Why am I an Episcopalian? It’s a question that most of us are asked at one time or another, in small groups within the church if not by truly puzzled friends and acquaintances who have never heard of us or only know us through sensational news stories. Some of us were born into the Episcopal Church, but at a training I conducted a couple of years ago, only two out of fifty in the room were “Cradle Episcopalians.” Most of us came to the church at one time or another for various reasons. Sometimes we marry into the church, sometimes friends invite us. I’ve even known several people who “read” their way into the church by checking books and web sites and finding us as the combination of traits they were looking for.
The better question is, ‘Why do I remain an Episcopalian?” At one time, American Christians were very “Brand Loyal.” If you moved from one town to another, you found the church of the denomination you grew up in and looked no further. These days, for better or worse, Americans take a more consumerist approach to religion and are willing to cross denominational lines in order to find a church that fits their needs and temperament. While part of this can be decried as individualism, it also points to the success of the Ecumenical movement. Most American Christians believe that members of other denominations are really Christian - a change from a hundred years ago. So most see the choice as one between competing franchises of the same religion. For better or for worse, this is the context we preach the Gospel in.
So why am I an Episcopalian? The answer is, that my stepfather got the organist job at the local Episcopal Church and I switched from being a Methodist to being an Episcopalian. But why am I still an Episcopalian, despite the politics, faults and foibles of our denomination?
A large portion of the reason for me is because our denomination historically refuses to play the cultural games others have been drawn into. The Episcopal Church is drastically worship-centered. This goes all the way back to the “Elizabethan Compromise” in the Church of England in which unity in worship was considered more important than conformity in belief. This idea was codified in the “Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral” (BCP 876) which set out the basics of a generous, creedal orthodoxy which could be affirmed by a wide variety of Christians of good faith.
As I became a member of the church, I noticed how diverse it was. We had Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Anglo-Catholics and liturgical Protestants. We had people of color in a culture where Sunday was still the most segregated day of the week. Any conversation in the parish hall that touched on religion was bound to bring up differences. In fact, if one had only come to the coffee hour, one might conclude that this was some sort of interdenominational gathering. But on Sunday mornings, we worshipped together as a family. While I could look at other churches in our town and pin exactly where the members of that church would live and how they would vote, our Episcopal church could not be so categorized. Five hundred years after the Elizabethan Compromise, our church still found its unity in the community-building mystery of worship, rather than in politics or intellectual assent to set principles. It was that vision of the Episcopal Church that I fell in love with - Christ-centered, faithful in worship, diverse in belief, and tolerant of difference. In a culture that tended to force churches to take set identities, we steadfastly refused and instead centered ourself on worship of the living God.
There have always been forces in American politics that have sought to move the Episcopal Church, which is amazingly influential for its size, towards one extreme or the other, and it is no different today. A growing frustration of mine has been that we have increasingly accepted a legislative model of decision-making. This reinforces the idea for people on the extremes that the point is to prepare for diocesan and general conventions as do-or-die events that determine the future of the church by majority rule. While this can produce results, they are results that cannot be said to issue from the teachings of Jesus and Paul that we should strive for unity and harmony. A side effect of this type of decision-making is that it allows outside forces to manipulate us through influence and money in an attempt to turn us from being a church to being a political action committee, which is more palatable to the culture.
We cannot blame the American political culture - this is how it works. We can only blame ourselves if we allow our traditional Anglican values of comprehensiveness and toleration to be compromised in favor of partisanship and “purity”, of whatever ideological flavor. When we say, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” I believe we mean it. You are welcome to worship with us without precondition. If you are baptized, you are welcome to take communion with us without precondition. While we continue to struggle with issues of authority and human sexuality, we must never forget that such issues are not the center of what we do as a church. The traditional center of the Episcopal Church is decently-ordered worship of the Triune God in a community of one faith but diverse belief. This is the church I first fell in love with, and the church that will, I believe, weather current storms as well.