Being an Episcopal Christian
We talked last week about what it means to be a Christian, to be adopted, acquitted, and apprenticed by Jesus Christ. And I mentioned that this is one of the basic orientation choices of your life, which sets the course for how you will approach 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 our sermon series, 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. C.S. Lewis, whom the first evening of our Lenten program focused on, 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 standing in that long hallway, but it's only a place from which to try 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 what we’ll talk about today is one of the rooms, the Episcopal or Anglican one, and where we came from and what kinds of things are emphasized here. 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 saying that other styles of being a Christian are bad, or 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 others disagree, and we need to have an attitude of appreciation for our brothers and sisters who 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 Christ, 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 emphases on things like making the Bible available to laypeople, having worship in people’s native languages instead of in Latin, and making the way the church was governed a little less like a monarchy.
The Reformation 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 retained a great deal of Catholic teaching and practice going back to St. Benedict and earlier. Our worship is similar. We have priests and bishops who, like those in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, can trace our ordinations back to the apostles.
Many Episcopalians thus prefer to speak of our church as combining the best of the Protestant and the Catholic visions in a middle way, or Via Media. That's one reason that 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 back to England from elsewhere.
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, Dubai, Korea, Malawi, Romania, you name it, over 160 different countries, each worshipping 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 be individual and distinctive – low church, high church, liberal, conservative-- there are three things that are part of the style of Anglicanism that you would always find in our room. Those the sources of authority we keep in dialogue: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
We believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, that it reliably tells us about spiritual truths and that we still meet God there now. It is our main source of authority and we cannot teach anything that contradicts it. But we also recognize that the Bible is the Church's book -- its authority was discerned by the Church, not the other way around. Nowhere does the Bible claim that it is intended as the sole source of teaching. So when Scripture does not address an issue, we draw on Tradition: what does our liturgy say? What have the Creeds taught us? Is there some church father or mother who dealt with this problem? We use tradition to complement Scripture. I understand that your former rector described this memorably as “Dead people get a vote.”
So we have the witness of Scripture and Tradition, and to interpret those two sources and make informed choices, we use 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 some faraway, top-down leader setting all the policies: instead, you will find us doing business democratically, expecting each of us to use our reason to take ownership, get involved, and have a voice. You will not find a long list of behavioral rules that everyone is required to obey: we expect you to be responsible for your own behavior. You will not find an extensive, detailed statement of official doctrines that you must sign: we don't feel the need to over-define details or, as Queen Elizabeth said, “to make windows into men’s souls” to vet all their opinions.
In other words, we are a roomy church, allowing people to come to us where they are and to use their own minds and hearts to make their way in the faith. Are there problems with this roominess? Do we sometimes end up being too wishy-washy to draw lines where they need to be drawn? Yes, probably. But I also personally think the problems with being a roomy church are smaller than the problems involved in being a narrow one.
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, is our worship. We have a liturgy that is very ancient and that centers around the sacraments, which are those material actions in which God also acts: outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. We call this being an Incarnational church. 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, earth, flesh -- after all, he became material stuff when he took on a human body in Jesus. We think he still does that, by connecting with us through the water of Baptism, or 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 unite with people who are different from us -- but 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 audio files of the presentations we’ve been using in our Episcopal Way classes; just email me if you’d like these. A third is any of several Forward Movement pamphlets you can pick up for free at the entrance to the Great Hall. And the last is simply to make an appointment to talk with me or Deacon Chris and ask your own questions. That’s what we’re here for.
So there you have a quick view of our Episcopal context. It is 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 diverse as we all are, along with me. And I'm grateful to God for leading us here.
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