Sunday Morning Breakdown

An up-close look at traditional religion teaches one man that sometimes when you go searching, you find what you’re looking for.

Written by Phillip Ratliff 

Photography by Edward Badham


Renouncing atheism, to me, has meant handing back my Sunday mornings to the Catholic Church. I’ve come to terms with that. Sunday morning bike rides at Oak Mountain have given way to squabbles with children over what they will wear to their catechism training at St. Paul’s. But despite the inconveniences of getting on Someone Else’s schedule, the return has been a happy one.

I had no epiphany that sent me back to the Church, but I did have wine. “You know, Phil…you present yourself as this secularist, but deep down, you’ll always be Catholic,” my wife, Abby, said, more or less, one night. The defensive firewall had been hacked by the cabernet. “You’re probably right,” I answered wistfully. The next morning I downloaded a rosary app on my iPhone and began praying its sacred mysteries. Eventually, I ceased feeling like I was talking to air.

How I ended up in a particular sort of theist, Christian, and a particular sort of Christian, Roman Catholic, is a subject more appropriate to the programmers at [Catholic television network] EWTN. I can say that, though my definitions are probably a bit eccentric, I prefer tradition. “What is that, tradition?” you ask. To me, a traditional church is one focused on formal liturgy that it has held to in some form over the centuries. It appeals to a distinct and overtly stated theological point of view. Although it might admit contemporary elements, a folk song or brand-new hymn, it does not cotton to liturgical novelty or the whims of any one individual. “But isn’t tradition just a collection of the individual whims of yesteryear?” you respond. Maybe, but at least they’ve been road tested.

My stance, at least as stated here, may strike the reader as the preferences of a religious consumer. Fair enough. On a recent Sunday morning, I wondered what it would be like to cast myself as something of a comparative religion power shopper, to figure out why I like what I do. My task: to find out what allows traditional churches to prosper in an age when atheist meet-ups, Netflix binges, and seeker-sensitive churches are all viable Sunday morning options. I chose five churches to visit. I allotted a single Sunday morning to visit all of them. Four of those fit my definition of traditional. The same four also lay within the city’s boundaries. They include Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church; the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in West End; the Cathedral Church of the Advent; and my parish, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

To shake things up I also visited Dawson Memorial Baptist Church. Dawson, I intuited, would provide an interesting point of contrast to help me better understand what makes attracting churchgoers to a traditional church a more difficult task. My hunch proved correct. I must admit that I have always been curious about Dawson. I live nearby and jog through its lovely campus along Manhattan Avenue two or three times a week. I am not the only one, I have learned. The mirrored windows on one Dawson building allows joggers to monitor the form of one’s stride and progress on the shrinking of an overly zealous belly.

Pastor Dr. Gary Fenton

Pastor Dr. Gary Fenton

One drawback to the Manhattan route is hitting traffic snarls with Sunday schoolers en route to the Dawson sanctuary. During one of those snags, an elderly man leaving Sunday school pointed his cane at me and told me that I needed to be in church. Presumably, the old man meant his church. Several months later, there I was, entering the Dawson sanctuary midway through Pastor Dr. Gary Fenton’s sermon. I found a pew on the back row. The churchgoers, dressed in business casual and averaging around 25–30 years of age, were listening intently. Fenton’s style was conversational and homespun, his ability to cite scripture references impressive.

Following along was a simple matter of learning three bullet points. The congregation could find those points in a printout placed in the pews. They could also see them projected onto the white plaster walls of Dawson’s Georgian interior, alternating with a live shot of Fenton. This sort of user-friendly pragmatism is woven into Dawson’s teaching and methods. “Dawson intentionally seeks to define itself through its vision and mission rather than through any particular style of worship or programming methods. We are intentionally flexible in methods and preferences while being firmly committed to traditional Christian teaching. As technology and the culture changes, the church has and continues to adapt our methods without compromising our core Christian principles,” Fenton says.

