Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church: The Unauthorised Tour

When it came to church, my family was made up of interesting people, especially when it came to going to church.  We didn’t go to church very often (at least until my mother came along,) but when we did, and when we were in Palm Beach, this is where we went: Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Palm Beach, FL.

Although these shots (with one exception) were taken many years after my departure, the church is on the National Register of Historical places, so there have been few changes (although they have messed around with a few things since this millennium began…)

Other Bethesda Related Links

Reflections on Bethesda

Do not love the world or what the world can offer. When any one loves the world, there is no love for the Father in him; for all that the world can offer–the gratification of the earthly nature, the gratification of the eye, the pretentious life–belongs, not to the Father, but to the world. (1 John 2:15-16)

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Bethesda, looking towards the bell tower.

Today the Anglican Communion in the U.S. is in dire straits. But the forces that have brought things to their present state are nothing new; almost all of them were present in the Bethesda I grew up in. Bethesda is, in some ways, an outsized example of how we got where we are.

As we note elsewhere, people can come to church primarily because they agree with what the church teaches, or they can come for other reasons: social, aesthetic, etc. Episcopal churches in general and Bethesda in particular simply have too many of the latter in their pews. This makes it easy for liberals to come in and take command; if they can keep up appearances, they can keep things going even when the church’s core message has totally changed. This is not to say that everyone went along with this; the Episcopal church lost a million members in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the process of its radicalisation, and is in the process of repeating that feat again.

Coupled with the social membership are demographics. The Episcopal church’s membership income distribution is simply too skewed into the upper reaches of our society. This wasn’t the original intent; when Henry VIII took charge of the church in England, his idea was that the Church of England be the church of every Englishman, from himself to the ploughboy. The Nonconformists chipped away at that in the mother country, but in the American colonies they proceeded to blow Anglican churches out of the water for the bulk of the populace. They were so successful that they were able to oust the Episcopal church as the state church in the Southern colonies in the wake of the American Revolution.

This brings me to an important point–people talk about an “inclusive” vs. “exclusive” church but with churches like Bethesda we have to ask: inclusive or exclusive of what? Or whom? Bethesda, like most Episcopal churches, prides itself in being “inclusive” but the reality is that the church was built and is sustained on being “exclusive” in a socio-economic way, much like a country club. This situation is an opportunity to reach a difficult group with the Gospel, but as long as the liberals are in dominance the church will lack a message worth bringing.

But everything isn’t negative here. Bethesda is a beautiful church, and it’s hard to be impressed with anything else. Ultimately, though, the chief objective is, as it always really was, to carry out the main mission: “The Son of Man has come to ‘search for those who are lost’ and to save them.” (Luke 19:10)

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