Why I'm Joining the Episcopal Church
During the summer of 2013, I was looking for a church to attend while staying at my college to work. One weekend in May, I walked into a tiny Episcopal church, All Saints', filled with people much older than myself. I was immediately and warmly welcomed—a stark contrast to the church I had visited the week prior, where I had entered and exited the service unnoticed. After only one visit, the priest reached out to me and offered to take me to dinner to talk more. I began attending the church regularly.
When my senior year started, I kept attending the church instead of returning to my university's chapel services. I became more and more involved (as a lector, leader of the Prayers of the People, an altar server, and even a member of an intern's discernment committee) and even began contemplating whether or not I might be called to ministry. Though I had gone to another Episcopal church before (though perhaps only two or three times) and attended a Church of Ireland church during my semester abroad, All Saints' was the first church that made me think about becoming Episcopalian. That fall, I was presented with an opportunity to be received into the Episcopal church. Though it was a tempting offer, I ultimately delayed the decision. I wanted to spend more time worshiping in Episcopal tradition first.
I have become more confident in my desire to join the Episcopal Church through my time at Saint Hilda's House and my worship at Christ Church, New Haven. I am currently in an Inquirers' Class here at Christ Church that will prepare me to be received. In the Episcopal Church, reception is when people who are already confirmed in traditions that hold to a recognized apostolic succession are welcomed into the Episcopal Church, without having to repeat their confirmation. As a former Catholic, I fall into this category.
Some may not understand my interest in having a denominational identity. I agree that it should be a secondary identification to one's identity in Christ. However, I relate to these words from the preface of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity: “I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.”
The reality of Christianity at the moment is that there are different denominations and traditions. Even churches that fall under the umbrella of “non-denominational” have more in common with some traditions than others. I would prefer not to fight against this reality, but to acknowledge it...and to acknowledge the fact that I will be drawing on the resources and perspectives of a particular tradition as I try to follow Jesus. There is no perfectly neutral, objective approach to the Christian life that can be removed from the influence of diverse traditions within the church.
This still leaves the big question, though: why walk through that Episcopal door?
There are a number of reasons. One of the most significant is the church's commitment to allowing a diversity of views, even as it embraces the creeds. Episcopalians are not held to thoroughly defined statements of beliefs. The creeds are recited, but typically not used as litmus tests of who is in or who is out of the church. Episcopalians have a unifying force, however, in the Book of Common Prayer. We may not all believe the exact same things, but we can all pray together, worshiping with many of the same words used by Episcopalians across the country.
The words in the Book of Common Prayer also reflect this theological diversity that seems to be valued in the Episcopal Church. There are differences among the various options for prayers, for example. Eucharistic Prayer C (referred to, by some, as the “Star Wars Prayer”...sometimes with a certain level of snark) emphasizes the whole of creation (“At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home”) in a way the other prayers do not. The other week in our Inquirers' Class, I was introduced to Eucharistic Prayer D, which hints at a different atonement theology than some of the other prayers. Eucharistic Prayer D states, “When our disobedience took us far from you, you did not abandon us to the power of death...To fulfill your purpose he gave himself up to death; and, rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new.” This falls more in line with a Christus Victor view of the atonement that focuses on Jesus defeating death rather than the penal substitution view, which emphasizes Christ taking God's judgment that the world deserves.
In spite of this diversity, you can still call the liturgy steady and standardized. Despite this, the Book of Common Prayer is not something that closes me off from questions or change. It is a structure to which I will always bring new things, new questions, new circumstances, and perhaps even new beliefs, as I grow with God.
Despite my enthusiasm for the concept of a church uniting in prayer instead of doctrine, I do have some reservations about the ways common prayer can slow change in the institutional church. Constant referral to God in masculine terms in the liturgy is something that has begun feeling burdensome to me, for instance. I would like to see the church make more progress in also utilizing feminine language and images for God. This progress is bound to be stifled by primarily using a prayer book approved over 35 years ago. I also believe that the Spirit is creative and would hate for it to be restricted if someone truly feels called to deviate from the liturgy. In spite of my hesitations, I see much more good in The Book of Common Prayer than bad. It ensures that a mass is never solely about the inclinations of the priest or church leaders. It can't be when the majority of the service is not in their words, but rather, in words that belong to the tradition and that have been said by various believers spanning time and place. Though a sermon is an important part of the service, even that is not the focal point of a mass in the Episcopal Church. The focal point is meeting God in the Eucharist—a sacrament which our human failures (laypeople's and clergy's alike) cannot diminish.
Overall, it's important for me to join a church where I don't feel locked into a rigid set of beliefs because I know just how much one's views can change. As I outlined in one of my earlier blog posts “How I Learned (And Unlearned) To Be A Good Christian Girl,” my views are dramatically different than they were when I entered college! As a high schooler who was looking to deepen her faith, I absorbed much evangelical thinking and was exposed to even more of it through my involvement in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Despite a positive experience with InterVarsity, I discovered that evangelicalism was not necessarily where I wanted to root my faith. My views on a number of issues, including gender roles, sexual morality, the nature of Scripture, and the particulars of hell, have undergone significant changes during college. I am aware that my beliefs are not stagnant and am sure they will be challenged and transformed through my time in divinity school, which I hope to start in the fall. Though you can never predict the future, I feel as if the Episcopal Church will provide me with the room to change.