A rock ensemble’s soft strains underscored the final moments of Fenton’s sermon, and a Baptist hallmark, the altar call, went forth. My schedule and, as Abby might say, sheer instinct, sent me in the opposite direction, down Dawson’s massive front steps toward its parking deck. On the front sidewalk, I spoke briefly with a staff member about Dawson’s different services: the contemporary worship service with a rock band, one with a choir and hymns (primarily appealing to older congregants), and a blended service running concurrently with yet another service geared toward for those who might hold a gut-level aversion to Dawson’s stately sanctuary and institutional trappings. By gearing different services to particular tastes and needs, Dawson is able to maximize use of its landlocked campus. According to church membership materials, Dawson does not attempt to be the biggest or best church in the city. Instead, it seeks to be faithful in its calling, in attitudes as well as actions. “We are not a good church in which to be a spectator…we expect our members to intentionally and personally engage in meeting the spiritual and physical needs of the hungry, isolated, neglected, homeless, abandoned, and alienated in our community and throughout world,” Fenton says.

I talked longer than expected with the Dawson staffer. The next service’s worshippers were arriving en masse and an onslaught of cars entered the parking deck holding my Jetta Sportwagen. How to get out of my parking space and on to my next appointment? I muttered something about Christian charity at my windshield and asserted myself tail-first into oncoming traffic. The defensive move brought the line of cars behind me to a quick halt. I headed along an alleyway toward Broadway Avenue, over the mountain and into Birmingham’s peaceful, vacated downtown.



I know Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral for the same reason you probably do—for its wildly popular Greek festival. Every September, much of Birmingham descends upon Holy Trinity to devour the festival’s baklava, pastichio, and Greek chicken, and see the traditional Greek dances and costumes. Holy Trinity’s Greek festival is not a generator of revenue for the church’s operating budget. Proceeds go instead to support Holy Trinity’s charitable efforts, which have included relief for Katrina and tornado victims in recent years. The Greek festival also serves an educational mission by raising awareness of the Birmingham Greek community’s customs and beliefs.

The Greek festival has given me several opportunities to tour the Holy Trinity interior, but I have never observed the Orthodox service, known as the Divine Liturgy, being celebrated. The Divine Liturgy was well underway when I entered that Sunday. The size of the congregation was small, maybe just a few dozen, and it was unquestionably older on average than Dawson’s. Holy Trinity’s interior architecture was ornate and its room engulfed with the sights and smells of Orthodox worship. Incense filled Holy Trinity and rose toward its arched ceiling. Icons, depicting Mother and Child and Orthodox saints, covered the church’s back wall. A wooden structure, the iconostasis, stretching across the altar, held several more images of saints.

The iconostasis’s three doors are vital to the Divine Liturgy’s symbolism. Shortly after my arrival, a deacon exited the altar area through the left-hand door of the iconostasis. He processed toward the iconostasis’s center, the Royal Doors, holding an ornate Gospel book overhead and presenting it to the celebrant, Father Paul Costopoulos. It is a beautiful act symbolizing that Jesus’s message descends from heaven into this world through the lives and words of saints.

The congregation and choir sang several hymns, some in English, many in Greek. Greek is woven throughout the Divine Liturgy. Translating Greek elements into Roman, as it were, offered some help but also left me confused. For example, Catholics cross ourselves, but in an opposite direction, head, belt, left, right (not right, left) and not nearly as often as I observed among the Holy Trinity faithful. On this last point, I had to marvel.

Holy Trinity has managed to grow, adding new members through a variety of channels. Many come from immigrant families tracing back to Tsitalia, Greece. Others are immigrants from other Orthodox countries making their home in a sister church. There are converts who come to Holy Trinity through marriage or an interest in Greek language and culture.

Packing pews is not the ministry of a Greek Orthodox priest, Father Paul Costopoulos says. All priests want to see their congregations prosper. In Orthodoxy, he says, the sacramental life of the congregation, not its size and wealth, determines success. Orthodoxy traces its roots back to the teaching and practices of the Apostles. “My ministry is to do that which they themselves did: preach the Gospel, teach people about God, inspire them by [the] Word and example, and do whatever I can to bring to fruition the kingdom of God that Jesus initiated with his coming,” Costopoulos says.

My visits to Dawson and Holy Trinity occupied the first hour of my Sunday morning breakdown. The two churches marked opposite points on a historical timeline—one contemporary, the other ancient. I gave my second hour to a single point located somewhere between those two extremes, situated during a conflicted moment in religious history, when Protestant leaders were formulating new traditions and the Catholic Church struggled to stanch the bleeding. That moment was the Reformation, and to enter into it, my Sportwagen and I had to cut an east-west swath between the downtown financial district and the city’s western border.



