Friday, April 01, 2005

The Church of the Savior

Liz's blog posted March 30 led to mention of this church in Washington. I gave a list of Elizabeth O'Connor's books, but omitted the second one, entitled Journey In, Journey Out. That title says a lot about the ethos of the Church of the Savior.

During WW II a young minister named Gordon Cosby, just graduated from the Louisville Baptist Seminary, became a chaplain in the 101st Airborne Division. They lived through some harrowing times, including the Battle of the Bulge.

Gordon's impressionable experience suggested that when it came to the hard things soldiers have to do, like dying, the men of faith seemed to have nothing to speak of over the others. From that he deduced something wrong with the conventional church. He set out to organize an unconventional one; it became one of the most famous churches of the second half of the 20th century. Ellie and I were privileged to go there from 1972-83, after which we became Quakers. (Actually Elton Trueblood, a primary inspiration for Gordon, used to attend once a year.)

Gordon began with his wife, Mary, and her sister E.A. (E.A. also had a husband, but he had passed away before Ellie and I came.) Those three very charismatic people developed a church that always remained small, but probably did more for the life of Washington than any church of 5,000.

Gordon deliberately kept it small. He reminded me of Gideon, who started with a numerous army and among them selected 300 men and sent the rest home (Judges 7:5ff). Gordon and/or the church selected out most of the people who came to worship in the church; it was actually more of an order than a church.

They selected out all who did not tithe their gross income. They had a course of study called the School of Christian Living in preparation for membership that usually required about 3 years. After the first year you were able to join a mission group (as an intern member) while continuing your preparation for full membership.

When you joined (and were ordained!!), it was for one year. Thereafter each October you exercised the option to renew your membership for another year-- or not. A small corps of people continued year after year. Many people, like Ellie and me, joined for a while, then went on to other fields of service.

The membership was actually in the mission group to which you were called; each group had an active corporate spiritual life. When we started there most of the members worshipped on Sunday at headquarters, an old Victorian home on Mass. Ave near Dupont Circle; however the real life of the church was focused in the small groups.

They had a spiritual discipline of daily prayer, meditation, reading, journaling. Of course you must be involved in the corporate mission as well. Each group had a spiritual director; when I heard that it curled my eyebrows, but I found it less awesome than it sounded. Soon in fact I became a spiritual director, and of course had one of my own; it was an intimate relationship in which we had the freedom to share, encourage, inspire, and confess to one another. It was truly Christian living.

The missions were awesome: this small group of 150 odd had built a lovely retreat center in Maryland; they also started Potter's House, likely the first Christian coffee house in the country. For a couple of years I belonged to the Thursday Potters House mission group. On Thursday night we ran the place: prepared the food, waited on customers, sold books, operated the cash registry, etc. We spent an hour of spiritual preparation for that activity. Oh yes, I sometimes washed dishes.

They decided it was time to try and provide better houses in the inner city, so they bought two old dilapidated apartment buildings, renovated the apartments one by one, and rented them out at reasonable rates.

One by one an enormous number of such missions came into being. These guys were serious about their faith.

I had gone up there, from Winston-Salem, because like Gordon I had become disillusioned with the quality of commitment in the average church. Besides I had been working for ten years trying to help drunks sober up and felt due for a rest from that.

I gained access to a quality of people I had never been around before-- at least in such large numbers. It was a creative decade, and excellent preparation to move over to the Quaker way.

I could go on and on, but you have probably had enough for now.


Liz Opp said...

You close your post with, I could go on and on, but you have probably had enough for now.

Actually, no: I'm wanting more! I hope there'll be Part II soon: How and why did you move away from this wonderful spiritual community and enter into Friends? Did you meet Elizabeth O'Connor, who I understand was also dedicated to Potter's House...? Is the Church of the Savior still functioning somehow, somewhere, or is Potter's House a remaining fragment?

Your post got me so intrigued, that I searched and came across this information about Gordon Cosby,the fierce minister you write about. I get the sense that if he were alive today, Gordon would help those of us among Friends who are "lukewarm" to either heat up or seriously chill.

I am so glad you took the time to write, Larry. And I am so glad I took the time to read!


Liz Opp said...

Whoops, I've already answered one of my own questions, 'cuz I couldn't stop myself from reading other webpages related to Church of the Savior! Hah!

Here's a section I read from the Servant Leadership School's website:

The basic principles of The Church of the Saviour are lived out in each of the churches formed from its roots. These principles include:

A serious commitment to following Jesus;

A faithful, disciplined life of prayer and scripture study;

Active, hands-on involvement, in response to God’s call, to address some area of need in our broken world;

Faithfulness to the covenant of one’s particular small church.

Churches that have grown out of The Church of the Saviour include Church of the Servant Jesus, Covenant Community, Dayspring Church, Eighth Day Church, Festival Church, Friends of Jesus Church, Jubilee Church, Lazarus Church, New Community Church, Potter’s House Church, Seekers Community, and Wounded Music Faith Community. All emphasize a commitment to an inward journey—deepening one’s relationship with God—and an outward journey—mission and service. A complete listing of the places and times of worship for these churches is available in the Resources section.

Blessings (and I'm gonna stop and have dinner now!),

Larry said...

Right on, Liz. I'm happy to write about C of S as long as anyone's interested.

Here's an attempt to answer each of your inquiries:

1. "How and why did you move away?" Well I'm almost sorry you asked that, but loving truth as I do, here goes:

For years I told people that C of S was a three year experience, and actually few people who came stayed that long. They came from all over the world, as to a shrine; they worshiped, they were fed, and they moved on.

Many went back home and tried to replicate the model, with varying degrees of success.

After 16 years as Quakers we were living in Ocala (FL), but visited the church. One of my best friends there introduced me to the former governor of FL, Buddy McKay at the church. He and his wife were very interested.

Now I'm a member of the "Church Without Walls", an ecumenical group focused on helping children in need. The head of it, Jim Bullock and his wife were vitally interested in C of S.

Why did we become Quakers? C of S is a highly structured place; after ten years there we were ready for something less structured. Quakers are the least structured religious institution I've found and suits me better now.

Re Betty O.: she was a staff member of the church. One day I was in the church office and she came in in distress: she couldn't get her car started. I went out and found the steering wheel was locked and required a bit a pressure to function.

She was semi reclusive, hard to know. I attended one class in the School of Christian Living that she led. She was a rare and beautiful writer, died a few years ago.

Yes, the church is still very much alive. Gordon, at almost 90 preaches every Sunday to a faithful few. But the life of the church moved on beyond headquarters. Now it's made up of about 15 (small) churches, each with its own particular mission. This was called the New Land; it happened just about the time we got there.

Friends from the church come down to spend a couple of weeks with us each winter.

Our youngest son and family live a few blocks from Potters House, so we're around that area quite often.

Well again, enough for now. Maybe more to come.