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The Marvel of St. Martin’s, Houston

By Christopher Wells

On Nov. 10, 1982, Vice President George H.W. Bush found himself in Red Square attending the state funeral of Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party. Alongside the vice president were 32 heads of state, 15 heads of government, and 14 foreign ministers, including Yasser Arafat of the PLO, India’s Indira Gandhi, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Pierre Trudeau of Canada. As he met beforehand with the grieving Mrs. Brezhnev, she had told Vice President and Mrs. Bush, “We must all work hard for peace,” and the vice president’s mind went to this as he watched the grand procession, arriving in front of Lenin’s tomb, behind which Brezhnev would be buried in the Kremlin. Amid all the fanfare — a parade of eulogies, 300 strings, a military march, as well as the ceremonies of the night before — something was missing, thought the vice president. What?

Back home in Houston some weeks later, Vice President Bush had the opportunity to articulate his feelings in remarks offered to his home parish on Sunday, Dec. 26, 1982. The great gaping hole in Brezhnev’s funeral had been God himself, Bush said. “There was no hope, no joy, no life ever after. No mention of Christ, and what his death meant to so many. It was very different — so discouraging, in a sense.”

Real hope, however, beyond loneliness, can be had, he continued. Amazingly enough, standing in Red Square, the vice president had

thought of St. Martin’s Church — of our joy all year long, but especially at Christmas. If only their country was one nation under God. If only the kids there had grown up with a Christmas angel. … If only they had [faithful ministers] taking the hopeful, joyous message of Jesus into their lives, peace would be so much easier to achieve.

“We shall continue to pursue peace,” Bush concluded. “We must succeed in achieving it. After all” — and here one imagines him looking up from a podium in the parish hall and smiling with a kindly confidence in the face of numerous friends and stalwarts of the Episcopal establishment — “St. Martin’s has given us a clear shot.”

This story, recounted by rector Russell J. Levenson Jr. in his homily on Aug. 22, captures the audacious ambition and global vision that have characterized St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston from its founding. Planted in 1952 by its entrepreneurial first rector, the Rev. J. Thomas Bagby, St. Martin’s sits in the upscale subdivision of Tanglewood, which opened in 1949, several minutes’ drive from downtown Houston. George H.W. and Barbara Bush moved into the area from Midland in 1959 and promptly joined St. Martin’s, where they raised their five children, and to which they would return on leaving office in 1993. George met James A. Baker III on the tennis court at the nearby Houston Country Club and they became fast friends. Baker would work on Bush’s first congressional campaign in 1966 before serving as Chief of Staff for President Reagan and Secretary of State for President George H.W. Bush.

Fast-forwarding to today, these very men, Bush and Baker, served with their spouses as honorary co-chairs of St. Martin’s just-completed “Building for the Ages” campaign, reportedly the largest capital campaign in Episcopal Church history, conducted by what has grown to be the largest congregation in the Episcopal Church. At last count, baptized membership sat at 9,627; average Sunday attendance pre-COVID was 1,445.

On the death of George and Barbara in 2018, son Neil and his wife, Maria, stepped in to see the campaign through on behalf of the Bush family. James Baker, 91, and his wife, Susan, were present and in fine form for the duration of recent festivities marking the completion of the project.

The campaign launched in 2018 with a pricetag of $55 million and finally came in at a whopping $67 million, $4 million of which has yet to be raised. The result presents a massive expansion, adding roughly 66,000 square feet to a campus now totaling 294,000 square feet or 15 acres, with a further 58,000 square feet of renovations. Newly added are six beautiful gardens, each with its own character (“Pastoral,” “Nativity,” “Peace,” etc.), nestled here and there amid newly constructed Parish Life, Children’s Life, Pastoral Care, and Music centers, in addition to a new Maintenance Building and Central Plant.

