“This Chapel Is a Good Part of My Story”

A sermon by The Rt. Rev. Morgan F. Porteus, Retired Bishop of Connecticut, was delivered at the Chapel on August 25, 1991.

It was somewhere around 60 A.D., when Saint Paul was in prison in Ephesus; he had a lot of time on his hands, didn’t have any great problems to solve, and so he took the occasion to write two or three short letters. The loveliest of those to me—and the loveliest of the ones that he ever wrote—is the one that he wrote to the little church at Philippi, the people who were especially dear to him and he especially dear to them. He wrote to thank them for some money they’d given him, but mostly he wrote to give them encouragement, and also to say what they meant to him, and particularly now, where he was. So about the third sentence of the epistle, there is this: I thank my God in all my remembrances of you.

I don’t know how it is with you, but I find that as I grow older and life continues to change faster than I used to remember it could change, that I need to return quite often, in mind and in person, to be with people that I know, and to be in places that are important to me; and St. James the Fisherman and the people who belong to it are very important to me. So I can say to you, I thank my God in all my remembrances of you.

I’ve been a part of this place, like some of you, for forty years, and it doesn’t seem that long. Yes, I remember when this was referred to by people around as being Pikes Pique, p-i-q-u-e, but that was a long, long time ago. And for me, from the very beginning, this congregation—not just this building, but this group of people—became a spot of spiritual reality and a place where the image of Christ could be traced. So I’ve spent some time thinking about what this chapel means to me, and why, and I’d like to share a little bit of that with you.

I. The first reason is because of the hospitality that has always been evident in this community. Hospitality, I gather, is a sort of openness in showing and reaching and inviting the outsider to be a part of a relationship; it’s sitting down to a family meal with the host and hostess doing the rituals and the rites of the home, and taking a stranger in as though he or she belongs. That, for me, has always been at the heart of this place. No, it isn’t just the goodies that happen after the service is over—and do you remember the time when the Provincetown paper said that cocktails will be served in the grove after the morning service?

This family first met in the home of Elbert and Rosa Blakeslee, on Main Street. They had their own brand of hospitality, and it was rather catching, an openness that enabled people to be who they were. It was an interesting group with all kinds of people in it. There were new people like myself. There were native people from this town, like Lydia Newcomb. There were retired people like the Wennemens (he became the first warden of the chapel). There were local business people like the Davises; there were longtime summer people, like the Melvilles and Maud Arnold, Bill Oliver (who became our second warden), and the Walkers. And those people reached out, with enthusiasm and joy, and their evangelism was catching. When the group became too large for that living room, and we went up to that enormous space in the Congregational Church, which was so different from what we’d been accustomed to, still the hospitality persisted.

Remember that day when Jim Pike preached too long about ecumenical relations, and when we came out there were Congregationalists with fire in their eyes? Ecumenism in that moment was dead! But hospitality was always part of our group: it was there in the people who met you when you arrived on Sunday morning; in the numbers of people who were invited to take part in the service; in the words that were spoken to you by priests and people alike afterward. There were conversations on the street, and sometimes you went home to somebody’s house for coffee. When this chapel building came into being, the first thing someone did was to write Hospitality on the lintel of every door.

This is an amazing group of people. A small group of you live here all the time, and are, in a sense, the core of this congregation; the rest of us come and go during the summer. I don’t know how it looks to you, but after all my travels around to a great many churches, no congregation in this place ever looks like church-shoppers, which I’ve seen so many of, or like curious tourists that wander around just looking at stained glass windows. Even with a different group every single Sunday, there is a feeling of belonging to a family, and an awareness that people feel they own something of this place.

I was here late one Sunday morning years ago, waiting to close up, and there were some people who kept sauntering around, so I didn’t close. Finally, I went up and said, May I help you? The lady replied, Oh dear, I’m sorry, I should have told you: we’ve come to the Cape for years, and we always came here on Sundays. Our family is large, and they’re all grown, and now they’re scattered; but every year we have a reunion on the Cape, and we always meet here at the chapel before we do anything else.

