Two congregations gathered in one church on Sunday, March 3. They gave thanks, broke bread, and then packed iup.
So began the procession.
Congregants picked up hymnals, candles, communion supplies and other items from the sanctuary and walked out the doors of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles, located at 4922 Leeds Ave., singing as they strolled the 0.9 miles to St. Stephen Lutheran Church, at 901 Courtney Road.
Once inside the sanctuary, the space was rededicated as the new home for the two Christian communities, joined together as The Churches of Holy Apostles and St. Stephen.
“It was negating of ego and tradition and self,” said the Rev. Jim Perra, 38, the Episcopal priest from Holy Apostles who now oversees the new church community. “I think it’s breathtakingly beautiful that they made this hard and difficult choice.”
Pastor John Sabatelli, 73, who ministered at St. Stephen, retired on March 3, after the combining of the congregations.
Both churches were in financially dicey shape — not yet about to run out of money but neither able to operate sustainably on their own.
Because the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are in full communion, they share recognition of Baptism and Eucharist and can share ordained ministers; an Episcopal priest can minister to pews filled with Lutherans.
Holy Apostles and St. Stephen formed a joint committee in June 2018 to begin seriously considering merging. Perra said informal conversations began earlier, and he realized quickly upon his arrival to Holy Apostles that the church would need to do something “pretty radical” to remain viable.
Now, Perra explained, both congregations will be able to contribute toward one building, one utility bill and one pastoral staff, rather than each paying for their own. It will allow the church to focus on engaging with the community and offering services like a youth group and other church programs. Each congregation had about 60 members, Perra and Sabatelli said.
“We can’t do that if we are spending all our time trying to keep the lights on and the doors open,” Perra said. He did not disclose exactly how much money the merger would save, but said doing so puts the Church of Holy Apostles in “striking distance” of being in the black, a position it hasn’t attained for several years.
“The point is to make the money the last thing you’re thinking about,” Perra said.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland will retain ownership of the building at 4922 Leeds Ave., and Perra said he wants to see it turned into a community and worship center for the population of Burmese immigrants who live in Arbutus.
Common worship, common values
The Rev. William Gohl Jr., bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the ELCA, thought it was important that he be at the first full worship service of the new Churches of Holy Apostles and St. Stephen. He wanted to show the congregation that the Synod was 100 percent behind the venture — so he attended an Ash Wednesday service where Perra gave homily.
“The service was just beautiful in the way it blended Episcopal and Lutheran traditions,” Gohl said. “We tripped over them, we laughed, and then we moved on.”
Scott Slater, Canon to the Ordinary in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland — akin to being a chief operating officer, he said — noted that the Episcopal church and the ELCA are “very similar,” and even he has a hard time seeing the differences in worship between the two denominations.
There are “some very nuanced differences in the liturgy, like some phrase differences, a little bit of nuance in theology, but most laypeople in the pews wouldn’t even notice that,” Slater said.
The two denominations have been in full communion since 1999, after establishing a goal in 1982 of eventually reaching that. The ELCA is also in full communion with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church and the United Methodist Church.
Holy Apostles and St. Stephen is not the first church to be formed by the joining of an Episcopalian church and a Lutheran church in Maryland. Church on the Square, in southeast Baltimore, was established in 2014, and The Church of the Nativity and Holy Comforter in Cedarcroft, a Baltimore neighborhood, formed in late 2015.
Slater said he expects there will be “a lot more” church combinations like this, “especially in smaller areas” where there might be only one church of each denomination.
“It just makes a lot more sense” to combine churches and pool resources, Slater said.
Gohl said the denominations share commonalities in worship, and “common values around justice and discipleship.” So, he said, the synod and the diocese, and the Episcopalian congregants and Lutheran congregants, are hoping for “vitality and new life and growth.”
For now, the church will be ministered just by Perra, the Episcopal priest. The Delaware-Maryland Synod of the ELCA and the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland are going to pool resources to bring a Lutheran pastoral intern to the church soon.
“This was the right thing for those two congregations, Sabatelli said. “This was the absolute right thing, all the way around. I am fully supportive and look forward from a distance to see what evolves and what happens.”
Teresa Sparhawk, property manager of the 901 Courtney Road building, a lifelong Lutheran and a 25-year member of St. Stephen Church, said it seems like everyone from the congregations is “excited to come together.”
She’s personally happy that the congregations will be meeting in the Courtney Road building, both because of recent renovation work — like new roofing and floors — and because of its prominent location facing Wilkens Avenue.
“There’s a lot of possibilities here,” Sparhawk said.
Perra described himself as “somewhat arrogantly Anglican,” and that he would have thought of himself as “the last person” to bring together two different Christian traditions.
But, he said, a brunch held after the Sunday of the procession was one of the most beautiful moments of his life, because he was watching the two congregations come together as one.
“We want to grab harder and harder to the things that make us feel comfortable and normal,” Perra said. “I think what Jesus wants from us is the opposite. God wants us to be vulnerable and uncomfortable on behalf of others.”
The Churches of Holy Apostles and St. Stephen, at 901 Courtney Road in Arbutus, will have a service from the Book of Common Prayer at 8 a.m. Sundays, followed by a liturgical service at 10 a.m. on Sundays.