We talked last week about what it means to be a Christian, to let Jesus adopt you, acquit you, and apprentice you. And I mentioned that this is one of the bedrock choices of your life, which sets the course for how you will end up approaching any number of things. So whether or not you allow Jesus to adopt and acquit and apprentice you is an important decision. However, as we continue with the second week of this four week sermon series, and talk about being an Episcopal Christian, we'll see that it's also a generic choice, a choice that always ends up taking on some further shape, depending on the community you enter to flesh out your commitment to Christ.
The Anglican writer C.S. Lewis has a great image of this. He says that becoming a Christian is like stepping into a hallway, out of which doors open onto several rooms. The choice to be a Christian is like coming inside and standing in that long hallway, but it's only a place from which to open the various doors and see which one seems the best fit for you. You can't just stay there; nobody lives in a hallway. If you want food and company and chairs to sit down on, you need to move into one of the rooms.
So as important as it is to know whether or not you have gotten into the hallway, what we’ll talk about today in sermon #2 is simply what’s behind the Episcopal or Anglican door. All the rooms have their own style, so one of the ways I'll approach this is to contrast a few things you'll find in this room with things you'd find in a different one. By doing that I am not in any way criticizing people who feel called to a different room. I know I am called to this one, and in the way anyone who really loves something would say this, well, I just think it's the best. But we need to have an attitude of appreciation for our brothers and sisters whom God has called to do things differently, while also being, as Paul says, "thoroughly convinced in our own minds."
So first, where did this room come from? Well, like all Christian churches, the Episcopal Church ultimately comes from Jesus, and from his apostles who were its first leaders and who passed down what they had received. Within that large pedigree, Eastern and Western styles of Christianity took different roads around 1054 AD, so we are part of the Western Church. And within the Western Church, we are part of what some call a school of English spirituality, growing out of particular ancient theologians that were emphasized in Great Britain before the Reformation. But we’re also influenced by the Reformation, with its focus on things like making the Bible available to everybody not just specialists, having worship in people’s native languages instead of in Latin, and making the way the church was governed more participatory.
The Reformation in the West eventually led both to the creation of the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today and to the creation of several non-Roman Catholic denominations. Most of those denominations call themselves Protestant, and some people, for simplicity's sake, treat the Episcopal Church as one of those Protestant Churches. We ourselves have always been a little fussy about that, since Anglicans have kept a great deal of Catholic teaching and practice. Our worship is similar. We emphasize the sacraments. We have deacons and priests and bishops who, like those in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, can trace our ordinations back to the apostles.
For that reason, many Episcopalians prefer to speak of our church as combining the best of the Protestant and the Catholic visions in a middle way, or Via Media. Even though we are a Reformation church, we tend to prefer to call ourselves not Protestant, but Anglican, which is related to the word English, like Anglo. When our branch of the church separated from the Roman Church in the 1600s, we became the national church in England. And the faith of the Church of England later spread around the world, at first through colonization and then through mission in every direction, including now mission directed back to the West. We can't remind ourselves often enough that we are the outliers; the vast majority of Anglicans in the world now are not white or English-speaking, but live in Africa or Asia. There are local, indigenous Anglican churches all over the world – Fiji, Ethiopia, Korea, Malawi, you name it, over 160 different countries, each worshiping with a common heritage but with sensitivity to their own culture and setting. And when you put us all together, we're called the Anglican Communion.
So that is a little about where we came from. Going back to that image of the room, let's say we've stepped in now, and let's look around. What is the furniture? What is the style? Although Episcopal parishes are free to display individuality – to be low church or high church, formal or informal, liberal or conservative—there is one part of the style of Anglicanism that you would always find in our room. Those are the sources of authority we keep in dialogue: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
Scripture, first. We believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, that it reliably tells us things we could not have figured out on our own, and that we still meet God there now. We take it so seriously we call it his Word and, if we follow the Prayer Book, we read it every single day. It is our main source of authority and we cannot teach anything that contradicts it. If Scripture addresses an issue, as Episcopalians we have our answer; look no further. But there are things Scripture doesn’t deal with, and in that case we draw on two lesser sources. One is Tradition: what does our liturgy say? How do the Creeds help us figure this out? Is there some church father or mother who dealt with this problem? Tradition can’t contradict Scripture, but it can enhance our application of it. So we have the witness of Scripture as guided by Tradition, which means (by the way) that to be responsible Episcopalians, we need to know Scripture and absorb Tradition. And then to interpret those two sources and make informed choices, we also draw on the reason God has given us. Reason in this sense is not just our abstract intellectual powers, but also common sense and experience.
This threefold way of handling authority is why there are some things you will not find in our Episcopal room. You will not find one top-down leader setting all the policies: instead, we do business more democratically, expecting all the laity as well as the clergy to get involved and have a voice. You will not find a long list of behavioral rules up front: we expect you to listen to Scripture and be responsible for obeying it yourself, in accordance with tradition and reason. You will not find an extensive statement of detailed official doctrines that everyone must sign off on: while we affirm all of classical Christian doctrine, including the ancient Creeds and the entire text of the Bible as inspired by God, we don’t over-define things beyond that. It’s not our style, as Queen Elizabeth said, “to make windows into men’s souls” to vet all their opinions.
So you will find Scripture, tradition, and reason in our room. A very big part of that tradition, probably the first thing you will notice if you are checking the Episcopal Church out, is our worship. We have a liturgy that is very ancient and that centers around the sacraments, which are specific material actions in which God has committed to act also: “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” Some Protestant denominations are cautious about material stuff, and try to make their worship as simple and as centered on ideas and teaching as they can. We're not like that. We think God loves material stuff, flesh -- after all, he became material stuff and flesh when he took on a human body in Jesus. We think he still does that, by giving us his very life in the water of Baptism and renewing that gift in the bread and wine of Communion.
That sense of the presence of God through the liturgy and through created things is a key part of Anglican style. So is this balance of Scripture, tradition, and reason. And so is our worldwide sense of communion, adapted to local settings, calling us to be willing to learn from other Christians whose ethnicity and language and culture are different from ours -- but also reaching back through time to the Apostles and reaching forward to the most contemporary kind of worship in every possible multicultural setting all over our planet.
This is only the shortest introduction, so if you want to learn more about the Episcopal Church, I want to offer you four things. One is the Catechism, printed at the back of the Book of Common Prayer. It gives in question and answer form the basics of our faith. A second is the book “Walk in Love” by Scott Gunn and Melody Shobe, which we’ll be using in our group preparing for Confirmation and is easily available online. A briefer read would be any of several Forward Movement pamphlets you can pick up near the back door or at the entrance to the Great Hall. And the last is simply to make an appointment to talk with any of our clergy and ask your own questions. That’s what we’re here for.
So there you have a quick view of being an Episcopal Christian, one context for living as someone whom Jesus has adopted, acquitted, and apprenticed. No, it's not perfect. (As Fr. Andrew Greeley used to say, OK, find a perfect church, and then you join it, and it won't be perfect any more.) But as I said at the beginning, for me, at least, among all the rooms that open off that generic Christian hall, this is the one where I have to be. I'm glad to have people like all of you, as different as we may be one from another, in this Episcopal room with me. And I'm grateful to God for leading us here.
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