Good morning. I now call to order the 174th Annual Meeting of the Church of St. James the Less. I’ll speak a little here about how we’re doing as a parish and what lies ahead in the next couple of years. After this service we’ll reconvene in the Great Hall for brunch and continued church business, in addition to the launch of our capital campaign. You’re encouraged this year more than most to look at your Annual Meeting booklets because there’s detail there we might not get to with everything else we have going on.

For those who are new, the Annual Meeting is when we review the previous and coming year’s budget, vote in new vestry members for their 3 year terms (those are your representatives in the financial and legal matters of the parish), and gain insight into what the various committees of the church are working on. 


Last year I spoke about how, after years of discernment together, a vision was emerging for St. James, a vision that will ensure a successful future in a society where churchgoing is increasingly uncommon. All around us, churches erected before and after ours, but mostly (like ours) in the 19th century, are closing, or staring down that reality. Not all of them should be at this point. There is, for every church, a critical juncture at which you recognize your existence can’t be taken for granted. A clear strategy is needed. 

This is ongoing work. We still have things to figure out. But I’m going to repeat and also build upon what I said last year. Most of it still holds, and will guide into a successful future at St. James.

Last year, I mentioned how important it is to think of ourselves as a regional parish, rather than just local. With fewer options for Episcopal churches in some of the areas where closures are happening, people are coming to us from farther away. We’re a charming and welcoming place, of course :) but it helps that we have a good communications committee that makes sure we’re reaching a wide area with our advertising, website, and social media. It also helps to have service times that are a little later and so more welcoming to people coming from farther away. With our two services at 9 & 10:30 we have greater capacity for growth, as well. And we’re seeing success. So far, our people come here from as far as Hastings, the north Bronx, Mt. Vernon, White Plains, New Rochelle, Rye Brook, Yonkers, Peekskill, Briarcliff and other river towns. Since 2017 we’ve grown by almost 50% in terms of pledging families, from 103 to 147, the fastest growth coming in the last two years. That correlates with our efforts to have a broader reach. 

Practically speaking, reaching a wider area is essential to our survival in a culture where fewer people identify as Christian. But it also just makes us a better, stronger community. Churches may once have been havens for the like minded, but in a society where it’s now all too easy to hide out among those who think and look like us, what the church needs to be is that rare place where we encounter people who don’t think and look like us. We share a theology of grace and welcome, but we come together from many different backgrounds, neighborhoods, cities, races, political views. We worship side by side, drink coffee together, sing, and sometimes, in the safe context of a loving church, dare to share our differences with each other. What’s practical is also better for us spiritually. We’re broadening our reach. We’re more diverse. We’re regional now.


I also said last year that the church needs to provide meaningful engagement that includes but reaches beyond Sunday worship. Worship is our primary reason for coming together. It’s in our lease. A condition on which we can continue to use this land, set out 174 years ago by William Popham, is that we worship weekly from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Look at our budget and you can see that worship is a priority of our life together.

That said, there are other ways to worship God, too, and the church has always known this if not exactly articulated it this way--though some have. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu, who is also a priest, wrote a book together in which they talk about (what they call) “Amos Christianity.” That comes from the prophet Amos in the Bible who preached that acts of justice are as important to God as our religious rituals.

At one point they quote the rector of a parish in South Africa, who said of his very active church: ‘We do not do outreach. Everything we do is worship.’

I love that. “We do not do outreach. Everything we do is worship.” From bagging groceries at the Fordham Pantry to handing out clean socks to the homeless at Midnight Run to sitting with our refugee from Ukraine and practicing English verb conjugations, as a number of you here do week in and week out: worship. And why wouldn’t we call it that? It’s another way of showing respect for God, as elemental and instinctive as prayer. 

It’s telling that the National Episcopal Church in the last four years has added to its metrics for church vitality not only participation in Sunday worship, but also participation in feeding, pantry, refugee, and other outreach programs. We used to measure the health of a parish largely by who sat in the pews on Sundays. Now we count participation in service programs, too. And we should. Everything we do is worship.


Finally--and this leads into what we’ll be doing after this service--if we’re going to have a future as a parish, we must take good care of one of our biggest but also most costly assets: our buildings and property. We can do this through stronger annual giving, through wise vestry decisions and allocating more resources for regular maintenance. We’re also well past due for a Capital Campaign, which is a committed, concentrated, and sacrificial effort on the part of the parish to address the maintenance of our space. 

