This thesis project details the founding and first three years of ministry at Southside Abbey – a nontraditional worshipping community in the Episcopal tradition and a new church start in the Diocese of East Tennessee. This project exists so that others might learn from the mistakes of Southside Abbey but also come to see the ways in which such mistakes have led to unimagined successes. Chapter 1 explores the contexts in which Southside Abbey's founding took place – the world, the Episcopal Church, and the Southside neighborhoods of Chattanooga, Tennessee – including the ways each of these contexts necessitated a worshipping community such as Southside Abbey.
Chapter 2 details the community and corporate life of Southside Abbey. A timeline outlines the developments of the community in its attempts to be emergent in ethos while institutional in affiliation. At times, this juxtaposition led to conflicting expectations. Especially through the use of community organizing tactics, Southside Abbey discerned with members of Southside neighborhoods of Chattanooga the felt needs of the broader community. In short, Southside Abbey's success is intertwined with the poor who make up the worshipping community.
Chapter 3 presents the theological underpinnings of this work in an applied, pastoral, or practical setting. On large theological issues, the Creed is a sufficient statement of faith. Lex Orandi is reinterpreted in broadly inclusive ways. Missiology, Ecclesiology, and Stewardship are viewed through the theological lens of Southside Abbey. Missiology is shaped by those who are a part of the community, namely the poor. In so doing, “outreach” ministry becomes more like ministry of the community, as distinctions of insider and outsider dissolve. Ecclesiology is similarly tied to the community. As a church without a dedicated building, Southside Abbey is easily able to see church as assembly. Stewardship with a community of the poor and working poor is broadened to understand stewardship of one's being, one's time, and creation.
Chapter 4 provides examples of Southside Abbey's practice, especially the ancient church practices of hospitality, liturgy, and formation. Hospitality is paramount to the work of Southside Abbey. As those who have been wounded by the church find that this is a safe space, their inclusion allows for a richness of sharing and expression. Liturgy is the “people's work,” tied to context, in the elements that are shared but also in holy conversation that honors the thoughts, opinions, and experiences of those present. Formation is richly liturgical, but accessible. In Chapters 3 and 4, historical precedent comes from Richard Hooker and the Oxford Movement, champions of institutional churches in un-institutional ways.
The project's conclusion points to Southside Abbey as an authentic Anglican worshipping community, in being locally adapted to the community's context. As the worshipping has gracefully received the poor who the Holy Spirit has brought to Southside Abbey, the community has shifted from seeing numbers as indicators of success to Southside Abbey, o relationship-based ministry. As success is redefined, walls break down and dichotomies coalesce around sacred story. Emergent and institutional, high and low, liberal and conservative are engaged in ministry of, by, for, and with the poor, and the biblical stories take on flesh. While these successes might not have been what the diocesan or other institutional church bodies may have had in mind, they are nevertheless successes that showcase the richness of those not often found doing ministry in the church. In this regard, this project serves not as a cautionary tale, but as a guide for doing similar work in other contexts.