10 Things I wish every Episcopal priest knew about the Episcopal Church

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Last week an article circulated online entitled “10 things I wish everyone knew about the Episcopal Church.” You can read it here. The author had been asked to write an article explaining the Episcopal Church briefly to those from outside the tradition. While I don’t agree with everything in the article, I do think it serves to dispel some popular misperceptions about our church. Still, as I thought about the ten things listed, I began to wonder if we as clergy might be responsible for many of the misperceptions people have about our church (I think we are). So here is my alternate list of 10 things I wish every Episcopal priest knew about the Episcopal Church:

  1. We don’t need to be ashamed of our English heritage.

It’s no secret I am a proud Anglo-phile. I loved Downton Abbey. I loved the Vicar of Dibley. But the British show that I loved most of all is Call the Midwife, specifically because Call the Midwife portrayed the true story of how a group of Anglican nuns ministered the gospel in one of London’s poorest neighborhoods. It reminds me of why I am a member of this particular branch of Christ’s church: not because I love tea and biscuits (though they are lovely), but because I love Jesus and I am frankly proud of some of the ways that the Anglican Church has sought to spread the knowledge and love of Jesus throughout the world. The fact that the Anglican Church can be found worldwide and that the Episcopal Church itself is found in several foreign countries is evidence of the fact that Anglicans have always had a concern for sharing the gospel of Christ with people of differing races, languages and cultures. In fact, Pope Gregory the Great sent Saint Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, to England with specific instructions to incorporate local customs into his preaching of the gospel. Diversity is not a modern phenomenon.

To say this does not mean that we do not recognize the many ways in which we have failed God’s people throughout the centuries. The Anglican Church, just like every part of the church, protestant or catholic, has sins for which to atone. We need to do that, but in doing so we needn’t overlook the many and powerful ways that our church has been a vehicle of grace and reconciliation. It is true that the Anglican Church was far too involved in British Imperialism, but it is also true that that same church inspired the faiths of individuals like William Wilberforce, who fought and succeeded in abolishing the slave trade. I love tea and cake, and I love a good British television show, but I could still have those and go to any other church (or none at all). I am committed to the Anglican Church not because I love those things, but because I am committed to God’s Kingdom and the Gospel and I am convinced that the Anglican Church, at its best, can give God’s people a glimpse of both.

  1. If we are people of the book then we need to do a better job of making it come alive for people.

Speaking of great things that the Anglican Church has given to the world: having the bible readily available in the English language is one of the great triumphs of the English Reformation. It is true that we spend a lot of time during our Sunday worship reading the scriptures and having a lectionary means that we cannot simply pick and choose the scriptures we wish to read; however, if we think that merely following the lectionary and reading the scriptures on Sunday morning is enough, we are sadly mistaken. In the first place the lectionary leaves things out all the time; important things; things the congregation probably needs to hear even if it makes them uncomfortable. In the second place, it is very hard if not impossible to understand the various books of the bible if you are only getting snippets every Sunday morning without the in-depth study and background that comes from having real bible study.

As priests one of the vows we take is studying the scriptures. This is a lifetime commitment. It is a practice that forces us to listen to the voices of our ancestors in the faith. If we aren’t immersing ourselves in the scriptures regularly how are we ever going to make them come alive for our congregations?

  1. If we are people of the Book of Common Prayer, then we damned well ought to be using it.

Rite III and creative and experimental liturgies have a place in our church, they really do, but that place is NOT the main service on Sunday morning. I would also add that gatherings of the diocese (e.g., conventions) and clergy are not the place for them either. There are plenty of creative things that one can do within the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer without completely concocting something new of our own. If we are going to tell people that “praying shapes believing” or that “our prayers shape our beliefs” then we need to prove it by not doing the opposite (using our beliefs to shape our prayers) every time we get the opportunity.

  1. We need to stop dumbing down our liturgy in fruitless attempts to reach the unfamiliar and unchurched.

Everyone appreciates having a friendly waiter in a restaurant, but let’s face it, if the food is no good we aren’t likely to go back, no matter how good the customer service is. Be who you are. Offer people authentic worship and don’t worry so much about the people who don’t get or understand everything that you are doing. Just allow them to be. Allow them to watch and allow them to observe without being forced to participate in a way which they may not feel comfortable. Some of the worst sins against visitors are committed in the name of being “welcoming.” Here are some examples of things NOT to do:

  • Do not force a visitor to stand up in front of the entire congregation and say their name and where they are from (seriously this happened to me in an Episcopal Church recently)
  • Do not force non-communicants to come up and receive a blessing if they don’t want to.
  • Do not treat visitors as “fresh meat” that are roped into a committee before leaving their first Sunday. Presumably they came to worship God, let them do that.

