In the Episcopal Church has anyone ever questioned, or, even enquired after what you believe? Maybe they have, or even if no one has you may have had an occasion to volunteer the contents of your beliefs. If that is the case can you ever remember a member of the clergy or anyone else for that matter contradicting you? Maybe someone has said, Oh, I have a different take on that!
In the Episcopal Church has anyone ever told you that you believe the wrong things. It’s possible I imagine that someone may have questioned the veracity of your beliefs. Yet, I seriously doubt if anyone, especially among the clergy, has ever said to you ‘don’t believe that’ or, ‘you shouldn’t believe’, or, ‘that’s just plain wrong’ or, what you believe is not the truth, or, unless you correct your views and accept the truth then there’s no place for someone with your beliefs here!’
I don’t imagine any of these scenarios have ever befallen you in the Episcopal Church. Haven’t you ever wondered why no one, even among the clergy seems concerned about whether you believe the truth or not? This could be an indication that the Episcopal Church doesn’t care what its members believe. Maybe this is a further indication of what other Christians often say about us – that we don’t believe anything, much.
After all we don’t seem very worried about the issues of sexual morality or even issues concerning the right to life that seem to drive many Roman Catholics and especially their clergy to distraction. We don’t seem to be much concerned about how many times you have been remarried. We certainly seem rather lax on letting women do things that in other churches only men can do. I don’t just mean the obvious – like becoming ordained and celebrating the Eucharist, but other things that the Bible clearly says are wrong – such as women exercising authority, speaking- out in church of all places while not even wearing a hat when they do so.
To cap things off, we now seem to be prepared to risk God’s wrath by letting Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered people be themselves and extend to them the same level of rights and privileges the heterosexual community takes for granted as their birthright. We seem to have departed from the age-old tradition just reaffirmed by the Mormon hierarchy in their recent call for tolerance towards the GLBT community of: love the sinner but hate the sin – which is nothing more that old smoke screen for the maintenance of systemic discrimination.
Maybe this is because it’s true what many Evangelicals say. Many say that the Episcopal Church doesn’t believe in the Bible anymore, and maybe never did. Two popular descriptions of the Episcopal Church as catholic-lite, and all of the pageantry with none of the guilt are stereotypes assailing the Episcopal Church from conservative expressions of Christianity.
Stereotypes are easy to draw. Stereotypes function as caricatures because they have enough accuracy to be believable. The Anglican Tradition doesn’t seem to mind being sent up. We even send ourselves up- as in the joke about the Episcopal priest on discovering his salad fork still in his hand as he started on his main course was horrified at the realization he had committed a mortal sin. The irony here, as Cousin Violet, the Dowager Duchess of Grantham would be quick to point out, is that Anglicans don’t catalogue sins into those that are venial -forgivable sin, and mortal – death-dealing to salvation sin.
Maybe it’s that Anglican DNA thing again. Aren’t we such awful Anglophiles panting over Downton Abbey. Sunday PBS viewing has become a feast of double chocolate as Downton is now followed by The Grantchester Mysteries, another romantic parody of English life with ever such a nice-looking young vicar, to boot.
There is that Episcopalian sense that it’s rather bad form and just the tiniest bit embarrassing to take one’s religion too seriously. Yet, history shows, there is good reason not to take one’s religion too seriously.
The easy parodies of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church point-up the fact that the origins of the present form of Anglican Tradition lie in a 16th-Century solution to religious tensions – the National Church.
The National Church of England brought together the post-Reformation religious divisions in England that elsewhere in Europe led to a hundred years of inter-communal strife, every bit reminiscent of the violence raging across the Islamic World in our own day. In England, conservative adherents of the old religion of pre-Reformation Catholicism met the radical proponents of Lutheran and Calvinist reform at the Church door. Compelled by the law of the land, representatives of opposing factions were forced to sit alongside one another in the same pew where in the course of several generations their spiritual imaginations were shaped by the soaring poetry of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.