That’s the kind of hospitality that has always been here: something that draws, something that’s real, something that’s alive—and that’s because that’s what Eucharist is, that’s what the breaking of bread is supposed to be: a hospitable meal in which we gather, celebrating with that Someone who has been the glue that has bound us together in all sorts of conditions in life.

II Secondly, I think of this place often because of this building. I don’t mean just the wood and the way it’s shaped, I mean the theological statement that it makes by its very presence, the theological statement out of which this building grew.

The congregation wanted a home after we got a bit large, and there was a lot of excitement. But you never will know the excitement that happened when Mr. and Mrs. Melville and Maud Arnold presented us with the land that we stand on right now. We knew then that the chapel was going to be a reality. I’ll never forget the Sunday that Jim Pike grabbed Allen Lyford and me after the service and said, Jump in the car, and we whisked down here from the Congregational Church. There were strings all around this place, marking out the proposed building. Were going to dedicate the land, he said. We asked him, What do we do? He said, I don’t know. And we stood here with him, and he had a book; and when he wanted you to read he hit your stomach with it and said, Read that, read that. He read something and, all of a sudden, the land was blessed. Of all the land that was ever blessed, this is more blessed than any land I have ever known.

There was excitement anew when the committee got together. I don’t know whose idea it was—probably Jims—that you didn’t build until you’d thought through what you were going to do in the building. I remember having gone to a conference at Yale Divinity School once and heard a Congregational minister being extolled by a whole group of people because he had just put a hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar addition to his building. We were all excited about that because the church was growing. Somebody said to him, What are you going to do with it? And he said, Were now starting to figure that out. That’s backward!

The Chapel committee said, we cannot build until we know what we’re going to do in this place. Many said when you build a church you get an architect and he draws it, and you put an altar someplace, and you have choir stalls, and you put people in, and you go from there. No, I learned from this chapel that’s not the way you do. You decide as a group what you want to do here. And the group decided it wanted to break bread. So anyone who ever looks inside of this place knows the statement that the building makes: we gather for only one purpose as a Christian community: to break bread in order to allow the Lord to be present among us. And when that statement was finally made, Olaf Hammerstrom, the architect took it and made this award-winning building which has served so functionally and so beautifully ever since.

And on a Sunday morning, we walked down from the Congregational Church to see, there on the Blakeslee’s lawn, the model of this building; and I will never forget the disappointment I had when I looked at the model: I thought it was simply dreadful. I said so to somebody. That model doesn’t speak to me in the least. And Jim Pike heard that I had said that, and I got the Pike Treatment—which ended on a Saturday night at nine-thirty in my cottage, with him saying to me, You are celebrant tomorrow, I have to be away. And I said, No way will I be there, and he said, Then there’ll be no service, you have to be there. And so I was forced against my will to come, and I came. And when I first stood at the table, I suddenly understood what this building was about, and what the theology behind it was about, and how real and true this gathering was and would always be.

When Anson Stokes, Bishop of Massachusetts, came here to dedicate this building, he stood in this pulpit and there was an embarrassing silence which seemed to go on and on and on … and you wondered has he forgotten his notes? And suddenly he said, This is the most fearsome pulpit in which I have ever stood, for it suddenly strikes me that every word I am about to say to you goes across that table, which means it goes to Christ before it goes to you, and that is an appalling feeling. This place is a place of awe to me for just that reason: that we sit facing each other. When we first began, I remember hearing and saying, Did you see what she was wearing, and did you notice they didn’t stand at the right time, or kneel at the right time? And then all of a sudden you began to think: those are the people who are friends of Jesus; they represent my neighbors, and my neighbors include all kinds of people.

