by Lisa Fischbeck
“I don’t have any desire to be an Episcopalian. I just like the Church of the Advocate,” says the man who has been coming to the Advocate for 5 years.
The Bishop’s visitation is ahead, and I’m trying to identify people who might want to get confirmed.
“But the Advocate is an Episcopal Church!” I say.
“Does that mean I have to become an Episcopalian to be a member?” he asks.
“Well, no.” I say.
Denominational identity and loyalty are less important than they used to be. Sure, some people still seek out an Episcopal Church because of childhood affiliation or a good experience in school. But more likely, people are drawn to a particular church community because its location, or what they have read about it in the news. Maybe they are looking for a particular kind of church community, so they Google “Bible study” or “Social Justice”. Some are drawn to the spiritual practices of a particular congregation, to the diversity of the community, or to its homogeneity. They may have a good friend already in the congregation, or they may be drawn to the music, the community engagement, the kids program, the visual aesthetic.
In my 20s, I truly wanted to understand whether denominations were the result of human pride or were instead a faithful response to God. I read and studied, not as much as a PhD certainly, but a lot. And I determined that denominations are both, of course. Each denominational and non-denominational tradition really is part of the whole of Christianity, each has something to offer or provide that is distinct from the others. Each has a way that draws some people to God when other ways would not. Some have an ethnic heritage, others founded on the writing and theology of a particular individual, others still are rooted in spirit of the American frontier. Some are known for a more literal understanding of the Bible, some for being engaged in social and political issues. All have strengths and weaknesses. It is both helpful and healthful for clergy and people to able to articulate without shame or arrogance, the strengths and liabilities that our denominational identity carries. Like so much of 21st century ministry, it requires conversations.
The Episcopal Church is the American expression of the Anglican Church, a Church with a tradition of rich and thoughtful theology, spirituality and liturgy. At its best, Anglican theology is a theology that welcomes questions, that respects individual conscience, and that looks for truth in the comprehensive, rather than the particular. It is a theology that is nuanced and that thrives in the creative tension between seemingly competitive dualities. Anglican theology holds a particular appreciation of the Incarnation – God becoming a human being. This means that we believe that God comes to us where and how we are, that all of humanity has been lifted up, and therefore the dignity of every human being is to be respected. Anglican theology has a lot to contribute to conversations among Christians, between Christians and those of other faiths, and between the Church and the world.
At its best, Anglican spirituality calls forth a lifetime of conversion and transformation, what former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold described as being “transformed and conformed into the way of Christ”. Anglican Spirituality holds a wealth of pre-existing resources for prayer and formation: the Eucharistic Rites to remind us of the Story again and again, the daily office with its many canticles to inform our conscience, the liturgical calendar and the rhythm of the church year to transform time. This comes as a comfort and relief to those who have not had a one-time, life-changing conversation experience. And it helps to give value to the many and varied transformative events of our lives. It also means we have more transformation ahead.
The Episcopal Church is sacramental, with the Eucharist at the center of our liturgy and worship. We are liturgical in the tradition of the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Lutheran churches. We realize that Christian formation occurs by the study of the Word, but also by life lived in the Body of Christ, the church. We wear vestments, we process, we have prayer books. All of these things are formational to clergy and laity alike. But they are even more formational when explained and understood.
The Episcopal Church has a rich musical tradition, promoting congregational singing, weaving sacred poetry and ancient texts with music that has endured the test of time and thrives still today. Episcopal Church music is also increasingly diverse and global.
As an Episcopal Church, we have a history that associates us with England and with the educated classes and the affluent. Some may choose to associate with an Episcopal Church for the status it carries. Others may stay away, feeling either that they don’t have status enough or that they really don’t want to be in a church that holds such a reputation. This can be a real challenge, an embarrassment, or a source for good humor and fun. Or all of the above. The jokes about silver spoons and two or three Episcopalians always having a fifth are truly wearisome and are, thankfully, growing more and more outdated with each passing decade. Painfully, for Episcopalians in the southeastern United States, there is also a history of slave-holding that needs to be acknowledged. And there is that inevitable moment in the confirmation preparation when we come to “the Queen bit”, describing the Episcopal Church’s connection to the Archbishop of Canterbury who is officially appointed by the Queen of England.
But while some churches give newcomers a loaf of bread or a coffee cup on first visit. The Advocate opts for Cadbury Fruit and Nut bars. And when looking for ways to celebrate and bond with our land before we could worship on it, we introduced the old English parish custom of the Beating of the Bounds, whereby the congregations walks the boundaries of the parish with sticks, beating out the boundaries and noting especially the corners by building rock cairns there. Now plans are in the works to revive the old custom of Clipping the Church.
In the early years of my ministry, I cheered people on to Confirmation, telling them that they were going to be part of a wider Communion, a worldwide Communion of Christians with whom we shared our tradition and our history. The bishop who confirmed me as a young adult in 1979 told me I could walk into any Anglican Church in the world and call it my church.
But the Advocate was launched in 2003, right after the General Convention that supported Gene Robinson’s consecration as Bishop of New Hampshire. That move, within a few decades of the move to ordain women, attracted new people to the Episcopal Church, and certainly to the Advocate. But the reactions within the Anglican Communion in the years that followed have caused some to shy away from an affiliation with the whole. Increasingly, I don’t need or want to convince them.
Increasingly I realize that Baptism is what makes us part of a worldwide communion. I am ready to celebrate the faith we share, ready to be challenged by those Christian theologies that are different from my own (though, if I am honest, I don’t want to be challenged too much….). I want to believe that I can walk into any Christian Church in the world and call it my church (though I know not every church agrees with me).
Still, my love and appreciation of the Anglican Way continues. I am a liturgical sacramental Christian, intentional about liturgy and passionate about the Incarnation. While my own heritage is Polish and German American, I am also an Anglophile, tuning in to Kings College Choir’s Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve. So I confess I struggle with growing ecumenical ministries that seem to set aside denominational traditions and distinctions in order to conserve resources.
I guess I want it both ways. I deeply believe that the Truth is in the whole of Christian belief and expression, and I want to learn from it. But I am keen on the particular belief and expression of those who share my own at The Episcopal Church of the Advocate.
The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the Vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a mission of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC.