by Jim Friedrich
“We are a catholic church in love with freedom.” That’s what the late bishop Paul Moore told me when I interviewed him for my video series, The Story of the Episcopal Church (1988). It’s hard to pin down our sprawling Anglican identity to a few words, but the bishop’s concise phrase comes close. Yes, we are deeply grounded in things ancient and universal, but we also have a propensity to explore fresh expressions and new perspectives, with no overriding authority to tell us no. When my seminary dean handed me my diploma, he did not warn me never to rock the boat as a priest of the church. What he said was, “Don’t ever lose your guts.”
Could any other tradition have provided me such a fruitful mix of structure and improvisation? Some churches possess great freedom but not so much of the sacramental. Some have theological depth or aesthetic richness but lack the gene for adaptation. Some have great spirit but less intellectual or poetic content. Some practice prophetic witness but have a weak vocabulary for mystery. Some think answers are better than questions. The Episcopal Church has formed me as a Christian who wants and needs the best of all of these attributes, to the exclusion of none.
It’s not a perfect church. We can be complacent, inward-looking, and unreasonably proud. We can ask too little of ourselves. I for one would prefer less reserve and more passion, less order and more wildness. Still, it is home. It is family.
I have been an Episcopalian all my life, but my ecclesiastical experience has rarely been conventional. My first church was a movie theater and my second was a stable. My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, was the pioneer of Christian filmmaking in America, and during World War II he showed his Bible films to a congregation of children in our backyard cinema. This house church, “St. Luke’s Sunday School,” had been formed in response to restrictions on driving by wartime gas rationing. Every Sunday the front yard would fill up with about a hundred bicycles, and on the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, 1944, I was baptized by my father in front of the movie screen.
After the war, St. Luke’s became part of a new parish, which bought an old ranch property and converted the horse barn into a worship space. When I grew up to become a priest who curates all-night liturgies in circus tents, arts-based worship installations, and solemn high ambient masses with incense and projectors, it seemed a natural continuation of the Episcopal way: a creative mash-up of tradition and innovation.
That doesn’t mean innovation comes easily. We’ve all seen Episcopalians jump ship at the sight of new wineskins. We’ve heard the jokes about “this is the way we’ve always done it.” And each of us feels our own deep attachment to particular ways of doing church. But when I consider how much change the Episcopal Church has absorbed in my lifetime, I feel grateful that we are, on the whole, not afraid to do our work, not afraid to grow and evolve. I could cite any number of well-known issues and controversies to illustrate my point, but instead let me offer a personal anecdote.
In 1967, there was an important ecumenical gathering at my seminary, the Episcopal Theological School (now EDS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ten mainline denominations were exploring a path to institutional unity. Their final session took place on Ascension Day. When the delegates emerged from their serious business into the noonday sun, they beheld an effigy lifted into the bright spring sky by seven helium balloons. It was a bit of Ascension street theater I had dreamed up with two classmates the night before. The president of the World Council of Churches was in the crowd. Amused by our ritual play, he quoted Luke: “People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven?”
Not all the responses were so positive. The liberal Christian Century magazine expressed shock that seminarians would engage in such a “charade.” As they put it: “On the day designated by the church and by generations of Christian people as a reminder of the exaltation of Christ, these people debased the Christ… What will they try next for thrills? The Black Mass?” Our dean, the Rev. John Coburn, summoned us to his office to explain ourselves, so he could write an informed response to the magazine.
My studies in the “theology of play” were still some years away, and I could not yet cite the medieval precedent of using ropes to pull effigies up through church ceilings on Ascension Day. So I just muttered something vague about liturgical experiment beyond the Prayer Book. The dean looked at me as if he expected better from a graduate student. Then he said drily, “I believe the 1928 Prayer Book will remain valid for the rest of the twentieth century.”
Just nine years later, the same John Coburn, as President of the House of Deputies, would preside over the adoption of a radically revised Book of Common Prayer. When I had lunch with Coburn in the 1980s, I reminded him of his remark in 1967 about the old Prayer Book. He shook his head. “I said that?” Then he laughed.
I remain an Episcopalian because our church produces faithful people who not only love what we have, but also know how to let go. And when to laugh.
The Rev. Jim Friedrich, a priest in the Diocese of Olympia, is a liturgical creative, filmmaker, musician, teacher and writer dedicated to richer worship and deeper formation. He blogs as The Religious Imagineer at http://jimfriedrich.com