It is ok for people to be a little lost, but if they are actually being fed by the liturgy, they are more likely to return and eventually they will learn, and that is the point after all, isn’t it?

  1. We believe in God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and a whole lot more…

One of the more memorable quotes from our Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry this summer was that he can: “say the entire creed without my fingers crossed behind my back.” It was a great moment and a great quote, but what is most revealing is that it needed to be said at all.

It is one thing to deeply question core tenets of the faith while sitting in the pew; it is another thing entirely to do so while standing in the pulpit or at the altar. Unfortunately public perception is often shaped by the people who speak the loudest. In recent years, the voices getting the most press or airtime in the Episcopal Church have often been the voices that have minimized the importance of, if not flat out denied, core, creedal Christian doctrines (you know, things like the Resurrection). It is no wonder then that people around this country and around the world wonder what, if anything, we believe. The Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds are part of our daily and weekly worship. They aren’t listed under the “historical documents” section of the prayer book. They are meant to be said because they are meant to be believed, not once upon a time, but here and now. It is ok to have doubts and questions and to struggle with faith, but at the end of the day if I can’t stand up with integrity and proclaim the faith of the church, I would look for another job.

  1. We need to talk about Jesus more.

People aren’t pressured to go to church anymore. There is no societal expectation. There are also plenty of other organizations out there that a person can devote their time and money to. If they like good music they can go to the symphony. If they like to help others they can volunteer at a shelter or join a not-for-profit. If they feel passionate about liberal causes or conservative causes there are multitudes of organizations out there that will be more than happy to welcome them. If all we talk about are issues and causes of the moment, we are always going to be fighting a losing battle, because people simply don’t need us for that. We are not here to be the liberal church or the conservative church. We are here to be the church of Jesus Christ, offering Christ to the world. Jesus is the one thing that we have to offer that the rest of the world can’t. If we aren’t talking about him, we are wasting our breath.

  1. Our church was not founded in 597, 1534, or 1789. Our church was founded in 33AD.

Our church has been reorganized a few times over the course of its history, but it has never been “refounded.” We are still the same church that was founded by Jesus Christ. When Christian missionaries (from both Roman and Celtic expressions of the faith) first came to England they became the church in/of England. Throughout our history there has been reorganization and reform, but we are still that same church. The Roman Catholic Church has reorganized and reformed several times as well. In every reform good decisions were made, and bad decisions were made and yet still the church marched on. We need to have a little more faith in the resilience of Christ’s church.

  1. The church needs to be bigger than the booze.

I remember the famous southern comedian Lewis Grizzard once said that the Baptists in his town were getting very liberal: they were starting to wave at one another in the liquor store.

The Episcopal Church is not going to be one of those churches that condemns the drinking of alcohol. Nobody wants that, and it usually just leads to hypocrisy anyways. But if all we are offering people is a place where they can drink without being judged, then they could just as soon go to the bar down the street. We need to be a place where people feel they can come to meet Christ, whether they choose to drink or not. We don’t need to banish alcohol, but we do need to confront the perception that that is what we are all about. Enough with the jokes. They aren’t really funny anyways.

  1. Your church is a part of something bigger, but ultimately that something is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ. Everything in between is just middle management.

I may not do things just like my colleague in the next village. I may say mass facing East and my Roman Catholic friends across the street may say it facing the congregation. I may be a gay man and my bishop could be a straight woman. There are lots of issues that we as a church are just not going to agree on. We need to focus on what unites us. There is only one Jesus and he only has one church. Regardless of how we like to separate and sort ourselves, let us always remember who we really work for.

  1. We worship Christ in community; we do not worship THE community.

I can dream of a day when we are all joined together in glory as the one church triumphant gathered around the throne and worshipping together the majesty of God. That will indeed be a glorious day. But as long as we are on this earth, and separated as we all are by time and place, Christ’s church will never be gathered together in one place at one time. We have to learn to remember that we are part of the church even when we aren’t gathered together with it. Yes, we do have private baptisms, we always have, but we are not creating solitary Christians. Whenever you baptize someone you are doing it on behalf of the entire church of Christ and they are being baptized into the entire church of Christ. The church is not someplace we gather on Sunday mornings…it is who and what we are. Each of us has the responsibility to represent the church in the world: wherever we go and whatever we do, but we don’t do this to get people to join our club. The church exists not to point people to itself, but to point people to Christ.

35 thoughts on “10 Things I wish every Episcopal priest knew about the Episcopal Church

  1. knitternun

    This is brilliant. Thank you. Two quotes I especially love are “Everything in between is just middle management” and “There are lots of issues that we as a church are just not going to agree on. We need to focus on what unites us. There is only one Jesus and he only has one church. Regardless of how we like to separate and sort ourselves, let us always remember who we really work for.” About the latter quote, I became so fed up with the infighting that I started a group on Facebook called “Celebrate Christians Have in Common” because, yes indeedy, there is only One Church, it just has a lot of different voices.

