Posts Tagged ‘anglican’

I am an Episcopalian because for me, the Incarnation is the point.

The Incarnation took center stage in Anglican theology pretty early and has never really left it. It is the Anglican specialty, the doctrine we emphasize above all others, the key that unlocks the code, the tonic of the great symphony that is the Christian worldview. God became a human being; he didn’t just *pretend* to be one, he didn’t disguise himself as a mortal the way, for example, the Greek gods sometimes did, he really became one, a particular person, a boy his parents called Jesus. He got hungry and thirsty, sweaty and tired. He needed to sleep and eat and move his bowels. And he enjoyed real pleasures, too, which we know because a lot of people disapproved of how he went to wild parties and ate and drank with prostitutes and Vichy tax collectors and even, possibly, Gentiles.

God became a human being. The Word became flesh, as John’s Gospel puts it. The Logos, the divine principle of order and meaning, the Logic of the universe, became flesh, a historical, contingent, finite person, a mind wedded to matter.  Theologians hammered out that the Divine Person did not merely inhabit a human physical shell, but had a human mind, a human soul, a human selfhood. The Word whose speaking created all things limited itself to one human language, with perhaps a smattering of a couple others; to what a peasant in a Roman-occupied country in the early days of the Roman Empire could know about mathematics, geography, science, history, and all the provinces of human knowledge. The Word that tells us our stories became a character in *our* story, became a story that we tell. Divinity, meaning, truth, love are embodied eternally in human experience and in the world of matter.

If this sounds like the most important idea in the world to you, then you just might be an Anglican. (Sorry, Mr. Foxworthy. Everybody knows I’m stealing your shtick, here.) For me, the Incarnation makes sense of everything else in Christian theology. If Jesus is not both really, genuinely, completely human, no fooling, and really, truly, genuinely GOD, then his teachings don’t much matter, and even his death and resurrection don’t much matter.

I’m aware that most of Christian theology has counted the Resurrection as the single most important act of God in Jesus, and that most theologians have worked on the assumption that the Incarnation was necessitated by human sinfulness. The Son of God had to atone for our sinfulness, he had to die to do so, therefore he had to become human, therefore Christmas (and a brief period of rejoicing before we start talking about SIN and THE CROSS).

But at least since I was a teenager, I have read that the other way around. God wanted to make humans partners in divinity, therefore he had to become human, therefore he had to be born, therefore he would also have to die, but human beings screwed things up, so he had to die the hard way. The Incarnation was always Plan A because the taking of humankind into the Godhead was always Plan A. For all of us. For the entire human race. Therefore we have repentance and change our lives because we made God’s work and our eventual divinization  A HELL OF A LOT HARDER than it needed to be, but even during Lent and Holy Week we rejoice because God’s passionate unconditional love considers us worth the trouble.

And that’s why I’m an Episcopalian.

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I have three criteria for when a spiritual practice or spiritual system is working for me. The first criterion is, does it help me cope with everyday life? Am I handling spills, delays, internet outages, aches and pains reasonably well, or am I losing my temper or bursting into tears at every provocation?
The second is, am I being kind to myself and to other people? Am I impatient with myself and prone to negative self-talk, or am I fairly calm and centered? Do I judge people furiously (if silently) for not conforming to my expectations in the way they drive or dress or use the English language, or can I gently detach? Am I relating well to people I don’t know?
And the third criterion is simply, am I writing? Am I writing something other than morning pages? Am I writing something that isn’t complaining about how this spiritual practice isn’t working for me?
Having the right spiritual practice in my life is like being plugged into an electric socket. I have energy to function, and beyond that, I have energy to create. The right spiritual system feeds my imagination, and the result is not just better coping and a kinder, more humorous, more compassionate stance toward people, but stories, poems, and (hopefully) interesting blog entries.
Since January, I have been saying Morning and Evening Prayer daily and attending the weekly Eucharist at a progressive, arts-oriented Episcopal church. And I have coped with separating from my husband, finding a place of my own, and living by myself; I have written over a dozen short fanfic stories; I have started my first novel. I have continued, sporadically, to blog and to write poetry. I have read widely, socialized with friends old and new, watched a number of television series new to me (thanks to the magic of Amazon Instant Video).
My life is not only functional, it is rich, and I attribute that wholeheartedly to practicing the Christian religion as an Episcopalian. Anglican Christianity is the right sort of current for me, a fuel that my spirit runs on efficiently and even beautifully, like having the right grade of gasoline in your car. I didn’t experience this richness when I was practicing Buddhism. I had it only intermittently when I was practicing Druidry. And I don’t think that I would have it if I were Roman Catholic, or Methodist, or even Orthodox.
On the other hand, I have to grant that other people fuel their lives with an entirely different current and do quite well. I’m sure that my bond with Anglicanism was formed when I was a child, and my imagination was ripe to be imprinted. At the same time I was going to an Episcopal church and hearing the Tudor English of the 1928 Prayerbook, I was reading the Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander and the novels of Madeleine L’Engle. It all blended together. But other people get their spiritual energy from other religions, or even from something other than religion; while some public spokespersons for atheism have been publicly obnoxious for a while now, the self-identified atheists, agnostics, and “nones” I’ve known personally have been some of the kindest, most ethical people I know.
It’s just a relief not to be running around any more with the power cord in my hand, so to speak, looking for a place to plug in. I’m plugged in, grounded, and switched on.

