Friday, January 4, 2013

5 Things You Don't have to Leave Behind When You Join The Episcopal Church

Several weeks ago Rachel Held Evans' had a blog post "5 Things You Don't Have to Leave Behind When You Leave Fundamentalism" and that has inspired me (Fr. Tom) to opine on five things one doesn't have to leave behind when one joins The Episcopal Church:

1. Love of the Bible.

There's an old joke that there is a lot of the Book of Common Prayer (our primary worship resource) in the Bible, which is just a backwards way of saying that our worship incorporates a LOT of Biblical texts and stories in it. We may not say "turn in your Bibles to...." very often (if at all) during worship, but we read a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a passage from the New Testament, and one from one of the four Gospels each and every Sunday---and we do so according to a set three-year schedule, or lectionary, not according to a multi-week theme or the pastor's whim. This means that we cover quite a lot of the Bible over those three years, not to mention having Biblical texts woven throughout our prayers and creeds. Want to hear more of the Bible read? Come to the Episcopal Church!

2. Questioning Authority or NOT Questioning Authority

Some people come into the Episcopal Church attempting to escape from rules and regulations. A recent survey of Roman Catholics found that 88% of them believed that it was up to each individual to make up his or her mind about whether to follow official church teachings. I suspect the percentage would be higher in the Episcopal Church, assuming that the average person-in-the-pew actually knew what the official teaching of the church on any given issue was! So, you can come to the Episcopal Church and feel free to make your own choices, wrestle with your own ethical dilemmas (hopefully with help!), and even say "I don't know" if you really, really don't know. I say it all the time.

On the flip side, there is a persistent criticism of the Episcopal Church that "Episcopalians don't believe anything" or "It doesn't matter what you believe" or even (with a nod to Robin Williams) "No matter what you believe, there's bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you." There is some truth to the fact that we have a pretty "big tent" that tries to incorporate a wide range of beliefs and we don't have any sort of "belief statement" or other doctrinal statement. However, we DO recite the Nicene and Apostles Creeds and have a Baptismal Covenant which is foundational to who we are. We also have canons (church laws) which define what we can and cannot do. So, if you are looking for a structured church with a fair amount of wiggle room, you are welcome here.

3. An emotional attachment to God in Christ.

One thing I've noticed about many folks in the Episcopal Church is that we focus a lot on knowledge, on our head. Maybe it has to do with our English heritage, but the impetus to do things "decently and in order," to have a "stiff upper lip", or otherwise not to get too emotionally involved either with our faith or the world has given us a nickname as "God's frozen chosen" (though we apparently share that with the Presbyterians). We're not like the Pentecostals or other more flamboyant faith traditions, but neither are we simply Jesus Christ Community College or the Episcopal Social Club. Many, if not most, of us have actually had a real experience of encountering Jesus in our everyday lives. As author Frederick Buechner writes:
God cannot be expressed but only experienced. In the last analysis, you cannot pontificate but can only point. A Christian is one who points at Christ and says, "I can't prove a thing, but there's something about his eyes and his voice. There's something about the way he carries his head, his hands. The way he carries his cross. The way he carries me."*
Worship and service in and through the Episcopal Church is supposed to enhance that relationship, not retard it.

4. The life you currently live (unless you want to).

One of the biggest myths about church membership is that there is some sort of qualification exam, a sort of pretest that qualifies you for church membership. No, it isn't seen as a written test, just a sort of feeling like one needs to be "good enough" or "smart enough" or "cleaned up enough" to darken the door of a church on Sunday morning and not feel completely awkward and out of place. To be sure, many of us get "cleaned up" on Sunday morning (there is a reason one used to call one's best outfit one's "Sunday best," after all) but ideally that should stem from wanting to give one's best to God, not as a sort of a show for others.

That being said, there is also the myth about the Episcopal Church that we pretty much take anyone and don't really care about what you believe, how you act, or what sort of values you hold. While, as a denomination, we are fairly liberal, that doesn't mean that we don't care about what you believe, how you act, or what your values are. We do believe in the transformational power of a relationship with Jesus Christ and that as disciples, or followers, of Jesus we need to emulate what Jesus believed (as expressed through what he said and did), how Jesus acted, and what sort of valued Jesus held. That also precludes settling for less than God has called us to be. In summary, we welcome everyone as they are but encourage them to be all that God has called them to be!

5. A passion for serving others--with no strings attached.

From its beginnings, the church has been all about serving others, especially the poor. In fact, one of the first conversations after Jesus' death and resurrection had to do with the need for people to take charge of this service and allow the twelve disciples to focus on preaching, teaching, and evangelism. This resulted in the founding of the ordained ministry of Deacon. A common misconception is that the church does such social service only as a tool for evangelism--a "hook" to bring in potential converts. Understandably, few people otherwise committed to serving others are very excited about service with strings attached. Fortunately, that isn't what service in the Episcopal Church is about. Outreach (serving others) and Evangelism (telling others about Jesus) are related, but are not the same thing. There are many people who benefit from programs of the Episcopal Church that never actually come into the church building itself--they simply are served by people who do. One person has even dubbed us "Episco-ninjas"!

So come as you are, bring your Bible and your doubts with you. question authority, and love God and others. We get together every Sunday.

*Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC