Non-denominational Evangelical minister, Episcopal priest: One man leads two congregations in historic Catonsville church

An Episcopal priest and an evangelical minister walk into a Catonsville church. They’re the same person

It's 8 a.m. Sunday at St. Hilda's in Catonsville, and the priest in the pulpit wears a white robe and green chasuble to celebrate the Episcopal Mass — a formal liturgy with roots that date to the 16th century.

Two hours later, he has exchanged the alb and chasuble for a black Joe Flacco jersey to lead an evangelical service — his language now part Billy Graham, part Rodney Dangerfield.

"For the last seven weeks I've talked to you about sex," the Rev. Jason Poling says. "Today I'll address a completely separate issue: marriage."

Poling, 43, founded the evangelical New Hope Community Church in Pikesville 13 years ago. This year, at the invitation of Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, he launched St. Hilda's, a new Episcopal congregation in Catonsville.

He now leads both groups in the former St. Timothy's Church on Ingleside Avenue, a 161-year-old building abandoned three years ago by parishioners concerned that the Episcopal Church was moving too far to the left on gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

Poling's dual role might be unique in all of Christendom.

Once the members of tiny St. Hilda's leave the Mass, Poling bounds into the church sacristy like a clerical Clark Kent. He switches vestments and reappears to address the nearly 80 members of New Hope.

The costume change is only one sign of the gap between the Episcopal Church and evangelical Christianity, traditions at opposite poles of the church spectrum.

The Episcopal Church in recent years has embraced same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy, positions that have cost it members and whole congregations.

Evangelicals, Poling included, tend to be more conservative on those and other issues.

Had Poling been a parishioner at St. Timothy's three years ago, he says, he might have joined the exodus.

And that's exactly why Sutton, the head of Maryland's Episcopal diocese, dreamed up and signed off on what he calls "this wonderfully crazy idea."

"In that upper room the night before Jesus died, he didn't tell the disciples, 'Beware of this or that group' or 'avoid those who don't agree with you,'" Sutton says. "He told them, 'If you guys can show love and unity among you, then the world might believe God sent me.'

"I need people on either side of the theological spectrum to say, 'Can't we try to fulfill the dream Jesus had that night?'

"I believe this partnership is a sign that maybe this kind of stuff really works."

Neither Sutton nor Poling knows quite where their experiment will lead. Poling founded St. Hilda's and moved New Hope into the space last spring, and the congregations are just getting used to working together.

Either way, Poling says, it's worth trying.

"It's too early tell whether this will thrive or whether God wants me to be a cautionary tale," Poling says. "Ultimately, either outcome is useful. It's God who makes the call."

'Glorious and not scary'

While the Christian population of the United States has declined sharply over the past decade or so, Evangelicals — Christians who report having been "born again," among other markers — have held steady at about one-fourth of the adult population.

The Episcopal Church — the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion — has suffered particularly visible losses in that time.

Tens of thousands of Episcopalians have left the church since leaders consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003 and made the rite of marriage available to same-sex couples in 2009.

Some have left for the theologically conservative Anglican Church in North America, established in 2009. Others joined the Roman Catholic Church, under rules established by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

The Episcopal congregation that founded St. Timothy's in 1844 voted three years ago to become Catholic. Members now meet at nearby St. Mark Church.

Do the clashes explain the 27 percent plunge in attendance at Episcopal churches from 2005 to 2015? That's hard to say. But local Episcopalians see this as a moment for creative action and projects like Poling's as potential solutions.

The Rev. Dina van Klaveren, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Glenwood, headed the diocesan committee that first weighed the proposal.

"We're so used to having everything fit into these buckets or categories, but Jason doesn't fit into that," she says. "He defies categorization; he's many at once. We tried to see how that is something glorious and not scary."

Sutton agrees.

"Here's a man who's on the conservative side on most things, and who is very firm in his beliefs, but who is so warmly welcoming of other Christians who don't agree with him," he says. "We couldn't even try such a thing were it not for his extraordinary gifts."

Poling has spent a lifetime squaring opposites.

Born to parents who belonged to the liberal United Church of Christ, he grew up amidst the kind of adherence to formality that also defines Anglicanism.

By his teens, he wondered whether the UCC he knew stressed "good causes" at the expense of engaging deeply with the Savior.

"Jesus seemed … this wise but misunderstood guy we should basically follow, and it seemed to me I was hearing a whole lot about disarmament and music and not so much about atonement," he says.

Things changed at Loch Raven High School, where Poling encountered Young Life, a ministry for teens that fosters an approach more reflective of the evangelical preferences then sweeping the United States: direct contact with God over liturgy, personal involvement over ritual — even warehouses over traditional church buildings, and electric guitars over pipe organs.

About the same time, Poling says, he became a free-market conservative, having come to the conclusion that smaller government does more to foster liberty and choice than the progressive worldview his family encouraged.

By the time he headed off to Williams College in 1990, he says, he was a mystery to his parents: a right-wing evangelical who believed in the same savior they did, if from a decidedly different angle.

Poling says he loves his folks and has come to respect the church they favored, and the family ecosystem that developed over the years still amuses him.

"They've said they weren't sure where they failed me, and I've never been convinced they were totally kidding," he says, and laughs.

A three-in-one idea

A visit with Poling is a romp in the paradoxical.

The holder of four advanced degrees, the burly pastor with the goatee and the whimsical expression loves the rhythms of high-church language, savors the beauties of religious objets d'art, and works closely with other scholars at several of the Mid-Atlantic's leading interfaith institutions, including the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.

