faith, personal

How I Became an Episcopalian

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.

book reviews, faith, history, literature, personal, science

Book Reviews, January 2015

Here is the first installment of mini book reviews that I promised earlier this year.  I’m planning on writing these reviews for nearly every book I read, first posting them on and then collecting them monthly to post here (so you can eagerly anticipate the next installment on February 28th!).  My goals for this project are twofold.  Most importantly, I want to make sure that I am paying attention and digesting what I read.  I’m hoping that the process of writing these reviews will encourage closer reading and understanding on my part.  The secondary goal is to provide useful book recommendations for anyone who reads my blog (I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the fiction reviews).  Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments.

  • Saving Darwin by Karl W. Giberson is a decent overview of the creation/evolution debate from a theistic evolutionist, if not as in depth as I would sometimes like.  But sometimes it’s good to step back and view many facets of a debate instead of focusing solely on particulars.  While I am in the same camp as Giberson (someone of faith who accepts evolution), I am still learning much about the issue.  So while I’ve enjoyed more thorough treatments of the Scopes trial by Edward Larson or the history of young earth creationism by Ronald Numbers, it was helpful to read a summary of the U.S. court cases since Scopes and an analysis of the “dark companions” of evolution such as social Darwinism and eugenics.  Giberson is well read on all aspects of the debate so I found his end notes especially helpful in preparing a further reading list to delve deeper on some of these issues.  As a Christian, I especially liked the section where he wrestled with intelligent design, admitting that he wished that the argument from design were true.  He cannot accept it theologically though because of what it would say about God when one considers bad designs (human knees that wear out) or seemingly horrific designs (various parasites).  Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone of faith willing to consider evolution and looking for a solid overview of the debate.
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer is an enjoyable Sherlock Holmes adventure, filling in a perceived gap in the canonical works by Arthur Conan Doyle.  I only finished reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories last year (though they were given to me when I was in junior high by my older brother—thanks Alex!), so I was looking for something more now that the BBC’s Sherlock is between seasons as well.  Meyer’s book was a decent “fix” for my itch.  Watson narrates, as he does most of the original stories, and his voice is a credible facsimile.  I never felt taken out of the story because of the narration.  The plot concerns Holmes’s addiction to cocaine (the “seven-per-cent solution” also mentioned in the original stories) and his heretofore unmentioned meeting with Sigmund Freud.  It’s all very clever and well done, but that’s part of what I didn’t love about the book.  It seems that books (or movies) like these—prequels, reboots, or continuations of famous characters or series—often succumb too much to fan service instead of trying to do something new.  By fan service, I mean bringing back beloved elements or tying together every last unexplained detail in the original or having a huge crossover event (world’s most famous detective meets the father of psychoanalysis!).  But maybe it’s the predictability of the original series that makes it beloved in the first place.  So a reasonable facsimile can keep people happy in the meantime.  I was reasonably entertained.
  • Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert E. Webber is a book I needed to read.  Perhaps it would have been even better if I had read it when I first started attending an Episcopal church in grad school.  The book is mostly a story, the first half Webber’s personal story from evangelicalism to the Episcopal church, and the second half the stories of other like-minded evangelical pilgrims on the Canterbury trail, so to speak.  Webber frames his own story as a search for six needs that he found fulfilled in the Anglican tradition: mystery, worship, sacraments, historic identity, ecumenicalism, and a holistic spirituality.  Sometimes I wished he would spend more time on any of these topics, but he was more concerned with telling his story instead of deep analysis of liturgy.  I suppose that means I need to look somewhere else for that kind of book.  I found Webber’s and his co-pilgrim’s stories comforting as they found richness and freedom in the same way as I have in the Episcopal church.  The book is not meant as a critique of the evangelical churches that they left, but merely a way to tell through personal spiritual journeys how not everyone’s needs are met in an evangelical church.  Webber points out the many strengths of evangelicalism and how the two traditions can learn from each other.  I think this is a book that any evangelical who is interested in liturgical worship should read.  Episcopalians should also seek out this book to find out why evangelicals (like me) were attracted to their door. [Please note that there is a newer edition of the book which keeps all of Webber’s text and story, but replaces the original co-pilgrims’ stories with newer examples.  I have not read this new edition, so I cannot say if I prefer it over the original.]
  • The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould is an excellent history of science that argues against biological determinism of intelligence.  His main argument is that intelligence is not a single, innate, heritable, quantifiable entity, able to be ranked.  By going back and looking at the data and methodology of key figures along the way, Gould is able to show where scientists erred.  He shows how easy it was for scientists’ bias to affect how they measured the size of skulls in the 19th century or how IQ tests for U.S. Army recruits in World War I were inadequately administered and the content biased against immigrants and those without formal education.  This history is humbling for science, a warning always to be aware of bias.  However, I had trouble following his arguments against the theory of general intelligence (g) by Spearman and later Burt.  It involves factor analysis, a method of statistics initially invented to analyze mental tests (but used for many other things).  I don’t have any background in statistics, so I couldn’t tell if his critiques hit the mark or not.  But I did understand when he pointed out that the correlations between a set of mental tests could just as easily show the advantages or deficits of environment as a biological IQ.  He also explained how using other statistical methods on the same data, it is possible to see multiple intelligences (as in Gardner) instead of one general intelligence underlying everything.  Gould wrote the book originally in 1981, but revised it after The Bell Curve came out in 1994 so that he could add a few supplementary essays rebutting it.  The Bell Curve made a big splash when it was published, but Gould feels that it was merely rehashing the same biological determinism of intelligence that he had already shown was mistaken.  I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of science or the science of intelligence. [Please note the comment below about the controversy surrounding this book]