A clergy colleague recently shared with me that in every parish he has thus far served, parishioners have come to him troubled by encounters they’ve had with non-Episcopalians. In those encounters, the non-Episcopalians grill the Episcopalians about their Church and about their faith, insinuating or openly accusing them of not really believing in much of anything. And time and time again, the Episcopalians in the hot seat find it difficult, if not impossible, to adequately respond to the charges.
In my almost eight years of ordained ministry, I’ve never had anyone come to me with experiences like this. But given the holes in spiritual and intellectual formation I’ve seen among some of the youth in my diocese (and among a few aspirants to Holy Orders and even graduates from seminary), I’m not surprised that this could happen. Bearing in mind that there are many noteworthy exceptions, I think the hard truth is that the Episcopal Church is failing to adequately form her people as Christians who are competent “to represent Christ and his Church” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 855).
This is why a recent essay by Barbara Brown Taylor published in the June 17, 2008 issue of The Christian Century entitled “Failing Christianity” caught my eye. Taylor (a non-parochial Episcopal priest) writes about the “Introduction to World Religions” course she teaches at Piedmont College. Based upon her experience of teaching this course for several years, she offers some reflections that ought to be cause for concern well beyond the academy. We in the Church should take note of what Taylor says:
Students who have spent every Sunday of their lives in church may be able to name the books of the Bible in order, but they rarely have any idea how those books were assembled. They know they belong to Victory Baptist Church, but they do not know that this makes them Protestants, or that the Christian tree has two other major branches more ancient than their own. Very few have heard of the Nicene Creed. Most are surprised to learn that baptism is supposed to be a one-time thing. … They never noticed that Matthew and Luke tell different stories of Jesus’ birth, or that Mark and John tell no such stories at all. They never imagined that the first Christians did not walk around with New Testaments in their pockets. No one ever told them about Constantine, Augustine, Benedict or Martin Luther. They never thought about what happened during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own professions of faith. In their minds, they fell in line behind the disciples, picking up the proclamation of the gospel where those simple fishermen left off.
“The only student who makes an A+ on the quiz,” Taylor continues, “is an orthodox Jew.”
In conclusion, Taylor writes:
This is the point in the semester when I figure I have failed the Christians – but not all by myself. Their churches have failed them, too, by supporting them to believe things they do not know much about. College students in all other regards, they remain fifth graders in religion. How, when they meet someone who asks them intelligent questions about their faith, will they come up with equally intelligent answers?
Taylor’s experience in the classroom suggests that the problem extends well beyond the Episcopal Church (I suppose there’s some comfort in knowing that we Episcopalians are not alone in our failures). In light of my experience and that of other lay and clergy persons I know in the Episcopal Church, I’m convinced that there is no simple solution to the problem.
However, if someone came to my office to share their angst and embarrassment over not knowing how to respond to non-Episcopalians who ask questions about (or even attack) their faith, here are a few suggestions I would offer:
1. Regularly read and study the Bible. Read the Bible daily. A great way to do this in the Episcopal Church is to read the lections assigned each day in the Daily Office. Forward Day by Day is a good resource, even if the reflection offered on any given day isn’t so great. Another way to do this is to observe the discipline of Daily Morning and Evening Prayer according to the forms provided in The Book of Common Prayer. This can be done individually. But it’s more effective if two or three (or more) are gathered in Jesus’ name to do it. So consider joining a Bible study group or starting one in your church that uses the readings for the Daily Office.
While you’re at it, get a couple of good translations of the Bible. And be sure to get a translation that’s also a reliable study Bible. There are many, such as The Orthodox Study Bible (New King James Version) and The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version).
Also, obtain and read a couple of good Bible commentaries and/or introductions to the Bible. Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Writings of the New Testament: An Introduction (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002) is worth checking out. And although it’s expensive, The New Jerome Bible Commentary (Prentice Hall, 1990) is very good. The “For Everyone” series written by Tom Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, is also a wonderful resource for the New Testament (see, for example, Mark for Everyone).
2. Know The Book of Common Prayer. The Prayer Book belongs to every baptized member of the Episcopal Church. It’s not the property of clergy. And yet, too many Episcopalians know very little about what is actually in The Book of Common Prayer beyond what begins on page 355. There really is no excuse for this.
Besides leafing through the Prayer Book to see what’s in there, a good place to start is to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Catechism (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 845-862). Although brief, it’s a good way to begin learning and talking about the Christian faith as received in the Episcopal Church. Also, read Leonel Mitchell’s Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (Morehouse, 1985) to better understand the overall theology of the 1979 Prayer Book and the rationale for the changes from the 1928 Prayer Book.
And study the language and theology of the Eucharistic Prayers in both Rites I and II. What do they say about who God is? About Jesus? About the Church? About salvation?
3. Study the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The historic creeds sum up the orthodox faith of the Church. Anyone conversant with the theology of the creeds can easily talk about the essentials of the Christian faith with non-Episcopalians and/or with non-Christians. As aids to this end, I would particularly recommend Justo Gonzalez’s The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) and Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003).
4. Know your history. King Henry VIII didn’t found the Church in England or start a new religion. The Episcopal Church – and Anglicanism more broadly – cannot be neatly classified as either Catholic or Protestant. So who are we? How are we similar to yet different from Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Reformed Churches?
I think a place to start would be to read J. R. H. Moorman’s classic A History of the Church in England Third Edition (Morehouse, 1986), and also Robert Prichard’s A History of the Episcopal Church Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1999).
5. Remember your baptism. Not just by thinking about it, or mindlessly mouthing the renewal of our baptismal covenant vows in church on baptismal feast days, but by studying and knowing what the sacrament really means and what the Baptismal Covenant actually entails – the entire Baptismal Covenant (cf. The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 305-306).
Note that the Baptismal Covenant includes not only the five vows to do certain things, but also a commitment to believing certain things by including that statement of the Church’s faith called the Apostles’ Creed (hence the need to study the creeds mentioned above in #3 above). Orthodoxy without orthopraxy is a dead faith, but orthopraxy without orthodoxy is a pale imitation of genuinely Christian faith. So don’t fall into the temptation of separating believing and doing. They go together.
One particularly helpful resource in this area is Claudia Dickson’s Entering the Household of God: Taking Baptism Seriously in a Post-Christian Society (Church Publishing, 2002). If you’re working with one or more catechumens in your parish church, you really should get copies of this book for every adult preparing to receive Holy Baptism.
This is hardly an exhaustive list of suggestions. I certainly welcome and encourage the insights and suggestions of those who read this blog (I’m always on the lookout for good Christian education resources, and especially those of benefit to Episcopalians).
My larger point in this posting is this: moving from 5th graders in Christianity to graduates who are genuinely equipped to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” – which is the baptismal charism and calling of all orders of ministry (which most definitely includes the laity) – will be costly (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). If we Episcopalians are serious about cultivating anamnesis (remembrance) as opposed to going with the flow of amnesia (forgetfulness) – if we’re going to form Episcopal Christians who know who they are, where they come from, where they’re going, and to Whom they belong – then it’s going to mean a sacrifice of time, money, and effort for both clergy and laity.
We have everything we need to do this. But are we Episcopalians willing to pay the price? And what are the costs if we are not willing?