Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Why I'm Episcopalian

I was recently asked a question by my friend and fellow Sewanee Alum Eric Wilson why should/would someone support the Episcopal Church. What follows is the first part of what will be, I hope, an interesting dialogue between us. I will post his responses, as well as mine for any who are interested to follow.

As for the Dearth of posts lately, it's been a rather hectic time at work. It does appear that my contract will be finished this weekend, and that the grant money is not there to keep the position going. Therefore, I will in all likelihood be much better about regularly posting. Also, with another big must win soccer game tomorrow for the US Men's National Team, Expect the next post to be on that. We didn't start Brian Ching last time and we not only scored goals, we won. Will Bill Bradley learn from his past mistakes? Will he again use the two most exciting American forwards since Joe Gaetjens? Find out tomorrow as the US Men take on Trinidad and Togabo on ESPN Classic.

Why I'm Episcopalian.

Today, I was asked a question I had admittedly not put enough deep and challenging though into.

“Why should someone want/would someone support The Episcopal Church?”

I offered up two answers. The first was this. “The [same] reason anyone should be in any church, because they discern a call to fulfill their baptismal vows in a certain church.” Though I could have worded it better, I believe that is a succinct stating of my belief. We are called by God to serve as the body of Christ on earth, and by that token, to not only be a member of the church, but to BE the church, one, holy catholic and apostolic. If this is indeed our general calling, it is up to us to discern where we are being called to live out our baptismal vows.

I believe any denomination in any religion is a flawed entity, I do not think The Episcopal Church, or any other sect can claim an absolute and final knowledge of God or of any divine plan for us, and therefore do not think there is by definition any “better” denomination. (I am exempting, of course, certain organizations that label themselves “churches” like Westboro Baptist et al.) I believe that one could be called to live out their faith in any number of churches, and that many faithfully live and serve across myriad denominations. Much as I feel called to serve in the Episcopal Church, I fully believe it is quite possible and indeed common to faithfully be just as Christian in the Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, or any other of the myriad denominations.

Accepting the view that faithful Christians can be members of any number of churches, he real question then has to be, why am I Episcopalian, and why do I believe that the Episcopal Church is a Church with something to offer.

The easy answer to that question is that I was baptized and raised in the Episcopal Church. That however is a cop out. Being raised in a denomination is no reason alone to stay within a certain Church. There is relevance, however, in the story of how my family came to be Episcopalian. With both parents raised Southern Baptist, and I myself being born into the Baptist church, under the “raised that way” reason we should all still be within that church. However, events happen and circumstances change.

While in the Baptist Church, there was an elderly man who was terminally ill and quickly dying of cancer. He had never been baptized and wanted to be so before he passed. Painfully sick, he was too frail to undergo the full immersion baptism required in the Baptist Church. After meeting for a short time, the leaders in the Church decided it was not possible to baptize him by sprinkling of water, and told him they would not be able to administer the Sacrament. The man died a short while later without the comfort of baptism. There are few things I have heard of that seem more antithetical to the teachings of Christ than the injustice that was visited upon him.

It was under these circumstances that we left, and after a bit of church shopping, we came to what is perhaps the polar opposite of the SBC in the Episcopal Church. Unlike our experiences at our past church, and true to their own motto, the Episcopal Church welcomed us.

Many criticize the Episcopal Church for being doctrinally weak, and excessively broad. It has been said that we have no backbone, or that we refuse to take a stand. This has at times been shamefully true. In the 1960s it took the horrific murder of a young, affluent, white Episcopal Seminarian who jumped in front of a black teenager and caught a shotgun blast to jar the church into helping those of different race. Conversely, we sometimes look to social justice to replace theology, which many argue is what is occurring in the current debate over monogamous gay clergy.

One reason I respect the Episcopal Church, however, is that it is out there, warts and all, to be seen by everyone. For the most part, there is an honesty, and a willingness to discuss and discern together and in the open that I feel many denominations lack. There is not an attempt to hide discussions, or to prevent debate. Rather, we attempt to engage in a dialogue and determine to which direction the Church is being called collectively. It is at times contentious, but rarely does it come to the point of schismatic departure. This is because of one of the other complaints against the church, it’s doctrinal weakness.

Where many see a doctrinal weakness, I see a strength. I have many friends in the church who are politically and often theologically opposed to my beliefs. Unlike many denominations, the Episcopal Church recognizes that we can read the same Bible, love and serve the same risen Christ, and still, faithfully come to differing conclusions. I feel that the church, rather than being weak, is strengthened by the differences in belief we hold. I firmly believe that the church is better for having all of those who disagree, however sharply with me. As Paul spoke of in his letter to the Corinthians

4Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

1 Corinth, 12:14-200

I believe that that body works best when all parts are involved, and I believe a broad tolerance, whether high church or low church, conservative or liberal, cradle or convert, helps to grow the body. With that range, we help to balance each other out, and offer us a broader understanding of our call as a denomination to serve God, through Christ.

Having addressed in broad strokes why one should (and I do) support the Episcopal Church, I’d like to get briefly into why I personally feel so called to support, be a member of, and work for the Episcopal Church.

I believe that the most important verse of the Bible is this, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”(Matt 22:36-40”

There are generally two main ways of looking at the rest of the Bible through that statement. Many people say that you are loving your neighbor by directing them towards all of the commandments and laws laid out by the rest of the Bible. Many others interpret that as meaning that the Law and the Prophets must be interpreted through the lens of that statement. That primarily you are to love God and love your neighbor, and that all other rules are guidelines to aid in the execution of those commissions. I fall squarely into the second group. I believe that first and foremost, the God we serve is Love (1 John 4:8), and that the best way to love and serve God is to serve our neighbors. Though the trap of substituting social justice for theology can certainly go overboard, I think that to an extent, working for social justice, is one way of serving God. I believe that the focus on those ministries in the Episcopal Church is something that has always appealed to me. My thoughts on this will certainly be fleshed out over the course of our dialogue

Lastly, though I certainly have issues with the Episcopal Church from time to time, I feel that a true calling must be a call to something rather than just a discomfort with where one is. I believe that there have been many who have been called away from the Episcopal Church, as well as many who have been called to it. However, I do not believe that one should up and leave over any disagreement. Since I feel I have been called to the Church for now, it will take me feeling and discerning a call TO somewhere else, rather than just a discomfort with the church to move me elsewhere.

All of that being said, I still maintain that if one does not feel or discern a call to the Episcopal Church, they should perhaps look elsewhere. This is not to say we would not love to have them, but if God is calling someone to serve his church in another denomination, it would be folly to try to stand in his way. And after 1,600 words, I find myself back at my original statement. The reason someone should support the Episcopal Church is because they feel and discern a call from God that they should live out their Baptismal vows in the Episcopal Church.

Having written that, I feel it falls pathetically short, and fails to cover much of what I feel and believe. Hopefully, some of it will work its way into our discussion.

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