    • Edith Guitilen

      I do not see how I can disregard a disagreement with my friend who does not believe in the Holy Trinity. Despite her being a Unitarian however I love her as a friend and am still trying to let her read some proofs of the Trinity. I am working for Jesus and may be she too is. But what if one is teaching the wrong doctrine as I believe Unitarian doctrine is?

      • knitternun

        Thank you for the widget. You might as well know this piece is all over Facebook. I myself have cited it in my above referenced group. At least 5 of my FB friends have posted a link to it.

  2. Fr Kevin,
    Thank you for this article. You really did hit the nail on the head! We need to be about being Christians first! We get so wrapped up in minutia of committee work or choir or Altar Guild that we forget what Christ taught us.
    Kären Ford
    `

  3. You say you’re a tea-loving Anglophile, but then there’s that mug, from whence dangles evidence of a teabag. Tsk, tsk, tsk. May I suggest a cup and saucer? And perhaps, in his mercy, the Lord will vouchsafe unto you something from Royal Doulton with hand-painted periwinkles? 😉 Nice article, by the way.

  4. Martha C.

    Thank you so much! Last year, a very dear friend who had been my priest told me that that Bible was “all made up.” I have been pretty much at sea since then. I consider myself very liberal, but this is too much! Another priest who I like and admire very much has been saying the same thing in her blog. I am still attending church and participating in vestry, DOK, etc. and hoping for a sign.

    • Thank you for your comments. I do hope that God sends you the sign that you seek. Keep the faith! The world is more magical and miraculous than we usually can ever imagine.

  5. Kate in Albany (NY)

    One of the best articles I have read about the church in a long time. It pretty much describe s what I think and feel about our church. Thank you!

  6. Very good article. Item #4 especially resonates with me. I don’t know if you consider this “dumbing down the liturgy,” but my pet peeve with churches is creating a new bulletin booklet every week that has all the text of the BCP and the Hymnal included in it in the name of “hospitality.” We have the books in the pews, use them. If we want to be hospitable, then maybe people should get out of “their” pew to sit with a visitor and help them through the juggling act and, more importantly, actually talk with them at coffee hour.

    • As a convert, I disagree. It sounds nice to say that people would help out a visitor, but how would that work exactly? And wouldn’t it only cause embarrassment for the visitor? Let’s remember that some of the sung parts of a service are quite short. By the time you’ve looked it up in the bulletin and turned to the page, it’s done. And that’s assuming that someone magically knows what an “S” page is. I am extremely grateful when churches have those booklets. (And I was raised in church, another denomination. Imagine how confusing it is for the truly new to church.)

      • Thanks for the response. You ask, It sounds nice to say that people would help out a visitor, but how would that work exactly? And wouldn’t it only cause embarrassment for the visitor?

        The great majority of Episcopal churches I have been in are not so large that the “regulars” can spot visitors rather easily. One way it could work is for the ushers to ask visitors if a) they are new to an Episcopal church, and b) if they would like to sit next to someone familiar with the service. That, of course, requires a fairly competent set of ushers. Another way it would work would be for people in the congregation to get out of their comfort zone and volunteer to sit with someone they don’t recognize, even if it’s in another pew.

        I’m fairly certain this is less embarrassing for the visitor that it is for the person asking them if they would like assistance, knowing that the response might very well be, “I’ve been attending the 8 a.m. service for 20 years.”

        There probably isn’t a perfect answer, but I’m glad you found a place and that you felt welcomed.

  7. Adam

    This list is great! If we could get the majority of TEC priests to read this list and understand it, and to live it, we could bring about healing and maybe even some growth to Christ’s Church!

  8. Fr. Carlton Kelley

    Thank you for this. When we stop apologizing for being Christians we will begin to grow. When we realize that everyone has a place and that sexuality is as irrelevant as skin color, we will begin to grow. When we realize that our job as the church is to proclaim Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father, then we will begin to grow. Until that day, I’m fairly certain we have a good deal of dying to do.

    • knitternun

      In some parts of the Anglican Communion they do, in fact, speak of the “Anglican Church,” It is unique to those of us in the USA to insist upon “Anglican Communion.” I have CofE clergy friends as well as friends in New Zealand and Australia, who use the expression ” Anglican Church” to mean the Communion.

  9. Lizette Larson-Miller

    Thank you!! I reached the end of my patience with the Episcopal Church because of those very loud voices you mention and now enjoying the luxury of a break in the Anglican Church of Canada – but we are all in this together as Anglicans. We do believe something and we do have something to offer – time to stand with our (US) new presiding bishop and proclaim that from the rooftops!!

