Why He Stays Episcopalian
I don’t agree with our longtime reader Hector on many theological matters, but I thought his long comment on a previous thread about why he remains an Episcopalian was worth commending to you, in an Evans-Manningish way. It’s a reminder that for many, probably most, we remain loyal to our religious traditions for reasons that don’t, at their core, have to do with arguments, logic and theology, but more out of “heart speaking to heart” (to use Cardinal Newman’s phrase):
This is very saddening to me, as a member of the Episcopal Church. I can see why it’s happening, for both demographic and spiritual reasons, but it’s no less disheartening for all that. I was raised atheist, and I converted to Christianity about five years ago. I chose the Anglican Church, and I’m in it, if not for good, for the foreseeable future. I loathe a great deal that goes on within my church, and I can get into detail about some examples, but I felt I had reasons for my choice, and I still think I do. I converted in part because I couldn’t accept the authority claims of Rome or Constantinople, and I have some extremely heterodox views about a number of things. At the same time, I couldn’t accept the way the Reformation threw out things like the sacrament of confession, the Marian doctrines, and a whole bunch of other things. The Anglican church, as a church which drew on aspects of both Catholicism and Protestantism, seemed like the one that made the most sense to me. It was a place where I could learn about, relate to, and be fed by the person of Jesus Christ, and where in spite of all the points where I disagreed with orthodox / catholic Christianity, I could still feel at home.
I could write for a long time about my thoughts about what’s going on here, and why the membership of the Episcopal Church is declining. I don’t, actually, think it has anything to do with the Episcopal church moving away from, for lack of a better word, ‘orthodoxy’. A ton of the great heresies, ancient, medieval and modern, attracted tons of people in their day, and flourished before they were wiped out (and in some cases, still flourished) in spite of, or because of, their flat rejection of one or more teachings of the orthodox church. Orthodoxy isn’t, alone, a guarantee that people will find your church compelling, nor is heterodoxy a sign that they won’t.
The real problem isn’t that Anglicanism in America today stands for something different than Catholicism, it’s that in too many parishes (and above all, at the national level) it increasingly stands for nothing at all. In a great many Episcopal churches- not all, but some- you will hear literally nothing of any importance preached in the homilies, and increasingly you will nothing of any importance said in the confessional (for those people who still bother to go), and even the liturgy is being demolished.
I think the issue of sex is a big red herring. I think that modern America certainly has a lot of things wrong about sex, but as many problems as we have today, it’s still a better equilibrium than that which existed 100 years ago. But even taking sex for a minute: the Catholic Church has a well thought out, compelling, and coherent doctrine about what sex is for, and what makes it moral or immoral. I think the Catholic church is *wrong*, at least in part, about sexual morality, but at least they have a coherent worldview. Wiccans and Neo-Pagans have a very different worldview, as did, for example, a bunch of the medieval heresies like the Albigensians. One needn’t agree with them to see that they set forth a coherent alternative. Too many modern-day Episcopalians, to my mind, don’t set forth an alternative wordlview about sex, and don’t provide a response, or an alternative vision, to things like the Theology of the Body, or to the Scholastic, natural-law arguments about sex. It’s not that they don’t *have* an alternative- plenty of individual clerics, not least Rowan Williams, have addressed the question- it’s that too often, the response is, ‘these are good questions, what do *you* think?’ Too many Episcopal churches have become places where people focus on questions, rather than answers.
It’s not, again, that the Episcopal church should be more like Rome or Constantinople, or more like Evangelicalism. I don’t think that the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox appeals to tradition are infallible, and it’s important to remember that Christianity was never united, and that both Rome and Constantinople represent just one strand of tradition that descends from the first century, and that there are, and were, plenty of competing doctrines at every moment in history. Nor is it that I really prefer the reliance on scripture alone, or the kind of ecclesiology that (for example) the Quakers have, relying on personal experience alone, though each of those is a coherent and compelling alternative on its own terms. It’s more that the Episcopal Church looks to all three of those sources of authority, and is stuck in between them, and can’t decide which it trusts most. And, stuck in the middle, it flounders, without securely committing either to rely on tradition, on scripture, or on the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit. In too many churches, the faith isn’t presented in such a way that it provides a genuine challenge to the culture: not in terms of sexuality, not in terms of economics (which is much more important to me: capitalism seems like a much bigger violation of Christian ethics than homosexuality, contraception, premarital sex, etc.), and most of all, not in terms of the naturalistic, rationalistic ethic that too many people have nowadays. Too many Episcopal parishes no longer preach on the miracles of Jesus, on the spiritual realities underlying the material world, on the existence of the angelic and the diabolic, and most of all on the greatest miracle of all, the literal conquest of death.
The church where I go when I’m in my home city is a spiritual refuge for me. When I go there I feel revitalized, and as though none of this garbage at the national level even matters. When I go to other parishes I hear all sorts of other nonsense preached, and at the national level it’s even worse. I hear Katherine Jefferts Schori singing the praises of a woman’s right to choose (i.e. a woman’s right to kill her own unborn child), and it sickens me. If Christianity stands for anything worthwhile, it stands for the defense of innocent human life, and for the idea that every human being, even at the earliest stages in the womb, is a person deserving of protection. I hear people talk as though Islam and Judaism are equally valid alternatives to Christianity, and as though Muhammed had some kind of genuine divine experience, and that we can learn from him. I hear people say that we should start performing gay marriages in church (I have nothing against gay relationships, and I don’t believe that homosexual acts are a sin, but I also don’t believe they can ever be a sacramental marriage). I hear people say things like that Mary was just another ordinary Palestinian girl chosen for greatness who had other children besides Jesus; that hell and purgatory don’t exist; that other religions are equally valid alternatives; that the miracle of the loaves and fishes was a miracle of people learning how to share; that the devil and his demons are metaphorical constructs; that the Gospel was written decades after the fact, and were exercises in mythmaking.
And then I return to my home parish, and receive the Sacrament from the man because of whom I am a Christian today. He’s in his 70s now, and has lived under a vow of celibacy his whole life, as a token of how much his faith meant to him. I listen to him recount his life as a priest, and I listen to him preach the Gospel, and all of the problems of the national church fade away, and it’s like none of them matter anymore. I don’t know where I will go after he’s welcomed by the angels into paradise, though I hope I stay Anglican. As long as he’s around though, personal loyalty to him, as my spiritual father, is enough to keep me in the Episcopal Church.