Author Kelly Wilson has been working on a series for the Episcopal Café exploring the stories of Jesus followers moving from evangelical backgrounds to the Episcopal Church (here, here, here, here, and here). As part of that work, Wilson was able to interview Rachel Held Evans, who very prominently had made that move and wrote about it. Though the series continues, Wilson wanted to share Evans’ words and wisdom gleaned from their short time together.
by Kelly Wilson
Last year, shortly before Easter, I had the opportunity to interview Rachel Held Evans, the beloved writer and teacher who recently passed away after a brief and sudden illness. The interview was part of a series I’ve been working on here in Episcopal Café about the migration of Evangelicals and “EXvangelicals” to the Episcopal Church. The series was inspired in large part by Evan’s writings, particularly her book “Searching for Sunday,” which recounts her own transition from Evangelical to Episcopal worship.
As a whole community of readers, followers, and friends continue to reflect on Evans’ work and mourn the loss of not only a teacher, but a leader of a whole flock of believers online and off, I went back through our interview to listen once again to her insights about the Episcopal Church.
I’m grateful to have had the chance to talk with such a warm, dedicated teacher and such a fierce champion of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and so many who needed to hear that it is OK to question, to doubt, to be the beautifully and fearfully made person you are, and still be included in the body of Christ.
She was a gift to the church, and to a generation of believers who needed to hear her perspective. As someone who has closely followed her books and her incisive daily insights on social media, I miss her unique and attentive voice already.
Below are some of her thoughts on what she loved about the Episcopal Church and her message for how the church can be as welcoming, helpful, and loving as possible to newcomers, and to possibly re-engage long-term worshippers along the way.
May her message continue to resonate through our church and through our world.
The attraction of the Sacraments, the Table, and the Lectionary
The conversation began with a discussion of what it about what it is about the Episcopal Church that attracts people from other traditions, and what attracted her:
KW: Over the last few years there have been a flurry of articles from some fairly prominent voices about Evangelicals, post-Evangelicals, people who had given up on other churches, who were gravitating toward mainline and liturgical churches, including the Episcopal Church. What are the things you think are attractive to people who are coming into these environments?
There’s a huge difference between an Episcopal Cathedral or even a country chapel and the white, clapboard Southern Baptist church.
RHE: Or the big Evangelical megachurch. That’s a whole other experience.
There are a lot of things that drew me to an Episcopal Church. Even if you’ve had good church experience growing up, as I did, when you become an adult, you look for traditions that kind of complement the one you were raised in, and that maybe offer some things that you didn’t experience in the tradition you were raised in.
Something I appreciate about the Episcopal Church and other liturgical traditions is the emphasis on sacraments. It just was not a part of my religious upbringing at all. When we did communion we did it once a month, maybe, when we did, we just passed the plate around with the little oyster crackers and drank juice out of the little plastic cups. It certainly was not the center of worship, which is something that I really, really like about the Episcopal Church. The whole service is building to this moment where we gather together at the table.
My faith had, at a point, become kind of something of an abstraction, instead of propositions to believe. Through the tactile nature of the sacraments, it got out of my head and into my hand, into things I can taste and touch and smell and feel. It’s so experiential. And it knocks the pastor out from being the main fixture of the worship service. The table is at the center and I can never complain, like I might in an Evangelical church, that I hadn’t been fed that Sunday. I get fed every Sunday, at the table.
I like how the liturgy centers Christ and Christ’s presence at the table, and de-centers preaching and the pastor as the center and focus of attention. Where we grew up, whatever the pastor decided he—and it was always a he—wanted to lecture on that’s what we heard about. But the Episcopal Church has a lectionary, which complements, in a good way, what I grew up with.
So the sacraments, the lectionary, and the liturgy, those are the things that really drew me to the Episcopal Church, having grown up Evangelical.
Seeing the liturgy with fresh eyes and finding the life in it
We talked about what it was like coming into an Episcopal Church as an outsider from another tradition, and ways that we could make the liturgy more accessible for newcomers and longtime Episcopalians:
KW: I know in some of the conversations I have with family and friends in the Evangelical world, even though they may not come right out and say it, I think they may fear that I’ve wandered into some sort of church of empty ceremony, rather than coming into communion and having an Emmaus moment, when we realize that Christ is really here in the sharing of this meal.
RHE: There is a misunderstanding about churches that have liturgical worship in general that it’s just rote, and it certainly can be for some people. If it’s been your life experience, I’m sure there’s always a tendency to slip into going through the motions. But Evangelicals can do the same thing. Just because your worship has louder music and a fog machine doesn’t mean it can’t also turn into a routine and a habit that doesn’t have much life in it. A lot of it has to do with the posture that you come to service with.
In the Episcopal Church, when you read the liturgy and really immerse yourself in it, it’s beautiful, it’s Biblical, it has a crescendo and it points to the end, to the sacred meal and this time when we gather together at the table. It’s very meaningful to me. But I also know that I’m approaching it with somewhat fresh eyes. I wasn’t raised in the tradition, and sometimes that can help. You see things differently when you’re new to them. But it can be hard to appreciate your own tradition when you’ve been immersed in it your whole life.
