Father Harold Stanhope removed the stole from around his neck—green, since September is Ordinary Time in the liturgical year—and laid it back on the shelf. Then he unfastened the rope cinch around his waist, took off his alb, and hung it on the rack next to the stole. After pouring himself a glass of cranberry juice over ice, he kicked off his shoes and settled into his favorite chair. It had been a good morning.
He had spent most of the past two hours standing—while preaching, celebrating Holy Communion, and greeting the people as they left the chapel following the service—and at age eighty-one, that was not as easy to do as it once was. Father Harry, as everybody called him, was tired, but he was also very happy. His ministry filled him with satisfaction and a deep sense of gratitude for the privilege of serving God in this place.
For the past fifteen years, he had been teacher-in-residence at the St. Patrick Center, a place where individuals and groups could come for spiritual retreat, guided study, spiritual direction and formation, and classes ranging from church history to civil disobedience in the pursuit of justice. The idea for the Center had originated with Harry, but the resources, both financial and human, required to make the idea a reality had come from an ever-enlarging network of people from around the country who believed in Harry’s dream.
Twelve years ago, a group comprising friends of the Center along with folks from the surrounding neighborhood began meeting for worship on Sundays in the Center’s refectory (dining room). They soon called themselves the Community of Hope, and a new church was born. When they affiliated with a liturgical denomination, the bishop appointed Father Harry to serve as their vicar, a role he filled for six years.
When Harry was seventy-five, he retired from pastoral ministry, although he continued to serve on the staff of the St. Patrick Center. Now he preached and celebrated Holy Communion only when Father Jason was away. The young priest who became rector when Father Harry retired was absent only about four or five Sundays a year, and that schedule suited Harry just fine.
He still led Morning Prayers five days a week in the Center’s new chapel, where the Community of Hope also met for worship on Sundays, and he celebrated Holy Communion there on Wednesdays at noon. All in all, he was thrilled to be active in ministry at his age, and the variety of his work kept his mind alert and filled his heart with joy.
Of course, that had been the story of Harry’s life throughout his years of service to God and the church. Despite the many twists and turns in his long spiritual pilgrimage, he had constantly enjoyed the support and encouragement of God’s people as well as those who served alongside him as colleagues in ministry. Even when Harry perceived God leading him in paths that required separation from one spiritual communion and identification with another, his colleagues had assisted him in making the transitions as smoothly as possible.
Harry grew up in a Pentecostal church in southern West Virginia. That was where he sensed God calling him to vocational ministry, and he left home to study at an evangelical liberal arts college in order to prepare to follow his call. While a student there, his views changed regarding the scope and nature of the present-day work of the Holy Spirit. He began to think differently about speaking in tongues and the necessity of miracles as attestation of God’s power in the world.
When Harry shared these changes in his thinking with the leaders of his denomination, they applauded his fertile mind and acknowledged that not all Christians agreed on these matters. They told him they would pray for him and even received an offering from the churches in the area to help Harry meet the costs of his senior year at college.
Upon graduation, Harry was called to serve as pastor of a small evangelical church that had experienced some internal stress resulting in a split in the membership and the formation of a new church in the same community. Harry’s abilities as a preacher and his positive experience in leaving Pentecostalism and identifying with mainstream evangelicalism helped him bring a measure of healing to the church before he left, four years later, to attend seminary.
Throughout his senior year in college and the four years of his initial pastorate, Harry had grown ever more convinced that the way of Jesus was a path of peace and nonviolence. He became a pacifist and elected to attend a seminary linked to one of the historic “peace church” denominations in order to continue his preparation for his lifework. The people and leaders of the small church he served for four years were pleased to learn of Harry’s new convictions in this area, and they wished him well in his seminary studies. Some even sent periodic financial gifts to help him with expenses.
Harry served the seminary’s denomination for more than twenty-five years in a variety of roles, including fifteen years as a teacher in a Bible college sponsored by one of the more conservative branches of that denominational tree. During those years, he and his wife found themselves drawn more and more to the forms and patterns of public worship in the liturgical tradition. Eventually, they began attending a liturgical church instead of one identified with the college’s sponsoring denomination.
After a year or so, Harry learned that, by choosing to attend St. Michael’s Church, he failed to comply with a school bylaw that required full-time faculty to attend a church affiliated with the peace church tradition. He assured the administration and the board of oversight that his convictions concerning pacifism and nonviolence had not changed in the slightest. He simply yearned to worship God in a setting that incorporated the mystery and majesty of liturgical forms and sacramental expressions.