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I grew up an Episcopalian. I went to Sunday school every week; there were years I had perfect attendance. Here are some things I did not learn in my religious education:

  • I did not learn that science was bad.
  • I did not learn that women were inferior to men. (Much of the work of the parish was done by women, and there was a fair percentage of women who had jobs as well as husbands and children.)
  • I did not learn that homosexuality was the worst of all possible sins.
  • I did not learn that abortion was a sin; I’m not sure anybody ever mentioned it.
  • I did not learn that we would all burn in hell if God had not punished Jesus for our sins, and that substitutionary atonement was the only accurate explanation of our redemption.
  • I did not learn a lot about hell, actually.

So what *did* I learn in church? A lot of things:

  • I learned how to punctuate from the Book of Common Prayer.
  • I also learned how to use the second-person singular correctly.
  • I learned how to sing various styles of music from the Hymnal 1940.
  • I learned about the liturgical year and its associated colors and themes.
  • I learned the Bible by hearing it read in church, in the Authorised Version.
  • I learned a good bit about Bible history, especially from one particular teacher.
  • I learned that C.S. Lewis had converted from atheism to Christian faith, and that he put religious symbolism into the Narnia books.
  • When I was a teenager, my rector gave me his collection of newsletters from the C.S. Lewis society of New York: Hours of fascinating reading.
  • I talked with my rector about Anglican writers like Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and Madeleine L’Engle, and about my own aspirations as a writer.
  • I *was* taught that premarital sex was a bad idea. Given how many teens in my neighborhood were having sex and getting pregnant before the age of eighteen—including kids in my Sunday school classes—and how few of us ever went to college, I now think this was not unreasonable.
  • I learned that stories, poetry, and music are important.
  • I learned that God loves us so much he wanted to be one of us, regardless of the consequences.
  • I learned that human work is good, human sexuality is good, and I could serve God by writing stories.

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Easter 2012 @ St. John’s Detroit – Canon of Mass (by StJohnsPriest)

I was thinking about this Communion service earlier and went hunting it on YouTube. I have tried to start the playback just before the Agnus Dei, which is the bit I want my readers to hear, but if you’re curious about the kind of liturgy I lived with between 1998 and 2008, roughly, watch the whole thing. The communion service is Noble in F.

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(I originally posted this at my old blog; I’m reposting it here as the first step in writing about my personal history of religion.)

My first memories of anything religious are of a Lutheran church.  My sister, eleven years older than I, had been confirmed at a Missouri Synod church in the neighborhood with the entertaining name of Martini Lutheran.  She was still a church-goer when I was five or six and she was sixteen or seventeen, so I went to church with her. I can’t remember whether we walked there, or whether someone picked us up and drove us.  My sister, like me, has never learned to drive.  We probably walked; I have a vague memory of not wanting to hold my sister’s hand, but no memories of what houses or streets or cars we walked by.

The emphasis at Martini Lutheran was on Sunday school. All the different classes had a sort of mini-church together and then separated for their lessons. We got lots of handouts with pictures and learned lots of Bible stories, and we sang songs like “Jesus Loves Me”. Even then, I think, I liked the singing part the best, and somehow I had the courage to ask if I could be in the choir. I must have sung for the organist, and I was allowed to join even though I was a year younger than the official minimum. I suppose I had two advantages: My precocious reading ability, which meant I could follow the words of hymns, and the ability to match pitch.

