Monday, May 26, 2008

Five Things to Know About the Episcopal Church

In dialogue with the Rev. Patton Boyle, rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Wenatchee, Washington, this article lays out five things to know about being an Episcopalian (the parts in quotation marks are from Fr. Boyle):

1. Worship is at the core of the Episcopal Church
Episcopalians are united by their worship. The service is done in nearly the same way every week. If you're the kind of person who wants a lot of variations in the service, then there are other churches that might suit your needs better. "The central and organizing function for the Episcopalian Church is going to worship. Episcopalians tend to get spiritual needs fulfilled in the traditional Episcopalian worship." All churches use the Book of Common Prayer in worship services, and in most churches, communion is performed every Sunday as a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. Morning prayer is common across Episcopal churches.

2. Worshipers don't follow a strict code
The Episcopal Church approaches the faith from three basic standpoints: Scripture, reason and tradition. Episcopalians aren't expected to accept everything they are told or always agree with the priest or other leaders. "They take what is of value and use it. I expect them to disagree with me at times. ... The church expects people to make their own moral and ethical decisions." Parishioners are asked to explore issues thoughtfully and prayerfully and to come to their own decisions. The approach is more like, "I respect your opinion, and I will think deeply about that, but that may not be, in the end, what I decide is right for me." Parishioners make decisions based on thorough study, reason, prayer and examining one's own conscience rather than having them prescribed to them.

3. Parishioners encompass a wide range of views
Episcopalians think differently about a wide range of issues, policy and politics. "We disagree often, politically and doctrinally. ... But we have a sense of unity. We respect the fact that we don't agree. Some people wish we would agree. I, personally, don't want a church where everyone agrees. I'm not looking for a church where everyone sees things the same way I do."

4. It has elements of Catholic and Protestant traditions
The Episcopalian church split off from the Catholic Church in the 16th century as part of the Protestant Reformation. In structure and worship, the Episcopal Church continues to be similar to the Catholic Church in many ways, but there's no Episcopal equivalent to a pope or a cardinal. Also, clergy can marry and women clergy are accepted. Even the U.S. presiding bishop is a woman. Private confession is an option, but not required in the church.

5. Episcopalians are part of the Anglican Communion
The Anglican Communion began with the Church of England separating from the Roman Catholic Church in the middle of the 16th century as part of the Reformation. It is now found in 160 countries throughout the world. The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Although Anglicans share in a fairly similar form of liturgical worship, not all Anglicans think alike. "There are vast cultural and theological differences within the church. ... To us it's normal to have differences of opinion. For us, our unity isn't found in thinking alike. It is found in our common worship."

There are some errors of fact here (for example, the concept of an "Anglican communion" is relatively recent and not a term used in the 16th Century), but there is some truth to Episcopal Cafe's portrayal of this piece as reading "almost like a rebuttal to media portrayals of the Episcopal church."

Even so, the article gives me the impression that, in the Episcopal Church, what one believes is pretty much up for grabs. When it comes to theology and ethics, the individual Episcopalian gets to decide for him or herself. And that's okay, because what really matters is not the content of our beliefs, but that we worship together.

Is that a faithful depiction of who we are as a Church? Should it be?

21 comments:

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

i think this is actually fine. your worry about shared faith is well-taken, but in the actual practice, not a problem. the words of worship, after all, have meanings. i would say that the Episcopal Church hopes that worshippers worship without their fingers crossed behind their back.

i think that standing up and formally reciting the Nicene Creed is about as serious a statement of Christian faith there is; it would devalue it, in my opinion, to add some other thing, the real test of belief, if you will, to that already found in our creeds--and in the amens to the prayers, filled with theological content as they are.

Bryan Owen+ said...

Good points, Thomas. I fully agree with you about the Creed and the meanings of the words in our worship. Our liturgies make substantive theological claims that, if taken seriously, make claims on our lives and loyalties.

We certainly do hope that worshipers don't have their fingers crossed behind their backs! But I've observed on many occasions and in many different circumstances Episcopalians reserving the right to pick and choose what they will and won't believe. They're willing to say the words in worship, but unwilling to submit themselves to what those words mean (assuming they know).

If there's failure in such cases, perhaps it may largely be the failure of clergy and gifted lay people to do the kind of teaching about who we are as a unique embodiment of the Anglican tradition.

Perpetua said...

Historically, people used to say this sort of thing because we believed that over time people would grown into the faith. However, now it just comes across as if we are trying to reassure people that Episcopalians don't really believe the words we say during the service. Now we are teaching people to grow out of the faith.

