When someone proposes something that involves a change, particularly to an institution or a belief or even a beloved theory, there are two responses to the idea of change: why and why not? When asked "Why the Episcopal Church?" my immediate response is "Why not?"
For a Southern Baptist growing up and only seeing small bits of the Episcopal church mostly through walking into the little local church (built in 1697). It seemed a bit different and a bit exotic. There was an altar with different colored cloths through the year and the addition of prayer books in the pews along with a hymnal much smaller in size (although about the same thickness as the one we used. The pulpit was on one side rather than being prominently placed in the center of the raised platforms, there was a rail separating the platform from the lower level where the pews were, and there were chairs next to the organ and facing the opposite wall rather than behind the pulpit. It was a very simple church without stained glass windows, gothic arches or pews that were in boxes like some of the other historic Episcopal churches in our area, but it was still a glimpse of the Episcopal Church in a historic Virginia settings.
My first real exposure to the Episcopal church came from attending church with a friend in Washington DC. I'd been to a Roman Catholic mass, and it was very different than what I was used to, but this -- WOW. It wasn't a huge church but it had stained glass windows, the colored panels on the altar and the vestments, and the prayer books and hymnals both in the racks on the backs of the pews, but no gothic arches. Still, from the minute the organ began playing (a small pipe organ), I knew that this would be my home.
What was it that drew me like a magnet? We heard so much scripture in the three lessons and the psalm, far more than we heard in our little SB church on a Sunday morning. The priest actually preached on the lessons and wove them together to show some relationship rather than simply picking a totally unrelated verse or passage and preaching on it. The music was heavenly to my ears which, in my mid-teens, was already turning to the classical rather than the Victorian and sometimes more emotional hymns of the church of my childhood and the growing rock-n-roll other kids my age were listening to. And then there was the liturgy, one that could be followed in the prayer book and full of "thees" and "thous" so familiar to someone accustomed to reading the King James Version of the Bible and hearing God addresses in those terms on Sunday mornings. The whole package was irresistible and, several years later when I was in college, I took the step to make the Episcopal Church my church.
If I were asked "Why the Episcopal Church?" I'd have to answer that it's because it isn't a stage show, a group of street-corner preachers more interested in saving souls than feeding sheep, or a place where the music is very similar to what is heard on contemporary radio stations. There's a separation of what goes on in the church and what goes on outside it, although some of our churches are taking some of the indoor church out to the street corners and parks and bus stops which become places where others can be shown a bit of what the Episcopal Church is through inclusion rather than the exclusion of church walls and doors.
But the Episcopal Church is more than a liturgy and church practice. For me, one of the most important bits is the focus on the teachings of Jesus that go beyond the church walls. In church we don't hear constantly about our sinful selves and need of salvation although we do hear the word "sinners" fairly often and in a serious context. What we hear is what Jesus preached and taught: to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick, the dying, the prisoners and both the resident aliens and the strangers in our midst. These are lessons we are to take out into the world with us and to not just proclaim our Christianity but show it as advocates and workers who do what they can to relieve the poverty, injustice and oppression that exists everywhere in this world.
Episcopalianism is a broad umbrella, encompassing many variations of worship style, beliefs and ministry focus. Wha binds us all together are the historic creeds, the practice of prayer and the dedication to bringing the kingdom of God to this world rather than waiting for someone to provide it for us in the next. Whether the church is bells-and-smells high with incense and formality or more conservative and sometimes charismatic, the focus is still on Jesus and what we as Christians are supposed to do in response to his teachings. Through his death and resurrection we have obtained eternal life, but through his teaching and our practice of obedience to those teachings, we help others to obtain a glimpse of the kingdom of God, a place of peace, harmony, security, health and equality go hand-in-hand and where everyone benefits.
I love my church. I'm saddened by its conflicts and problems but I see it becoming more and more aware of the needs of the world above the needs of the church. I celebrate that. I see it responding to the cries of those who most need help and advocacy and that gives me hope that we as Episcopalians can be known as Jesus followers in every sense of the word, "not only with our lips, but in our lives," as one of our prayers states.
Why the Episcopal Church? Why not? The world is diverse and we are a part of that diversity. It's a place of beauty, solemnity, joyous festivity, and a frequent opportunity to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. It's a way of following Jesus in concrete ways, and We just have to bring those lessons Jesus taught to the world, not to convert but to heal. It's that simple and that hard.
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