I feel confident that I can figure out 36 more things to say about faith and my church, but sharing all of this isn’t worth much if I’m skipping over the stuff people are actually interested in. So: what do you want to know? Thus far I feel like most of my ideas fall into these general categories:
- Episcopal Church history and how the church works
- Personal theology
- Interpretations of the Bible
- Politics and the church (gender/sexuality/separation/etc)
- Misconceptions about religion and religious people
Let me know if there’s a category you’d like to hear more about, one you think I’ve forgotten, or just any particular thing you want to hear about. Comments below are appreciated, but I’ll also take responses to Facebook/Twitter and messages to betterthanithought at gmail.com.
And lest you go a day without a legit fun fact: The National Cathedral in Washington D.C. is an Episcopal church. It is open to all and there is a Darth Vader gargoyle on the roof because that is how we roll.
“My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
― John Dominic Crossan
God told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and prophesy to them, to tell them they were acting badly and their city would soon be destroyed as a result. But Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. It was full of strange and hostile people. Nineveh would not have been a very welcoming place for an outsider like Jonah. As a Lutheran friend of mine once put it, “One does not simply go to Nineveh.”
So Jonah ran away. He ran away because Nineveh scared him and the task scared him. He got on a boat and sailed in the opposite direction. But God caused a storm and Jonah ended up in the sea. In the sea a big fish swallowed him up. And in that moment, that sad, terrible, scary moment, Jonah realized he had to go back. He had to do what God asked him to do. He had to go to Nineveh. He had to tell a bunch of strangers that they were all going to die.
Whether or not it comes from God, I believe we are all called to do things in this life. Maybe it’s making art or teaching children. Maybe it’s being a good father or telling the truth when it counts. These are things of substance and meaning, things that are difficult or scary, things we know must be done but we wish someone else would do them. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we probably know what these things are. We know when the task before us is something we ought to do, something we are called to do. But denial is powerful, and so is fear. So we run. We run in the opposite direction of whatever that big important thing is. And we tell ourselves we’re doing right. That it doesn’t really need to be us to do that thing. We wouldn’t be any good at it anyway.
But no matter how far or fast we run, that thing is still there. We know it’s there. And sometimes we find that running puts us in a place that is so much worse than we could have imagined. A dark place. A disappointing place. A place where we feel trapped. A place we know we were never supposed to be. If we’re lucky, the terror of this place will be powerful enough to combat the denial and fear and send us back in the right direction – send us back to do the work that we were always called to do.
There is a big fish out there for all of us. It lurks in the deep. And if you let it, it will swallow you whole. Go and do the work you were meant to do.
Even Nineveh was saved.
Religions don’t exist outside of society or in spite of society. They are society. What troubles one troubles the other. While my church has made all the necessary provisions to allow gender equality in the faith, it suffers from the same deep, unspoken, often subconscious bias that we all have in our daily secular lives.
They call it the Stained Glass Ceiling. Despite equal numbers in lay participation and ever growing numbers in clergy, women still make up a noticeably small percentage of bishops. Of the approximately 300 members of the House of Bishops (which include both current and retired bishops), less than 20 are women. Almost 27 years after the ordination of pioneer and confirmed badass Barbara Harris as the first female bishop in the Anglican communion, we haven’t even hit 10%.
The sweet t-shirt I bought from the Episcopal Women’s Caucus booth at General Convention in 2006, the year the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts-Schori was elected Presiding Bishop.
The same internalized sexism that keeps people in strict gender roles in secular society also works in the church. Women don’t feel pushed or encouraged to go after positions of leadership and authority. When they become clergy, they are less likely to be called to a large congregation, which would be the kind of experience many are looking for when electing a bishop. So while few Episcopalians would suggest that there is anything wrong or different about women that make them unfit for the role of bishop, somewhere in the back of all our minds is a nagging voice that thinks the man is a more logical choice.
The Church of England only started allowing female bishops in 2015, but there is a real and legitimate concern that they will quickly outpace the Episcopal Church. Why? Because in the Church of England bishops are appointed, not elected. It is easy to notice how many women you’ve chosen when you’re picking every bishop. But when individual dioceses are voting for their own leadership, no single diocese is to blame for once again choosing one of the male candidates over the female candidate.
In theory, it is not the job of humans to pick bishops. Rather, we are supposed to recognize who God is calling and confirm that call. That’s why announcements for ordination say that the service will take place “God willing and the people consenting.” God does not, I assume, purposely call more men than women to the office of the bishop. Which means that we, unknowingly and unintentionally, are obstructing the will of God.