We’ll talk about that at more length at our brunch today, but let me set up that conversation by reminding us all what an important role this place, these walls, play in shaping and sustaining our common life. Our existence and identity are linked to this building. These buildings. 

Someone at one of the Focus Groups we held last October, where we reviewed the needs of our buildings and discussed our priorities, asked what it would cost to just tear everything down and start over with something newer. You could hear audible gasps. I appreciated that question. How much does this place make us who we are? 

Christianity is sacramental. God meets us in the material world, through bread, and wine, and water, and human touch; also the ground we stand on, and the buildings we inhabit. Go to any Episcopal church and you’ll see: we don’t tend to worship in auditoriums or cinder block buildings. Not that you can’t, but we prize these grand, holy spaces. We celebrate the architects who created them: Hobart Upjohn, whose plaque is here. He designed this area up front and our Great Hall; he was a member of our vestry and the grandson of Richard Upjohn who built Trinity Wall Street, a pretty big deal.

Look around you. A child sitting and coloring in that corner on a Sunday will without a doubt tell you one day that her conception of God is linked to this space, the cavernous ceiling above, the voices of the choir floating and bouncing off the walls, the saints looking down protectively from the windows and art above them. I’ve had people tell me that sitting in a pew here somehow opens up in them entire emotional worlds they can’t access anywhere else--in short, for many, it’s a place to cry. Tears of sorrow and joy. 

I must receive at least dozen notes, probably more each year, via email and snail mail both, from people who grew up here and caught a picture of us online, or on our Facebook posts, and were so overwhelmed with memories: of skipping up the aisle in an angel’s gown or shepherd’s robe. Of reading for the first time publicly at the lectern. Of actually remembering something from a sermon at a very young age (sometimes at an older age, too:)). Of sitting in church between mother and father, of giving a mother’s eulogy. Sometimes it’s just a memory of a feeling: feeling safe, enclosed, held, loved. 

It never surprises me that the most “liked” posts I ever put up on social media are of some detail of our building--a window, a wall plaque. The men and women who built this place, and it’s hard to believe such a solid structure was ever built, much less funded by the simple gifts of people like us; those men and women understood the power of place, especially holy places, in our lives. They’re the enduring homes, when other houses come and go and pass into other hands. We pin our memories to this place, because we know we can always come back.

And we all understand this, too. It’s why the vestry unanimously voted to approve a capital campaign, which we’ll launch just after this service. It’s why 30 families have already contributed to that campaign, and it’s going to be a good one. It’s why we agreed so readily not just that we want to take serious care of our space, but what we want to see done. 

Our future as a parish depends on this campaign. We all know it.

On the night the vestry voted to proceed with this endeavor, I read them something by the essayist Alain de Botton, and I’d like to share it with you today as I draw this address to a close. It’s from his 2006 book “The Architecture of Happiness.”

It is [he writes] the world’s great religions that have perhaps given most thought to the role played by the environment in determining identity and so … have shown the greatest sympathy for our need for a home. The very principle of religious architecture has its origins in the notion that where we are critically determines what we are able to believe in. To defenders of religious architecture, however convinced we are at an intellectual level of our commitment to a creed, we will remain reliably devoted to it only when it is continually affirmed by our buildings. In danger of being corrupted by our passions and led astray by the commerce and chatter of our societies, we require places where the values outside of us encourage and enforce the aspirations within us. We may be nearer or further away from God on account of what is represented on the walls or the ceilings. We need panels of gold and lapis, windows of coloured glass and gardens of immaculately raked gravel in order to stay true to the sincerest parts of ourselves.

He goes on from there to describe what it feels like stepping, as he did, from Westminster Abbey into the nearby Westminster branch of McDonalds. I think you can guess his point. 

But back to St. James the Less. If we are regional and seek to draw members from all over the county. If we can see worship as something that reaches out into everything we do here, from singing and praying on Sundays to bagging fruit and vegetables at the food pantry. If we can really do what it takes to properly maintain this treasure that is our campus and our buildings, which begins in earnest with the campaign launch after this service, then we’ll be on the right path to a solid, healthy future as a parish.

Those are big aims. Inclusivity and reach. Worship that speaks to people at all walks of life. Investing in the buildings that bring us together and shape us. We can do it -- already are. And we’ll keep at it. With God’s help. 

As ever, I’m so grateful for the privilege to serve as Rector of St. James the Less.