Faithful Endurance – 175 Years of CECBG

As far as I can tell, there is nothing still in existence that tells us exactly when Christ Episcopal Church was organized.  What we do know, is that in the Diocesan Journal of 1843, there is no mention whatsoever of a church in Warren County.  In May of 1844, the Reverend George Beckett reported that he had served as a missionary at Bowling Green for six months.  This would set his arrival here around November of 1843, but no formal congregation had been organized.  In the Journal of 1845, the Reverend C. C. Townsend informed the convention that a building had been built, an organ was ordered, and Sunday School had 40 students and 6 teachers.  There was also an ongoing ministry to the enslaved population that was producing “encouraging results.”[1]  Still, there are no dates.  So, it was up to those of us planning the festivities for our 175th anniversary to pick a weekend to celebrate.

As we looked at the calendar, trying to decide what weekend worked best for us to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, the one thing we obviously didn’t pay attention to was the Lectionary.  There’s no way we would have purposefully picked a weekend where the Gospel begins, “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”  Leave it to Jesus to be a bit of a buzzkill on this weekend set aside for joy and thanksgiving.  Of course, it is ultimately my fault for not remembering that late Pentecost is where the Lectionary dives deep into Holy Week.  This lesson takes place on Monday or Tuesday of the last week of Jesus’ life.  He has flipped the tables of the money changers, had his authority questioned, and taught lessons that were purposefully at odds with the religious powers-that-be.  By this point, there was no chance that things were going to end well for Jesus.  This teachable moment was an opportunity for Jesus to remind his disciples that no matter what might be happening in the world around them, the work of building up the Kingdom of God should go on.

After almost a decade of struggle to get the fledgling mission church in Warren County off the ground, the Bishop of Kentucky didn’t assign Christ Church a clergyperson for nearly all of the 1850s.  Vacant beginning in 1852, it wasn’t until 1861 that a missionary was assigned to Bowling Green.  Ordained a Deacon on March 30, 1861, the Reverend Samuel Ringgold must have received the old English blessing, “May you live in interesting times,” as he was in residence here for less than six months when on September 18, 1861, Confederate General Simon Boliver Buckner arrived in Bowling Green with 1,300 soldiers.  As the Civil War began, Kentucky’s Governor officially declared the Commonwealth to be neutral in the conflict.  Bishop Benjamin Smith did his level best to keep the eyes of his clergy and congregants on the work of the Gospel rather than the conflict raging all around.  However, the Episcopal Church’s history as the Established Church in England and in several of the American Colonies meant that church and state were never fully separated.

In the Morning Prayer service of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer, there was a prayer that was to be said for those in authority.  It read,

O Lord our heavenly Father, the high and mighty Ruler of the universe, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth; Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favor to behold and bless thy servant, THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, and all others in authority; and so replenish them with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that they may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue them plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant them in health and prosperity long to live; and finally, after this life, to attain everlasting joy and felicity, through Jesus Christ our Lord.[2]

The recently formed Episcopal Church of the Confederate States authorized the amendment of the Prayer Book to replace “United States” with “Confederate States” wherever it appeared, but given the way in which cities like Bowling Green were handed back and forth between the two sides, this prayer proved to be quite problematic for clergy like Samuel Ringgold.  The Union General stationed in New Orleans declared that, in his jurisdiction, not saying the Prayer for the President would be regarded as treason, and at least one priest was arrested in the chancel of his church for not saying the prayer at the request of a Union Officer.[3]

For Samuel Ringgold, the situation was dire.  Bowling Green was under martial law; at times a Confederate Capital, at times a Union stronghold, at times Kentucky neutral.  Totally cutoff from his bishop in Louisville, he wrote to the Bishop of Tennessee, James Otey, for advice.  “For more than two months after the Southern Army had taken possession of this place, I continued to use the prayer [for the President of the United States], never omitting it, until the provisional government was established.  Since then I have not used it.  The question is, whether I should now use the prayer substituting the word Confederate for United.”[4]  Bishop Otey replied a week later, on Epiphany Day, 1862.  He reminded the young deacon that he was not his bishop and what he was offering was not an official position, but his thoughts were, essentially, that you should pray for the president who had troops in town that Sunday.  Whichever side it was, to Bishop Otey, they represented “The powers that were ordained by God.”[5]

A month later, the Confederate Army retreated from Bowling Green, and on March 1, 1862, Ringgold wrote to Bishop Smith in Louisville that Bowling Green was devastated and Christ Church had been commandeered for a hospital.  Over the next several months the pews were burned, the windows broken, and the walls covered with graffiti.  Even as the world fell apart around them, however, Ringgold and the handful of members left at Christ Church chose not to be hopeless but rather, “to go to work…”[6] By the late summer of 1862, Ringgold shared good news of their progress with the Rector of Grace Church, Louisville, “We have now, not only a comfortable, but a pretty and clean churchlike room to worship in.  We have a most interesting Sunday School, fine choir, and much larger congregation than ever before… Notwithstanding the disorders of our times, the number of our communicants has doubled during the past year.”[7]  By January of 1863, Ringgold was, reportedly, the only clergyperson still holding services in Bowling Green, and even when the original church was torn town by soldiers to build chimneys for their tents and the Rector’s stove was stolen from his house with dinner still cooking on it, Ringgold and the people of Christ Church Bowling Green kept the faith, proclaimed the Gospel, and served the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Our Gospel lesson this morning ends with Jesus telling his disciples that “by your endurance, you will gain your souls.”  Whether the year is 33AD, 1862, or 2019, enduring the ongoing catastrophes that sin creates takes faith in a God who has a plan to bring all things into their perfection.  Endurance doesn’t mean sitting around, waiting for God to take a magic wand and fix it all.  Instead, by exhorting his disciples, and us, to endure the challenges of the present, Jesus calls us to get to work – relieving the suffering that sin creates in the world.  Salvation, it turns out, won’t come from the glorious edifices of religion, be they Herod’s Temple or a small brick church on Upper East Main Street.  The redemption of the world comes one day at a time, by way of the hard work of the people of God who seek to make this world more like the Kingdom of Heaven.  For 175 years, the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green have been faithful to the work of building up the Kingdom of God in Warren County.  Our prayer this day is that for the next 175 years, we might continue to be blessed with faithful disciples who endure whatever the changes and chance of the world might bring, giving generously of their resources of time, talent, and treasure to the honor and glory of Almighty God.  Amen.

 

[1] Journal of the 17th Convention of the Diocese of Kentucky, accessed on 11/14/19 at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89072985872&view=1up&seq=30

[2] Book of Common Prayer 1789, page 31.

[3] Paul G. Ashdown, “Samuel Ringgold: An Episcopal Clergyman in Kentucky and Tennessee During the Civil War.” published in The Filson Club History Quarterly Vol. 53, No. 3, July 1979., p. 234.

[4] Ibid., 234-5.

[5] Ibid., 235.

[6] Ibid., 236.

[7] Ibid., 236.

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