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London, Disney and Kansas

by Peter Thompson on October 13, 2023

It has been over a month since my last update. Since then, you all have returned from summer vacation and launched a new program year, blessed animals in the church and on the front steps, and celebrated the spiritual lives of black women at Imagine Worship NYC. In the meantime, I have walked through the halls of a royal palace, crossed an ocean on a cruise ship, and driven through the cornfields of Kansas.

When I last wrote, I was in the middle of a visit to St. James’s Piccadilly in London, our companion parish “across the pond.” There I was taken care of well by the Reverend Lucy Winkett and her fabulous team. I particularly enjoyed attending their Tuesday evening Sanctuary service, an innovative weekday worship service, and helping out with their FEAST dinner, a weekly program in which homeless guests enjoy a served sit-down meal within the church itself.

St. James’s is a special place that is active on the progressive vanguard of the Church of England. Earlier this year, they held a drag night that attracted a lot of attention—both positive and negative—and helped LGBTQ+ people see the Church as a welcoming place. They are currently embarking on an exciting transformation of their physical campus—already quite well-utilized—that will help it serve the surrounding community even more. I had a chance to present an overview of St. Bart’s to the people of St. James’s and look forward to sharing my experience of St. James’s and the rest of the UK with you all in November.

While in the UK, in addition to getting to know the people of St. James’s, I also had a chance to meet with the clergy and staff of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, to attend services at Winchester Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey, and to return to the University of Cambridge, where I spent my junior year of college. It was also wonderful to see our own Mark Miller, lead musician for Imagine Worship NYC, who himself was visiting London as part of his sabbatical, and to catch up with The Reverend Mary Julia Jett, a clergy friend who taught an online course for St. Bart’s in the early months of COVID and is now on a fellowship at the University of Oxford.

My partner Matthew joined me for my return to the US, which took place via the Disney Cruise Line. I have long desired to embark on a Disney cruise and, when I discovered that a transatlantic Disney cruise was taking place in late September 2023, I thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I remember calling a toll free number when I was a young child to receive a promotional VHS shortly after Disney cruises started. The line is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, so I like to joke that it is the 25th anniversary of me wanting to go on a Disney cruise. After 25 years, I finally did it!

Like the Church, Disney beckons its followers to make pilgrimages to sacred sites, where they experience again the stories they have come to treasure and immerse themselves in dazzling pageants accompanied by beautiful music. Matthew and I witnessed firsthand the level of devotion that Disney is able to inspire in its fans and I continue to be convinced that the Church has a lot to learn from Disney when it comes to ritual, spectacle, community, and narrative.

Halfway through the cruise, however, I realized that the Church had something to teach Disney. A death within the family changed the tenor of our vacation and required us to leave the ship as soon as possible. Unfortunately, we were stuck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, five days away from reaching dry land. Staff members on the cruise had been constantly asking how our experience was going and if there was anything they could do to improve our cruise, so I decided to tell them what was happening to us. (I also needed their help in moving around our plans and getting us off the ship.) But they didn’t know how to respond. It was as if something negative—like a death—couldn’t compute with the relentless positivity of the Walt Disney Company. I must have spoken to at least a dozen Disney staff members and only one person even said that they were sorry. I found myself longing deeply for the pastoral care that comes so naturally to the Church.

I’m now in my childhood home in the Washington, DC area, where I’ve been visiting Washington National Cathedral, my childhood church, and learning from their leaders. The Cathedral has transformed much over the past decade and a half. Since COVID, its ministry has become more digital in nature—and just this week the Cathedral announced the hiring of a full-time Pastor for Digital Ministry. They have also successfully blended “contemporary” and “traditional” musical styles in their main 11:15 am service, and I’m excited to experience the result of that blend this coming Sunday.

Before traveling to DC, I spent time with Matthew’s family in the Kansas City area. While there, I attended The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, frequently called the largest “mainline” church in the country, a quasi-megachurch that also may be the biggest LGBT-affirming church in the United States. It was helpful to see their ministry of intentional welcome in action and their thoughtful use of technology in worship. I happened to be there on their Commitment Sunday, and it was also helpful to learn from their approach to fundraising and stewardship.

As you all launch the 2024 Pledge Campaign this Sunday, I wish you all the best—and, even as I plan to milk my remaining sabbatical days for all they are worth, I truly can’t wait to be with you in three short weeks!


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