Engaging the Episcopalians
For three months in my last year as a ministry student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I (and my wife Jeanie) undertook an inquirer’s class at the downtown Episcopal church. It was a fateful crossroads for us. If we had left the Southern Baptists and joined the Episcopalians at that point, my professional life, and our personal faith, would have taken a dramatically different turn. I shows the already profound disillusionment that we felt with Southern Baptists that we would even consider this move at the very end of my Baptist seminary experience.
We were impressed by the winsome spirit of the primary priest who led us through the class. We, like my dear friend Randall Balmer, really liked the tradition, liturgy, beauty, worship, and sacramentalism of the Episcopal Way. We also are Anglophiles and wouldn’t have minded spending the rest of our lives in a vicarious British experience along with lots of lovely stained glass. And this church had a cat that just wandered the building and came into whatever meeting she chose. Baptists don’t do cats in church.
As it was, we took a different path. I stayed with the Baptists, eventually migrating to the moderate/liberal Baptists. Jeanie eventually crossed the Tiber and became Roman Catholic. And, as I have revealed in these posts already, in recent years I have reconnected with my own Roman Catholic roots as well.
Our experience inquiring about Episcopalianism, including visiting numerous Episcopal and Anglican churches in the US and UK, remains very positive. We do still deeply enjoy the tradition, liturgy, beauty, worship, sacramentalism, and whiff of old England whenever we step into an Episcopal or Anglican church. The Prayer Book, in all of its various editions, is so majestic, and we drew on it heavily for our own morning and evening prayerbook which we first published in 2012.
Randall Balmer says little about how Episcopalians follow Jesus, and I think that is interesting. My surmise is that a great deal of “latitude” is indeed offered to Episcopalians when it comes to doctrine and ethics. Direction, and boundaries, are set primarily related to liturgy and worship, not related to theology and ethics. There is an Episcopalian sensibility, aesthetic, and liturgy, more than there is a shared theology, ethic, or vision of discipleship.
For those who have been bombarded, not to say abused, by various preachers’ and theologians’ declared theologies, ethics, and boundaries, Episcopalianism must be a wonderful refuge. But I have often wondered whether there is enough shared substance for the discipleship journey. Certainly it has become apparent that the Episcopal sensibility has not been enough to spare this tradition the same left/right divisions, not to mention actual church splits, that many of the rest of us have suffered. I have not failed to notice the right-leaning Anglican churches that have sprung out of or in competition with the more progressive Episcopal churches. It’s a long way from the progressive All Saints’ Episcopal in Pasadena to the conservative Anglicans I have encountered in Australia, for example.
I have also been struck by the lack of a very well-developed Anglican or Episcopal tradition in my field, Christian Ethics. I can only think of a few ethicists who have highlighted their Anglican/Episcopal identity or sought to write within it. My overall observation has been that when a religious tradition lacks its own clear theological/ethical identity, it is susceptible to being hijacked by others who are more clear.
One final word: I do note that many, many, many #exvangelicals have taken the road to Canterbury. Whether decades ago, or today, evangelical exiles often find their way to Anglican or Episcopal churches. I want to commend this tradition for its hospitality to so many sojourners, exiles, and aliens. There is something more than a bit biblical about that.
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