Then you’d remember that your prejudices and hates and disagreements and bad thoughts (as well as good ones) go across that table when I look at you and you look at me. If that continues, then there is no love or charity with one’s neighbor, or with Christ either. Those two little platforms under the table represent the hill of Calvary where He died. There He received all the darts people like you and me aimed at one another; for before your thoughts can meet your neighbor they meet Him. It is a sobering thought to sit here and realize that in looking at one another, we are truly looking at the face of God, face to face with Him.

Ill The third reason that I think about this chapel often is because of the worship in this place. Going to church is so often just going to church, going to service, as though somehow that’s all God wants you to do. But from the beginning, there was a feeling in this place that there was a drama being staged here, and that the cast was not complete if you were absent. You were missed, not because the collection plate was emptier or because the total attendance wasn’t as high, but because the drama itself couldn’t be complete unless every person who belongs here was here. There was a sense that the corporate act by which this community came into being needed every single one of us. Bishop Robinson of Woolwich wrote, By baptism, we were signed on as actors in a great company whose reason for being was to let Christ present through them to the world the drama, the finished act of its redemption.

That doesn’t mean that we’re like Oberammergau, putting on a play about something that has already happened. It means that we are making present the Lord’s death until He comes. And His instructions to us on how we do that are very clear: The Church, which is now His body, is to reproduce that death in its own life by allowing itself to be like Christ—taken and consecrated to Gods purpose and broken in sacrifice for the redemption of the world.

We are to be the body of the Suffering Christ, and we come together to let Christ take us and break us and make us instruments in His world conquest. But we don’t do it very well. Just think in terms of our General Convention, and what we do with people who disagree with us. Thank God the time has come when the Presiding Bishop has said that all kinds of disagreeing people need to be in one Church, and we need to listen to and reach out to one another. No one has a real claim on all the truth, and we need each other no matter how difficult we may be to one another. We are the body of a suffering Christ, and we come together somehow to enact the drama that we may know it, and that through us others may see it: The Eucharist is the action of Christ in His body, it is His action through us for the world.

So the 1928 Prayer Book came terribly alive in those days, even in the Congregational Church setting, because the worship was that real. There were new actions, but no gimmicks. It was a drama, and we were alive to it, and we were needed to make it live. And the Wellfleet Rite was born here, Morning Prayer and Holy Communion together, which is now an option in the new prayer book. And liturgical renewal became real here, and this was one of the great laboratories in this country for the preparation of the new book which we have now in our hands.

And then there was bread. Oh, we started with those horrible wafers, and then somebody said we don’t want those anymore, so well have bread. And so the first loaf of bread broken in this chapel, believe it or not, was Italian bread; and when you broke it, it shattered! And Jim Pike said, There we were, breaking bread, and kneeling down and saying, We do not presume to gather up the crumbs under this the table, and there we were, gathering them up like mad! And then there was Portuguese bread, and that was too chewy. In those early days we had to clean everything up at the end of the service—all the bread and wine—or some people would remain kneeling in their pews. One day we had a super amount of bread left over and we got so we could hardly swallow. Cap Smith, a retired priest from Texas (whose ashes are in our Columbarium), left us and returned with paper cups of water to help us through the ordeal. And then someone decided on our own bread. And lovely women of the parish baked it. It started as a small loaf and it grew, until it was full size. In those days, there were times when there were fifty people standing outside this chapel, so you never knew just how much bread you needed.

Once somebody tried to be very helpful and cut the bottom off the loaf, scooped out the inside and diced it, and put it back into the shell. I had the first opportunity at that, and when I went to break it, it fell apart in my hands. The next Sunday Jim was to be celebrant, and I said to him, Jim, and he said, I’m too busy, and even coming in the door he was too busy; we got to the table and I put the bread down on the table, and when in his haste he broke it, it spewed all over the table. Afterward, when we went out, he grabbed me and pulled me inside the vesting room and said, When that happened, all I could think of was four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. But for all the idiosyncrasies, worship was real. And in this place, we came to meet with God, and we did meet with God, in Word and in Sacrament.

IV And finally, I think about this place often because of our foundations. The Collect says of the Church, that God has built it upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone; and that’s true of the chapel because of our founding fathers Jim Pike and John Coburn.