This strategy repels those who actually believe the faith handed down and attracts people who grew up in dysfunctional families that said one thing and did another. Forty years of attracting people who are doubled minded and look at the church.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

what happens, in the limit, is that we get a new question added to the baptismal rite: "And do you really believe this?" Those who are accustomed to saying one thing while waiting to grow into it, will continue to say "yes"; those who really believe will say "yes"; and those who do not really believe but just say words to go along with the group will continue to do that in response to the new question.

so the problem is real, but there isn't a solution short of speaking clearly about what is said. when someone says "what are episcopalians expected to believe?" i usually say, "well, can you say the liturgy without your fingers crossed?" sometimes the result has been a salutary looking seriously at the liturgy and real growth.

bls said...

I really don't understand what you see in the Episcopal church that is so horrible, Perpetua. I can say that three of us on this very thread - myself, Thomas Bushnell, and Fr. Bryan (I don't know you, so can't include you) - are bog-standard Christians. None of us (correct me if I'm wrong, folks) has any problem saying the Creeds.

There are thousands and millions like us, so I don't really see what the problem is. True, not everybody is exactly like us - but so what? Do you think that everybody in, say, the Catholic Church holds to the "faith once delivered" in every jot and tittle? Sorry, no; people go to church for a lot of different reasons and privately hold beliefs that differ from what's taught in the Creeds.

If this is - once again - simply about the "gay" issue - well, all I can say is that most of the gay people I know are like me. Believe me, we wouldn't be bothered with the church - one of the most homophobic institutions in the world - if we weren't interested in the faith. Believe me on this. The church is the biggest pain in the neck in the world and I would be much happier outside it - except that this is where the faith is taught.

Besides which: if the Episcopal Church attracts people from dysfunctional families - well, good! That's what we're supposed to be doing; the church isn't a country club, as the saying goes - it's a hospital.

Have some faith in the faith itself.

bls said...

(In fact, I would be that there are more people in the church, as a percentage, who actually believe in the faith itself than there ever have been before.

In the old days, Church was compulsory; today people come by choice. It is, in fact, countercultural to be a Church member today; there's no peer pressure at all to attend and in fact quite the opposite.

So I don't know why the sad song all the time about people in the Episcopal church. We're all dysfunctional, anyway, I thought. Isn't that the whole idea? Aren't we all broken?)

Perpetua said...

Hi bls,

From your response I am not sure if I have been intruding on a semi-private blog. I certainly don't mean to intrude.

It sounds like you know Thomas Bushnell, and Fr. Bryan. I don't. But I have a sense of them from their blogger user profiles and I thought I "fit in" to the conversation.

Is there a reason you haven't filled out your blogger user profile, or if you have filled it out that you have not enabled the access?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Perpetua. While I cannot answer the questions you're asking bls, I can assure you that this is not a semi-private blog. All are welcome to add their thoughts, and that certainly includes you!

bls said...

Perpetua, I wasn't referring to you at all, but to the fact that you keep saying things like "now it just comes across as if we are trying to reassure people that Episcopalians don't really believe the words we say during the service." On another thread you implied that Episcopalians don't believe in boundaries.

The reason I mentioned Thomas Bushnell and Fr. Bryan (and myself) is that this doesn't apply to us at all. The very people you're talking to, in other words, don't fit into your categories at all. I just wonder why you keep saying these things with evidence to the contrary right in front of you.

I get tired of hearing the Episcopal Church described as "apostate" by people calling themselves "orthodox." It's just not true.

I'm not sure what my Blogger profile has to do with anything, though.

Perpetua said...

Hi bls,
Well, I agree with Bryan+ that the article by Rev. Patton Boyle gives "the impression that, in the Episcopal Church, what one believes is pretty much up for grabs. When it comes to theology and ethics, the individual Episcopalian gets to decide for him or herself. And that's okay, because what really matters is not the content of our beliefs, but that we worship together."
Actually, I have heard, at the Episcopal seminary on the West Coast, CDSP, that this is how the Episcopal Church sees itself -- everyone gets to believe whatever they want as long as we all worship together, it is not about doctrine, just community.

bls said...

It may be true that there are some people like that - but I really don't think it's the majority.

Or perhaps it was the majority at one time - but I really don't see this today. There is so much that's good that's going on now, in the parishes and also on the internet, for that matter. There is a strong renewal of faith going on right now in the Episcopal Church, in my estimation. Read Fr. Tobias Haller's blog, or this one, or Haligweorc, or...or....or (so many others). Fr. Jake, Mad Priest, Fr. Bill Carroll - all of whom I disagree with on various matters - are all quite traditional theologically, as far as I can tell. In fact, I believe all three are Anglo-Catholics - and I would put myself in this category also - perhaps. (I'm not sure, sometimes, what's meant by that, but I feel quite joyously happy during Anglo-Catholic worship.) Many Anglo-Catholics have been, in fact, among the most radical, politically, in their views - but among the most traditional theologically. (And because Christianity, traditionally, is the most radical of faiths, this happens to make perfect sense!)

Of course, as Fr. Bryan says in his post from today, almost everybody wants to make Christian faith over in their own image. That's the trap we all have to watch for - all of us.

But I really think you're missing the excitement of a new era - and Spong has never been very influential in the Episcopal Church anyway. Ex-fundamentalists seem to like him, but in my experience he rarely gets asked to speak in Episcopal parishes; anytime I've checked his speaking schedule, that's what I've seen.

Anyway, Christianity is the most radical of faiths; it's supposed to mock us all, and it does.

Perpetua said...

bls,

Those you cite are not "quite traditional theologically". Part of the "game" of the progressives is to claim that they are traditional or orthodox when they are in fact remaking the Christian teachings to validate themselves.

You would need to get out of the progressive Episcopal "Self Reinforcement Spiral" to find out what traditional theology actually teaches.

I understand it would be very threatening for you because traditional Christian theology challenges you on some of your moral choices.

Billy Ockham wrote an interesting piece

with a link to an exchange between a progressive and some orthodox over at Stand Firm recently. I really liked Billy Ockham's piece because he draws an analogy between recovery from co-dependent relationships and recovery from bad religion:

"I used to be in a relationship with a drunk. She was sober when we started dating, but she turned to the bottle afterwards. It was a rather difficult time. My wife was in a relationship with an addict. He was clean when she met him, but he resumed his drug use and their relationship foundered. My wife and I share that same history and it's a commonality that has brought us closer as we both learned from the experience. Neither of us have any great desire to repeat our previous relationships.

I think the reasserter websites are healthier than revisionist ones because of the shared experience of pain. We have all been at least singed by bad religion and it has made us demand healthy religion, sound religion, Truth rather than bullshit."

Anyway, I like your pointing out the great new post here "Acting on Jesus's Words".

Bryan Owen said...

Perpetua and bls, I think that each of you are making some important points. I find myself perhaps somewhere between the two of you. On the one hand, I've been concerned for some time now about some of the goofy and heterodox (and other) stuff that goes on in TEC. That was the inspiration for one of my initial postings on this blog entitled Anomic Anglicanism.

While I still have those concerns, I've written on this blog and in comments on other blogs about the need to avoid the fallacy of converse accident - taking atypical instances and making them representative of the whole. My sense is that some on the Left and some on the Right fall into that fallacy. And that there's much in the blogosphere to reinforce the perception that the atypical is representative of the entire Episcopal Church.

My hope is there really is more of a diverse center to TEC than we often hear about. It's certainly not as sensational as some of the crazy stuff that does happen. But it's also very, very real - as real as the lives, sufferings, hopes, and dreams of the people who attended the three services I preached this morning at St. Andrew's Cathedral.

I believe that the Prayer Book's liturgies, the historic creeds, and the scriptures provide the norms and boundaries that make plenty of room for us to live together. This means that there are limits, but there's also a lot of room within those limits. The orthodoxy of Anglicanism truly is more generous in that respect than we find in the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches.

I can also say that I've discovered an affirmation of this 'generous orthodoxy' in places that - at least according to some persons - I should not find it, including the blogs of some of our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters. The stereotype that such persons are all radical left-wingers when it comes to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith (supremely embodied in the Nicene Creed) is simply not true. That doesn't settle the debates in sexual ethics, but for me, it's certainly another warning against the fallacy of converse accident - and how falling into that fallacy keeps us from listening to and learning from one another.

bls said...

"You would need to get out of the progressive Episcopal "Self Reinforcement Spiral" to find out what traditional theology actually teaches."

Perpetua, I know very well what the traditional Christian faith consists of. Most of the people I'm friendly with, both in real life and online, profess it, and so do I. Apparently you have quite a lot of trouble understanding and/or believing this; sorry about that.

