Friday, September 19, 2014

Why the Episcopal Church?

In the third part of its "Why the Church?" series, the Acts 8 Moment BLOGFORCE zeroes in on our denomination, the Episcopal Church. Previous questions in the series include "Why the Church?" (which I didn't write an answer for, and "Why Anglicanism?" (which I did). As we (or task forces we've appointed) reimagine the Episcopal church, it's worth asking why it is we should bother. Here's my answer.

One warm evening in 2006 I sat on a stone bench outside Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square in Columbus, Ohio. I had arrived too late to participate in the standing room only service taking place inside, part of the festivities surrounding the church's triennial General Convention, so I was just waiting for my friend John.

I struck up a conversation with another man waiting there, too. For the most part we talked investments, a hobby for him, a profession for me. Eventually we got around to talking about what we were doing at General Convention.

"I'm just here to hang out with my friend for the weekend," I said. "He's a page in the House of Bishops."

"Yeah, I'm just a hanger-on, too," the man said. "My wife is the Bishop of Nevada."

Soon enough the service let out. John and I wandered off to get dinner, while the Bishop of Nevada, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, and her husband walked north together on Broad Street in the late evening sun. Just a few days later, she was elected Presiding Bishop, the first woman to head any of the constituent national or quasi-national churches that make up the Anglican Communion.

Usually when you get a group of Episcopalians together and ask them what it is they like about the Episcopal Church you'll get some combination of responses including words like "welcoming", "inclusive", "liturgy", or "you don't have to check your brain at the door". With the exception of that last one, which I think we should stop saying, stat, I think these are all good things, only they're not all that distinctive. Every Christian church should be welcoming; every church does have a liturgy.

For me, what I appreciate most about this particular corner of Christianity is its sense of possibility, and the ability of every person in the church to participate in it. It's a little awkward sometimes: we're a rigidly hierarchical church that is uncomfortable enough with hierarchy that there are chances for the laity to get in the mix as lubricant or sand in the gears at nearly every turn. We're a small enough church (for better or worse) that lay followers (let alone leaders) can rub shoulders with archbishop-equivalents simply by showing up. And we're a human enough church that we screw it up. Like, quite a bit of the time.

I think these attributes have the possibility of serving the church particularly well during the tough times we're in today. Because for all the things that maybe have to change in the church, one that doesn't is the sense that you can be part of something significant just by showing up. In fact this is one thing we might want to double down on, that as numbers or finances or whatever force us to be different that what we've been, the participatory nature of the church be both opportunity and expectation for everyone involved.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Why Anglicanism?

The Acts 8 Moment is mid-way through a three-part series of questions about The Episcopal Church. The first question (which I missed, but which produced some awesome responses) was about why church is important at all. The second, which this post is a response to, is "Why Anglicanism?" or why does this particular branch of Christianity matter, the final one will ask about The Episcopal Church, or the official branch of Anglicanism in the United States.

Perched on high ground overlooking a river, Durham Cathedral is, in my mind, one of the most spectacular buildings on earth. A tremendous work of stone, it looks less like it was built by human hands and more like it grew from the ground beneath it. Its construction predates the innovation of flying buttresses, which allowed big windows to flood a cathedral interiors with light. Durham Cathedral has thicker walls and smaller windows, so the interior is suffused with shadow. Its walls and floors contain the bones of ancient saints, including Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede.

Durham is a cathedral of the Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, of which my own Episcopal Church is a part. So when I cross the threshold of that great stone church, it's with a sense of belonging - that this church is my church, too.

I last visited Durham Cathedral on the first Sunday in Lent in 2008. At the time, N.T. Wright was Bishop of Durham. I am an admirer of Wright's writing; he is a clear explainer of certain aspects of Christian thought against what I regard as some of the excesses of progressive Christianity. Wright is equally clear that he would prefer that people like me - a Christian who happens to be gay and who regards that attribute of myself as neither a sin nor a call to a solitary life - be much quieter if we must insist on being part of the church at all.

I worshiped at Wright's church without the slightest reservation. Because while what Wright and I disagree about are very important things to both of us, in Wright's own words, "Nothing justifies schism."

What I appreciate most about Anglicanism is its openness and humility. Anglicanism never makes the claim that it is the one true church. We regard any baptized person from any Christian denomination to be a full fellow traveler with us in Christ. Our big theological claims are just the very basics: that the Apostle's and Nicene creeds are sufficient statements of faith, that the sacraments of baptism and communion are important, and that the canonical books of the Bible contain all that is necessary for salvation.

The crowd after Easter services, St. Mary's Cathedral, Kuala Lumpur.

Maybe this makes us a little squishy...hard to tell who's in or out, who's the right kind of Christian and who's not in a church like that. But it means that even though in the alphabet soup of GAFCON and the ACC, I suppose the Diocese of West Malaysia is on the "other side" from me, St. Mary's Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur is my church, too. And when I was there this Easter Sunday days after my mother had died there, it was a more ordinary act of love, including the name of my mother, a woman unknown to that church, among the familiar prayers, that reminded me that at its best the distinction of Anglicanism is common worship, paired not with agreement, but with love.