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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.