The Zabriskie Memorial Church of St. John the Evangelist in Newport's historic neighborhood called the point, has re-affirmed it's Episcopal affiliation by restoring the word 'Episcopal' to its sign and adding the phrase 'A member of the worldwide Anglican Communion'. St. John's is one of two Anglo-Catholic churches in the Diocese of Rhode Island.
11 years ago, in October, 2003, the former rector of Saint John the Evangelist Church changed the sign out front to read 'Anglican'. Through the years the former word 'Episcopal' could still be seen faintly in the blacked-out background, over which the word 'Anglican' was superimposed.
The 2003 sign change was intended as a protest against the consecration of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire. “I believe some people hoped that St. John’s would leave the Episcopal Church over this issue,” the current vicar, Father N.J.A. Humphrey, said. Fr. Humphrey has been the priest at St. John’s since August, 2013.
But St. John's didn't ever leave the Episcopal Church, and the term 'Anglican' on their sign gradually became misleading. Over the years breakaway churches across the nation began to claim the title 'Anglican' as a way of distancing themselves from the Episcopal Church, which is the official U.S. branch of the Worldwide Anglican Communion. Fr. Nathan Humphrey said “As soon as I arrived, several people asked me what I was going to do about the sign. It wasn’t exactly my top priority, but I was bothered by the fact that it sent not just the wrong message, but a false one.”
A few months after Fr. Humphrey’s arrival, the governing board of the congregation authorized the sign’s restoration, and soon thereafter Fr. Humphrey raised enough money to cover the cost. “John Liptak of Liptak signs did a beautiful job,” Fr. Humphrey said.
This restoration is not intended to signal any recent change in the church’s ideology. Fr. Humphrey said “St. John’s is home to people on all sides of any given political or theological issue. We’re just like any other happy dysfunctional family in that regard...There are plenty of Anglicans who are progressive as well as plenty of Anglicans who are traditional in our theological and political outlook. He continued on to say "The plain fact of the matter is that to leave the word ‘Episcopal’ off of our sign was false advertising. We have been a member of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island since our founding as an Anglo-catholic congregation in 1875, and we have never ceased being anything other than a member of this diocese. Nor do we have any intention of changing that now or in the future.”
In fact, last Spring the governing board of St. John’s voted to request that the Bishop of Rhode Island, The Right Reverend W. Nicholas Knisely, make the parish a transitional mission congregation of the diocese, legally making the bishop the rector of the church. As Rector, Bp. Knisely appointed Fr. Humphrey, an experienced Anglo-catholic priest, to be his Vicar. The church consented. “I was recruited to help St. John’s reclaim its traditional identity as a joyful center of high church worship and caring outreach in Newport,” Fr. Humphrey said. “The denominational in-fighting of the past forty years effectively distracted many past members of St. John’s from our core identity as brothers and sisters in Christ, called to glorify God in reverent worship, to edify each other through attention to the Gospel of Jesus, and to embrace service to the world in Jesus’ name.
He continued "Our identity in Christ is the only identity that really matters, and anything, including what the sign says out front, pales in comparison to that. Thank God that St. John’s has members who have remained faithful to that core identity through thick and thin. Now is the time to broadcast that nothing will hinder us from proclaiming who we truly are: a Christian community in the Anglo-catholic tradition within the Episcopal Church.”
The Anglo-catholic movement began in the Church of England in the mid-nineteenth century. Soon, its emphasis on reverent beauty in worship and fidelity to the apostolic teaching of the early church was imported to many congregations within the Episcopal Church. “People like to say we are all about ‘smells and bells,’ but I prefer saying we have ‘all the pomp without the pope,’ though were the pope to visit us, we’d be pleased as punch to welcome him,” Fr. Humphrey quipped.
The sign change comes just in time for Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday on April 13th. “We are planning a procession from Storer Park to the church, beginning at 10 a.m. All are welcome to join our blessing of the palms in the park that morning, weather-permitting.” Fr. Humphrey continued, “I hope our neighbors and friends will join us, as well, on Maundy Thursday, April 17th, at 6:30 p.m. and Good Friday, April 18th, also at 6:30 p.m. On Saturday, Apirl 19th, Bishop Knisely will preside over the Great Vigil of Easter, at which the clergy and people of the other Episcopal Churches of Aquidneck Island and St. George’s School Chapel, Middletown will participate. St. Andrew’s, Little Compton will also join us, since they are in the same deanery as St. John’s.”
The Zabriskie Memorial Church of Saint John the Evangelist is located at 61 Washington Street in the historic Point neighborhood of scenic Newport, Rhode Island. The 139 year-old church was founded in the home of a free black man named Peter Quire from Maryland. In the late 1800s, Sarah Titus Zabriskie gave the current 13th century style stone gothic church overlooking the Narragansett Bay in memory of her mother, Sarah Jane Zabriskie. The church has been identified with the Anglo-catholic, or “high church,” tradition since its founding, and is known for its friendly, racially mixed and economically diverse congregation.