A spiritual oasis at St. Mary’s Episcopal in Anchorage

A gentle knoll at Lake Otis Parkway and Tudor Road, one of Anchorage’s busiest intersections, houses a beautiful sanctuary overlooking the Chugach Mountains. It’s also home for a remarkable congregation dedicated to common worship, earnest study and being a caring presence for God in our community.

This uncommon Episcopal congregation, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, has attracted my attention for many years. Although I’m not a member, I’m always treated as one, something I rarely experience among other Anchorage churches.

Before I started visiting churches and writing about those visits, I had an opportunity to attend this church almost 15 years ago. The occasion was the wedding of a couple I knew. That first visit awakened in me a curiosity about the church and its people.

The view of the Chugach Mountains from the church’s long section of windows was breathtaking then and remains so to this day.  Last Sunday, St. Mary’s rector, Michael Burke, looking out over the view, commented on the perspective folks on the Hillside and East Anchorage were seeing; they were in the clouds but worshipers saw a clear view of the mountains and the beautiful sky beyond.

It may be coincidental, but I like the church’s choice of its web address, godsview.org. The website really explains what the church embodies. “We are a vibrant, multigenerational and inclusive faith community, centered in Jesus and committed to spiritual growth, service and social justice.”

St. Mary’s offers four Sunday services, each unique and attended by worshipers drawn for specific reasons. All services offer a sermon and the Eucharist. The 8 a.m. service is quiet, without music, and follows Rite I, using the old Elizabethan language in the Book of Common Prayer. The 9 a.m. service features choral music and pipe organ accompaniment for hymns; Karen Bretz plays and directs the choir. The 11:30 a.m. service music is led by Wade Hampton Miller and the St. Mary’s Praise Singers, adding lively folk, gospel and gospel bluegrass renditions. Finally, the 4 p.m. service is quiet and refreshing, providing a much-needed respite.

But wait, there’s more. There is also a 7 a.m. Eucharistic service Wednesday mornings. Lasting about 20 minutes, it brings together those desiring a midweek taste of Eucharistic fellowship. Rector Burke tells me attendees are not all of his faith but children of God desiring this special experience.

Burke said that 90 percent of people coming to St. Mary’s have no previous relationship with the Episcopal Church. He’s quick to tell newcomers that if they’re looking for a perfect church, they won’t find it at St. Mary’s; it’s a work in progress.

Burke has been at St. Mary’s for 15 years as rector, and it was his sponsoring congregation for ordination many years ago. It recently lost several clergy to another congregation and will lose aoter clergy after the first of the year. Knowing St. Mary’s, it’s seeking new clergy with demonstrated passion for its unique mission.

Opportunities abound for study at St. Mary’s. One study group meets in Cay’s Room (the library) between the 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. services to read and discuss significant contemporary spiritual books. Most recently, Nadia Bolz-Weber’s groundbreaking work, “Accidental Saints” was used as its focus.

Burke recommended this wonderful book to me, which I purchased, devoured quickly and now highly recommend. Written by a unique ELCA woman pastor, it is reminiscent of the character of St. Mary’s mission: full of grace and caring. Another group meets at the same time in Waldron Hall to hear provocative and informative speakers. Known as CAFÉ (Christian Adult Formation and Education), these meetings are delightful.  Recent presentations included authors William Kamkwamba (“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope”), Mark Osler (“Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment”) and Robin Meyer (“The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus”).

These are not light topics for most audiences, but they tend to be standard fare at St. Mary’s. Thursday morning men’s Bible study and Thursday evening Bible workbench study are additional examples of the study character of St. Mary’s.

I talked with Burke about St. Mary’s social justice focus. “In these things we call social justice, I believe all we are trying to do is to follow in the way of Jesus,” he said. “All the ‘isms’: racism, sexism, heterosexism, they are just different ways of talking about how we are all broken; broken by our past, broken by the abuse and misuse of power, broken by the choices others have made and, often, broken by our own choices. Sometimes I think all we have in common is our brokenness and our shared experience of being instruments of God’s grace and healing to one another.”

Finally, St. Mary’s is preparing to open the Thomas Center for Senior Leadership, a new 15-unit senior housing complex nearing completion and located close to the campus of St. Mary’s at Tudor and Lake Otis. Originally the vision of church members Tay and Lowell Thomas, the dream project has been accomplished with support from the Thomas family along with assistance from the St. Mary’s community.

According to board chair Mike McCormick, the center was “conceived as a way to help meet a growing need for senior housing in Anchorage. It’s designated for independent residents aged 62 and above. (However, the facilities are ADA compliant to enable aging in place by long-term residents). The Thomas Center was formed with the belief that healthy senior leadership is a gift to all with resident elders serving as role models for the greater community rather than becoming patients or ‘objects of care.’ It’s built around the idea that we are ‘members of one another,’ we each have both gifts and needs and we are all called to support one another in an interdependent community.”

He said the faith-based center has a primary relationship with St. Mary’s Episcopal Church but will welcome residents of many faith traditions as well as those with none at all.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.

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