My attempt at time travel took me first to the lovely, old Church of the Blessed Sacrament in West End. Blessed Sacrament is not an easy find. I had to invoke the aid of Google Maps, and even afterward, the blight of abandoned strip malls and rundown public housing offered little assurance that I was on the right path. I pulled into the Blessed Sacrament parking lot mere moments before Mass started. Outside Blessed Sacrament’s side entrance, I introduced myself to the first family I saw.

Jeff Hahn and his family were, like me, cutting it close, but Hahn agreed to offer a half-minute briefing on what was about to unfold. Blessed Sacrament is the only church in Birmingham, and one of only a few in the state, offering the pre-Vatican II Mass. Specifically, Blessed Sacrament offers the Tridentine Mass, the form codified by the Council of Trent in response to the Reformation underway in Europe.

The Tridentine Mass is uber-Catholic. Post-Vatican II Catholics will notice that the priest and altar servers face the altar at times we are used to seeing the priest’s sometimes cheerful face. The Tridentine Mass is quiet, the quietest service I attended that morning. And, there’s Latin, lots and lots of Latin. In case you missed it, the Catholic Church ceased offering the Mass only in Latin following a series of councils known as the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Vatican II’s “big idea” was to make the church responsive to the modern world: more evangelistic, more engaging to parishioners (who by and large hadn’t spoken Latin since the fall of the Roman Empire), and more ecumenical (that is, communicative with other Christian churches).

Many of Blessed Sacrament’s parishioners carry a copy of the 1962 Roman missal to help them keep up with the prayers and responses. More recently, Blessed Sacrament has placed bright red modern editions of the St. Edmund Campion missal in its pew racks. Hahn helped me navigate the Campion missal. I sometimes had the hang of it, but most times I was, I will admit, about as lost as I was at Holy Trinity.

Later, I asked Hahn why, given all his options, he attended the city’s one Latin Mass. It was his brother-in-law, Charles Rumore, who invited the Hahns to attend, he told me. Rumore was instrumental in bringing the Latin Mass back to Birmingham. Going to Mass, Hahn says, is communing with Christ our Lord. “I have to admit because of the silence I find it easier to enter into an encounter with Christ. The priest and the congregants all face the same direction and the priest being the one leading us in worship helps me orient myself and prepare myself for Christ in the Eucharist,” Hahn says. Blessed Sacrament’s Latin Mass has brought in young families like Hahn’s. I spoke later in the week with an elderly Blessed Sacrament parishioner who credits the Latin Mass with saving the parish. Blessed Sacrament is in, let’s be honest, a tough neighborhood. Surviving and thriving for urban churches means convincing Birmingham-area churchgoers to pass by one or more theologically acceptable options in search of something ratcheted up. Word in the pews is that Blessed Sacrament, in hearkening back to a moment in history that Catholic identity was being reaffirmed, has found its niche.



Reverend Canon Deborah Leighton, director of women's ministries at the Advent.

Reverend Canon Deborah Leighton, director of women’s ministries at the Advent.

To a Baptist or Presbyterian, Cathedral Church of the Advent may seem vaguely Catholic. And it is, vaguely. More properly, the Advent’s theology and practices are rooted in the English Reformation. My knowledge of that chapter in European history starts and ends with Henry VIII’s divorce, but of course, the actual story is much more complicated.

I asked the Reverend Canon Deborah Leighton, director of women’s ministries at the Advent, to supply more nuance to this story. While Henry VIII pulled the trigger, she says, he was following the movement on the ground that was underway in England. This march toward reform was influenced by Wycliffe’s new English translation of the Bible and by the theology of Calvin and Luther. Unlike Presbyterianism and Lutheranism, Anglicanism had no founding theologian, Leighton says. But the Church of England can claim a founding liturgist, Thomas Cranmer. While even Catholics like me would recognize elements of our tradition in play, Cranmer essentially took my tradition’s mystical elements and demystified them. What are those mystical elements? A belief in the “Real Presence” in the Eucharist, use of candles and incense to not just represent but hold our prayers, a belief in icons as windows into the divine realm.

There has been give and take in Anglicanism on such issues over the years, but I couldn’t shake the impression that the Advent’s liturgy and architecture, for all its Catholicness, possessed a plainness, a sort of stalwart beauty that distinguished it from the florid, ornamented forms seen in Catholic churches. The Advent’s architecture embodies this quality. One architectural historian described the Advent’s interior as a 19th-century preaching hall. The Advent’s pulpit, placed prominently in the center above the communion table, reflects the distinctly Reformation emphasis on “the Word.”

