When I moved into my office—my only one amid the Churches I was called to, I did it with verve. I was the first new priest in 20 years, and possibly the first to use this space in longer than that, based on the dust. Boxes of books were piled into the Honda sedan I drove, my brother’s help was solicited for the unpacking and cleaning, a new area rug purchased, and the furniture rearranged. My books—arranged by subject area, new color with the rug, less dust, more friendly. Suddenly, the office space was mine. It was a new beginning, a new chance.
Moving out has been a slow trickle. More like fading away. Every time I’m there I take a tote bag of books away with me, carting them out of the office and building. Carefully selected to be the books that will be missed least from the shelves, the ones I will least likely mind having buried in the back of their temporary shelving in my apartment. I take my time selecting them, always making me the last to leave, solitary in my little ritual of grief.
Because there will be no new priest after me. No one will rearrange the furniture again. No books will replace mine on the shelves. I need not debate whether to leave my lovely rug for my successor, wondering if they will want it. St John’s is closing, the parish dissolving. The gamble we took together, the mostly impossible task I described in one of my first sermons, has proven beyond us.
You can ask why. I do. I even have answers. There are the double handful of answers I give on even days about the changing demographics of small towns; about being Episcopalian in a conservative town; statistics about mainline Churches; the ability of any congregation to change; and my worry about being young, female, and liberal. Then there are the answers I give on odd days while looking between my hands and my reflection in a mirror, knowing that it wasn’t enough and wondering what might have been, if only…
In between I know that these answers, any and all of them, don’t matter. I mean, they matter to academics and perhaps to the priest in the next town over hoping their church is is where St John’s was ten years ago. But not to me, not to the faithful remnant who will attend the secularization of our Church’s building with the Bishop and I.
Answers are only a layer of our grief.
Our grief as we celebrated our last Christmas together as a parish. Our grief as we recognize that we will not celebrate Easter together. Our grief as we all remember funerals, baptisms, and weddings, and holy conversation held in this space. As we begin to make decisions about where the stuff of our parish should go. One or two items relating to the history of the 100+ year old parish to the town museum. One or two items crafted by family members to their descendants who are parishioners. One or two will come home with me, as memorials and for my continued use. And the rest, hopefully, to other Churches, where they will continue to be used to the glory of God. In the midst of all this grief, we gather to celebrate Eucharist and count out our last few services together, in much the same way as family gathered around a deathbed keeps track of the breaths, full of grief and the knowledge that the end is coming.