The Episcopal Café asked folks recently to answer the question—how do Episcopalians understand their Identity as Episcopalians?
So here’s my response: #MyEpiscopalIdentity
First and foremost, to be an Episcopalian is to be a Christian, and so my Episcopal Identity is about believing in Jesus the Christ:
that God decided to become human to live through the struggle and mess of this life, and ultimately redeem it. I believe that God loved us so much, with such a ridiculous and catastrophic love, that God actually became one of us in order to live, die, and then conquer death itself–just to love us better. I believe that God chooses to take what’s dead and make it new again, and that we have the beautiful opportunity to work alongside God in this.
My faith as an Episcopalian is how I choose to respond to that love. Why have I chosen to live out this belief in this way, rather than any other church?
The usual Episcopal liturgy calls for an Old Testament, a Psalm, an Epistle (one of the New Testament Letters) and a Gospel lesson to be read Every. Single. Sunday. In my experience, that exposes Episcopalians to great swaths of the Bible in beautiful and challenging ways. We read using the three-year lectionary cycle. Episcopal Worship respects the Bible, because it allows for interplay, for difficult texts, for the text to have a conversation with itself, and a conversation with the listener—sometimes over multiple years, as people hear and re-hear one of the texts over a three, six, nine—twenty-seven—sixty-six year period.
When I go to an Episcopal Church, I know I will hear the parts of the Bible that are simple and the parts that are complicated, the parts I agree with and the parts I disagree with, and I know that it will be honored, because it won’t be thrown out just because it’s hard.
I love hearing the stories of the Bible, but communion is why I come to church. It is the promise, every Sunday, that God chooses to become a bit of bread and a drop of wine, so that I may be fed by God Stuff, nourished by God’s own self. It’s crazy. It’s bogus. It’s a little bit cannibalistic. But if you really think about it, it’s supremely radical: that God feeds every person, regardless of race, class, age, or the state of your soul, with not just some useful food, but with the very makeup of the divine itself.
My Episcopal Identity is about an open table, and it’s rooted in that deep belief that the Eucharist is an eternal, transformative promise to us, and that everyone has access to it through the church. The table connects us to Christians across the world, and across time. Those words are the oldest words we have in our entire faith: there is evidence that some of those words were spoken by the ancient Christians even before the New Testament was written down.
I am an Episcopalian because I need this table: because, when your worship service is always about pointing to the great feast of Christ, it is never only about the priest, or the music. The ritual is the central focus of worship, and the ritual points us to God’s unfailing ability to feed us, and our community’s unfailing connection in Christ.
The Episcopal Church chooses to stick closely to the liturgical year, or a cycle of seasons and feasts that have been shaped, over millennia, around the rhythm of our lives and souls. This week, the week of Ash Wednesday, is a perfect example of why these seasons are so meaningful.
We begin with a Sunday that shouts for joy, a Sunday that cries “Alleluia, Amen!” We celebrate, with unending joy, the glory of God: maybe in the shining light of Jesus during the Transfiguration, or the happiness and vitality of a raucous pre-Lenten pancake feast.
And then, just three days later, we mark our foreheads with the sign of our deaths and we remember that we are so desperately, frighteningly human.
I am an Episcopalian, because my faith in God must hold celebration and deep heartbreak right next to each other. The church year shows us that if we, too, are to authentically live out our lives, then this is the paradox we must live into. The church year helps us to live into the hard parts of life and faith, and shows us that we can be alright when we do.
For me, it is exactly in the ritualistic, artificial design of the Episcopal church year that makes space for an authentic expression of both the pain and celebration of our raw and real lives as human beings.
My grandfather became an Episcopal priest at age 24, and was called to be a curate at a tiny parish in upper Michigan. My grandmother joined him there roughly six months later. They’ve served the church faithfully for sixty years, through the transformation of our liturgy, through transformations in our country, through the rise and fall of the American mainline church. And, they continue to do so, a dynamic duo of spirit-led, compassionate souls. At 85, my grandfather still occasionally supplies at his congregation.
My dad is their oldest son, and he’s been a faithful priest for nearly thirty years, deeply invested in the theological work that needs to be done to transform a church in transition. As I grew up, he served congregations as an interim priest, and he’s shown me how to guide congregations through tumult, heartbreak, and the mess of deep theological disputes with the wider church.
I love a church that believes, and has fought for, my right to pursue ordination like my father and grandfather. I believe in a church that allows women to be priests, bishops, and even presiding bishops.
I’m not there yet. It’s a long road, and it’s a quest and not a promise. But, my Episcopal identity is also about fighting for gender equality while I stand beside a long line of faithful, theological, dedicated men in my family. I am an Episcopalian because this church has chosen to include women in ordained roles, and recognizes our capacity for ministry.
And, lastly, I am an Episcopalian because our church believes in LGBTQ inclusivity. I know this is a topic of great debate in our global communion right now, but I know that without a doubt, the Episcopal church’s choice to recognize sacred relationships between LGBTQ people is a decision to truly live out the good news. I know more than enough people who had been beaten and broken by so many other churches, but found welcome and solace in the Episcopal Church, and so I can say nothing else. Our church is about loving everyone, and allowing everyone the opportunity to behold the transformative love of God.
Oh, and incense.