St. Paul's crowns Chestnut Hill as temple to openness, music

Posted: February 17, 2014

ONCE A MONTH, in its stunning neo-Gothic church atop Chestnut Hill, the congregation at St. Paul's Episcopal Church gets its full Anglican on for a sung evening service called Choral Evensong.

It's glorious to hear, as the superb St. Paul's Choir and remarkable 6,357-pipe organ interpret an ancient liturgy first celebrated in the 1500s - and based on nighttime ritual observed by monks for a thousand years before that.

And it's something to see, with candles lit along the aisles casting warm light on the sanctuary's elaborate woodwork and stained glass, and a procession of clergy and choristers in their vestments.

"The church is very sensory," said its rector, the Rev. Clifford Cutler. "Evensong taps into those sensations. It uses things we can see and hear to get beyond that to what's invisible - to God's presence, God's grace."

Who we are: St. Paul's is a good-size congregation - about 600 members - that's part of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Like other Episcopal churches, it "tries to be both ancient and contemporary," Cutler said.

On the modern side, they've recently started a Center for Contemporary Mysticism to address what he sees as a "spiritual yearning" among people in the 21st century.

Where we worship: The church is at 22 E. Chestnut Hill Ave. Its main Sunday service is at 10:30 a.m. The next Evensong is slated for 5 p.m. March 9, the first Sunday of Lent.

If you go, note the architecture - church architect Clarence Zantzinger also helped design the Art Museum - and the ironwork, by Philly master craftsman Samuel Yellin.

What we believe: Episcopalians are grounded in the Apostle's Creed, as set in the 8th or 9th century, and the Nicene Creed, as set in the 4th.

"Praying also shapes our believing," Cutler said. "It's the ongoing daily and weekly experience of prayer that develops a person spiritually and develops a church spiritually as well." Their prayer book is The Book of Common Prayer.

What we're known for: Cutler summed it up in three words: "Inclusion. Peace. Music."

Along with the standout choir (which offers free music training for kids ages 8 and up, of all faiths), St. Paul's has a tradition of inclusiveness dating back to the 1800s, when its second rector became a champion of the Sioux people - and eventually the bishop of the Sioux Nation.

More recently, the Rev. Mary Glasspool, who served as assistant to the rector during the 1980s, went on to become the first openly gay female Episcopal bishop, in Los Angeles in 2010.

A-maze-ing grace: St. Paul's is also becoming known for its labyrinth, installed four years ago at the back of the sanctuary and open to the public for contemplative walking.

Haiku verses written by Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and others are enscribed in bronze on its outer ring to help people "settle their minds" before walking the labyrinth, Cutler said.

Good works: Since the 1940s, St. Paul's has run a massive rummage sale the weekend following Labor Day. "Last year - you won't believe it - we raised $52,000," Cutler said. "All of that goes to people who work with the homeless and those who hunger." The Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network and Face to Face Germantown are two groups the congregation supports year round.

On a smaller scale, St. Paul's Flower Delivery Ministry rearranges the altar flowers after weekly Sunday services into small bouquets and delivers them to parishioners as a pick-me-up.

"We'll take them to someone who might be ill, to new members," Cutler said. "Maybe someone who's had a child baptized that Sunday will get flowers the next day."

God is . . . "Hmmm. I think, for me, God is love," Cutler said. "That's an overused word. Maybe we should use compassion.

"I think even some scientists are looking at the universe as [having] a compassionate kind of vibration at the heart of things," he said.

"That's God for me: At the heart of God there's this moving, dynamic compassion."

Big moral issue we're grappling with: "I think if there's an area where we're struggling to grow, it's in that area of spiritual wholeness, in seeking God," he said. "There's such a yearning today for spiritual fulfillment."

"It's not something we're grappling with. It's something we're responding to. How do we help people answer that spiritual yearning?"

Words of hope: Cutler studied alongside a grad student from Notre Dame who was grappling with the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Faced with tragic human quagmires like that, "how can you be hopeful?" he asks now. "For me, if I didn't have a sense of God's presence and promise, it would be hard to be hopeful. But I do believe in God and that compassion is stronger than death, and that I can keep working for reconciliation because there's something bigger than me."

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