Subscribe: Posts | Comments

The Right Reverend William H. (Chip) Stokes, 12th Bishop of New Jersey

Having grown up in the Episcopal Church, I have a very early awareness of the significant role altar guilds have in the life of many congregations. Both my paternal grandmother and my aunt were active members of the altar guild at St. Luke’s in Forest Hills, New York, a congregation in the Diocese of Long Island. I grew up in the parish and often witnessed my grandmother and aunt engaged in the devoted work of preparing the sanctuary for worship and of “washing the dishes” afterwards. 

My wife, Susan, and I were married at St. Luke’s, Forest Hills (the aforementioned aunt played the organ at our wedding service). We then went off to begin our lives together, have children and a range of adventures. We would return to Forest Hills, and to St. Luke’s, eight years after our wedding. My grandmother had died, but my aunt was still an active member there. Susan expressed interest in the altar guild and began to “learn the ropes” under the careful guidance of experienced women, including my aunt. 

It was during this period that I discerned my call to the priesthood. I had dropped out of college in my junior year and had to go back and finish my bachelor’s degree before I could go on to seminary. During the two years this took, Susan, I, and our family were very active at St. Luke’s, with Susan particularly engaged and active as a member of the altar guild. She enjoyed the “behind the scenes” work of that ministry: quiet time in the sacristy and sanctuary and preparing the church for worship. She especially enjoyed the camaraderie and the relationships that she formed with the women who were generally much older than her. She loved them and they loved her, and yes, in those days, they were all women at St. Luke’s. 

I graduated from The General Theological Seminary in 1990 and was called to be Curate and School Chaplain at Grace Church and Day School in Massapequa, Long Island. This was a great blessing to me and Susan, as well as our four children and nephew who lived with us. We did have an inauspicious beginning. The day we arrived at Grace Church, standing outside the sanctuary, our youngest son, four-years-old, for some unfathomable reasons, decided to toss a small stone through a panel of glass framing one of the church’s stained-glass windows. Needless to say, we were mortified. But the rector, Fr. John Jobson, took it in stride and he, and the congregation, welcomed us with open arms. 

The president of the altar guild at Grace Church was a woman named Dorothy Volmuth, a dynamic and wonderful person with a large personality who was an institution of that church. On my first Sunday, Dorothy came through the receiving line at the end of the service, greeted me with a few words, and then said, “And I’m sure Susan will become a member of the altar guild.” I was confident Susan would be interested in serving, but I also knew enough to respond to Dorothy, “Well, you’ll have to ask Susan.” Dorothy smiled and said, “Oh, I will.” She did and, as I expected, Susan said yes. 

Susan patiently underwent the required training offered her by Dorothy and became an active member of that altar guild, again appreciating the behind-the-scenes work of it all, but especially enjoying the rich and wonderful relationships she developed with the women there, again almost all her seniors.

The profound beauty of Susan’s altar guild service, and an experience which underscores the powerful workings of the Holy Spirit and God’s love through these simple, often taken-for-granted ministries, became especially clear to me when Dorothy was diagnosed with advanced cancer and was hospitalized. Susan and I visited Dorothy in the hospital. Dorothy was in real pain and discomfort. Her legs and feet were particularly bothering her. Susan offered to rub her feet and Dorothy accepted this offer with gratitude. Tears came to my eyes as this 30- something woman, my wife, spoke soothing words and patiently, lovingly, massaged the faithful old woman’s feet. Dorothy felt visible relief. 

After some time, Susan suggested we say Compline with Dorothy before we left and so we did. I anointed Dorothy for healing and blessed her. We both kissed her on her forehead and left. It was the last time we saw Dorothy alive. 

The things we do in church, the ministries we engage in: altar guild, usher, vestry, acolytes, Sunday school, and all the others, are important for their practical purposes and functions. I am both aware of and thankful for this. More important, however, is the potential beneath every one of them. By God’s grace, the Spirit is always at work in these everyday ministries, calling us, beckoning us, to the work of loving Christ through the love we show one another.

Comments are closed.