    • Thank you Mother Larson-Miller, dear friend! This is a brilliant set of reminders for all of us. I trust Canada is treating you well. I say the Daily Mass in our Lady Chapel and pray for you frequently as I recall the long pilgrimage of our original building’s reredos- which is there to call to mind OUR long and, sometimes, circuitous pilgrimages. Love and peace and grace to you, Canon Ian Elliott Davies, St Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood

      PS, thank you Father Kevin!! You’re absolutely brill! IED+

  10. As an American in UK (ordained C of E) I rejoice with this article and wish it could be circulated in “the Anglican Church”. Our tradition, which has brought millions to faith, is being eroded by sloppy entertainment and selective use of scripture, leaving havoc rather than a faith once delivered!
    Yet one more thing that needs to be said of TEC is its faithfulness in stewardship. My mum’s last cheque before her death was her pledge to her parish which was in another state from where she spent her last weeks.
    TEC: Long may it wave. Widows mite, yes, but it was her way of giving back.
    Might I suggest a book Consuming the Word by Scott Hahn.

    The Revd Canon Dr J M Rosenthal
    House for Duty Priest, St Nicholas at Wade Kent UK

  11. Malcolm French

    Nothing I’d specifically disagree with, but . . .

    * I agree that we needn’t be ashamed of our English inheritance, but we need to remember that we are about Jesus, not about Coronation Street, Downton Abbey, tea and biscuits or Mrs. Battenburg at Buck House. This may be more of an issue in Canada, but when we sometimes seem to forget that we are not an ethnic church, and we ceased to be “The Church of England in Canada” more than 50 years ago. Sometimes our Anglophilia is so over the top we send the (I hope unintended) message that you really need to be English to worship here.

    * I’d agree that Rite III (to use TEC parlance) should not normally be the principle service of a Sunday morning, but I can easily envision exceptions – particularly in some types of Fresh Expressions church plants. That said, I tire of the way the daily office plays out at clergy conferences and retreats, where presides seem to feel the need to show us some new departure from the norms.

    * How we balance making the liturgy comprehensible to the newcomer without “dumbing it down” is a difficult balancing act. Personally, I think the complete booklet approach has merit. But maybe we should all have sufficient budget that we’ll freely give away BCPs (or, in Canada, BCP ans BASs) to anyone who asks.

  12. i’m a catholic. wasn’t your church founded in 1789? Your church is not the same as catholicism, so im not sure how you can say your church goes back to 33 AD.

    • When King Henry VIII split with the bishop of Rome over his divorce, he did not “re-found” any church. The same clergy, with valid orders, continued to perform the same sacraments to the same church. It is true that reforms were made, but it was still the same church. We still have the same creeds, the same sacraments, the same orders of ministry, the same liturgies,and the same traditions. Therefore Anglicans consider themselves to be a part of the universal catholic church, which of course extends back to 33AD. We are not a part of the Roman Catholic Church, but we are catholic nonetheless, much in the same way that the Eastern Orthodox Church continues to be catholic, although not in communion with Rome.

  13. I love the church and I love the liturgy and the creeds. I love the books and I love the inclusion. I also love the options and the lack of judgment for people who are learning their ways and looking for the one thing that will make them belong. I am one of those people who came to the church broken, alone, in a crisis of faith and abandoned by a church that I had embraced for years while it did not embrace me. When I had lost my way and everything else, the church made Jesus come alive within me again. I found pardon, redemption, confirmation and a place to serve. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

  14. Glenn

    As an active duty Army Chaplain, I say “Hooah” and amen. Good stuff, especially loved #10 as some who practices incarnational ministry.

  15. Betty Bessler

    Thank you so much for this article. One of my priest friends shared it on FB today and it touched on so much we have been discussing in a Tuesday study group at my church that it has now been forwarded to the 20 plus in our group. And now I have subscribed to your blog. Again, thank you.

  16. Dave

    As someone who grew up Presbyterian but came to the Episcopal Church in part because of its liturgy, I appreciated your list. With respect to #5, I stated jn an EfM discussion that I have no particular problem with Bishop Gene Robinson being gay but I have a major problem with Bishop John Shelby Spong publicly questioning the divinity of Christ. While we Episcopalians may share and encourage a variety of theological viewpoints, but we most certainly should not become “Unitarians With Snacks”.

  17. Martha S

    I’ve been an Episcopalian for 50+ years. I’ve lived in three states and known many priests; some excellent, some mediocre. I enjoyed this article and agreed with much of what you said. I would like to add one to your list. “We need to DO Jesus” Too often, what I hear does not match up with what I see. Lots of talk about taking care of the poor, widows, orphans, etc — telling congregants to DO — but no observable action by the church. Some go so far as to coordinate with other churches or agencies to raise money, but again the church as a body is doing nothing. No food pantries or soup kitchens or…

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