From sixth to twelfth grade, I attended St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. This historic downtown church was founded in 1729 and the leading families of Wilmington made it their church home (either St. James or First Presbyterian a block away!). It was where I was confirmed and, when I started organ lessons at 15, the Casavant Frères tracker was my very own practice organ in a beautiful neo-gothic building.
St. James did liturgy and ceremony beautifully and with adherence to long tradition, either of the Episcopal or the local variety. Every Easter, for example, the role of crucifer was a coveted honor among the acolytes. It always went to a high school senior who had served for many years, and the Easter crucifer’s portrait was taken and added to a long hallway of Easter crucifer portraits stretching back decades.
There was only one problem with this grand tradition: the crucifers were all boys. Yes, by the time I was a high school senior, I had never served as an acolyte because it was not permitted. The ordination of women was still a novelty and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was still in its trial phase. Change came very slowly to this, the oldest church in Wilmington.
Fast forward almost 30 years to another St. James, this one in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I had been attending St. James for only seven or eight months, in discernment for Holy Orders, and singing in the choir (after many years of playing the organ and directing choirs myself). On Easter morning, the choir was gathered in the chapel before the 8 a.m. service, draining coffee cups at the unaccustomed early hour and waiting for the clergy to join us for prayer before the procession was to begin.
When the priest-in-charge, Erica Brown Wood (incidentally, the first female president and warden of the College of Preachers), entered with the associate rector and deacon, she realized that something was amiss — there were no acolytes. Somehow that detail had slipped through the cracks since we did not normally have acolytes at the early service.
Erica and the associate exchanged a few words, and she began to look around the chapel at the assembled choir when her gaze stopped on me. She walked over and quietly said to me, “You’ve spent a lot of time planning and engaging in liturgy. Do you think you could serve as our crucifer?”
I said, “Sure,” handed my music folder to another choir member, and I went to retrieve the lily-festooned cross from its resting place. Erica prayed over us, and I walked outside toward the narthex, followed by the rest of the procession. When I entered the nave, the sounds of the prelude faded, and the organist and brass quartet launched into the rousing strains of “Jesus Christ is risen today.”
At that moment, I felt a catch in my throat as my thoughts were taken back to St. James in Wilmington and the opportunity I never had to serve as a crucifer on Easter morning there. I may have been a 40-something-year-old woman, but I might as well have been 17 again. It had been a long and winding road that led me to St. James, Lancaster, on that Easter morning, but the healing that I felt in being able to lift high the cross on that day is something that remains with me to this day.
By: The Rev. Elaine Thomas, Associate Rector & Chaplain, St. Paul’s Memorial, Charlottesville