The college administration appreciated Harry’s developing convictions and wanted to make an exception to the bylaws in his case, in order to continue to make use of his formidable talents as a classroom teacher. The board, on the other hand, felt that such an exception would set a precedent that might cause problems for the school down the road. Still, they recognized that, at age fifty-eight, Harry could have difficulty securing future employment if they terminated his contract with their school.
After thorough and careful discussion with Harry concerning all aspects of his relationship with the college, the board nevertheless decided they needed to sever their ties with him. To facilitate his transition into the next chapter of his ministry, however, they crafted a detailed “separation agreement” that included recognition of Harry’s contribution to the school for fifteen years, commendation for his outstanding work as a teacher and mentor for hundreds of students and alumni, and a generous severance package.
That last provision was particularly helpful, since Harry’s wife fell ill shortly after his contract with the college was terminated. The board’s thoughtful and generous provision made it possible for her to continue to be covered by the school’s health insurance plan, helped with their incidental expenses during her many months of treatment, and also provided support while Harry undertook a rigorous program of study to prepare him for Holy Orders (ordination) in a liturgical denomination.
In 2011, when Harry was sixty-one years old, he was ordained a priest in that communion. For the next year and a half, he worked to put together a core of interested supporters and friends who would assist him in the planting of a new, liturgical church near the university. It never got off the ground, and Harry’s frustration and disappointment knew no bounds. In that state of mind, he did something foolish. He posted a message on Facebook that announced his willingness to serve in another denomination.
Harry’s Facebook post embarrassed the diocesan leadership, and he was immediately suspended from his duties and authority as a priest. In response, he wrote a letter of contrition and apology and, at the same time, asked to be released from his priestly Orders. He was “laicized” in the fall of 2012, and Harry assumed that his days of fruitful ministry were behind him.
Then in November 2015, just before his sixty-sixth birthday, he received a call from a businessman who offered to underwrite the cost of establishing the work that became the St. Patrick Center. It seems that, during the intervening three years, a number of church leaders had come to the realization that Harry still had something to contribute to the work of the church and the kingdom of God. Recalling a prospectus Harry had written in 2012, in which he described a ministry that he called St. Patrick’s Church and Ministry Center, they contacted a wealthy and influential businessman who had recently moved to their city and had spoken to them of a vision similar to Harry’s.
From that initial meeting at a downtown coffee shop in 2015 had arisen the multi-faceted ministry of the St. Patrick Center and the Community of Hope. Father Harry thought about all of this as he drank his cranberry juice that Sunday morning.
What a wonderful pilgrimage his life had turned out to be, and it was all made possible because, at each point of transition, Christian believers—both leaders and church members alike—laid aside their differences and disagreements in order to encourage the efforts of one whom God had called to vocational ministry, enabling him to use his gifts to bring glory to God and to serve the people of God as they sought to follow Jesus. The recollection made Harry smile.
Harry Stanhope swatted at the alarm clock on his bedside table. How he hated that infernal buzzing, and never more than when it jarred him out of an enjoyable dream. He laid his head back on the pillow and tried to recall some of the details of the dream from which he had just been roused, but they were mostly gone. He seemed to remember that he was sitting in a reclining chair, drinking cranberry juice, with a smile on his face that reached from ear to ear.
He wished he could remember some of the parts of the dream that had obviously brought him such pleasure, but he simply did not have time to focus on it today. He had to get ready for his job at Discount City where he had worked as a greeter for the past fifteen years, ever since his wife Charlotte had retired. For the eight years before that, after he lost his job as a teacher in a Bible college, he had prayed that a door for ministry would open again. His prospects were limited, however, since family responsibilities and Charlotte’s job with a church agency made it impossible to relocate. Still, he had kept busy. He prepared for Holy Orders in a liturgical denomination and was ordained a priest. He wrote a prospectus that laid out his vision for a new church and retreat center near the university, he published a blog, and he even wrote a book.
But no doors opened, and he needed to find work to supplement their Social Security. The loss of his teaching job meant that he had to draw upon his meager retirement savings far sooner than he expected while he looked, in vain as it turned out, for work in some context of ministry. He would be turning eighty-one in a few weeks, however, and no matter how much he and Charlotte needed his income, he simply could not continue this schedule any longer.
Once he was fully awake, he remembered that this was a special day at Discount City. His supervisor, Rory, was celebrating his twenty-fourth birthday today, and the management had promised there would be donuts in the warehouse to mark the occasion. Harry didn’t want to be late.