This produced a context in which Truth, characterized as right belief had of necessity to give way to Love, characterized not so much as warm feelings but as right relationship. Shared doctrine was replaced by common worship as the means of defining community. The differences, both theological and political remained under the surface, erupting into violence finally in the English Civil War a century later. Yet, the Civil War only underscored the importance of a Church structured, not around right belief, i.e. truth, but around common worship, i.e. right relationship. Over a period of some three hundred years the Book of Common Prayer incubated an Anglican religious identity rooted in worship. It is this rich legacy that we in the Episcopal Church, are the present-day heirs.
Human experience shows us that there is never a single truth, only multiple truths. Attempts to enforce a single truth lead only to intractable and insoluble conflict. This is a lesson the occupants of Capitol Hill seem in need of learning all over again. For contemporary America is a society where a sense of the common good is continually fractured by the seeming unfettered exercise of individual rights and competing experiences of truth. There are always contesting truths and this is part of what energizes a society – the vibrancy of its public debate. Yet, public debate results from a holding together of tensions around some sense of the common, the shared.
The Episcopal Church is living proof of how this works. It’s not that we don’t have a body of doctrine. We do and it’s very clear! The interesting thing is that the place where you can find this doctrine is in the same place as you find our patterns of worship – in The Book of Common Prayer. Go to the Historical Documents and the Outline of Faith sections of the BCP and you will find clear statements of what the Episcopal Church believes.
Our beliefs are rooted in the ancient Catholic Christianity of the first five hundred years of the Church. The way we believe this ancient Catholic faith has been strongly influenced by Reformation theology. More distinctively, our spirituality molded by a thousand years of Benedictine Spirituality seeps into us through the practice of worship. We say to others, as we worship so we believe i.e. if you want to know what we believe come and worship with us. For us, worship is the centrally defining element of what it means to be God’s people. Our individual identities, with our own experiences of truth give way to a common identity shaped by the experience of God addressing us as a community, in worship. When you jettison an addiction to truth, then multiple truths can be contained only within the practice of worship.
In the Epistle for Epiphany IV from 1 Corinthians, we listen to Paul’s development of his argument with the rich and proud Corinthian Church. This is a Church that would fit well into contemporary American life, where the rights of the rich and the powerful are exercised with a careless disregard if not disdain for the poorer and less powerful members of the community. The behavior of the Corinthians forces Paul to assert that as a follower of the truth he is entitled to exercise in full, the rights that his conscience as a follower of Christ allows. In this
The behavior of the Corinthians forces Paul to assert that as a follower of the truth he is entitled to exercise in full, the rights that his conscience as a follower of Christ allows. In this case, he has the right to eat meat sacrificed to idols since because idols don’t exist eating such meat can have no spiritually injurious effect upon him. This is the truth; in this Paul is exhibiting right belief. Yet, he gives up such rights in the interests of affirming his right relationship with other members of the community.
Being theologically correct, a disciple of truth is not enough. Giving-up one’s right in order to foster right relationship with others in the community who may not yet be ready to exercise the full entitlement of liberty of conscience is more important, says Paul.
In the Episcopal Church we don’t enquire after whether our members hold the correct belief because we understand that we are individually, members of a community of right belief. As I like to say, the seeds of faith are sown in the fields of doubt. Some days I hold impeccably to orthodox truth. Other days I feel adrift in a see of doubt and uncertainty. None of this matters, because every day, my participation in the worship life of the Christian Community of the Episcopal Church places me in right relationship to others on the same spiritual journey.
I would go so far as to say that none of us individually are saved. What I mean is that because all knowledge is as Paul asserts only ever partial, our grasp of so-called truth is always incomplete. Individually we are saved not by our right belief but by our participation in the life of the community that is saved. The richest form that such participation takes, is found in the worship life of the community of faith.
Participation in that rich communal life owes less to holding a rightbelief than it does to our life-long pursuit of right relationship! Or maybe put another way, am I my brother/sister’s keeper on the road to salvation?