Advent’s practice of alternating Communion with Morning Prayer parallels this design. This distinguishes Advent from some other Episcopal parishes, most of which have gone to Communion every week, influenced in part by Roman Catholicism, Leighton explains.

Leighton says that people are responding to the Advent formula. The Cathedral seats 600 people. During the school year, the nine o’clock service packs every one of those 600 seats. The question now is, “How can we grow the other services?” she says. The Advent has gotten creative by offering a satellite campus, Cranmer House, for people who live over the mountain. Cranmer House is especially for those who may be averse to coming downtown in the evening, Leighton says. I’m curious: To what extent do the Advent’s associations with the Reformation attract churchgoers? Briarwood Presbyterian is probably the largest local example of a church that is visibly, unabashedly reformed, and it hasn’t hurt them. I think it may be part of the Advent’s appeal.

Reformation is a subtractive process: removing candles, dialing back one’s fervor for the Real Presence, putting statues in storage, demoting Mary. When looking for what makes the Advent distinctly Protestant, go to St. Paul’s, and then ask yourself, “What is here that’s not there?” Catholicism has achieved high levels of detail. It has done so in part because it has a mechanism for confidently expanding on its theology, the Magisterium, and a tiebreaker that can keep its theology advancing through the mire, the Pope. It has been said of the Pope that if God hadn’t given us the Pope we would have had to invent him. Take that as you will, but the Papacy no doubt moves the ship forward and keeps factions from breaking it apart. “What’s wrong with breaking apart?” a Protestant might ask. “What’s so great about moving forward?” an Orthodox Christian might add. I pushed those questions aside and headed just around the corner to St. Paul’s.



Father Kevin Bazzel at St. Paul's Cathedral in downtown Birmingham

Father Kevin Bazzel at St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Birmingham

Father Kevin Bazzel was already well into delivering a homily on the day’s occasion, the Feast of the Ascension. I bowed toward the Sacrament, dipped my finger in a small font, and crossed myself the Catholic way.

Those who know something about Scripture and have learned to count to 40 will already notice a problem. The Feast of the Ascension, technically speaking, should fall on a Thursday. That’s because Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after Easter Sunday. (You can stop reading and go count that out or just take my word for it.) This problem creates another one. Nine days from Ascension is Pentecost. If you have ever heard a Catholic talk about praying a novena, he or she is talking about a nine-day prayer. The most basic novena is the one prayed by the disciples between Ascension and Pentecost. Praying a novena between Ascension Sunday and Pentecost is impossible, unless you shrink each day of your novena to approximately 18.67 hours.

How did we get here? The answer says something about modern Catholicism and how it compares to other traditions. Ascension is an important feast, a day of obligation, meaning you have to go to Mass on Ascension. In olden times, that is, up until the early 1980s, Catholics observed Ascension on Thursday. This meant Catholics went to Mass on Thursday, then again a few days later, on Sunday. That was before some began asking, “Why not make things easier and place Ascension on Sunday?” I belabor this because the topic illustrates how fussy a matter tradition can be. Holy Trinity, the Advent, and Blessed Sacrament observed Ascension the Thursday before my visit, St. Paul’s the day of. Dawson doesn’t observe it at all, though I am sure the concept is woven into that church’s spiritual life.

After the homily on the Ascension, the choir sang a motet, in Latin, and the offertory began. I looked around and took in what I saw: pews filled. To the parish’s long-time families, St. Paul’s has added many converts, individuals from nonCatholic backgrounds who have read the Church Fathers and want to explore the faith’s traditions, Bazzel says. “Our parish is certainly growing. That’s obvious by looking out on Sunday,” he notes. He attributes growth to various factors. As the Cathedral church of the diocese, St. Paul’s is often the first church the Catholic-curious call upon with questions. The parish also has many converts, individuals from nonCatholic backgrounds who have read Church Fathers and want to explore the faith’s traditions, Bazzel says. Sometimes this is through informal “Q and A.” Sometimes, it is more formal, through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, a program of prayer and study beginning every fall and going through to the next Easter.

Ushers took the offering and delivered it along with wine and water to the Altar. Bazzel, facing the congregation with the Crucifix behind him, mixed a little water into the wine and consecrated the wine and the wafer called the Host. The congregation stood and lined up, hands in prayer position, to receive Communion. “The Mass is foreign to anything we do in our daily life by design,” Bazzel says. “It is meant to draw us out of daily life and put us into contact with the higher realms. This is not our everyday life experience. We are being drawn into something more profound at this moment. This is not the mall or my place of work. This is a place that draws me deeper into the mystery of God, but also higher. That’s appealing to people, too. Every person is naturally seeking God. And we can encounter him in many ways. But the Mass, by ancient design, is meant to elicit the encounter with him which touches the deepest part of who we are.”



