For those who don’t know it, I took a huge step of faith a year ago Easter; I joined the Episcopal Church.
Some of you may think I’m crazy, others will surely think I’ve gone off the deep end, others will think I can’t be reformed anymore or that I support everything the Episcopal Church supports, but none of these are true.
For many of my friends and family, this move comes as no great shock.
For six years now, I’ve been resisting and raging against the Episcopal Church. I’ve been avoiding it with every fiber of my soul, but the move was, to some, inevitable.
You see, six years ago, I met a wonderful seminarian, a man I thought must pray literally all the time, and he was on the track to ordination in the Episcopal Church. Poor guy heard an earful from this Presbyterian seminarian. Let’s say I was not happy with his choice, though he’d already been in the church four years by the time we met.
I fought, I argued, I brought out every theological reason there was to convince him to leave the Episcopal Church, to see the error of his ways and to come back to the Presbyterian Church, where he had once been a member and where his twin brother is an ordained minister.
I was convincing too, to myself at least.
But he didn’t engage in my theological debates. It’s not that he was passive or checked out, but he kept saying we should focus on what binds us together, what brings us closer, what we have in common, and that was Christ. Love of the Living God in Jesus is what was the core of our faith and what was of ultimate importance. Not transubstantiation or the lack of a unifying theology within Episcopalianism.
And what bound us together was in fact Christ. For us as believers and later for us as a married couple. Christ binds us in his love and in his covenant and in the covenant of marriage to one another.
We tried worshiping in our own traditions for a few years, but it was hard to be away from each other on Sundays. I tried to go to his church, but the stuffy music, rote ritual, ornate “pageantry,” as I called it, bad theology, lack of gospel preaching, and way of doing communion that I disagreed with and couldn’t partake in were too strong at first for me to overcome.
But the binding together in Christ is one of the reasons I decided to join. I wanted to worship together as a family.
So I put aside my pride, saw the lack of opportunity in my own denomination, saw the open arms and opportunities for teaching within the Episcopal Church, and started attending with my husband, the now-ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.
Soon, well after a year or more, I began to realize that I could take communion even if I didn’t agree with what the priest might believe was happening during the breaking of the bread. I looked to St. Augustine’s 4th Century debate over how to handle a separatist group, the Donatists, when they wanted to return to the church. The people were struggling with whether to accept the baptism of the Donatists. Ultimately he concluded that as long as they were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, then it didn’t matter the minister’s moral character or bad theology or separation from the church. The character of the minister could not invalidate a person’s baptism. For you and me today, that means that if our minister ends up committing a crime or turns from his faith, or falls into egregious sin, that our baptism is still valid. It’s not negated because the person who administered it, turned out to be less than holy.
Back to my story though, I used this controversy to say that the beliefs about what happens during the Lord’s Supper in the Episcopal Church does not negate the power of what we receive in the body and bread. So while a priest may believe he is literally turning the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood and it’s being sacrificed through the liturgy and ritual, it’s okay for me to believe that the act is symbolic, but that Christ is spiritually present through his Holy Spirit.
We can differ on our beliefs about what is happening, because what really happens at the table is a mystery and does not depend either on the priest’s views about it or mine, but on Christ. And because of this and knowing this, I could come to His table.
This may seem like a theological aside or long story, but my acceptance and coming to terms with this issue led me to realize that I don’t have to believe everything that a priest in the Episcopal Church believes. In fact, because there’s no central unifying theological system (outside of the historic creeds), there is freedom to believe. There is freedom for my theology to fit in a church with someone else’s theology. In fact, I find that most Episcopalians tend to have their own theology.
Now I can hear a priest say something off the wall, to me, and instead of think we need to, as a church, have a reckoning with him, I think, well, I’m glad there’s room for disagreement. And I’m glad that I have a place where I can teach and can help spread reformed theology. I’m glad that I can be a positive voice in the midst of many who aren’t evangelically-minded or even sure what they believe.
Another reason I joined is for the community. The Episcopal Church is where I am a member of the community. My husband and I have been starting a young adult ministry and working toward that end for over two years now. It was weird to still be a card-carrying Presbyterian while spearheading a ministry in the Episcopal Church.
I also wanted to be able to vote. Membership in the Church means a vote in the life of the church. I was tired of having to sit the votes out when I cared intimately what goes on in our church. I wanted my voice to be heard. But to do that, I had to join. I had to be confirmed.
And then there’s my now twenty-one-month-old son. It was time for him to be baptized, near his first birthday, like I had been many years ago. It would be silly to go to the Presbyterian Church where none of us attended. It would be a slight to the community and church where we worshiped and were growing our ministry to not be at our church (the Episcopal Church). And besides, I was baptized in the Methodist Church, so I saw that ultimately, he would need to make his faith his own, in his own time, in his own church. My son would be baptized in the Episcopal Church. I didn’t want to be the only one left out. As a family, we would worship and belong to the church together.
Besides, the Episcopal Church really has grown on me. I work for a non-profit in the Episcopal Church. My friends are in the Episcopal Church. I saw that there are men and women who deeply love Christ who worship in the Episcopal Church. It wasn’t such a bad place.
In fact, I began to like their openness to differing thoughts and opinions. I liked that I could believe one thing and my husband another, but neither of us be outside the bounds of Christianity. We could serve and worship God together, but we, and others, didn’t have to believe point by point the same things about everything about faith and God and the Bible.
At my former church and within the DNA of the denominational tradition, especially at my seminary, there was a spirit of divisiveness. It was “our way or the highway.” You had to believe everything that church taught or you couldn’t teach there. I had a friend who was told some books she recommended would need to come down from her blog before she’d be able to teach at her church. I had seminary professors lose tenure and jobs (Peter Enns and Douglas Green) because of the slightest nuances, which meant disrupting an entire school for the defenders of “truth,” who found it their purpose to safeguard the denomination from ideas that didn’t conform to their version of truth, to their reading and understanding of the faith and of the Bible. So, instead of divisiveness, I chose openness. I chose the option of breadth of opinion, even when I thought some of those opinions off the mark. I respect that we can serve Christ and disagree on some things. This is why I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church.
Confirmation is more than just joining. You have to be brought into the church. My husband described it as being brought into God’s church, having the bishop’s hands laid on you, and being charged in God’s mission (my paraphrase and recollection of what he said). Unless you belong to the Catholic or Orthodox Churches, you have to be confirmed. Those ordinary of us Protestants can’t just transfer our membership, we have to be brought into the church through the bishop. Again, there’s more here than I want to fight against theologically, but I have found our spiritual home. For now.
And of course, I can always go back if it doesn’t work out! But I’m not counting on that happening.
If you’re in a church, what made you join the one you’re attending? If you haven’t, what holds you back? Answer in the comments below.
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