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Why This Series?
The number of people who attend or associate with Christian denominations has been falling steadily in the U.S. for decades. As a result, many churches have closed or merged or are struggling financially, including in the Highlands. The pandemic shutdown did not help, although churches quickly adapted by broadcasting services online.
Repeated social surveys have found that, as the churchgoing population ages, younger generations are not replacing them in the pews. A growing segment of the population has been labeled “nones” — they are not atheists or even agnostics. They just don’t have religion in their lives. Sundays are the second day of the weekend.
This series will examine how this trend is affecting churches in Philipstown and Beacon, and how their leaders are attempting to grow their flocks. When Beacon, Cold Spring, Nelsonville and Garrison were founded, community life centered on the churches. What changed? What should change? What must change? If it survives, what will the church of the future look like?
Your thoughts and reactions are welcome. Email me at [email protected] or post a comment below.
Chip Rowe, Editor
The Rev. Amanda Eiman was not looking for a new church. She was firmly ensconced as an associate rector at St. David’s Episcopal Church in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. In a time at which many churches are losing parishioners and funds, this one boasted a large, steady congregation with several other priests and paid staff members. Her husband, the Rev. Chris Bishop, was serving as a rector at another Episcopal church nearby. And she was four-and-a-half months pregnant with twins.
So there was no logical reason to consider it when one of her fellow priests mentioned that a friend of his attended a church 150 miles away, in the hamlet of Garrison, New York, that was on the lookout for a successor to its pastor, who had retired. Was she interested in applying?
She was not. “I said, ‘No way, we’re not moving anywhere,’ ” she recalled.
And yet: She felt an urge to learn more, an urge she now views as “God’s nudge.”
The Garrison church had a lot going for it. Founded in 1771, it was almost burned down during the Revolutionary War by colonials who considered it excessively loyal to the king of England. As the story goes, when the mob approached the building, they were turned away by Gen. George Washington himself, who admonished the crowd by yelling, “That, sir, is my church!”
In the past 60 years the church had only had two pastors, a sign of stability spanning generations. And the congregation was growing, with families with young children flocking there even though it was in a transitional phase.
“That’s not usually the case,” she said. “When a priest who’s been at a church for a long time leaves, usually it’s a time of sadness, of trying to regroup.”
Eiman told herself she wasn’t going to leave St. David’s unless she ended up somewhere where, as she put it, “God was doing something special.” As she visited and spoke to members, she felt that was the case. What’s more, she felt that God wanted her to be there, as well.
And so, in January 2020, Eiman became the 28th pastor — and the first female one — in the 251-year history of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.
The global pandemic shutdown was two months away.
God may be doing something special at St. Philip’s, but Eiman found that many of the reasons that it was attracting new congregants were quite down-to-earth. Like her previous church, St. Philip’s has an ample staff who could take care of basic necessities like updating the website, answering the phone and greeting any unfamiliar worshippers who walked in on a Sunday morning.
“Sometimes drawing people in or growing your church isn’t rocket science,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories like: ‘Well, I tried to go to this church, so I left a voicemail on their parish administrator’s voicemail, and I never heard back.’ Or: ‘I couldn’t find their worship times on their website,’ or ‘I went to the church, and nobody said hello to me.’ How awful is that?”
When the pandemic struck, St. Philip’s secured video cameras and personnel to livestream empty-chapel services. Even after in-person services resumed, it continued livestreaming and added video messages in its weekly email newsletters. It found that the livestreams and videos were a way for those who had moved away to feel connected to the parish, for homebound members to take part, and as an introduction for the curious, some of whom later took a seat in the pews.
Eiman said there’s a dispiriting Catch-22 at the heart of this. In order for a church to increase its congregants and revenues, it first has to have enough congregants and revenue. Churches that could afford, in equipment and labor, to smoothly livestream services during the pandemic were able to entice new members. Those that couldn’t, didn’t. Big churches get bigger, and small churches disappear.
On one hand, everything is working at St. Philip’s. In the past two years, Eiman estimates that the church has attracted about 50 new people.