But he's never above a cornball quip – "Don't let the Prius fool you; I'm a Republican," he says as he exits his car — or the irreverent tweak.

He shows a guest an image, in stained glass, of the Sovereign's Orb of the United Kingdom, a cross surmounting a sphere.

"Better not touch the Holy Hand Grenade," he says, an allusion to an old Monty Python gag not a few Christians found tasteless, and a riff on comedy follows.

Such openness to the unusual helps define Poling, a married father of two daughters, and frames his current mission.

He might be the only cleric in Maryland who started his professional life as an opposition researcher for U.S. Senate Republicans; who quit because politics "brought out my worst personality traits"; who pondered a life in law, then experienced a calling to ministry the night before taking his LSATs.

His wife, Mary, a classical musician, noticed Poling wasn't showing his customary enthusiasm for that career choice. She asked him what job he'd want if he could pick any in the world.

"Pastor at Grace [Fellowship]," he said, surprising them both. They were members of the fast-growing Timonium megachurch.

Within five years, he'd graduated from a seminary associated with Grace and been ordained. Two years later, church leaders asked him to start a satellite congregation in the I-795 corridor. Over the next decade, New Hope Community Church, which met in a historic stone chapel in Pikesville, was a small yet thriving evangelical congregation that reflected its leader's breadth of interests.

He shared his pulpit with neighboring rabbis. He introduced elements of high-church liturgy, reading from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and marking foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

The congregation spent months at a time mining individual books of the Bible, and Poling established himself as a leader in the ecumenical and interfaith communities of Baltimore and Washington.

Kevin Jones is an elder at New Hope.

"After several years we recognized our church was not becoming the megachurch we'd envisioned with our human minds, but the people who come are ones who want to hear from God in different viewpoints," he says. "Jason is well-versed in using the Bible to convince us we can't always believe everything we think we believe."

Over time, New Hope began to outgrow the stone chapel. The parishioners of St. Timothy's voted to leave the Episcopal Church. So New Hope was looking for a new home, the Diocese of Maryland had an empty building on its hands, and Sutton saw an opening.

The bishop had met Poling on a trip to Israel through the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. He reached out and pitched a three-in-one idea: move New Hope into the space, plant an Episcopal parish, and inspire the two to work together.

Poling has been priming the partnership since St. Hilda's launched at Easter, combining their efforts at brunches, evenings of pumpkin-carving and a celebration of a new baby's arrival.

Members of each are surprised at how naturally they've connected across differences.

"We have different ways of worshipping, but we're actually becoming one community," says Alan Hastings, the sacristan, or keeper of vessels, at St. Hilda's.

A New Hope elder sees the New Testament as bonding agent.

"When we started breaking this down piece by piece, we realized we have the same Gospel," Darcy Bisset of Lutherville says. "There's a God who is good and who loves us. He's in the business of interfering in our world because he wants to make it right. He calls us into partnership on that. That's what an Evangelical and an Episcopalian would say."

A new Pentecost?

The St. Hilda's-New Hope partnership is one of several the Diocese of Maryland has launched.

The Church on the Square in Canton, a joint project of the diocese and the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, brings together Episcopalians, Lutherans and others. The Church of the Nativity and Holy Comforter in Cedarcroft is another Lutheran-Episcopalian community.

St. Andrews International Community Anglican Episcopal Church on Loch Raven Boulevard is a joint parish of the Maryland diocese and the more conservative Anglican Diocese of Nakuru, Kenya.

All of the partnerships are still in their formative stages. But the Rev. Daniel Webster, canon for evangelism and media for the Maryland diocese, says they've generated moments of such unity that he wonders whether they could be signs of a "new Pentecost" — a repeat of the moment described in the Book of Acts when God filled Jesus' followers with divine power.

"There's clearly something going on in Christianity around the world, but certainly in this country," Webster says. "We're trying to figure out what that is, where the Holy Spirit is leading us."

Poling is the first preacher schooled and ordained in two traditions and who ministers to both at the same church.

He continued as New Hope senior pastor as Sutton sent him to the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York in 2014. He won top prizes in liturgical studies and extemporaneous preaching and graduated last year. Sutton ordained him as a priest.

None of it, Poling says, erased his Evangelical credentials or leanings.

He can find no support in the Bible for same-sex marriage, for instance, and won't perform such unions. But he believes God loves those who see the issue differently, and says he will refer gay couples who wish to marry to priests who will.

"God is allowing us time to pursue different approaches to [this issue]," he says. "In 150 years, we'll know where the spirit was leading us through this conflict. But not now."

In his view, it's the Nicene and Apostle's creeds — statements of faith principles drawn up in the first centuries after Christ — that provide the surest framework for sciptural interpretation, and neither mentions marriage, the ordination of women or other issues now viewed as insuperable barriers.

"Arguing over issues is a useful thing, but that's not the ministry I'm called to," Poling says. "I'm more interested helping people not be divided by things that shouldn't divide them."

On a recent Sunday, he delivers the Holy Eucharist for a few Episcopal parishioners, then conducts a New Hope service complete with Peter, Paul and Mary-style folk music and the reading of poetry.

He covers the same ground in both sermons.

In the First Letter to the Corinthians, he tells both groups, Paul addresses early Christian leaders who can't agree on doctrine.

The apostle's counsel is simple: reach across what divides you, build on what you have in common and leave the outcome to the Almighty.

If that sounds like his own mission, Poling is all right with that.

"We're all on Team Jesus," he says.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
32°