by Kay Stoltz
Why Episcopalian? My friend asks. That was easy: my grandmother insisted we go to church, and hers was Episcopal. My mother followed Grandma’s lead, therefore I walked to church every week for Sunday School.
The one I attended in childhood influenced my idea of what a church should be; a sacred place set apart from the ordinary, as befits the house of God. Built of stone, it was filled with stained glass, gold, velvet, and ornate crosses. The pulpit was set above the parishioners because, (in my child’s mind), the Vicar preached from on high like Moses on the mountain. The pipe organ and choir loft were raised and set behind the pulpit towards the altar. The altar was the focal point, with a magnificent round stained glass window above letting the light shine down on us. This was a gateway to Heaven, and God looked down on us as we worshiped. Maybe observing, taking notes?
God was a being, out of reach, who decided things like where you went when you died. If you were good, you went to heaven, and if you were bad, you went to the other place. It was all a big mystery, but I knew not to argue. Dutifully, I attended Sunday School, listened to the earnest teachers telling us bible stories, and colored the illustrations of the parables. One saying perplexed me: “Suffer little children to come unto me.” Always illustrated by a lovely, peaceful picture of Jesus and children gathered around. “Why must I suffer?” I wondered. Well, maybe Jesus wasn’t who I wanted, so I concentrated on God.
And another thing, Jesus was blonde and blue-eyed? How do we know that? And the angels were the same; blonde and blue-eyed. This perturbed me as a brown-eyed redhead. In the Christmas Pageant, I could never be an angel or even Mary, Jesus’ mother, because she had brown hair and brown eyes. One year, the teacher in charge of the Christmas Pageant decided that we would have red-haired angels! Everyone was in shock. But mine wasn’t red enough, being more auburn than fiery red. Alas.
And, of course, I couldn’t be an altar boy. Why? I am not a boy, silly. These gross injustices have been fixed, of course. However, indoctrinated as I was, it took me a long time before I fully and truly accepted women priests.
After my mother’s divorce, we moved near Grandma, where there was no established Episcopal church, only a mission. No building, we met in a Community Center, sat on folding chairs. A visiting Priest came once a month to deliver Eucharist or Holy Communion. The “church” was such a departure from the formal, stately church I came from, I was confused at first; however, as a budding teenager with some rebel inclinations, it was energizing; somewhat like opening the doors and letting in fresh air. A short man, full of nervous energy, our visiting clergy asked to be called Mr. Gordon. His style was to walk around us as he gave his sermon. No pulpit for him. His sermons were down to earth–about real things, things I could understand. I asked Grandma about these unorthodox ways, and if she liked them. She responded emphatically, “You don’t go to church to worship the Priest, you go to worship God.”
It didn’t take long before the congregation, wanting more, had enough money to build a church and have a “real” priest. The new building, built of brick, not stone, and only one stained glass feature, still was the epitome of church. My children were raised in that church until, as fate would have it, we moved to attend the church of my childhood.
As an adult, I questioned why Episcopalian? It was comfortable, I knew when to stand and when to kneel; the hymns and prayers I knew by heart. Was that enough reason? I found a series of books written by members of various churches, titled “What does it mean to be a “_” with different denominations represented. I don’t remember them all, but there were enough to give me an idea if the Episcopal Church filled my needs and met my beliefs. I needed to challenge whether it was a habit, the pomp and ceremony kept me there, and if I truly believed everything I said in church.
Reading each affiliation, I discarded them one by one: too strict, too many rules, rules I didn’t believe, and let’s face it, I needed that pomp and ritual. The idea of “kneel to pray, stand to praise, sit to listen” fit me. However, what decided the matter was the Church believed each one of us is given a brain by God and we are expected to use it. A simplification, but this appealed far more than a person deciding my moral and religious values, even though they might have more knowledge than I. The leadership and guidance of my vicar or priest was all the authority I needed.
* * * * *
Death, divorce, the hard stuff of life intervened. Church, church members, and God failed me, I thought. I let human frailties drive me away until I saw no use for religion. For more 20 years, my world was work, causes, parties, and substances. Ever busy, flitting from one to another to fill a void.
Then, in the village I now call home something awoke, a part of me was calling, the practice of my faith. On the highway outside of town was an Episcopal church. No, I thought, there’s nothing there for me. I’m done with religion and those empty promises of love, redemption. Still, it pulled. Hesitantly, I summoned courage and went.
This church, this miraculous moment, I knew. Home. Not in a stately, rock edifice with stained-glass windows, ornate fixtures. No, in a spare church, designed in the round. The native rock baptismal font is a fountain with water flowing down the sides; not the traditional basin on a pedestal. The entry is sometimes noisy with people coming in, greeting each other, acknowledging newcomers. Not the hushed atmosphere of the historic church.
The service is traditional Episcopalian. However, people of several denominations attend, each with his/her own traditions. Everyone is welcome; stand, sit, kneel, it’s OK, and there is no litmus test to decide who takes communion, a radical idea in my childhood church.
The priest is a woman, a generation younger than most of the congregation, with some expected differing views. Not about theology, there is no question she is grounded in her knowledge and application of the teaching of God and the Episcopal Church. Raised in Mexico by her Mexican Mother and American father, she’s an asset for serving the strong Mexican contingent of the church. A Spanish language service is held every Sunday, as well as occasional joint services. The Associate Priest, also a woman, is retired. She generously volunteers her help in a myriad of different ways: fills in where she sees need.
The Choir Director and pianist, a talented musician and leader, moved for health reasons. With her gone, the choir disbanded. We make do, with the Priest playing guitar and sticking to easy hymns. Singing the familiar helps, but still, the lack of the piano accompaniment leaves a gap in our service.
The Priest emphasizes racial/gender equality, and stresses our duty to fight discrimination, especially in ourselves. This is not easy to hear. And different from the mostly non-challenging sermons I remember. All these changes are unsettling, and have upset the rhythm, the predictability, of the services. Am I uncomfortable? Sometimes, yes. Maybe I am meant to be. However, gone are the misgivings of earlier days in my life. I truly know and feel the love of God. He hasn’t changed, of course, it took me half a lifetime to find that out.
I am reminded of the old saying; “Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable.” Trite, but true. This is not meant to be the Church of Feel Good. Shouldn’t one be challenged? I’m drawn to serve this church, to participate in every way I can. I’m provoked, yet safe exploring my views and hearing competing ones. And in the end, when one walks into a Church, Who is the most important being? Why are we there? My Grandmother knew: “I go to worship God.”
Kay is retired, lives with her husband in a village on the Oregon Coast. She began writing three years ago, starting again what she left behind to pursue motherhood, career. She serves her church as a lector and Eucharistic Minister.