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In defense of cradle Episcopalians

July 21, 2012

Don’t tread on us.

WE RECENTLY encountered a post on the blog of St. Alban’s Church in Washington, one written by the parish’s associate rector, the Revd Dr. Carol Flett, in which she roundly pans the use of the term “cradle Episcopalian.”

This distresses us very much, not least because this blogger, his sister, and the whole of his mother’s family are cradle Episcopalians. We have never been nor have ever wished to be anything else, and there’s nothing at all wrong in that.

Dr. Flett of Washington writes the following:

Have you noticed the way some Episcopalians introduce themselves to others in small groups and at parish events? ‘I am a cradle Episcopalian, and so are my parents and my children.’ I propose that we stop using that descriptor in the Episcopal Church. There is a touch of pride and superiority in the statement, which sets up a barrier between long-time members of a parish and those adults recently confirmed in the Episcopal Church.

In response to this, our capital city blogger, like a poor grammar school teacher, proposes punishing the entire class for the behaviours of a few bad apples.

One cannot doubt that, especially in a place like St. Alban’s, the snobbish element loves distinguishing itself within the parish by its own pedigree. One cannot do anything about these people. The superiority of the self-satisfied knows no bounds, and Dr. Flett’s prescriptive would do little to stop the types of barrier-building she laments.

But as always with these sorts of actions, there would be significant collateral damage as well, and this is where we find the larger point to be made here.

Amidst all of the present hype about welcoming all people, no matter their background, we too often forget that continuity is the cornerstone of any successful and long-lived human society. Institutional memory matters, as does the old guard which possesses it. At the parish in which I was raised, a member of a very old family of Episcopalians, when a new and youthful rector was called, took it upon herself to school him in exactly how things ought and ought not to be done. No pedant, this woman (whose daughter became a priest) worked to impart the ethos of the parish to the young man who would be at its helm. Her doing so helped ensure that the parish retained its essential identity even as it evolved in sync with its new rector, making it a place where both new members and longtime parishioners alike could feel right at home.

But Dr. Flett is not convinced!

Those who are visiting and considering an Episcopal church don’t want to hear others bragging about how long they have been members and what hurdles one needs to leap over before being included in the community.

Of course newcomers are not to be spoken down to, nor are they to be given insurmountable hurdles. But newcomers don’t know everything! If we understand that Jesus was a teacher, then we must realize that education is an integral part of Christian welcome. We are to tell the story, to share what has been revealed to us, and to show the newcomer how the ways of the community reflect 2000 years of Christian history and witness. There are no small details in a parish church.

What our blogger ignores is that experience counts. It is right to welcome newcomers into the full life of a parish. But confirmation alone does not an Episcopalian make, no more than a license does a good driver make. Just as, in a family, we learn from our elders, so too in what Dr. Flett would surely insist on calling a “parish family” do we learn from those who have come before us. In a Church where much decision-making is undertaken by the laity, knowledge both of mechanics and of custom is critical to the institutional life of the parish. Such knowledge cannot come but from experience, which the newly-confirmed simply do not possess. “In my old church, we used to…” is a phrase that matters not in the slightest when one’s old church was Congregational, Presbyterian, Methodist, or, God help us, Roman Catholic. One can join an Episcopal church any day of the week, but it demands the experience of years to understand what it is that makes an Episcopal church an Episcopal church, and of what it means to be an Episcopalian. It has to do with Common Prayer, with moderation, with altar guilds and Orlando Gibbons, with punch and tea sandwiches, and with the musty smell of books, old wood, horsehair, and beeswax.1 It has to do with steadfastness, with good humor, and with a recognition of why those stoic black signboards, ubiquitous and unheralded across the land, are simply the best.

This is not to say that later-life Episcopalians are to be accorded second-tier status in any way. The Church is richer for those who have found within its walls a strength of tradition so compelling that they have forgone the ones in which they were raised. It is frequently these churchmen and -women who embrace and defend the rites and rituals that cradle Episcopalians can take for granted. We are all renewed by the zeal of the convert.

If the term “cradle Episcopalian” is an issue, it is such only because people’s feelings get hurt too easily in the Church, and they get hurt over stupid things by which no sane person would be offended in other precincts of life. The phrase “I am a native New Yorker/Bostonian/Washingtonian/Anytownian,” when uttered by a current resident of his home town,2 does not offend, and why should it! Loyalty to one’s home town is commendable, demonstrating characteristerics that we claim to value in American life: loyalty, authenticity, steadfastness in the face of sure ups and downs. And we often rely on home-town residents for tips on navigating within the walls: they know the best restaurants, the best shortcuts, the best dry cleaners, and all the rest of the insider information that comes from long association with a place.

But to hear the phrase “I am a cradle Episcopalian,” uttered with a touch of pride, is somehow anathema?

We suspect that those offended by the phrase “cradle Episcopalian” haven’t the slightest idea of what it means to be an Episcopalian or a Christian. We know these people: the ones who have skipped from church to church and from denomination to denomination, looking less for a strong community and a powerful expression of the Christian faith than for a place where they themselves, and not Christ, can be the star of the local show. These people are poison pills in every parish, and catering to them is utter madness.

Alas, it is hardly surprising to find an essay denying the cradle Episcopalians their due on the blog of a church beside a diocesan office. Dr. Flett, in addition to her duties at St. Alban’s, serves (unsurprisingly) as the “ecumenical and inter-religious officer” for the Diocese of Washington. Since we have made quite clear our thoughts on ecumenism, no more need be said on this subject at this time.

1. (i) The R.C. Church of St. Thomas More, on East 89th Street in Manhattan, was originally the (Protestant Episcopal) Church of the Beloved Disciple. Although it has been a Roman church for 62 years, they’ve never been able to get that Episcopal smell out. (ii) Church candles were always made of beeswax, and in many churches, they still are. Those plastic tubes filled with Kerry liquid are shit, and they always will be shit. (iii) In the old days, hassocks (kneelers) and pew cushions were stuffed with horsehair. Episcopal churches being what they are, there are still a few places in which 60-year-old horsehair is still doing service, every week.
2. NOTE: this works in the South as well, as any Southerner, still living in the South, may rightly consider himself, in some sense, home.

Cradle Episcopalians, welcoming the next generation.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. James Morgan permalink
    July 23, 2012 01:00

    One might say this for any denomination or church that one presently inhabits. I think newcomers have much to offer since they see things from a different perspective than the old timers, but then, the old timers and cradles, who were born of cradles before them for many generations have a much different understanding of the faith. I know an Eastern Orthodox priest who is the last of about 20 generations of priestly families in Russia. He certainly has a different perspective of his faith than a newly baptized baby, and I honor him for that.

  2. August 1, 2012 09:05

    One can be reasonably assured that at St. Alban’s the intent is specifically to suppress any kind of institutional memory, the better to be able to innovate at will when the spirit of the age moves them.

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