By Nathan Humphrey
The doors to General Convention’s Exhibit Hall were wide open on Tuesday, but the doors to the prayer chapel were locked — and this in a church that places a high priority on worship, convening a meeting that will debate prayer-book revision.
I posted this photo on Facebook at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, coming back occasionally to rattle the locked handles. At about 5:30, the doors to the prayer chapel were finally opened — just as the exhibit hall was closed and the convention center emptied out for the night.
Now, to be fair, General Convention hadn’t even held its first legislative session. But certification and registration were in full swing and the wares of many vendors were on display. Trade was brisk in vestments and fair-trade coffee.
But the doors to the prayer chapel remained locked.
A former parishioner (back from my days as a lowly curate) asked on Facebook, “You need a room?” Point taken. I could pray anywhere.
Indeed, we are exhorted by the Apostle to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), which can happen anywhere. (I often pray while driving, that other drivers will be protected from my idiocy, and I from theirs.) And Matthew 6:6 came to mind: “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This verse comes in the middle of the Gospel appointed for Ash Wednesday, in which Jesus warns us of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them, which gives me pause lest I simply be indulging in a sort of undue virtue signaling:
While you were in the Exhibit Hall amongst the money changers, I was standing outside the locked doors of the prayer chapel, tears streaming down my face as I prayed for the peace of Jerusalem.
I remembered the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee who prays, God, I thank you that I am not like other people (Luke 18:9-14).
I was chagrined not because I wanted a room where I could pray on my own, but because I felt a need for a room where we could pray together, as we anticipated the beginning of this important moment in the collective life of our church.
At 5:45 p.m., I was finally able to post these photos to Facebook, of a room set up and ready to receive worshipers. But there was no schedule of services. It remained a room for individuals, though it was set up for a congregation.
A great debt of gratitude is owed to the many people who planned and executed this convention, but I have one plea: Unlock the doors of the prayer chapel as soon as registration is open, if not before, so that the Episcopal Church gathered in Austin can gather with the Church throughout time and space, and engage first and foremost in that one thing that makes us the Church: the worship of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I would go further and suggest that a team of prayer chapel chaplains, lay and ordained, offer daily Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline — if not also the Eucharist — until the first corporate worship for the whole General Convention convenes (not scheduled until later this morning, July 5, three days after many people’s arrival in Austin). I would volunteer to be one of these chaplains.
Sure, we may not need a room, and we may not need to gather corporately to pray before to the first plenary worship service, but it would be meet and right at least to have the opportunity so to do, because this is, after all, what the Episcopal Church reputedly does best. Or rather, it’s what God does best in and through the Episcopal Church, as our worship together infuses us with the grace to do what God sends us out into the world — and at General Convention — to do.
The Rev. Nathan Humphrey is the rector of the Zabriskie Memorial Church of Saint John the Evangelist on the Point in Newport, Rhode Island, and a deputy to General Convention in Austin. He welcomes Facebook friend requests from real people, but not bots.