Pictured: The National Cathedral. I am an activist political conservative. Yet on Sunday mornings I find myself seated in the pew of an Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church is probably the most liberal of mainline liturgical churches. It led the way in the conventional belief that liberal Christianity was the future for church growth. Make church cool for those on the left and they will flock to your church.
It hasn’t worked out. The American branch of the Anglican Communion has never been a large player on America’s faith stage, but it was filled with prominent people and was relatively wealthy as American churches go. Over the past few years it has lost 32% of its membership. It has spent over $18,000,000.00 in litigation over who gets local church property when disgruntled congregations leave the church (Answer: usually the national church, but not always). Its current membership is approximately 2.3 million. There are more Jews in America than Episcopalians. It is outnumbered by Catholics 33-1. There is a lot of debt. Meanwhile, conservative evangelical churches have flourished in every possible way.
So how did I get here? More importantly, why have I stayed?
I was raised Catholic. I attended Catholic School for a few years, but mostly got my education in the public-school system graduating in 1968. I was a rebellious Catholic. My friends were shocked when I ate a hot dog on a Friday night at a football game. Arizona had just been granted a dispensation from meatless Friday edicts. It puzzled me that it was not a sin to eat meat in Arizona on Friday but cross over into New Mexico…you had a bus ticket to hell. I didn’t know God was that concerned with geography.
All of us who are children of the sixties experienced earth shattering changes in our religion…but especially the Catholics. From the time I was first aware of religion in the early 1950’s through the late 1970’s I saw my church eliminate the Latin Mass; change the direction of the altar; allow laity to serve Communion (we were taught that the host would bleed if anybody touched it but the priest); watched nuns lose their habits; watch pre-communion fasting shrink from 24 hours to 1 hour…then disappear altogether; watched pre-holy day fast days move from the day before to two days before…then disappear altogether. Attending Protestant churches was forbidden. But the Pope remained infallible when speaking from the Chair of Peter.
My wife was a Lutheran. When we got married in 1972, it was still problematic. We had to be married by a Catholic priest. My wife had to sign a pledge to raise our children Catholic. The priest could not marry us beyond the communion rail. We caught flak from both sides of the family. My cousin called my wife a heathen. My wife’s uncle told me that the only good fish-eater was a dead fish-eater.
We found a home in the Episcopal Church…a Protestant church that looked and felt like a Catholic church. Jokes abounded about the Episcopal Church. Catholic light. All the Sacraments-half the guilt. And it seemed to be populated by lots of lapsed Catholics who, for whatever reason, decided to leave Holy Mother, the Catholic Church.
For me, it was an easy decision. I disagreed with the Catholic policy on divorce, birth control, and married priests. I saw a degree of corruption within the clergy when it came to dispensations or annulments. Those with money got what they wanted…the rest of us not so much. I also could see Sister Felicia chasing me down the hall when my mother took my brother and I out of Catholic school shouting that our parents were going to hell for sending us to that sinful public school. Then there was the time I made the mistake asking about evolution in CCD classes. Whoa.
The final straw occurred the first Easter after we got married and I attended Lutheran church services with my wife’s family in her hometown. That afternoon, feeling guilty, I stopped by a Catholic church on my own to pay my respects, so to speak. A priest walked over to me and asked what I was doing there and I told him. He berated me in no uncertain terms for sinfully attending a Protestant church service in the morning.
It was clear to me that the church I was brought up in was not going to change, so I opted out. Why stay in a religion with which you philosophically disagree?
The Episcopal Church extends back to Henry VIII who ran out of divorce options. It broke away from the Anglican Church during the American Revolution. After the war, it became part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It practices Apostolic Succession…the laying on of hands extending back to St. Peter. After breaking away from the Anglican Church during the Revolution, Episcopal lore says it was Catholic Bishops from Scotland/Ireland that continued the succession for the newly formed Episcopalians.
What drew me to the Episcopal Church was its tolerance of varying religious dogmas. Here is a list of precepts that the Church believes…but there is lots of wiggle room. Over the years, that wiggle room began to expand. In addition, the culture of Episcopal Church has always been one of social activism. For having a reputation of being the stodgiest of stodgy liturgical religions, it has always been on the cutting edge of social justice issues dating back to our nation’s founding. Whether slavery, civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ activism, the Episcopal Church has taken an activist role. In that kind of culture, politics is drawn into the discussion whether we want it there or not.
Unfortunately for the Episcopal Church, the hierarchy of the church has become dominated by social justice warriors whose tolerance level for those who disagree with them is somewhat challenged. The result was a 2016 three year suspension of voting privileges within the Anglican Communion resulting from the American church’s stance on gay marriage. In 2006, the Episcopal Church elected a female Presiding Bishop, Jefferts Schori, who openly supported the election of a gay and partnered Bishop in New Hampshire, as well as offering tacit support for abortions.
So why do I stay? The glib answer is I have to be buried out of somewhere. It might as well be from the church I have attended for the better part of 40 plus years. I have made many friends in my local congregation. My parish was the first Episcopal parish west of the Allegheny mountains. It has a long tradition of independence from the national church with a strong and activist laity. The parish also still has a group of old line Episcopalians who are unwilling to give up their home.
At a more serious level, my draw to the Episcopal church now is what brought me here in the first place. Its tolerance of different ideas of God and dogma. Some of its Bishops have attempted to bring in some radical views of Christian dogma that are disturbing and totally out of bounds. But it is still interesting to hear their view, ponder what they say, and arrive at my own conclusions. I can tolerate them so long as they can tolerate me. Who am I to conclude there is only one way to view God’s collective church? I rejected that notion when I ate that hot dog at a football game in 1967 and attended Easter church services at a Lutheran church 45 years ago
Religion is what you make it. Organized religion is made up of people. For the most part, people can’t agree on the time of day. The kinds of things with which organized religion concerns itself tend to be messy. To expect a unified view on anything is not going to happen.
What we agree upon is more important than any of our disagreements. The Episcopal Church believes in the goodness of God. Redemption. The power of love. The power of faith. Good works and good deeds. Salvation. Hope. We believe in the fallibility of mankind. We are all sinners. God came to show us how to deal with that. Making a good faith effort to get along is much more important than a doomed effort to achieve the unattainable…agreement on everything. The Nicene Creed I said in the Catholic Church is the same one I said in my wife’s Lutheran Church and is the same one I say in the Episcopal Church. That is the core of the religion. Everything else is window dressing.
The Book of Common Prayer, a rich and enduring liturgy, old Anglican hymns, and age-old traditions that have stood the test of time and cultural change, that is the commonality of the Episcopal Church. It is a tolerant and welcoming path opened to all regardless of race, creed, gender, and yes…sexual preference.
The foundational beliefs of conservatism are the importance of the individual and personal responsibility for our lives. We believe in finding our own way. Our rights come from our Creator. Notwithstanding what is happening at the top of the church hierarchy, the Episcopal Church allows its members to find their own way to their Creator. No threats. Just acceptance. That is conservative. That is kind of cool.
Mark G. Mangie