Episcopal Churches Are Unique Mixes of Protestant and Catholic Elements

St. Philip’s and St. Mary’s cater to different tastes within same denomination

By Jeanne Tao

There’s a reason why two of the most prominent and majestic churches in Philipstown — St. Philip’s in Garrison and St. Mary’s in Cold Spring — are Episcopal parishes: the denomination has deep and powerful roots in the area, as it has had in the nation, since colonial times. Not only did many of Philipstown’s most influential residents belong to these churches, as the plaques around the buildings indicate, but several of America’s Founding Fathers and presidents have also been Episcopalian.

Rev. Frank Geer (file photo)
Rev. Frank Geer

The Rev. Frank Geer, longtime rector of St. Philip’s Church in the Highlands and former student of history, is a fount of knowledge on what he likes to call “the community church of Garrison.”

Likewise, the Rev. Shane Scott-Hamblen of the Episcopal Church of St. Mary-in-the-Highlands, who is currently working on a doctoral dissertation about American Episcopal history, can provide loads of information on the denomination. Both tell a story that touches on controversy but also ultimately speaks to pluralism and inclusion, for which the Episcopal Church has become known.

Protestant and Catholic

The Episcopal Church calls itself “Protestant, yet Catholic,” going back to its roots in the Church of England, which also describes itself as “Reformed and Catholic.”

Henry VIII established the English Church in 1534, when the Roman Catholic Church would not annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Intending for the church to remain Catholic but without papal authority, the king himself became head of the church. After Henry VIII’s death, many Protestant reforms (such as lifting the celibacy requirement for priests) were adopted under Edward VI, but Mary I then reinstated Roman Catholicism. It was not until Elizabeth I became queen that the Church of England was re-established and a compromise made — the Elizabethan Settlement in 1558 — between the church’s Protestant and Catholic factions.

St. Philip's Church
St. Philip’s Church

To this day, in the Church of England and national churches within the Anglican Communion (such as the Episcopal Church of America), congregations may emphasize either the Catholic or Protestant side of their Anglican faith.

A former Roman Catholic priest ordained in the Vatican by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict XVI), Scott-Hamblen has a strong background in Catholicism. “We belong to the same denomination, but [St. Philip’s members] tend to accentuate the more Protestant side, and we tend to accentuate the more Catholic side,” he said.

That emphasis on Catholic ritual leads St. Mary’s to call its service a “Mass” whenever the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is celebrated — currently twice every Sunday at 8 and 10:30 a.m. and on important holidays. Also in the Catholic tradition, St. Mary’s frequently uses incense, elaborate vestments and plainsong in its services.

Geer said that St. Philip’s, on the other hand, has had a long tradition of offering different types of services. The church celebrates Holy Communion every Sunday morning at 8 and every first, third and fifth Sunday of the month at 10:30. The other 10:30 services, on alternate Sundays, take the form of Morning Prayer.

To elaborate on the two forms of worship, Geer explained the sacramental service: “‘Eucharist’ is a Greek word for ‘thanksgiving.’ The intent of the sacrament of Communion, ‘the common sacrament,’ is that it celebrates those everyday things in life, the common things in life, and also the things in life that we all hold common. … The Morning Prayer service is a beautiful traditional form of worship that happens to not be sacramental; it’s more of a teaching opportunity.”

Geer added that the different forms allowed him flexibility as a pastor. “I sometimes feel that on the Sundays where it’s Morning Prayer, (a) I can take a little bit more time for the teaching part of the ceremony, and (b) I can be a little more creative.” An example of that flexibility occurred at St. Philip’s July 14 service celebrating Bastille Day, when Geer was able to focus more time on the history and significance of the French Revolution than he would have in a Communion service.

Upheaval and growth

While the Episcopal Church is grounded in English history, it has also developed its own distinct character, one that Scott-Hamblen describes as “a kind of John Wayne–aspect we throw in as Americans that kind of irritates some others in Anglicanism.”

Father Shane Scott-Hamblen
Father Shane Scott-Hamblen

He said not having a pope or king as supreme head of church allows the American church to rule itself, “and therefore we make up our rules … and not everybody else is happy with that — issues especially like gay marriage, gay ordination, women’s ordination, though it goes back even further” to the civil rights movement.