But the numbers are about the same as they were when she arrived once you factor in the people who, since she began, have left.
A church in the wild
Many churches in the Highlands struggle with filling pews, raising money, patching walls, figuring out the spiritual and logistical needs of their congregation, and discovering the role of religion during a time of polarization and pandemics. If fewer Americans are defining themselves as Christians — or religious at all — what does that mean for the church in general?
When we conceived this series before the pandemic, the working titles were Are Churches Dying? or The Church in Crisis. But in the process of reporting, it became clear that neither title was accurate. Churches do close. Congregations disperse. But on the whole, many churches are dealing with their challenges by changing what it means to be part of a church.
Last week we looked at the struggles of the Reformed Church in Beacon, which closed last year because of a lack of congregants, and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring, which nearly closed. This week we examine two cases in which Highlands residents are deciding how much religion they want in their religion.
When Friedrike Merck first came to Garrison six years ago, her friend Anne Osborn invited her to sing in the St. Philip’s choir. There was one problem.
“I said to her, ‘Annie, I’m a Buddhist agnostic,’ ” she recalled. “Annie said, ‘Oh, we don’t care. Many of us are any number of things. We are here in fellowship, and we’re here to be together.’ That’s who welcomed me. And I’ve never been so welcomed in a community in my life.”
Things changed when the new rector arrived. Merck said that for her and the majority of the choir at St. Philip’s, it didn’t feel like home anymore.
In a way, Eiman isn’t surprised. The St. Philip’s congregation was growing, but it was still a traumatic time with the previous, beloved rector retiring after 30 years and then the pandemic closing off in-person services for six months.
“There was a lot of trauma there, especially when you then throw in this new person who is basically unlike the old pastor in every way, shape and form,” Eiman said. “But how I really differed from the former rector is that I talk about Jesus and I talk about the Trinity and my sermons are very scripturally based.”
Eiman didn’t feel that by reintroducing Jesus and scripture into the worship services that she wasn’t being inclusive.
“I believe that Christianity and Christian communities are very inclusive and very loving,” she said. “Jesus was one of the most inclusive beings who has ever lived.”
But a portion of the congregation felt that the services were becoming too doctrinal. Tensions grew, and in late 2020, the longtime music director resigned and nearly the entire choir, including Merck, left with him.
Merck said that the people who left wanted to stay together, and that they wanted to continue singing together. It was, in singing together, that they felt a connection to the divine.
“Sacred music isn’t just a bunch of people getting together, strumming a guitar and feeling groovy,” she said. “Sacred music is an extraordinary thing. One of the reasons Bach is one of the greatest composers who ever lived is because his compositions, which were mostly sacred music, really reflect the complexity of the heavens, and the beauty of the heavens. And when people sing beautiful music, it’s connected to something bigger than us.”
With the recent merging of two Methodist congregations in Philipstown — United Methodist in Cold Spring and South Highland United Methodist in Garrison — the latter church was not being used. Redubbed The Highlands Chapel, it is now filled every Sunday with the Highlands Choral Society, a group that is mostly made up of St. Philip’s former music director and its former choir.
Merck serves as president. “What we have is an opportunity, and a safe place for people of various faiths and philosophies to come together, in fellowship, in song, in prayer and in meditation,” she said.
The services may have a basic Christian structure, but there is no priest. Readings from the Bible are sometimes given, but so are the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
“It’s about how people can come together to do good, to worship, to have a spiritual life without demanding that they either be baptized, or that they believe in certain things or not,” Merck said.
Merck thinks that the Highlands Choral Society’s members are indicative of a religious — or non-religious — trend. Many people, she thinks, want a more spiritual life but are turned off by organized religion. She points to Harvard University, where the chaplains at the Ivy League school unanimously elected Greg Epstein, an atheist and author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, to serve as the president of their society.
“I’m sick of ‘othering,’ ” said Merck. “Instead, we are about gathering.”
