A recent article in Episcopal News Service reported that Christ Episcopal Church in Pottstown, PA (Diocese of Pennsylvania) has received a zoning violation and is facing fines of up to $500 per day plus court costs (Episcopal News Service, July 6, 2022. Article written by Egan Millard)
The reason for the violation and possible fines? Christ Episcopal Church operates a weekly free community meal program (feeding the hungry) and maintains an “essentials pantry” for those in need (clothing the naked, caring for the poor and vulnerable).
According to the citation, these activities were not approved and, in the opinion of the Zoning officials, “the use of the property has changed, and by definition, is more than that of a church.”
The zoning code defines a church as “A building wherein persons assemble regularly for religious worship and that is used only for such purposes and for those accessory activities as are customarily associated therewith.”
Needless to say, Christ Church and the Diocese of Pennsylvania will be challenging this citation and fighting to maintain their identity as a church.
As crazy as this story may seem, I highlight it because there is an important message here. The Church should NEVER allow itself to be defined as only a structure where people gather once a week for worship. In contrast to the Pottstown, PA zoning code, a church that does only that is not more than a church but very much less than a church. The Church is the body of Christ. A church is a place where the Church gathers to worship, but also where the Church lives out the Gospel—engages the “activities associated therewith” which includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the poor and the sick.
Of course, we know very well what is going on here. Because Christ Church, Pottstown is being the Church, the community around Christ Church is being exposed to the unwelcome, the cast out, and the undesirable–the sort of people that Jesus loves but property owners would prefer not to have around. My guess is that the Zoning Board has reached its limit of complaints. If only the church stuck to nice quiet Episcopal Sunday worship services, there would be no need to complain to the Zoning Board.
Being a church and being the Church is what we are called to be-it defines us. My prayer is that all of our congregations could be accused by the Pottstown Zoning Board of being more than a church. In fact, I would be disappointed if any church in this Diocese wasn’t.
Preach the Gospel always and, if necessary, use words. (attributed to St. Francis)