Just so you know: nobody these days has any problem finding out about what the reality of a situation is; it's as easy as logging onto the internet and doing some research. It is interesting that you refuse to believe what I'm saying about this, though, and consign me instead to the "progressive Episcopal 'Self Reinforcement Spiral'." Well, no; I'd bet anything that my faith is not much different than yours. What actually separates us is cultural, not theological.

But obviously you don't believe that, and at that point what reason is there to continue the discussion? If you can't see me as anything but "other" than you - and a kind of dimwitted, ignorant "other," at that, that has no idea what pain could possibly be - then there's really no point.

bls said...

"I can also say that I've discovered an affirmation of this 'generous orthodoxy' in places that - at least according to some persons - I should not find it, including the blogs of some of our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters. The stereotype that such persons are all radical left-wingers when it comes to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith (supremely embodied in the Nicene Creed) is simply not true."

Yes - but it's apparent that many people simply will never accept this; it seems in these cases that the debate over "sexual ethics" trumps all else.

I don't really understand this, but as I said above, it seems more a cultural than a theological issue. After 30 years of arguing about it, though, I've just come to the end at this point and can't argue about it anymore.

bls said...

(I would also like to point out that it's not in any way distinctively Christian to disdain homosexuality. Almost all cultures and religions throughout most of history have disdained homosexuality.

So I can't imagine why the argument continues to be made that this disdain is somehow at the center of the faith. Believe me, Christianity has been absolutely no different from Islam, from Buddhism, from paganism, and/or from atheism in this respect.)

Perpetua said...

bls, you are the one who is constantly bringing up being gay.

I was discussing the problems created when people are encouraged to think that Episcopalians don't actually believe what we say.

I brought up dysfunctional families as primary experiences where people learn to behave deceitfully to survive. A church could be a place of healing for these people if the leadership has healed from their own dysfunctional patterns.

But if we have leadership that has been encouraged in deceit, then we are merely recreating the dysfunctional childhood experiences.

bls said...

"bls, you are the one who is constantly bringing up being gay. "

Oh, my goodness.

Who was it, again, who said this:

"I understand it would be very threatening for you because traditional Christian theology challenges you on some of your moral choices."

?

You don't know anything about me, so whatever could you possibly be referring to by "my moral choices"? How could you know, in fact, what "moral choices" I've made, for that matter? I certainly haven't mentioned any. And what makes you so sure you "understand" how I'd react to anything?

I really don't think I'm the one who "keeps bringing" this topic up....

Bryan Owen said...

It appears that we are now straying from the original purpose of the posting. Let me offer this as a way to put us back on track.

In my final paragraph, I wrote this:

" ... the article gives me the impression that, in the Episcopal Church, what one believes is pretty much up for grabs. When it comes to theology and ethics, the individual Episcopalian gets to decide for him or herself. And that's okay, because what really matters is not the content of our beliefs, but that we worship together."

I then raised two questions.

With respect to the first question - "Is that a faithful depiction of who we are as a Church?" - I take it that we are somewhat in agreement that it is not a faithful depiction, but that we also disagree on the extent to which there are, indeed, anomic things going on in TEC that challenge or undermine the norms and boundaries of who we are as a unique expression of Anglicanism.

As to the second question - "Should it be [a faithful depiction]?" - I believe we are each in our different ways saying "no". I submit that, given our theological differences, that answer is an important point of unity which we do well to build upon.

Perpetua said...

Hi Bryan+,
I think that is right. And my observations are from my experiences on the West Coast, in California and Washington.

bls said...

Fr. Bryan, sorry for getting the thread off-topic.

I presume you have a special quarrel with point #2? I can't see much to disagree with in other points - although I wouldn't think it was so that "Morning prayer is common across Episcopal churches"!

And I will agree that it seems that this priest is advocating a "Whatever anybody feels is right" approach. But I will point out that there are numerous ellipses in this article, one of which is in point #2, in which the reporter has obviously left some content out. We don't know what was said there at all.

And I think, really, what the priest is saying in #2 is that he expects parishioners to disagree with him and whatever advice he might give. I think he's confessing his own clerical penultimacy - and there's nothing wrong with that, IMO.

And I do think it would be good for Episcopalians to emphasize that the "imitation of Christ" is meant to be foremost in our worship and theology, so the omission of a statement like that does seem a missed opportunity.

But again: what was said that is replaced by the ellipses? We don't know. Perhaps it merely reflects the reporter's point of view.