Jim Pike in those days was something else again. Elizabeth Freeman, that wonderful and lovely character from Wellfleet, said to me, Morgan, have you met this Pike? and I said, No, and she said, You will! And I did. I have never known a person with such charisma; I have never known such a creative parson. I wish every­body could have heard the sermons on the Collects one summer; they were outstanding. I have never known anyone so enthusiastic about the church, despite all of its deficiencies. Ive never known anyone so excited about building something, watching it come, and going with it step-by-step, and bringing people along with him.

When he preached in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, he was the best spokesman the Episcopal Church had in the United States. He was a part of the moving spirit that made this chapel come to pass. I don’t know finally what happened to him. But there was a great change. I didn’t know him the last few years of his life: but he was not who he was when he was here. It was sad, it was tragic; it still is very distressing. And it bothers me greatly to think that most of what has ever been written or said about him has been about that sad end. People obviously didn’t know what we knew, and what we had here. He gave courage to many people. He gave courage to many little, scared priests like me. You hardly dared ask questions about the Church in those days (I knew my bishop would have his hat over my head if I did) but Jim Pike in public asked the questions, answered them, and made sense out of what we were and where we were going.

I wish someone would collect as many anecdotes about him in those days as possible and write something as a tribute to who he really was. He changed my life, and I remember him often with deep gratitude and with much love. If you look around here, you will find his charisma in this group. And if you come in here sometime alone, and stop and listen, you will hear his laughter … and if you look again, you will see the shake of the head that threw that cowlick back, and his hands that went all the times he was preaching. He created excitement where he was, and he created the excitement that ripples through this place still. He was like fireworks on the Fourth of July; and that will always be part of the foundation of this place. He made religion come alive: the Gospel is the truth, and worship is not an exercise, it is a meeting with God.

But if Jim Pike took you on sparkling rides through the universe, and freshened up the faith and made it attractive, John Coburn quietly took you in an equally exciting way to places where you could look and see and acknowledge and appreciate the depth of quiet mystery about the faith, about prayer, and about human relationships. The depths of religion can be overpowering, but in his simple, straight­forward, conversational style he led many of us along the way to an understanding of where to look for God and how to recognize God, and how to talk with Him. And he also taught us that we each have a story to tell of our encounter with God in Christ that was worth telling to each other, and that in those stories we find our relationships and are bound to one another.

A pastor, a man of great faith, a man of compassion: I think of some of the tragedies that occurred, and how people sought him out because they knew that he could minister to them. He made the words pastoral care come alive for me because he filled them with his own love. I hope he knows that, when he accepts awards and citations for his work, he makes people like me (in sort of the second tier of things) extremely proud. It makes me proud because it all reflects in part upon this place as a part of the foundation from which we come. And I have come to have trust in the church, at times despite my doubt, because I have seen his trust and his leadership and his work.

The ordination of women would have been long delayed, I think if it hadn’t been for John Coburn. And no one has ever presided over the House of Deputies with such distinction as he. He is the other half of our foundation, and long ago, because of him, I came to believe in this place, and hence to believe in the church. He wrote that wonderful book (which you must have read), Jesus Christs Story and Your Story, about how they fit together and how we find each other in Christ through our stories. That is part of the mystery of this place.

This chapel is a good part of my story. How about you? Where does St. James the Fisherman fit into your life? What things and events and people really stand out? How has this place ministered to, changed, deepened your life? Why not review that in your own time and then write some things down about your story and send them to the Warden or Clergy. so that we can build something real about the Chapel in terms of the lives of people who make it live. Out of that kind of sharing I think our evangelism is born.

This chapel is a part of me, and I think of it and I think of you all: the wonder of our founding; the ever-constant mirroring of the faith in worship, and in preaching; the leadership that is so alive today still revealing our beginning; and the sense of a family where God in Christ is present. I thank my God upon every remembrance of you all. Amen.