The Cross of St. Anne’s

st anne's cross

Photo by Daniel J. Ennis.

After the break, Episcopalians in South Carolina talked of ownership. Our conversations were occupied with deeds and titles. Contention over property began within days of the split, and even as I write, the wrangling over property continues in the courts. What do we own? was the question asked on both sides. We own this! was the response.

When the Conway Worship Group – later to be known as St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – was founded in November 2012, it was a community that owned nothing. No building, no liturgical items, not hosts, and no wine. Members of that group had left behind a surfeit of common property, in a church that was proudly rejecting its Episcopal identity, and for one moment we had the strange phenomenon of being without any possessions. We were just a group of particularly imperfect Christians in a room, trying to decide our next (and first) step.

The space we rented in which to worship was non-sectarian, and thus contained no religious iconography at all. Each week we had to convert that space into a church, so a cross was among the earliest possessions of the Conway Worship Group. That cross was in the Celtic style, designed to be hung outdoors on a door or wall, made of tin, about the eighteen inches high. A parishioner took it in from the yard, brushed it off, and donated it to the cause. We hooked it to a nail on a table, and thus we had an altar. Our second cross was for the processional. The cross itself – Botonee style, cheap aluminum alloy plated to look gold, about six inches high – was mounted by a cap upon a 5-foot dowel. It was the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of processional crosses, its origins one part antique shop, one part lumber yard. When an Associated Press reporter came to our little chapel during Advent to cover the grassroots Episcopal churches forming in our diocese after the break, the photo that accompanied the story featured our crucifer in an alb donated from a parish in Virginia, carrying that little processional cross. The story went national, appearing in over 100 papers – our brush with fame.

Thanks in part to the press, our numbers doubled, then doubled again, and we soon filled a cabinet in our rented space with the items we needed for worship. Our next cross was on a cloth banner, embroidered by a parishioner a few days after we chose Saint Anne as our patron. A simple Latin cross in light brown fabric on an ivory background, it topped “St. Anne’s Episcopal Church” in script below. This was the banner we processed into the Diocesan Convention when we were accepted as a mission church.

In our second year, crosses came apace—a heavy, simple altar cross to replace the tin yard cross, and later a proper processional cross, purchased as a memorial when we had our first funeral as a congregation. In our third year, a second processional cross was acquired on the occasion of the Bishop’s visit, and we purchased small crosses hung on cords to be worn by our chalice bearers. These crosses are beautiful and proper, and – one hopes – inspirational.

But I have a favorite cross at St. Anne’s. It only appears on occasion, and when I see it I am reminded that we really own nothing, and all these crosses are just our vain, human attempt to represent something so profound we crave its grounding.

Our rented chapel has clear glass windows, and on certain days, when the clouds are thin, the light pours through the window at the rear of our improvised chancel and strikes the back of our heavy brass altar cross. Most days the light is reflected onto the ceiling over the altar as an undifferentiated blob of radiance.

A few times a year, when the earth’s tilt is just right, the sunlight strikes the polished surface at just the right angle, and with just the right intensity, and through some trick of optics, a shimmering golden cross appears on the ceiling. It is never quite symmetrical, and sometimes it wavers and then morphs into the indistinct, but there have been many Sunday mornings at St. Anne’s when that cross has been as real and present as any of the crosses we have collected from the mundane world.

Don’t misread me—I don’t describe this cross of light to invoke those who claim to have seen the Virgin in a piece of toast. Anyone who has been a part of this split of churches is unlikely to have preserved that naive faith that sees signs in the everyday. St. Anne’s has grown into a tough-minded, pragmatic, ministry-oriented congregation, very much taken with the Social Gospel, not much given to mysticism and disinclined to credit miraculous visions.

But friends, I tell you that the reflected cross, when it forms and grows on the ceiling of our rented chapel, is enough to shake the materialism of an army of the rational frozen chosen. The occasional appearances of this cross—which I know are the result of purely natural and easily explained phenomena—are nonetheless grace notes in our Sunday mornings. Merely a reflection? Nothing merely about it.

As a worship community, we started out with nothing owned. We have prospered, and now we have all the proper crosses for a small congregation. They are beautiful, solid, and appropriate for worship. But we also have one secret, shining cross. This cross has no weight, no matter, and no substance and thus cannot be taken, given, or owned. It is literally nothing.

And everything.

— Daniel J. Ennis, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Conway, S.C.