It’s the eternal question: Is a church defined by its congregation, or its leader? For Christ Church Riverdale, the answer is clear.
It’s a little bit of both.
Father Andrew Butler said goodbye to his congregation of more than six years on July 12 — a goodbye, according to church warden Marcia Callender, that was slightly unconventional.
“It was a farewell parade,” Callender said. “Under normal circumstances, it would have been even grander. We would have a parade of food and dancing. But it’s still a pandemic, so we had to be careful. But we did manage to surprise him.”
The church’s governing committee and congregation members managed to keep the farewell a secret right up until Butler stepped out of the Henry Hudson Parkway establishment and was met with a hundred parishioners clapping and cheering from afar — many from the safety of their cars.
Listeners to many a service by Butler, be it from within the church itself or from the safety of their homes via the Zoom videoconferencing app, approached the reverend to bump elbows and say goodbye. Others held up signs reading, “We love you, Father Andrew.”
It was an event Callender hadn’t seen in a long time. A member of the church for 30 years and an Episcopalian from birth, Callender remembers the days when pastors remained in one place.
“It used to be that way in a lot of places,” Callender said. “They could leave a legacy simply because they’d been there a long time. In recent years, reverends move from place to place. That being said, Christ Church has always been a place of great acceptance, regardless of how long a reverend remains. But it wasn’t always at the forefront for change until Father Andrew.”
Acceptance had been Butler’s top priority long before he arrived at Christ Church in 2014. He came out as gay in 1999, and has defended LGBTQ rights in a variety of positions. His prior role at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey, was marked by steps toward equality and understanding — and by controversy.
But it wasn’t because of his sexuality. Instead, the church hosted a homeless shelter for one winter, and then Butler presided over an interfaith service held at St. John’s that included both Christians and Muslims.
“The church was in a residential area,” Butler said of the area, which is home to just under 40,000 people. “Having a homeless shelter nearby caused people to say things like, ‘I don’t want those kind of people in our neighborhood.’ That was terrible to hear, but I regarded it as something to push against.
“Same for our interfaith congregation. I got letters and emails from around the world and in Montclair telling me I was a bad Christian, and that ‘Muslims are not our friends.’”
Butler has never been a stranger to controversy. As a gay reverend, he’s placed equal importance on what he refers to as the gospel imperative: To love one another, care for one another, and to learn from one another.
“I want us to be as welcoming as we can be and to not assume that everyone who comes in our doors knows who we are and what to do,” Butler told The Riverdale Press in 2014, shortly after his arrival to Christ Church. “We’re talking about being accessible. We have a handicap ramp, so we consider ourselves accessible. But there are other things we need to do to be accessible.”
Butler moved forward with that mission throughout his time in Riverdale and Fieldston, managing to perpetuate notions of accessibility throughout both the ongoing pandemic, as well as the nationwide protests which have continued following the police-involved killing of George Floyd last May in Minneapolis.
“The Riverdale community is extremely diverse, and has been very active in making sure their neighbors are OK during this time,” Butler said. “And the church has done what we could to continue to area’s tradition of anti-racist education and action.”
Throughout May and June, Christ Church assisted in organizing several interfaith vigils for Black lives throughout the area. Considering the tensions around the country and the need of a leader at home, it might seem impossible to leave. Not so for Butler, who applied for a position in California last December as the rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Springs.
“It was a long process,” Butler said. “The COVID slowed everything down. But I’m so grateful to the community. It was very difficult leaving, especially during a pandemic. The farewell was amazing, even though it wasn’t a comfortable time to say goodbye. That was really hard for me.”
As Christ Church enters its transition period and awaits a new spiritual leader, services have moved forward under deacon Ella Roundtree, a retired school administrator and a leader in substance abuse prevention.
Despite adversity, Callender holds hope for the future.
“Father Andrew left a legacy of keeping visions lifted and high, and brought with that an exuberance to help each other,” Callender said.
“We are a strong, thriving church. We will make it through anything, together.”