While the split may have been painful, both sides claim to be turning the other cheek. “We consider St. Philip’s and the Highlands Choral Society to be mutually respectful entities,” said Merck. “But we’re freestanding from each other. We just have different paths.”
Eiman said that since many of the people who left the church don’t consider themselves to be Christian, it’s understandable that they would seek a different experience. “I know that they just want to gather and sing and do something a little bit different,” she said. “God bless you if that’s what you want to do. But that’s not really Episcopalian, and we’re an Episcopal church.”
She cautions against organized churches who might follow a similar path. Many churches, she said, in the 1990s downplayed Jesus and the Scriptures in a bid to bring more people to the pews. It worked at first, she said, but then attendance began to decline. People who had come to the church for a spiritual experience weren’t getting it. For them, there was no difference between church and any other gathering of people.
This is one of the main questions Eiman said church leaders are asking themselves: What is their Christian mission?
“If you lose your mission, you just become a social club,” she said.
A forgotten language
Mary Ann Kronk, who lives in Cold Spring, is a lifelong Catholic who has felt her own challenges in determining what she wants from worship — and found herself going in a different direction, to a far more ritualized, traditional service that the Catholic church has mostly abandoned.
She had grown up being taught that you don’t shop around. If you thought the priest was not such a great speaker, or that his homilies were uninspiring, you still came every Sunday.
“You’re not there for the priest, you’re there for the Mass,” she said. “And the Mass is the Mass.”
But three years ago, Kronk found that, for her, the Mass was not just the Mass. She was invited to hear a Mass in High Latin at a Catholic church just outside the Highlands.
The 1960s were a period of radical change in the Catholic church. After hundreds of years of the Mass being in Latin, the Vatican declared that parishes should now use local, vernacular languages. As a result, the majority of U.S. churches began celebrating the Mass in English.
Further reforms quickly followed, including simplifying the rituals and turning the priest to face the congregation, as opposed to standing with his back to the pews.
Many Catholics welcomed these changes, feeling that they made the Mass more inclusive. But some felt that Mass became less spiritual, and that the aesthetics were altered in a way that made it less effective as a religious experience.
Today, High Latin Masses are unusual because few Catholic priests know Latin. The pontifical universities in Rome largely stopped teaching it more than 50 years ago.
So it was mostly historical curiosity that drove Kronk to forgo Our Lady of Loretto in Cold Spring for a week to check out the High Latin mass. The priest that would be presiding promised Kronk that it would change her life. “Oh Father, you are being so dramatic,” she said.
But he was right. “If you just go to regular Mass, you can sit through it for 45 minutes, and you don’t even have to think about it very much,” she said. “You’ve done your duty and you’re gone. But in the Latin Mass, you’re more committed because there’s a lot of silence. You have to engage or it’s not going to do anything for you.”
The experience was so powerful that when she walked out of the church, she found herself angry. “I thought, ‘Why did they take this away from us?’ This was the missing piece of the puzzle. This is what I’d been looking for.”
She told the priest how she felt, and he offered an explanation. Traditionally, Mass is a “vertical experience,” with prayers from the priest and the congregation going up to God, and “God coming down into our hearts.” But over time, the Catholic liturgy had become a “horizontal experience” from the priest to the congregation. At the Latin Mass, Kronk didn’t feel like a spectator; she was praying with the priest, both of them speaking to God.
She is not doctrinal. But she said she now understands why some people who return to the church in times of crisis, thinking it will help, come away empty. She understands why they feel that the experience was silly, awkward or ineffective.
“We’ve lost our ability to pray,” she said. “We haven’t grown up watching our parents deep in prayer, our grandparents deep in prayer. So it’s very foreign to us.”
Her advice to those who feel adrift is to find someone who will teach you how to pray. But, she also thinks that prayer doesn’t have to look the way it does in a traditional church.
Even yoga, or meditation, can be form of prayer, she said, because they are a means of focusing our attention, of addressing someone or something outside of the realm of our daily existence, a way of touching something eternal. “As long as you’re doing something like that, you can find peace,” she said. “And everybody wants peace.”