By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Concerned to reinvigorate mission congregations that have no resident priest, the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast hopes a “new postmodern religious society” can help lay leaders meet the challenges at hand.
Earlier this year, the Rt. Rev. Philip M. Duncan II authorized the formation of the Canons Regular of St. Jean-Marie Vianney. Five individuals have joined the pioneering society so far, all from St. Paul’s Chapel in Magnolia Springs, Alabama.
Members focus dually on personal spiritual growth and strengthening leadership in mission congregations in southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.
The society’s rule is postmodern in that it does not require celibacy, is not limited to either men or women, and is open to clergy and laity alike, according to the Rev. Dennis Day, a founding member of the order and associate at St. Paul’s. Each canon makes a three-year vow to pray the morning and evening office daily, attempt to celebrate the Eucharist weekly, have a plan for spiritual growth, and work with mission congregations.
“It’s designed to encourage clergy and laity to pay more attention to their spiritual life,” Day said.
That depth, he said, gives them deeper roots for ministries such as celebrating liturgies (either as deacons or priests) in mission congregations. They also train laypeople in mission churches to play new roles as lay Eucharistic ministers, lay readers, and ministers to the sick.
“The church has made a big mistake in undervaluing the diaconate,” Day said. “In the early Church, the deacons did all the legwork. They were the people the Church depended on. But we’ve gotten away from that.”
Energizing mission congregations has become an evermore pressing need on the Gulf Coast, Day said, as congregations have left the Episcopal Church and fostered a shortage of resources for mission congregations, which depend on the diocese for support. Mission congregations tend to lack respect and can sometimes get discouraged, he said, if it seems they will never become parishes with rectors or if other congregations do not care about them.
St. Paul’s Chapel has a heart for mission churches, Day said, because it used to be one. Now it has also birthed a religious society, named for a 19th-century French saint known for his dedication to spiritual and congregational life, specifically to meet their needs.
“Mission churches are … beginning to have the life pressed out of them,” Day said. What they often need is “training for a vestry to rethink their role in life and take a more active role in the life of the parish. It’s an experiment. God only knows where it’s going to go.”
Image: St. Jean-Marie Vianney (1786-1859)