Eleven things I love about the Episcopal Church
by author Ben Irwin, writer/blogger, January 2015
My faith was saved in a gutted-out shopping mall. I had reached a point where I no longer believed in God’s love—or rather, I didn’t believe it was meant for me. I thought it was something reserved for God’s “chosen ones,” and I just couldn’t imagine myself as one of the lucky few. It was a trendy church with a famous pastor and a hip worship band that helped me reassemble the pieces of my faith. I will always be thankful for that church. At that time, I had no idea my journey would lead from that gutted-out shopping mall to an old red door. But it did. Today it’s the Eucharist, the stained glass windows, and the liturgies of the Episcopal Church that are breathing new life into my faith. I’m not alone, either. Lately I’ve been sifting through the stories of fellow travelers. We’ve all found something meaningful in the Episcopal Church, something disorienting and comforting all at once, something that feels vaguely like… home. That’s not a term disaffected evangelicals like me are quick to use. But that’s what the Episcopal Church has become for me: a new spiritual home. Here are some of the reasons for that…
1. The way the liturgy soaks into your being.
The first few times I walked through those big red doors, I didn’t know the code. I didn’t know when to sit or stand. I didn’t know how to use the prayer book. I didn’t know how to cross myself. While others have sought to make Christianity as accessible as possible, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church feels other, like a strange artifact calling us into a different and slightly foreign reality. Learning the liturgy was like learning a new language. These days, I’m having to rely less on the prayer book. After months (and now years) of repetition, the words and movements come more naturally from within. Rachel Held Evans described it like this: At first, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church captured me with its novelty… But we’ve been showing up for nearly six months now, and so it is a different sort of beauty I encounter on Sunday mornings these days—the beauty of familiarity, of sweet routine. I know the order of service now. I know it well enough to have favorite parts, to skim ahead when I’m hungry or restless, to get the songs stuck in my head. We are products of a culture that demands everything is new and fresh. We frown on repetition and ritual. But these ancient patterns have a way of soaking into your bones. The prayers and songs stay with me throughout the week in a way no sermon ever has.
2. The way the liturgy invites me to worship with my whole being, bridging the false divide between body and soul.
Genuflecting in the aisle. Crossing yourself. Kneeling. Episcopalians worship not just with their hearts or their voices but with their bodies. Not that it didn’t take some getting used to. It was a few years before I could bring myself to make the sign of the cross. Now I appreciate it for what is: a prayer. It just happens to be one you pray with your body. And why not? God made us whole persons. We are not disembodied souls stuffed into human shells. We should worship with our whole being. Our heart and soul and flesh should cry out together, as the Psalmist wrote. It should be said we’re not the only ones who embrace the notion of embodied worship, and our way is not the only way to do so. Pentecostals practice embodied worship when they lift their hands in praise or dance in the aisles. Whole-person worship, as I've learned from the Episcopal Church, can be faith-deepening. That's because, as Elisabeth Grunert once commented, "We learn with our bodies."
3. the way it anchors my faith when no act of will on my part can.
I don't always believe the words of the Nicene Creed. But I say them anyway. Sometimes they're more a confession of desirethan conviction, a statement of what I desperately hope to be true. When I struggle to believe, the rhythms and patterns and prayers of the liturgy are like an anchor. It's as if the rest of the community - those around me and those who came before me - are saying, "It's OK. We'll carry you through this part." Faith is no longer dependent on me willing it into being. As Jonathan Martin writes: With my own world feeling disordered and untethered, I am quite happy to be told when to kneel and when to sit and when to stand. I love that there is almost no space in the worship experience to spectate, because almost every moment invites (but not demands) participation. I have been in no position to tell my heart what to do. But because the Church told my body what to do in worship, my heart has been able to follow - sometimes. And that is enough for now.
4. The way it embraces orthodoxy without ridigity.
The other day my priest (who takes Scripture and theology about as seriously as anyone I've ever heard preach), referred in passing to Adam and Eve as our "mythic forbearers." No one broke out the pitchforks. There were no murmurs or protests. No angry blog posts. No one acused him of "getting the gospel wrong." For may of us, it's a refreshing change. As Lindsey Harts wrote after hearing an Episcopal homily on God's sovereignty in relation to the Big Bang, "It was the first time I hadn't heard the Big Bang being bashed in a church setting." Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the "middle way" between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover. Ours is not a fear-filled faith.
5. How it makes room for those who've been burned out, worn out, or otherwise cast out.
I love how one of my favorite preachers, Jonathan Martin, describes what drew him to an Episcopal church: I went out of sheer, bold-faced desperation for someone to preach the gospel to me, someone to lay hands on me, and someone to offer me the Lord's Supper. There was no motivation more noble than hoping to not starve. A lot of us have burned out on our faith at some point - or been cast out. Maybe it's because we grew tired of always having to pretend we have it all together. Or maybe someone's gender or some other part of their identity excluded them from service. Maybe we were told we had to choose between science and faith. Or maybe we were just beaten down by the relentless drum of condemnation. The Episcopal Church is a refuge, a respite, a place where we can come as we are and learn to receive grace again. To be continued...