(Both Scott-Hamblen and Geer have conducted same-sex weddings at their churches in the past few years, and in May Scott-Hamblen was married at St. Mary’s in such a ceremony, officiated by Bishop Andrew Dietsche of New York.)

As in so many revolutions, however, that independence did not come without a cost. Although there were numerous Church of England parishes in the American colonies, many in the north had to close after the Revolution, with the departure of their Loyalist priests and members.

St. Philip’s, which had been created in 1770 by St. Peter’s Church in Peekskill, was among those that had to close. Geer related the Loyalist history of the church: “The priest that was here sided with the British, and our senior warden at the time was Beverly Robinson, who was famous for being a co-conspirator along with Benedict Arnold and Major [John] Andre, to turn West Point over to the British.”

On the losing side, St. Philip’s also became a target for anti-British sentiment when the Continental Army was bivouacked nearby, in the area now known as Continental Village. Geer continued: “One night a group of Continental Army soldiers decided they were going to burn down the Tory church, which was made out of wood at the time, and George Washington got out of bed and rode to intercept them and basically told them to go back to the barracks, that we’re not fighting this war to burn down churches, our churches or anybody else’s.” To honor Washington (who was also Episcopalian) and his defense of the church, he is depicted in a stained glass window in St. Philip’s vestibule.

St. Mary's Church
St. Mary’s Church

St. Philip’s finally reopened around 1800, and in 1840 it founded St. Mary’s for the Episcopalian congregation that had grown up around the West Point Foundry. By the 1860s, with the booming business of the foundry during the Civil War, the parishes grew to require larger churches, and because so many of Philipstown’s most affluent and influential residents were Episcopalian, the new stone buildings attained prominence.

St. Philip’s new building has the added distinction of being designed by church member Richard Upjohn, the architect of several famous churches, including Trinity Church in Manhattan and St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo.

Continuing the legacy

When Geer called St. Philip’s the church of the community, he explained that it is Garrison’s only freestanding church, not associated with a larger one. Numerous organizations had their start at St. Philip’s, including the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary; the Garrison Volunteer Ambulance Corps; and the area’s school, which the church opened in the 1830s and which later became the Garrison Union Free School.

St. Philip’s continues to serve Garrison through its nursery school, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and, according to Geer, does not generate profit for the church. Geer leads a book club that meets after services as well as the Life Support Group, open to all, on Wednesday evenings. Teresa Peppard holds a tai chi class at St. Philip’s on Saturday mornings.

Both churches have Sunday Schools, contribute to the Philipstown Food Pantry and continue to host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the evenings. The Philipstown Reform Synagogue used to meet at St. Philip’s and is now housed at St. Mary’s, attesting to the churches’ commitment to being open and inclusive.

That spirit of inclusion is what many members cite as a reason for going to both churches. Ralph Arce, who is St. Mary’s senior warden, said that he gave up on religion for a while after feeling uncomfortable in church as a gay man. A friend introduced him to an Episcopal church in Yonkers, where he felt accepted, convincing him a few years later to become Episcopalian.

After moving to Beacon, Arce began attending services at St. Mary’s in 2007. “I found Father Shane to be a priest whose sermons were uplifting and gave me thought for the week,” Arce said. The congregation’s accepting attitude and the Classical music attracted him as well.

The music and welcoming congregation are also cited by members of St. Philip’s as reasons for going there. Preston Pittman noted, “The choir is excellent all the time, not just on special occasions.” He called the congregation “alive and friendly” and added that “[Geer] tells good stories about life, and he relates the scriptures to real-life situations in a way that isn’t overly theological or really dogmatic.”

Similarly, another member of St. Philip’s said she appreciated not having to check her intelligence at the door. This is in keeping with the Episcopal doctrine that calls reason, along with scripture and tradition, a source of authority.

For more information on what Philipstown’s Episcopal churches have to offer, visit their websites, stphilipshighlands.org and stmaryscoldspring.org, or call St. Philip’s at 845-424-3571 or St. Mary’s at 845-265-2539.