The crown jewel of the renovation is the renamed Christ Chapel, which presents a glorious, Gothic overhaul of the original church, constructed in 1959. Decked out with 14 stained-glass windows, rose window, Magnificat Organ with 1,557 pipes built by Casavant in Quebec, and an altar stone made of 12th-century Caen, retrieved during a recent restoration of Canterbury Cathedral and sent on with best wishes from Dean Robert Willis, Christ Chapel provides an intimate space for smaller pastoral affairs like weddings and funerals. The larger, light-filled Parish Life Center now houses the contemporary Family Table and Riverway worship services. The cavernous main church at the center of the campus was left untouched, having been completed in 2004.

What is St. Martin’s secret sauce?

I am biased. I live in Dallas, drove down the road for the festivities, and count the folks at St. Martin’s as longtime friends. But their success stands objectively as a marked achievement, one that all Episcopalians might rightly wish to celebrate and study.

Fr. Levenson (“Russ”) cuts an attractive figure of leadership and has done an excellent job harnessing the energies and potential of the place. A glance at the historical timeline of the parish reminds us that St. Martin’s just completed a major, $25 million expansion of the campus in 2012, when three new buildings and associated ministries were added, most notably the Hope and Healing Center & Institute. Pre-COVID, the center served 41,600 clients annually.

And this is the tip of the iceberg of outreach at St. Martin’s. Forty recovery and support groups meet on the campus. They count 3,951 annual volunteers. Fully 25% of the parish budget has gone to outreach since 2007, when Levenson arrived. That’s $42 million in the last 14 years.

To visit St. Martin’s is to find a well-oiled machine of friendliness, apparent zeal for the work at hand, and a fantastically competent staff of 220 persons, including 15 (full- and part-time) clergy. Russ, a quintessential Southern gentleman, native Alabamian, and Virginia Theological Seminary grad, presides over all with a warmth and enthusiasm that is infectious. He is a people person and encourager, evincing at once Anglican bona fides and downhome roots.

The Aug. 21 celebration of the completed campaign ascended to a folksy parish picnic. Having visited the BBQ buffet, we settled into a 90-minute tour de oldies, from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Amazing Grace,” “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” and finally “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” led by Russ (guitar) and his wife Laura (flute) singing harmonies, backed by a first-class bluegrass band. (A highlight here was their cover of Emmylou Harris’s “Angel Band” with Laura Levenson on lead.)

Levenson, longtime vice-rector Martin Bastian, and others will emphasize that the key to their success is preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully. No doubt, the tone and tenor of St. Martin’s is low-church evangelical in the key of John Stott, but the accent of Stott may also be significant, for St. Martin’s evinces a love for the mother country. Lord Carey has been a frequent visitor, and several of the current clergy, all women (the Rev. Dr. Suse E. McBay, the Rev. Jane P. Ferguson, and the Rev. Gill Keyworth), hail from England.

In this respect, Levenson et al. have done a deft job of guiding St. Martin’s — after the example of the elder President Bush; and Houston is the most diverse city in America — out into the wider world. This fits with St. Martin’s steady support for the vision of Communion Partners in the Episcopal Church, given to encouraging the Anglican Communion’s confident traditionalism in service of greater unity and ecumenical recognizability.

Here, finally, we should note a family resemblance between the success of St. Martin’s and a host of similar parishes in Texas and surrounding dioceses — from St. John the Divine in Houston (ASA 817) to Church of the Incarnation, Dallas (ASA 1,284); Christ Church, San Antonio (ASA 491); All Souls’, Oklahoma City (ASA 401); and then, hopping over the old South: Church of the Redeemer, Sarasota (ASA 835); the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando (ASA 444); and Trinity Church, Vero Beach (ASA 366). All are the largest (or second- or third-largest) in their dioceses and all are allied with Communion Partners, even when their dioceses do not identify as conservative on the hot-button question of Christian marriage.

