I recently finished Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, and it made me think about my own spiritual journey to the Episcopal church away from my evangelical roots. How did I end up here?
I feel like I stumbled into the Episcopal church. Growing up, I attended an evangelical church that emphasized missionary work. Not as charismatic as Assemblies of God, not as strict as some Baptists, but it fit comfortably in the spectrum of evangelical churches in America. We didn’t follow a liturgy, though the service followed a similar pattern every week: a few hymns, some announcements, a pastoral prayer, a scripture reading, and then a sermon on that reading that took up the majority of the service. Once a month, on the first Sunday, we added communion to the service after the sermon. In college I attended a tiny Evangelical Free church led by one of my professors. He was an English professor, and was into C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and Milton and Spenser and the Reformation in England, so looking back, it makes sense that he incorporated parts of the Book of Common Prayer into the service. It was the first time I had taken communion every week, and it made sense to me. I now wondered why other churches didn’t have communion weekly.
But I wouldn’t actually try an Episcopal church until grad school. And that first time, I was not ready for the Episcopal church. When I first went to grad school I had imagined myself as a light on a hill, a witness to godless academia. It fit with my earlier images of myself. While in elementary school I had listened to a missionary doctor serving in Africa who had amazing stories of providing care to the sick in an exotic locale with animals I had only seen in the zoo. It sounded like a dream job. I had no idea what it took to become a doctor, let alone a missionary, but for a few years that’s what I aspired to. It soon became apparent that I was not going to be a doctor. When my younger brother fell off the porch into the front bushes and gashed the back of his head, I was next to useless. I didn’t like all the blood. I briefly held a wash cloth to the wound at my mother’s direction, but I didn’t apply enough pressure. She took him to the emergency room by herself. A few years later I threw up just looking at a picture of open heart surgery in a freshmen health class. My older sister had to pick me up from school. So not exactly doctor material.
The first time I tried an Episcopal church I was a new grad student, finding my footing in a college town that I imagined was a liberal enclave (and it sort of was; this was my foreign land). The church was on campus, and it fit all of my stereotypes of what a church infected by academia would look like. I don’t remember the liturgy. What sticks out is that the priest was a woman, though in my terminology of the time, I thought she was the pastor. I had never been in a church with a woman for the pastor. It was exotic. I was aware that there were women pastors, but the church denomination I grew up in didn’t allow it. I didn’t personally have strong feelings on it, but I knew there was something in Paul’s epistles that gave guidance on the issue (rather forcefully, it turns out: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man”). But maybe it was a cultural issue in the first century to have a man as the teacher of scripture. Maybe it said more about Paul and his situation than it did for us today. I didn’t know. All I knew was that I had never seen a woman up front as the pastor. It was jarring, and it didn’t feel right. I was actually squeamish about the idea. I certainly wasn’t ready for it.
It didn’t help when she talked about inner peace and centering and the benefits of yoga. I can’t remember if that was in the sermon or if it was information about a group that met at the church. Either way, it didn’t sound like the Bible to me. It was self help alternative spirituality stuff. The importance of breathing. There was even a mention of a contemplative maze at some retreat center. By the time everyone went up for the Eucharist, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to partake. I wasn’t sure this church was even Christian. How could I take communion if they didn’t understand it the same way that I did? I’d be essentially saying that I agreed with all of their views by joining them at the altar. I was definitely judging the people there based on my limited understanding of what church should be. I was more than a little self-righteous.
A few years later I drove my little red car stuffed to the brim with my clothes and books to North Dakota in pursuit of another graduate degree. I didn’t know anyone there and didn’t even have a place to live when I arrived. I was completely starting from scratch. That’s probably why I was willing to try the Episcopal church again despite my earlier experience. I first went to a few different evangelical churches in town, but I wanted something new, something different. It’s always been a struggle for me to go to new places and meet new people. I get very nervous about my own perceived social awkwardness. I avoid talking to people and introducing myself. It’s a self-defeating cycle. But church is basically a known quantity, so that makes going to a new one not quite as difficult.
I remember pulling into the parking lot of St. Paul’s with anticipation. Something made me think that this experience would be different. I think I was different, less judgmental at this point. I took my seat in a pew near the back. During the service I had trouble keeping up in the prayer book and the hymnal. I listened to the scripture readings and sermon. I knelt and prayed along with the prayers and confession of sin. And when it came time to go up front for receiving the bread and wine of the Eucharist, I shuffled up with the rest of the congregation. I cautiously did what I saw others doing, kneeling and holding out my hands in supplication. I liked participating in the service, singing the Gloria and the Sanctus. I liked getting on my knees to confess and receive communion. I liked the beautiful words of the prayers and the liturgy. It immediately felt comfortable this time. It felt like home.
After the service, parishioners gathered for coffee hour. I ducked out the first few weeks because of my social phobias, but I liked the aspect of community it fostered even if I wasn’t yet a member of the community. The church I grew up in didn’t have coffee hour, but they did have a giant vestibule where people could chat and connect. I’ve tried many churches, though, where everyone is sort of ushered out the door after the service. While that agrees with my anti-social proclivities, it doesn’t seem to be the actual point of church.
To feel more a part of the community, I joined the choir for the remainder of my two years in North Dakota. When I was leaving, moving out of the state, the organist/choir director gave me a 100 year old prayer book in which she had inscribed, “Stay with us,” by which she meant I should stay in the Episcopal church even though I was moving away. And I have.