War Protest Unwelcome in an Episcopalian Refuge Church Visit #13
By Nick Mottern
On Sunday, April 13, 2008, Martha Conte, Gayle Dunkelberger, Margaret Eberle and I visited St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Katonah, New York, in our on-going bannering campaign to encourage clergy in Westchester County to speak publicly for an end to the US occupation of Iraq.
The response of the pastor, the Rev. Diane Britt, and the parishioners with whom we spoke can be summed up simply: Bringing an Iraq War “protest” into the church service is inappropriate.
St. Luke’s is a small church - really a chapel - built in 1921 in an English Tudor country style. It is situated at the southern entrance to Katonah, a wealthy community whose most famous resident is probably Martha Stewart. Her plan last year to trademark the name of the town for a line of furniture infuriated some of her neighbors.
We arrived for the 10 am service on a sunny but chilly morning, and we were among the first entering the church. The interior has cream-colored walls with a dark walnut stained exposed rafter structure and stained glass windows. The walls hold modern paintings of the stations of the cross by local artist Ann Hammond. The atmosphere is cloistered.
People were silent upon entering; there was no chatter or whispering. By the time the service started about 45 people had gathered, covering an age range from teens to 80’s. There was one African-American, a woman who appeared to be in her 60’s.
The service began with a procession down the center aisle from the back of the church to the altar, led by the choir with Reverend Britt following wearing elaborately embroidered white robes and solemnly holding aloft a ceremonial book of prayer. She moved forward with measured, formal paces.
Reverend Britt showed a pleasant conversational side when she began her sermon, saying that she had had an “idyllic childhood” growing up in Texas. She recalled her mother calling her in at mealtimes from summer playing and how she remembered her mother’s voice as comforting. Now, she said, our intensive use of cellphones, Ipods, cable television and other electronic devices leaves us less space to hear other people’s voices. There is the question, she said, of “when and if people take the time to listen these days.”
This Sunday was, Reverend Britt continued, Good Shepherd Sunday, and in the Middle East shepherds to this day call their sheep by name: “The sheep are listening to the one voice that matters.” She said that the “voice of Jesus calls us from the Cross”, and “we need to shut out the noise of life to hear the voice of Jesus.” In this way, she said, we will find “a life where we can feel safe and secure.”
After the sermon and the congregation’s recitation of articles of faith, there was reading of the Prayers of the People. At two points in the list of general prayers the woman doing the reading added her words to the words in the prayer book: prayers for those suffering from war and those who have died in war.
At the point in the service for The Peace, when the congregation exchanges greetings, we stood and shook hands with those in the pews around us. Church announcements followed immediately, so we remained standing and moved to the aisle along the right wall and held high our banner, which read:
3,800+ U.S. Soldiers Killed - Thousands Wounded
1 Million Iraqis Killed - Millions Displaced
Much of Iraq and Its Culture Have Been DESTROYED
The U.S. has spent $456 billion - $3 Billion from Westchester (County)
Within less than a minute, Reverend Britt came down from the platform at the front of the church and walked to the first row pews to address us. “Take the banner down,” she said. “You are welcome to join us, but you are not free to protest.”
Meanwhile, an usher had come from the back of the church and was pulling a corner of the banner down firmly and trying to take it away from Margaret. She told him: “Don’t worry, I’m folding it up,” and he relented.
When we were seated, Reverend Britt made announcements and introduced a parishioner who told about assistance that the church was providing to AIDs patients in the Dominican Republic.
After communion the service ended, and a man in his late 40s came over and cordially invited us to attend the coffee hour so we could have a chance to visit with parishioners.
As my three companions went to the coffee hour, I walked back to the church entrance to talk with Reverend Britt. As I passed the usher who had come for the banner, he said that the church was not right place to hold the banner. I asked him where we should hold it, and he said outside: “People come here to worship and not for that.”
Reverend Britt said that we were welcome to call the church office to see if we could speak to a group at the church but not to “disrupt the service with protest.” She said she knew who I was and about our group: “We’ve gotten emails about you.” I told her that two clergy are starting a group to speak with their colleagues about publicly advocating for an end to the Iraq occupation. I offered her a card with contact information for one of the pastors, and Reverend Britt refused to take it, telling me that if I wanted to call her at her office to make an appointment I could give her the card then.
I joined my companions in the parish hall, where they were talking with a professorial looking man with a neatly trimmed white beard. He said too that we should have not raised the banner during the service.
I then spoke with the man who had invited us to the coffee, and asked him whether the pastor had spoken about the war from the pulpit. He said no but that he thinks most of the parishioners oppose the war and the occupation so that there would not be much need for this. In addition, he said, he thought she might fear that doing so might cause war supporters to close their ears to other messages that might be helpful to them.
Note: The Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of New York, the Right Reverend Mark S. Sisk has not made a statement calling for an end to the occupation. In his message in the current issue of the diocesan newsletter, The Episcopal New Yorker, which is devoted to the theme of war, he implies opposition to the U.S. attack on the Iraqi people, saying that a Christian is “a person who is, after all, impelled to believe that the man or woman caught in the deadly cross-hairs of our armies’ newest laser-guided rocket is none other than our own brother or sister: Christ in disguise.” But throughout the message, he speaks of war only in general terms. One may draw a conclusion about the Iraq War only by inference; he does not use the word “Iraq” in his message.