All, moreover, may be mapped within what scholar John Shelton Reed calls “a Southern sphere of influence.” Most of Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida did not and would not embrace the epithet Dixie, and majorities in these states would not have voted for Al Smith, Strom Thurmond, Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, and George Wallace. For the most part (save north Florida), these states fall outside that critical cultural demarcation “where kudzu grows.” But they all, broadly, are Baptist, immersed in country music, transfixed by college sports, and identify with Southern accents and Southern cooking. (See Reed’s rollicking My Tears Spoiled My Aim, among many other volumes.)

Is part of the success of these parishes a certain Southern embrace of counter-culturalism? A stubborn traditionalism that refuses to be silenced, rolled over, or forgotten? A conviction that the past is, in a phrase, not past at all but rather prologue? Yes, if by that we mean, in this context, the Christian past rather than the American Southern past. These churches are Episcopal and not Baptist. All are internationalist, varying liturgical preferences notwithstanding, in a way that ought properly to be called catholic. And asking the leaders of these churches who is showing up is instructive. Yes, they count a certain percentage of the country club set of yore. But with them comes, increasingly, a throng of sojourning evangelicals, non-denoms, and charismatics in search of something apostolic: bishops, the Eucharist, and a living embrace of Christianity as practiced before the First Great Awakening.

Looking ahead, it seems safe to bet on a continued demographic advantage of Southern cities as Americans move away from the Northeast and Midwest in search of work, most especially to access the explosive economy of Texas. This is patently true in the Episcopal Church, as well, glancing at the numbers of the larger parishes in places like Louisville, Nashville, Birmingham, and cities in Georgia, among others. As David Goodhew has shown, the Episcopal Church is “rebalancing” itself in a Southern direction. For over 30 years, Province 4, encompassing the Southern states of the U.S., has been the largest in average Sunday attendance. Add to that the blunt fact that the South is less secular than the rest of the nation.

Bush was, of course, not from Texas; he grew up in Connecticut, the son of an investment banker and two-term senator. He did, however, “get there as fast as he could,” as the saying goes. Fresh out of Yale College in 1948, the 24-year-old Bush and Barbara moved to the Southwest to escape the shadow of their elders — and, with their help, to make a start in oil. In the words of a friend and supporter, Bush liked “the can-do spirit of Texas, its quasi-frontier attitude, the feeling that anything is possible; you can come down here and start all over again.”

To an old-fashioned conservative like me, that idea is partly terrifying. Give me the “Old Europe” derided by George Bush the younger, and with it the sound mind and long historical memory of Augustine, Aquinas, and Hooker. Give me the grand old architecture and world-class universities of the American Northeast, including the greatest city in the U.S., New York.

But another part of me warms to the sentiment of an escape and reboot, in Texas or other parts of this vast land, less freighted with, let’s be honest, the continuing confusion of the original Yankee reboot. See Puritanism, after all, and the flight from history that occasioned our founding in Boston, Philadelphia, and environs, as putative reinvention in the mode of discovery. How much better would the world be without the funky religions that bubbled out of upstate New York as time went on, Mormonism leading the pack?

If, perhaps by some divine rebalancing of the history of American trauma, a broadly Southern swath within the U.S., burdened by historical memory and prepared to atone, can give voice to some new hope, we should welcome it. Walker Percy and friends long since set off on this mission, and their work has received a broad reception, not least by our own tribe. To be sure, Trumpian nationalism, so popular in red states, does not fit here, but the Republican establishment, in the train of both Bush presidencies, has resisted Trump from the start. Republican Episcopalians, wherever they may be found these days, would overwhelmingly take the establishment side.

The new/old word from Episcopal traditionalists in the South may not exactly be one for the ages, but we could settle for the foreseeable future — a generation or two. We need more healthy pragmatism and can-do optimism. In that spirit, I say: Up with the Texas-sized reboot of the reboot. Up with a broadly catholic and evangelical Anglicanism that speaks in a Southern, and Southwestern, accent.

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of the Living Church Foundation.


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