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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

An Incarnational Faith

I've been thinking about what it means to be an Episcopalian.

A lot.

I guess that's not surprising in this Season of the Incarnation.

We've heard so much about what it means to be an Anglican that I think we've forgotten what it means to be an Episcopalian who is a part - one part of many gloriously different parts - of the Anglican Communion. 

I think we once knew - with great certainty - what it meant to be an Episcopalian. And, some of us don't want to be 'that kind' of Episcopalian. Indeed, some of us haven't been 'that kind' of Episcopalian for quite a long while.

Which may be part of the problem.

I remember, years ago, seeing a cartoon in The New Yorker. The image was a close up of Father What-A-Waste - handsome, trim, full head of hair with a slight touch of gray at the temples, in proper cassock, surplice, tippet and hood, probably just completed a proper Service of Morning Prayer - standing at the church door, talking with several 'blue haired' ladies in fur coats.

Behind him was the church sign with the sermon topic of the day: Evangelism.

One of the blue haireds says to the cleric, "But, Father, everyone who needs to be an Episcopalian already is."

THAT kind of Episcopalian.

You know exactly what I mean.

The other day, as I was going through some of my books, I found the following quote. It's from John Updike's novel, "Bech is Back"

One of the characters describes his wife's WASPish Episcopalianism this way:
"Many of her crowd went to church as faithfully as they played tennis and golf and attended rallies to keep out developers. Yet, their God, for all his colorful history and spangled attributes, lay above the earth like a layer of icy cirrus, a tenacious and diffident other whose tendrils failed to entwine with fibrous blood and muscle.".
I have certainly known Episcopalians who could be described in this way. And, I'm thinking, so do you.

I know other Episcopalians who defy this definition.

Yes, defy. I chose that word intentionally.

I have known many Episcopalians in the more than 34 years I have been privileged to have been received into this great church.

If I start to mention them, I'll get myself in trouble because I'll leave many of the great - but lesser known ones - out.

There are Episcopalians who work tirelessly in the vineyards of the Global South - the Sudan, Nigeria, China - as well as Cuba, El Salvador and Haiti.

There are other Episcopalians who work faithfully in the vineyards of the inner city or rural areas of this country, holding onto outposts of traditional Anglo-Catholicism, attempting new forms of Evangelical praise worship, pushing the envelope on services of inclusive/expansive languages and images for God and humankind, experimenting with 'total ministry' of all the baptized, and all the while, all of them serving the poor and the needy in their midst.

There are even other Episcopalians, some not closely affiliated with the institutional church, who work in community-based organizations that are deeply committed to The Great Commission to feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless and clothing to the naked, care for those with HIV/AIDS, provide for the widowed and orphaned, give dignity and hope to those in prison.

Not any one of them is, in any way, like Updike's WASPish Episcopalian.

And yet, they exist.

Contrary to "popular" opinion, in great numbers.

Not everyone has left to join, as they say in DC, "the Africans."

And there are lots - lots and lots and lots - of clergy who would give their left foot - and the right chamber of their heart - to be rector.

And, many of them already have.

But, that is not - they are not - the future of The Episcopal Church.

The future was never gained by holding onto the past.

The future belongs to those who are willing to risk. To dare. To dream a dream of God for the Realm of God where all . . .all . . .all. . . are welcome. All are fed. All are clothed. All are equal. All are free.

And that, I have come to believe, is what it means to be The Episcopal Church.

To be bold enough, brave enough, courageous enough, to face the future. To be the future. Despite the strong impulse imposed upon us from afar to gather ourselves around rules and regulations that ensure we do not "offend" one another, lest there be "relational consequences" imposed upon us in the name of "unity" and "communion".

That does not mean that we shun the "colorful history and spangled attributes" of our religious images of God. Neither are we embarrassed by what we once were.

Rather, we need to embrace and give thanks for what we have been and what we are become - a faith incarnate in an Incarnate God who loves all that S/he has created unconditionally.

An Anglican Covenant will not give us that future.

Only incarnate, embodied faith that is alive in Christ can do that.

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

Not a "tenacious, diffident other whose tendrils failed to entwine with fibrous blood and muscle", but One who knows us because S/he was once us. And, we better know who God is because of the mystery of The Incarnation.

Jesus is the only covenant I need. And, that covenant, in part, is to "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself" and "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."

It's about the Incarnation - often messy, occasionally offensive, perhaps sometimes even scandalous, with relational consequences for trying - and failing, more often than not - to love others and ourselves as God loves us.

That, to me, is what it means to be Episcopalian. It's about Divine Love that is incarnate in each of us and strives to serve others sacrificially in the Name of Christ.

Indeed, I think it's also what is at the heart of the Spirit of Anglicanism.

I think we just need to remind ourselves, from time to time, who we are and whose we are so we can be and do what God intends.

This is a grand time in the history of Western Christianity to be an Episcopalian.

As for me, I intend to celebrate that identity more often - even if and when it occasionally proves "offensive" to some.

I hope you'll join me.


harvey said...

I definitely join you! I've been receiving the gift of the Episcopal Church now for 66 years, and you've hit the nail on the head as to what that gift is. Thanks.

June Butler said...

Elizabeth, yours is a lovely description of "our" church. Neither of us fits the typical WASP description, do we?

And we already have a wonderful covenant, the covenant that Jesus gave us. And if that's not enought, we have the Creeds and the Baptismal Covenant. The poor excuse which is offered to us by whatever powers in the Anglican Communion is not fit to be named in the company of the others.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hello Harvey - I still remember you pointing out to me an essay that was done in the first series of The Church's Teaching Series about Anglican Spirituality. It has been my guide post lo these many years later. And, I thank you for that.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hello there, Mimi - fellow non-WASP. I'm so happy to share a pew in this "big tent" church of ours. We can call our pew the "Island of Misfit Toys".

whiteycat said...

As another ex-RC who thanks God every day for the the gift of the Episcopal Church, I join with you and Mimi in celebrating the covenant we have in Christ by virtue of our baptism. When you have that there is no need for any other!

it's margaret said...

Born and bred in the Episcopal Church, daughter and grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter of Episcopalians... --daughter of generations of C of E missionaries, priests and heretics. WASP through and through to the core... and I remember the church as she was... and taught to honor and be glad in our differences and common prayer.

And I am glad to join you and dream the future in to being.

Defy?! Oh yeah. No doubt about it.

Mary Beth said...


Jim said...

Yes indeed. We need to cry justice to power, defy the wall builders and refuse to be covenanted to death.



Suzer said...

The quote from Updike is, I think, why my partner and I feel more comfortable in the United Methodist Church (despite the UMC's need to catch up to TEC in lgbtq inclusivity).

I will, however, always love TEC. Maybe someday I can find a local Episcopal congregation that is less "frozen chosen" and more down to earth and relational. The TEC in which I was raised was a great example of that, but it's a bit of a drive at 900 miles away! I do miss the BCP and the music -- no one does traditional church music better than the Piskies, IMHO. :)

textjunkie said...

Lifelong Episcopalian here, and much as I've dabbled in other denominations and I can see their strengths, TEC is the place for me. It's about the Incarnation--amen and amen to that!

Anonymous said...

Why is church so boring sometimes-in fact, many times?
It's why I don't go anymore.