About a year ago, I began seeking. My search, begun with a glass of wine, operated on a grand scale. It extended beyond the Catholic faith to places of worship around town. I was still deeply skeptical. To illustrate how broad the strokes were at that stage of my search, I took both daughters not to a church or synagogue but to the Shambhala Center. We hoped to observe Buddhist meditation. We had to settle for a Tai Chi class. But we watched intently, with me seriously hoping to glean some nugget of spiritual wisdom. The same search also took me to Easter Vigil at St. Paul’s. Easter Vigil is a High Mass, during which catechumens are admitted into the Church, the Bishop splashes Holy Water across rows of parishioners, and incense fills the sanctuary. My younger daughter, Avery, was hooked and by a crozier no less. She insisted that we return to St. Paul’s the following week, and that we did.

Soon thereafter, I had developed a habit of riding my bike to St. Paul’s two or three times a week to pray with my rosary app. I must confess that an obsession with the app’s saint-of-the-day function insinuated its way into my routine. Every facet of life, I discovered, had a patron: lacrosse (St. Jean de Brébeuf); headaches (St. Teresa of Avila); writers (also St. Teresa of Avila); dentists (St. Apollonia); prisoners (St. Leonard).

Naturally, I was soon invoking the patron saint of the bicycle, Madonna del Ghisallo. A search on the Internet (patron: St. Isidore of Seville) revealed that the chapel in Ghisallo sold medallions that wrap around a bike’s seat post. I asked my friend, curator Graham Boettcher, to help me find a U.S. distributor, and he did, one Howie Cohen of Colorado. Cohen sent me two medallions. I attached one to my seat post and rode off to St. Paul’s to have it blessed by the Bishop. I began to have all manner of items blessed: Bibles, rosaries, Abby. I kept a jar of Holy Water at home and sprinkled it on the kids, the corners of rooms, my dog, Bennie (patron: St. Francis). I read the writings of St. Irenaeus, St. Augustine, and St. Justin Martyr. I was no longer a skeptic but something of a wild-eyed fanatic running half-naked through the desert. Abby asked if I might consider splitting the difference.

It seems a reasonable request. I don’t fear that using a bit more soft pedal will eventually make me a “None” again. I enjoy my institutional affiliation. But if I did become a “None,” I’d not necessarily become a nonbeliever. Instead, I’d be joining a diverse group with widely varying attitudes toward belief, some with faith but who avoid church membership, others who are not sure what they believe, still others who have rejected belief outright. Reaching the “None” is something lots of people have thought about, including Gary Fenton. “While the growth of the ‘None’ has captured the attention of the media, I do think many have reached the wrong conclusion what they are really saying. I do not see the ‘Nones’ as necessarily rejecting the Christian faith. I do think many are rejecting the institutional church’s language, traditions, and rhythms because they do not see how they apply to their lives. For many, listening to the institutional church describe the Christian message is like listening to a foreign language,” Fenton says.

I agree. Unless you have completed the training, so to speak, an “altar call” at St. Paul’s or Holy Trinity is an invitation to remain seated. Entering into a traditional church’s sacramental and liturgical life does mean mastering a new language, figuratively, sometimes literally. It means learning traditions that may extend back to the time of the Apostles and Church Fathers. And it means absorbing the rhythms of a church calendar, syncopated with reality though they may be. Churches like the Advent, St. Paul’s, Blessed Sacrament, and Holy Trinity have varied but generally high thresholds of entry. But they, too, have found ways to bring both saints and seekers into the fold.

3 Responses to “Sunday Morning Breakdown”

  1. Krista says:

    Fantastic article! Congratulations!!!

  2. John says:

    Very interesting – nicely done. For those interested to learn more about the churches you discuss here, find links below for each.

    St. Paul’s

    Dawson Baptist

    Holy Trinity – Holy Cross Greek Orthodox

    Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church [Latin rite]

    Cathedral Church of the Advent [Episcopalian]

  3. Phil says:

    Thanks, John, for sharing those links. Thanks, Krista and John, for your nice words. Phil Ratliff

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