TUPELO • The Rev. Phillip Parker is settling in as the new rector at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on Jefferson Street in Tupelo.
The 45-year-old Webster County native, along with his wife, Amanda, and their children, Connor and Mackenzie, moved to Tupelo in December. Parker said he and his family are excited to be in their new home.
“We love Tupelo,” Parker said. “I grew up about an hour from here, and my wife is from Fulton. It’s amazing to see what’s going on in the city. I’m especially encouraged to see the explosion of restaurants. It’s phenomenal.”
Parker said Tupelo’s development is encouraging, especially when compared to other parts of the state where growth is a challenge.
“Unfortunately you see other parts of Mississippi dwindle and fade away; it’s sad,” he said. “They’re trying to hold on but it’s getting harder. It gives you hope when you see beacons like Tupelo doing so well.”
Before moving to Tupelo, Parker had served Mississippi churches in Greenwood and Sumner, as well as serving as a chaplain at Parchman State Penitentiary in Sunflower County. He said his work as a chaplain helped him see the inmates through a more compassionate lens.
‘Most of the guys I worked with were just searching for something positive to do,” he said. “Anything positive there is good. There are some really nice guys there who just made a mistake. We’ve all made mistakes; some of us just got caught.”
Before entering the priesthood, Parker spent 15 years as an outpatient mental health therapist after earning a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University. He said the work was difficult but fulfilling.
“I went to work for Community Counseling Center right out of school,” he said. “It was sink or swim. I kept saying ‘One more year’ for 15 years. It was tough but it was rewarding.”
Not only was Parker not always a priest; he wasn’t always an Episcopalian either. He said his point of entry into the church came at a time of personal loss and upheaval.
“My parents both died in 2011, within two months of each other,” he said. “I had grown up Baptist and spent some time in the Church of Christ. I was out of church completely for about a decade, but for some reason I found myself pulling into the parking lot of Saint Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Southaven.”
After an informal conversation with the rector at Saint Timothy’s, Parker said he and his family attended their first-ever Episcopalian service.
“I fell in love with it,” Parker said. “Seeing how people participated in the liturgy, the clergy dressed in robes, the way people took it so seriously. When we were walking back out to the car after the service my wife turned to me and said, ‘What did we just do?’ It felt like worship.”
Parker said he found the participatory nature of Episcopal worship refreshing after his experiences in non-liturgical services.
“I got bored with church before, and I noticed other people were bored, too,” he said. “It was 30 minutes of singing and 30 minutes of preaching and you’re out. You walk into an Episcopal church and you’re actually part of it: standing, kneeling, walking to the altar to take communion with others standing beside you.”
Parker said his initial infatuation with the Episcopal church blossomed into a full-blown love affair that led him to Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, where he earned a master of divinity degree before his ordination into the priesthood.
“It just snowballed,” he said. “I just wanted to be there more and more and learn about what came next.”
As a convert to the Episcopal church, Parker said he appreciates the sense of inclusion he finds there.
“It’s amazing how many people come into the Episcopal church from all kinds of backgrounds,” he said. “It’s a big tent, and we welcome people from all across the theological spectrum.”
Even while overall American church attendance is in decline and the megachurch movement continues to gain momentum, Parker said he believes there is still a place for a style of worship that is at once both ancient and modern.
“I hope as a society we’ll realize there’s a place for this ancient liturgy we do,” he said. “As we come to the altar week after week, it moves us a little closer to how Christ really wants us to be: loving, living together, supporting one another, and not hiding. We can all come to the altar together to this feast.”