I do think the Episcopal Church and other liturgical church traditions can do more to infuse excitement in how they talk about their traditions, not just in their confirmation classes but generally. I spoke at a church in Chattanooga not long ago where they had a little ‘cheat sheet’ to accompany with the program. That was really helpful in the way it was describing what we were doing, down to saying, ‘well, we kneel here because of this. And we’re wearing these colors because of this.’ It was really helpful for new people and people unfamiliar with traditions of the church. So there are ways to communicate to people who are new.
And often for the people who have been a part of the church for a long time, it’s important to go back to this is why we’re doing this. Whether it’s during announcement time or in a bulletin insert or during the Sunday school hour, infusing a little bit of excitement and just reminding people this is why we do what we do. I think liturgical traditions could use a little bit more of that.
Being clear about how we approach the scripture
We also spoke about how we approach the Bible, and how we can and should communicate with people from other Christian traditions about our theology:
KW: One of the challenges in talking about translating for people for whom the Episcopal liturgy is new is navigating the stuff that’s new in the theology. I have folks who come in from out of town to visit and they say “Wow, this is a really awesome church.” Then there’s always—always—something in the sermon that is so contrary to something that they know theologically. And it’s always something controversial. So then I get the question—and you may get it too—which is, how did you get from here to there? How did you get from what Paul said to the fact that you’re having a gay wedding here tomorrow?
RHE: That’s really my big hobby horse right now, is that I really want to help people who are like me, in a transition from growing up believing that the Bible is the inerrant and scientific and historical word of God, who are re-approaching the Bible and interpreting it differently. That’s a very lonely and confusing journey to make. And it’s a hard one to make while still loving and appreciating the Bible.
But I’m also hoping that my work will be helpful to Sunday School teachers and pastors and folks in mainline traditions, in the Episcopal Church or the Lutheran Church, so that people can learn to say, this is how we interpret the Bible.
Because how we interpret the Bible is a big question to ask. For example, I grew up in a church where women were forbidden from teaching and leading in any capacity. We couldn’t even pass the offering plate. So, now I go to an Episcopal Church where women preach in the pulpit. So, how did that happen? How do you go from that to that?
It’s about how you interpret the Bible, it’s not about that single verse. This is a completely different approach to engaging scripture and that’s just a really difficult leap for a lot of people to make.
Sometimes the mainline church is understandably put off by the way that Evangelicals use the Bible often to shame and hurt other people, to restrict women’s roles in the church and in society, to keep LGBT people from the kingdom of God. I understand why they’re frustrated with how Evangelicals use the Bible but you shouldn’t avoid those topics and how the Bible informs them for you just because it informs you differently.
Talking about the Bible is something I really want to encourage. That’s the one thing I can never quite drop is that I’ve been a Bible nerd my whole life. I memorized Romans 5 when I was 11. The Bible was just the air I breathed for so long, I could never give it up. And I don’t think I should have to just because I’m an Episcopalian.
I remember having a conversation with another Episcopalian who told me that her neighbor is against women preaching, a very conservative Evangelical. And her neighbor cornered her one time and was asking, “Well how do you support from scripture a woman preaching when the Bible says ‘I do not permit a woman to preach or have authority over a man?” And she had absolutely no clue how to respond; she did not even know how to have that conversation. But she wanted to be able to do that.
So, I think it’s really important that we in the Episcopal Church, in the Lutheran churches and Methodist churches and other mainline traditions, we have to be able to explain why we’re progressive and how we approach the Bible. Not just do it.
Going public about our progressive beliefs
We also spoke about the progressive theology of the Episcopal Church, and our need to be clear and vocal about our stand on sexuality and gender, on race, and other social issues:
KW: So rather than just doing the work and living by our example, we also need to explain why and sometimes even explain what we’re doing?
RHE: Up in New York and other places, I’m sure you don’t have any trouble telling people where you stand on things. But some Episcopal churches do, and certainly some where I come from do, I can tell you that for sure.
Another woman told me a story about how her daughter came out. One of the first questions she asked when she came out and told her mom she was gay was, “Can I still go to church?” And her mom was like, ‘”We’re part of a liberal church and a progressive denomination…” She was shocked that she would even ask that. Then she realized she just had assumed she would know that.
So, it is important to just be forthright, being able to articulate why we are progressive. I think it’s really important and we’re missing some opportunities right now for folks who are really hungry for that. Because sometimes there’s a shyness around explaining why and how we are progressive.
I think that most regular churchgoers want to be able to articulate why they believe what they believe. Sometimes there’s this reticence to go into the history of things like how the Bible was largely assembled and written during the Babylonian exile and what does that mean? And this is how it all came together. And this is why some books are left out and why they maybe should have been included or not.
But people want to have these conversations.
Using the Holy Saturday of our repentance as a platform for social action
We also talked specifically about the Episcopal Church’s approach to racial inclusion and reconciliation, and the importance of beginning with lament and repentance:
KW: When you talk about different people coming together, one of the things we’re talking about is inclusion. We’ve already talked a little bit about inclusion, and we’ve talked specifically about LGBTQ inclusion. One of the next missions for the church, actually one we are already deeply involved in, is racial inclusion. The Episcopal Church is not widely known as the vast melting pot of American culture.