Rehearsals for the choir were regular, but appearances in the liturgy were infrequent. We had cassocks, I think, dark red, with white cottas or surplices over them, and red skullcaps. I remember scurrying across a courtyard or something, from one building to another, to enter the church proper. I have a vague recollection of very dark wood, of a white-haired genial preacher (who may or may not have been the pastor), of not really knowing what was going on. There was little connection between the Sunday school and what the adults did in church, as worship.

When my sister was eighteen, she wanted to get married. Her intended was a Polish Catholic boy she had met doing amateur theatre. For the pastor of Martini Lutheran Church, the Reformation was not over; he sat in our parlor and informed my mother that he was not going to allow a Catholic priest at the altar of his church. “Your church?” said my mother. “I thought it was God’s church.” She threw him out, and my sister and her fiance were married in German Catholic church two blocks away from us, by a very liberal, rather hippie priest who was a friend of the groom.

So I didn’t go back to Martini Lutheran after that. As it happened, there was an Episcopal church barely one block away from our house. My mother had sung in an Episcopal church choir as a young married woman, until she became pregnant with my sister; she sang through the pregnancy, then did not return to the choir. She arranged for an elderly neighbor who was a member at the Episcopal church to walk me there; I suppose I was seven or eight by then. Every Sunday I walked the single block to church with our neighbor, crossing our street and one other, and went into the back door that led to the parish hall of the Church of the Advent.

Advent was different from Martini in several important ways. First of all, my Sunday school class attended the first half of the Sunday Eucharist, which was called Mass. We left after the Liturgy of the Word and before the Liturgy of the Eucharist (although we didn’t call them by those names) because we weren’t allowed to take communion yet. This was the early 1970s, and in our diocese, at least, the sacrament of Confirmation was still regarded as the admission to Communion; consequently, I was confirmed when I was only nine. Nowadays most Episcopal kids, like Roman Catholic kids, have some kind of class to prepare them for First Communion, and are confirmed much later, as teens, when it can be more of a personal decision. Second, the choir at the Advent sang every week. It was a very small amateur choir of women and girls only, but they were up in the chancel leading the communion service and the hymns every week. Pretty soon I wanted to be a part of that and joined the choir for the second time.

Being allowed to attend at least part of the weekly Mass meant that I was exposed to three important influences: The 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal 1940, and the Authorised Version of the Bible. I can’t stress enough how much this heritage of literature and music, coupled with the drama of the Mass, laid down the pattern for my spirituality to this day. Every week I saw people wearing cassocks and surplices, doing special things in a special part of the church; every week I put on a vestment of my own, a red skirt, white cotta, and a lace “chapel cap” (think doily-on-my-head), and joined them up there in the chancel; every week I saw our rector in a damasked silk chasuble, a glorious tent of color, standing at the altar and opening the service with the Collect for Purity:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Every week I sang music that ranged from medieval plainsong through seventeenth and eighteenth-century tunes by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas, Tallis, Henry Purcell, and J.S. Bach, to nineteenth-century Victorian melodies and early twentieth-century composers such as Healy Willan, that great godfather of Anglican liturgical music, whose “Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena” is known to every Episcopalian I’ve ever met. Every week I saw candles lit, heard stately poetic language, saw ritual gestures made, and partook of sacred food. Nothing can erase the impact of that formation of my spirit. Show me mediocre language, bad music, clumsy ritual, and I will turn you right off. I know how it ought to be done.

The Prayerbook and the King James Bible taught me how to write, how to make subjects and verbs agree, how to handle relative and dependent clauses, how to use the colon and the semicolon as well as the comma and the period. The Hymnal taught me that music was bigger and wider than what came out of the radio, bigger than my sister’s music or even my parents’ music, which was big band and jazz. It taught me how to sing plainsong and harmonies based on the fifth rather than the third and prepared me to discover medieval music, Renaissance polyphony, and the English cathedral repertoire. The architecture of the Church of the Advent taught me how to sing, how to stand, how to hold my music up and sing over it, not into it, and how to define a space with my voice. My whole spiritual journey is built on my encounter with Anglicanism at age eight.

I’ll be coming back to explore my experiences at the Advent, and other parts of my religious history, in more detail. Stay tuned.

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