The Episcopalians

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I’m an Episcopalian. That means I like my religion without guitars and hugs. Not big on authority figures in golf carts either. Also a no go: any sort of physical activity in dress clothes, including but not limited to raising my arms up, bathing in rivers with others, or writhing in aisles (tongues of fire or no).

I like to think we’re Catholic in our traditions but driven by common sense, which is a tough balance as far as faith is concerned, since faith is “belief in things unseen” and common sense is founded on seeing all kinds of things, including political motives and human frailty. This makes me face all sorts of inconvenient truths, like that the writers of the Bible were human and therefore products of their time when recommending rotten things like multiple wives and stoning homosexuals, that versioning of the Bible was politically driven and not the word from on high, and that an ex-Nazi in Italy might not be the source of compassionate, inclusive, non-sexist wisdom for our modern times.

(While I cannot agree with some of the fundamental precepts of the Catholic church, I also wasn’t raised in that church, so, with the exception of a stretch dating a rigid adherent, I’ve managed to sidestep the conflicts those precepts present to my morality. By no means do I intend to be dismissive of the struggle of those born into or devoted to the Catholic faith who must sort out a way to partition their social beliefs – equality of women, birth control, gay marriage, etc. – from their church’s inflexible teachings on the subjects. I don’t envy you and cannot agree with your church’s doctrines, but I certainly respect your challenge and efforts.)

In general, apart from my specific beliefs, I’m a fan of “live and let live,” religious policy. If you get your holy day groove on with chanting nuns, casserole dinners or that dude you can only see on the JumboTron, it doesn’t matter to me. As long as you’re not oppressing anyone else.

I’m not much on the practicing part of Christianity of late, but this news piece did catch my eye: the Catholic church is bending their rules on liturgy and their prohibition of priest marriage to allow the absorption of the most conservative branch of the Episcopalian church. That branch has been alienating itself from Canterbury since the 1970s when we ordained women, and the writing was pretty much indelibly on the wall when we ordained our first gay bishop a couple years ago, so it’s not a surprise they’re headed for Rome.

What was amusing though was that the piece in the Times on the subject of the defections profiled a church in Rosemont, PA, which which I have a history. The Church of the Good Shepherd, just up the street from two women’s colleges, featured a rector back during the women’s ordination brouhaha who sought out a parish with a female officiant for the sole purpose of biting her during communion. It’s all about the high road with them.

Good Shepherd was the closest church to my apartment in college, not to mention the prettiest, so I went one Sunday.

(The property on the wealthy Main Line outside Philadelphia is probably worth an enormous sum, belongs to the Episcopalian diocese and is a key issue in the church’s secession from the Anglican communion.)

God help me, the sermon was about service. The priest highlighted how we are each called to serve in different ways. For example, men are sometimes called to the priesthood and positions of lay authority in the church. Women, on the other hand, are called to serve at coffee hour. Literally.

The absurdity of this sermon being preached within a mile of two institutions devoted to the education and advancement of women was not lost on me, but what can you do but laugh in the face of that kind of anachronistic obliviousness? As I left, never to come back, I was accosted by a young officiant. Was I new? Where did I live? Would I like more information about the church? I would be very welcome at any church event.

I took this to mean they’d run out of women to serve snacks and gave them my address. I do enjoy first pick of tasty snacks after all.

A week or so later, I got a welcome card from the church’s outreach office. Since I was only writing my thesis that week in addition to carrying a full load of classes and working at a part-time job, I took the time to reply. I politely said I could not in good conscience attend or support an institution that overtly classified me a second-class citizen and I could not fathom how they hoped to recruit female students with a platform that violated both Episcopalian church doctrine and equal rights.

I got my response. Two pages of response. The young priest condescendingly but sincerely quoted scripture and pointed out the errors in my thinking. I had to hand it to the guy, if only for the brass balls of belief it required to send that kind of note to a young woman like me.

To be fair though, the “like me” part probably wasn’t evident to him. I’m tenacious, wildly overeducated on the church, and – at twenty-two, anyway – was not one to walk away from a fight. Also, he had no idea what a fierce procrastinator I was on that thesis.

I happened to talk to my mother that week. She’s a priest (hence my overeducation in religion) and volunteered to send me some exegetical notes for my reply. A few days later, I got her comments in the form of a four-page saccharine epistle rebutting his points and adding about a hundred others, worded along the lines of, “There, there, sweetie: don’t let the bad man upset you.”

My mother is not that kind of mothering mother, but presumably the priest wouldn’t know that and would miss the sarcasm so I sent her letter along unedited, appending a brief foreword saying I thought that that about covered it.

A few weeks later, I got a small card in the mail with a bird on it. It looked like it had been issued in about 1953 and had sat in a desk cubby since then, waiting for its day in the sun. It seemed era-appropriate, coming from a man like that with principles like his. Inside it said, “All we can do now is pray for each other. – Father ______”

In all honesty, I have not, in fact, prayed for him or for the Church of the Good Shepherd, but as the holidays approach, in the spirit of generosity, perhaps I will issue a small prayer in their direction: may they find a happy home with their restrictive Vatican brethren and give that beautiful stone church back to the Episcopalians. Good riddance. Amen.

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Categories: News, Nuisance, Miscellany

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