RHE: Yes, this is really important conversation to have and an important thing to take action on. Bishop Curry is doing a great job leading on that front but we’ve all got to step up. Every church right now, including a lot of different traditions, is having to confront racial injustice. A lot of folks are eager to rush to reconciliation, which is understandable, but first we have to go through the difficult part of confession and repentance that a lot of us white folks would sure like to avoid.
Something the Episcopal Church and other liturgical traditions offer is the practice of corporate repentance. A lot of people are looking for a way to confess the sins of the past and the sins of the present that are systemic and cultural. And that’s a hard thing for people in a culture, in a society of individualism to do. I may have repented of my own racism, but what does it look like to repent systemic racism?
The fact that we have a tradition of corporate confession really puts the process of racial justice and racial reconciliation at the center. And that puts the church in a decent position to partner with people of color and the communities that have been oppressed. It certainly won’t change overnight. But sometimes just starting with that corporate confession, corporate lament is a good way to start instead of trying to jump to reconciliation.
KW: And listening as well. I know on an individual level, I have to listen a lot longer than I think I do. Because if I have a feeling like I have a ready answer for it, I haven’t truly listened to the complexity of it. And we have to understand so we know how to act.
RHE: Yeah, we are always looking for that quick fix. But one of the many things that I think that the church offers that is truly counter cultural is the willingness to sit in that uncomfortable Holy Saturday place.
Big talks about the Bible and small groups to build a church
Toward the end of the conversation, we talked about elements from other traditions that the Episcopal Church might consider borrowing, to enrich the experience:
KW: I’m glad to hear that the welcome you received in the Episcopal Church is an experience that’s infused throughout the church, not just the ones I’ve visited. But I do want to ask, is there anything you miss from the previous tradition, or that you think the Episcopal Church could learn from other traditions? Because like any church, they haven’t gotten it all right yet.
RHE: If anything, I’d probably just go back to the Bible. That’s something I miss from Evangelicalism. I certainly don’t want longer sermons, but I felt like I had more opportunity to do a really deep dive into scripture. I don’t interpret the Bible the same way I did when I was an Evangelical, but the fact that it was important and central and that is was the subject of a lot of study and conversation was really healthy. And I’m hungry for more of that.
Obviously, the Bible is present all throughout the liturgy and obviously it’s important, the traditions and how we think about God and his world, but that isn’t always translating to regular folks in the pews. So I would just encourage pastors to not be afraid to tackle the tougher passages. If something weird comes up in the liturgy, something that would probably raise some eyebrows, like a troubling psalm or a passage in scripture that sounds a little bit dicey, I would encourage them to go there and talk about it.
Say, “Here’s why this might have perked your ears up a little bit. This passage is a troubling passage, let’s talk about it.” Because people can handle it. People can totally handle it. And I know that 10 minutes is not enough time maybe so perhaps it’s something that happens at a different time than the sermon, but I think it needs to happen. I want to see more serious conversations around how we Episcopalians read and interpret the Bible, I think there’s a lot of room for that to happen.
Small groups are the other thing actually that I would love. Something that accounts for quite a bit of the difference in the growth that we see between Evangelicals and mainline protestants is Evangelicals do community really well. Now if you in any way step out ideologically from them, then you’re out. So, they do community both well and also sometimes dysfunctional too, but community is important. The small groups model is a pretty decent model for building relationships in churches. I would like to see more mainline protestants offer opportunities like that for people who want to really get to know the people in their church.
A few words of encouragement as we go out into the world
In conclusion, we talked about what the Episcopal Church might focus on, as we consider our future:
KW: Before we wrap up, are there any parting words you’d like to give to your fellow Episcopalians, or some message for the church that we haven’t talked about here yet?
I do want to say how welcoming the Episcopal Church has been to me, both the local church and the whole denomination, I’ve been so humbled by how welcoming the embrace has been, and I’m grateful for that. From the top, it’s just been positive affirmation. I feel like I’m wandering in, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I don’t know any of the language or terminology, bringing all my Evangelical baggage with me. And it’s been just an incredibly warm welcome and there’s been this receptivity that I wasn’t really expecting and I’m so, so grateful for it.
There’s just one last point I really want to make. I know people are worried about the attendance numbers and I see it too. I see the charts, and I get it. But I try to tell people that that’s something empires worry about, it’s not something that resurrection people worry about. Maybe God is just doing something new. Just because another tradition has a bigger following, it doesn’t mean it’s making disciples of Jesus. We just have to focus on making disciples of Jesus.
The point is to be faithful, not to be quote, un-quote “successful.”
So, do not be discouraged.
Kelly Wilson is a writer and blogger living in New York City, where he also serves on the staff of the landmark Cathedral Church of St John the Divine. More of his writing can be found at www.kellywilson.com.
image: Press kit photo courtesy of rachelheldevans.com