it that you shouldn’t do that.”
Clad in a bow tie and speaking in measured tones, Alexander presents as a man mature beyond his years. He’s quickly building a denominational résumé to match.
In 2013, at age 17, he served on the mission planning team for the 2014 Episcopal Youth Event, which drew 1,000 participants. Last year he represented the Diocese of Arkansas as a General Convention deputy.
Before seeking the deputy role, he wondered if he might be too young. But he decided it was the right time to become involved with so much change afoot — from the election of a new presiding bishop to the adoption of new canons, new task forces, and a continuing effort to restructure the church.
“All these different changes, I think, are putting us in a different direction,” he said. “I was attracted to that.”
Alexander describes himself as one who has always been drawn to new things, as well as to traditional forms in church life. His parents, both devout Episcopalians, established his faith roots in a new church plant of the 1990s: St. Margaret’s in Little Rock. His passion for Gregorian chant and other monastic music grew out of his experience at Christ Church, also in Little Rock, where he now worships.
At Hendrix, he combined the traditional with the innovative last fall by launching a weekly, chant-based Compline service that draws around 25 people every Sunday night. It could be seen as a type of evangelism, he says, albeit not a conventional one. It has involved recruiting non-Christian singers by assuring them their gifts are needed to help a Christian activity succeed.
Compline also lets people come and engage on any level they wish. Some treat it purely as a concert. Others find it provides nice background music for reading, or as an opportunity to lie down in a pew and relax.
“It does different things for different people,” he said. “I think for Episcopalians that can be hard. As creed-based, liturgy-based people, we kind of like having our This is what Christianity looks like. We can see here. It’s pretty formulaic. But there’s just all these different experiences going on. And that’s the beauty of being in the Episcopal Church: it’s that that’s okay.”
Alexander is starting to make a name for himself in the church’s leadership circles, not so much because of his age as despite it.
“He’s going to be a terrific liturgist,” said Bronwyn Clark Skov, youth ministries officer for the Episcopal Church. She worked with him in preparing for the 2014 youth event. “He already is a terrific liturgist, but people haven’t noticed yet because he’s young.”
Alexander sees a national trend toward bivocational ministry as a promising one for his career. He feels called to serve as both a college professor of English and a priest. Currently an English major, he plans to analyze the Book of Common Prayer as a work of literature for his senior capstone project. He aspires to do graduate work in English on the same topic.
By the time he applies to seminary, Alexander will again bring an eye-catching résumé to the task. He will be among the rarest of applicants who can say that, as the council’s liaison to the General Board of Examining Chaplains, he oversees the office that oversees the process for examining future priests.
“We need to think about pedagogies,” Alexander said, “the way that we evaluate students and the way that we structure our schools to best reflect the needs of the 21st century.”