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Why be Episcopalian?

Why be Episcopalian?


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 and 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 the 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 he 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.


image Palm Sunday Procession by Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill, NC


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JC Fisher

“I don’t have any desire to be an Episcopalian. I just like the Church of the Advocate,”

Replace “Episcopalian” w/ “Christian” and “Church of the Advocate” w/ “to be Episcopalian” in the above quote, and that pretty much describes me.

“Christian”/”Christianity”—and even “Church”— have become too toxic to be GOOD NEWS anymore—for the forseeable future. [Similarly, I’m more than ready to drop “religion” for “belief-system”. The former is poisonous to more&more thinking AND caring people.]

I’m sorry to lose these historic terms, but to me it’s worth it, if the GOODNESS (Love) of Jesus can come through to people by so doing. Do we actually “go and work in the vineyard”, or just be a bunch of Christians-in-a-Church-with-our-Religion SAYING we’ll work in the vineyard? [While we actually kill off all the grapes?]

Tim Collins

Thank you all for your comments. I will check it out.


Tim Collins

I know this question may sound facetious, but I am really serious: do you have to be a progressive/liberal to be comfortable as an Episcopalian? I am politically conservative, falling more into the libertarian side of things – and I wonder if everyone in an Episcopal congregation assumes a uniform liberal outlook among those present, and all conservatives are assumed to be neanderthals. I support the right of gay people to live as they please, and there have always been ordained gays and don’t understand why anyone would object to women clergy. As a former Catholic, I view the Episcopal favorably for its differences with it on these issues. But, on many public policies, even when I agree on the goals, I usually disagree with liberals about how to go about achieving them.
But as a Christian I would like to do good works, and the theology, freedom of conscience, history and rituals of the Anglican/Episcopal Church appeals to me.


David Streever

Tim, as a self-professed liberal, I will tell you I’ve never been in an Episcopal church which I thought was liberal. I’ve been in churches which I thought were ‘kind of progressive’, but in a really watered-down way; the vast majority of my exposure to TEC has been as a fairly conservative institution.

Leslie Marshall

I was in The Episcopal Church for 45 years. I saw that both Liberals/Conservatives attend & co-exist as a friendly church family. The schism, for me, came when I became Born-Again and decided to believe the bible literally.

JC Fisher

“when I became Born-Again and decided to believe the bible literally”

I appreciate, Leslie, that you own that you “decided to believe the bible literally” (*).

[(*) “Literally”, so-called IMO. In my studies of biblical literalism, it seems to mean “the interpretation of Certain Pastors who call their subjective interpretations ‘literal’ or ‘plain meaning'” (Certain Pastors, invariably male, who lack or decry understanding historical or literary context of the biblical texts).]

But my simple question is this: why?

I, myself, was Born Again at age 12 (in terms of “having a conscience Born Again experience”—I’m not doubting my baptism as an infant was really my New Birth!). However, I continued to develop in my faith via the Scripture-Tradition-Reason approach of the Episcopal Church. What was it about your Born Again experience, that led you to reject your 45 years (!!!) of Christian formation in TEC? Why did you decide for (the comparatively recent invention) of biblical literalism? [A method of interpretation unknown to—for example—Jesus Himself, who certainly knew a good biblical metaphor when he saw one!]

If you could help me understand your decision, I would appreciate it. Blessings.

John Chilton

No, you don’t. You and I have a lot in common.

Regarding congregations, they fall across the spectrum. Some fit the model of the “big sort” where they’re either populated mostly by conservatives or mostly by liberals. And there are middle of the road congregations. And others that are a big tent and manage not to divide into internal camps, but happily coexist with differences of views.

Melanie DuPon

Confirmation is becoming a member of the Church, as the Author writes. We are confirmed as members of the Anglican Communion, and we select a Parish home, where our membership letter resides. Thank you for writing a lovely article. My teenage boys dig into our tradition, knowing that critical thinking is part of how we seek to understand God. So that when they are challenged, the love of Jesus is there for them, like both an anchor and a beacon. In Anglicanism, we exist with this tension and grapple with critical thought, just as my boys navigate their own adolescent world full of doubts. Critical thought creates deep roots in their faith, because it consistently comes back to love, and that they belong to a larger community of faith that spans centuries. The Hymnal, the Book of Common Prayer, tie us all together. My 16 yo son partipated this summer in the social justice program, Lift Every Voice, through the Episcopal Diocese of NC (#LEVNC) with youth from across America, Botswana and South Africa. They were all connected by their Episcopal/Anglican faith, as MEMBERS of the same body, all with hearts alive for the #JesusMovement.

Paul Woodrum

And in the northeast, there is a heritage of slave trading, Jim Crow, and social segregation that continues down to today that also needs to be acknowledged.

Kit Tobin+

Thank you, Paul, for pointing this out. Many in upstate NY are surprised to learn of Episcopal slaveholders in this area.

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