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For all people

December 17, 2013

Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.1

OUR FELLOW bloggers Robert Hendrickson and C. Wingate have both posted in response to the repetition by the unfortunately named “Taskforce for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church” of a stupid and thoughtless slogan: In the Episcopal Church, they say, “you don’t need to leave your mind at the door.”

As C. Wingate points out, the slogan is smug and classist, and it stinks of exactly the sort of elitism that the General Convention has mauled our liturgy, our hymnody, and the calendar of saints to prove that it does not possess. As Queen Gertrude rightly remarked, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”2 A church of true breadth of theological imagination, true generosity of spirit, and true Christian humility would have no need of such self-satisfied sloganeering. The proud restatement of this mantra of false open-mindedness serves only to expose the reactionary, closed-minded liberalism that afflicts our church. It says, in effect, that the Episcopal Church is a place for a certain kind of people and not for others. How very wrong indeed.

Dr. McCormack.

Dr. McCormack.

The Revd Dr. Alan McCormack, preaching the Swift Sermon in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin this past October, made the following observation:

I currently minister in an Established Church. The Church of England is a Church ‘by Law established’ and what this means above all is that the Church of England is an institution and not an interest group. As the Rector of my many parishes in the City of London I am legally tasked to engage with everyone within my parish boundaries and not just with those who happen to attend my churches or happen to define themselves as ‘Christian’. The dynamics of establishment are therefore essentially inclusive.

The Episcopal Church in these United States is not by any stretch an established church. But in the sense given by Dr. McCormack, it ought to behave like one, like an institution and not an interest group. The church makes a great fuss over the radical welcome offered to anyone who darkens the door, while at the same time its subtler moves assume a kind of protest position, one directed (as C. Wingate points out) against a power that is largely illusory. In doing so, the Episcopal Church makes itself less welcoming, not more.

We have long despaired over the growing tendency within our church to attach the adjective “Episcopal” to seemingly every proper noun: The Episcopal Diocese of New York. Trinity Episcopal Church. St. Andrew’s Episcopal School. This tendency is related to the perceived need for Episcopalians to say “we’re not like that!” or “we’re not the mean kind of Christians,” and the foolishness of doing so is not incidental to Dr. McCormack’s point.

“Episcopal,” as we know, is an adjective. And the work of an adjective, as we know also, is to describe a noun, to qualify it, to narrow down its parameters. Attaching it loudly and prominently to every arm of the church allows our denominational identity to override our Christian one, making us seem more parochial, more illiberal, not less.

One of the more loveable traits of the Episcopal Church has been that our institutions do not reek of defensive institutional identity, unlike a town’s “First Presbyterian” or “Memorial Methodist,” each of which places denominational affiliations at the center of its sense of self. A stranger can (our ought to be able to) wander into Christ Church in virtually any town in America without being slapped in the face with the denomination. Our churches are not Christened to their denomination, but to Christ, or the Trinity, or some saint of blessed memory. Just the Episcopal Church flag tucked in the chancel and the Book of Common Prayer in the pews. We might remember how Mary McCarthy refers to venerable old St. George’s Church in the opening lines of The Group: “It was June, 1933, one week after Commencement, when Kay Leiland Strong, Vassar ’33, the first of her class to run around the table at the Class Day dinner, was married to Harald Petersen, Reed ’27, in the chapel of St. George’s Church, P.E.”3

The more insecure of our brand we become, the more inclined we are to affix that brand to every surface. While doing so might soothe our desire for distinctiveness (unity though diversity, after all, whatever that means), it makes our parish churches and larger Episcopal institutions seem clubbier, more patronizing and more exclusive, not less. The Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief is now Episcopal Relief and Development. Impersonal, parochial, and closed. We have discarded the confidence that we mistook for paternalism and replaced it with a thousand private clubs that identify themselves as such. Our old letterhead in this diocese read: The Diocese of New York. If we were then slightly more aristocratic in our outlook, we were also infinitely less concerned with identifying ourselves primarily by our sect.4 Our works stood for themselves, and we had no need of jockeying for position against the Romans, the low Protestants, or the Moral Majority. St. Luke’s Church, which used to be easily identifiable by its fine architecture, sound liturgy, and gracious membership, is now St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, identified by a shrinking band of like-minded liberals who preach a gospel chiefly concerned with the politics of identity. And anyone who thinks that’s just a stereotype should try a Google search on the word “Episcopal.”

In our travels, we have found that the best–most welcoming, most challenging, and yes, most beautiful–parish churches have been those least in love with their dioceses and with the latest fads from the General Convention. These are places whose identity is rooted in a deep, biblical faith, in devoted worship, and in ministering to the local communities in which they find themselves. In these places, the interminable, pointless navel gazing about “who we are” as Episcopalians is replaced with a sense of identity and mission so palpable and invigorating that we have wanted to sell all that we have and join them in their pilgrimage. These parish churches have boasted memberships diverse in age, in color, and, most importantly, in social background. Our experiences in such places have taught us that tough ideas are not the exclusive preserve of the “smart”, that care of fine things is not the exclusive right of the rich. We have seen the fortunate minister to the wretched and the most unassuming command the greatest respect. He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

None of the foregoing is possible with closed minds, which is the fundamental condition identified by C. Wingate. We are guilty of being ecclesiastical grinches, possessed of a vision for the church that is several sizes too small. We preach a Christ who, as St. Paul tells us, died for the ungodly,5 the people we don’t like who don’t think like we do, and this is the good news that we await in this Advent, the good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. When we follow John the Baptist in his saying that “He must increase, but I must decrease,”6 we do not mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater, abandoning our fine buildings or fine services. We mean that we put ourselves second, pointing the way toward Christ for all who may darken our door and, as we go forth into the world in service, for many who may not. We are in need of no defensive slogan, which is really just a tongue-in-cheek way of saying “we’re better than you,” because those old rusty signs have already said it right:

The Episcopal Church welcomes you.

theepiscopalchurchwelcomesyou

1. Isaiah 56:7
2. Hamlet III.ii
3. Mary McCarthy, The Group (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1963), 1.
4. There is, in fact, but a single Diocese of New York, and I for one cannot imagine that we would ever be confused with the R.C.s.
5. Romans 5:6
6. John 3:30

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. MAG permalink
    December 19, 2013 09:26

    To build on an idea from Stanley Hauerwas, it’s high time we acted less like a denomination, and acted more like The Church.

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  1. Case in point | Sed Angli.

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