Another thing I find attractive about the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican tradition as a whole, is that it is sometimes considered a “middle way,” embracing, at times, both Catholic and Protestant aspects of the faith (something I think is evident in Ed’s piece from earlier this week, on Reformed Anglo-Catholicism). I've certainly seen evidence of this in the worship here at Christ Church, where we pray the Angelus—a prayer that includes the Hail Mary—at the end of Morning Prayer! This was something I wasn't used to at first. Once I realized I didn't want to be Catholic anymore, I thought that “Hail Marys” were necessarily things of the past. Though I am not sure that is a particular practice I will carry into my prayer life in the future, I like knowing that this is a possibility that would not require other Episcopalians to question my salvation or cry heresy. Though there are a number of Roman Catholic beliefs I do not hold, I found that I value aspects of the tradition I grew up in much more than I anticipated. When I got to college, I thought I'd want to find a church that was the complete opposite of the one from my childhood To my surprise, I still yearned for things like weekly Eucharist and readings from the lectionary. In the Episcopal church, my Protestant and Catholic leanings can be held together.
Lastly, I have been driven by a desire to find a church that is inclusive—a church that reflects, or at least attempts to reflect, the freedom and justice that are so essential to God's character. For me, that meant not only a church where women were ordained, but also a church that accepted and ordained people in same-sex relationships. I want to share Christ (and the church) with others, particularly with those I love. In doing so, I refuse to bring someone into an environment that tells them their gender or sexual orientation disqualifies them for leadership or, even worse, for a part in the community of God.
Ordaining women and partnered LGBTQ people does not make the Episcopal Church perfect with regards to inclusivity and diversity, however: far from it. Sexism, heterosexism, racism, and classism still exist within Episcopal churches, on institutional and social levels… sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly. Because of its history, (among other things), the Episcopal Church has a troubling lack of diversity and is predominantly white and upper-class. While many in the church are motivated to seek racial justice, this is definitely an issue where the church requires growth. As a white, middle-class, college- educated woman, I cannot speak to how it feels to experience the Episcopal Church as someone of another race, class, or education level, but can only observe and listen to the experience of others. I certainly have not listened or learned enough, but from what I do know, I am grieved by the ways the Episcopal Church still has to grow in terms of manifesting God's inclusivity and justice. I am grieved by the ways in which I still require growth in this area as well.
(It can be easy, moreover, for the Episcopal Church to gloss over the ways in which it is complicit in various injustices, since it often ties its identity to the idea of being a welcoming church. This identity has effectively been a draw to many people, such as myself. This shows that this welcome works, to an extent, and I do believe it is more than just branding. However, a commitment to welcome does not let us off the hook in terms of critical self-examination; we must always analyze our welcome—and our shortcomings in welcoming—in an intersectional fashion.)
This grief, however, (as well as the accompanying motive to make the church more inclusive) coexists with gratitude for the own ways I've experienced the church as freeing. The Episcopal Church is a place where I don't feel like what is proper for me as a woman (namely, whether or not I can lead) is up for constant debate. I am all too familiar with these debates and the way they can chip away at one's spirit. It can begin to feel as if one's humanity is up for question, rather than gender roles. It is also not an environment where being an admitted feminist or openly supportive of the LGBTQ community inspires people to be skeptical of my faith. I have been in situations where admitting such stances made people question my dedication to Christ. So far, the Episcopal Church has not been a place where I've felt myself or my faith undermined because of my gender.
As you might have noticed, there are things that draw me to the Episcopal Church, as well as things to critique. In the future, this will be critique that I do as a member of the church—as someone on the inside hoping to better conform herself, and to help conform her church, to the love shown to us in Christ. Churches as institutions will never be sinless. They will never fit us perfectly. But this will not keep me from jumping in and making a commitment—especially when I have gotten to know God in this place. I have gotten to know God in the singing of old hymns that speak so accurately to the Christian experience. I have gotten to know God in the lovely community that embraced me at All Saints'. I have gotten to know God in mulling over the words I regularly pray during Morning Prayer at Christ Church. I have gotten to know God in sermons that have enlightened Scripture for me in new ways—or, sometimes, in the same old ways of which I need constant reminding. I have gotten to know God in the repetitious and communal taking of Christ's body and blood.
Ultimately, I believe we don't know faith in its fullness, or Christianity in its fullness, until we take the chance of claiming it (or, perhaps, allowing ourselves to be claimed by it; that's a theological question too complex for this particular blog post). You can only know so much about something when you're dancing around outside of it. The life of faith is one of risk-taking. Often, this risk is making a commitment (or many, many commitments) before we can understand everything the commitment implies and before all of our fears and doubts can be addressed. Perhaps this is why I would find it unsatisfying to never officially join a denomination after leaving Catholicism. My faith emboldens me to dive into Christ. It also emboldens me to dive into this very human (but also holy) church. Yes, this applies to the church universal, but the only way I know how to enter into that church universal is by investing myself into particular communities—one of which is the Episcopal Church. We require companions on this journey with God, and I am excited by the companionship I will continue to find in the Episcopal Church (though not to the exclusion of companionship with those outside of it).
Would you like to be a part of the wider community of Saint Hilda's House? You can join The Friends of Saint Hilda here.