Notable Episcopalian Robin Williams used to say the Episcopal Church was Catholic Lite: “same religion, half the guilt.” If you come to an Episcopal service you’ll find that it looks a lot like a Catholic service. The priest and acolytes wear robes, there are candles and an altar table. The basic service structure is also the same: enter with song, hear scripture (old testament, new testament, psalm, and a gospel), listen to a sermon, pass the peace, take communion, leave with a song.
However when it comes to theology and doctrine, the Episcopal Church often has more in common with protestants. In this way we occupy a strange place in between the two – neither one nor the other. It’s one of the reasons we find ourselves such a common resting place for self-described “recovering Catholics,” especially openly gay and transgender ones. In fact we’re a common resting place for a lot of people burned by religion, with the majority of our members joining the church as adults.
This one is such a non-issue for me personally I normally wouldn’t even think to bring it up, but every once in a while some sensationalized news story crosses my feed and I feel the need to make myself clear. I have no problem with fictionalized representations of witches, the occult, the supernatural, or anything vaguely related to the trappings of paganism. I tend to be pretty into that kind of stuff. For reference, see my beloved X-Files DVD collection, lovely set of tarot cards, and “Ten Points for Hufflepuff” t-shirt.
I have never actually met another Christian in real life who had a problem with fictionalized depictions of witchcraft. I’ve only seen such people in movies or read articles about them online. In theory the issue is that witchcraft is a form of pagan worship, and pagan ritual is evil. However fictional witches almost never bear any resemblance to actual pagans, and I don’t have any problems with pagans anyway. Most church traditions came out of pagan rituals. In fact as far as I know, the calendar of Christian holidays is based entirely on ancient pagan festivals and days we’re pretty sure saints died.
There are a lot of church groups that like using magic and fantasy stories as discussion pieces, though it’s unlikely you’ll ever read a news story about a really lovely Lutheran Lord of the Rings reading group. But any narrative that asks you to consider themes of love, sacrifice, mercy, and compassion is worth the modern Christian’s consideration.
I try to be respectful of how others choose to interpret the faith, but personally I find the rejection of magic to be childish.
I’ll talk more about patriarchy and the church in another post, but I wanted to get this out there early: there are women priests. There are a lot of them, in fact. There are women bishops. There aren’t as many as we’d like, unfortunately. However the two highest positions in the Episcopal Church (Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies) were both held by women from 2006-2015. Gender is a protected class in our church canons, meaning churches are not to discriminate against gender when considering anyone for any position.
There was a bible verse I was trying to find today, and in looking it up I made the foolish mistake of reading the comments section on a religious article. “Why do people need a bible verse to convince them to do the right thing?” a commentator asked.
I don’t think people need bible verses to make good decisions, however I have noticed the right verse can do wonders towards pushing me in the right direction. For example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died today. To put it mildly, I was not a fan of Justice Scalia’s work on the Supreme Court. I disagreed with a number of decisions he made over the years. One could go so far as to call him an enemy of mine, since he fought on the opposing side of political battles that meant a great deal to me. But today on my social media accounts I was bombarded with “thanks for the empty seat” sentiments and “ding dong the witch is dead” memes. Something about it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t find the words to describe what felt wrong. So I found something else to push me in the right direction.
Ginsburg and Scalia ride an elephant in India in 1994.
The verse is a bit different in Matthew and Luke, but the sentiment is the same: There’s no virtue in only showing love to people you already like. It’s easy to love people who love us. It’s easy to like people who agree with us. Being nice back is not a struggle, it’s our natural human response. Everybody does it. I’ll bet the same people posting memes now will call Ruth Bader Ginsburg a natural treasure when her time comes. And while I’d say she is, so was Scalia. Because both have spent lives in service to a country they loved, speaking and writing intelligently on matters they cared passionately about. Perhaps it is no surprise that they were such good friends.
The sun shines on both the good and the bad. The rain feeds the crops of righteous and unrighteous alike. So it would seem that God’s standard for judgement is quite different than ours, and perhaps that is from whence we should take our cue. Jesus said to treat others as you would want to be treated. But there’s an unspoken caveat to that statement: do it even if you don’t like how they are treating you. So consider how you would want others to speak about you after you’re gone, and do likewise. It’s not always easy. But if you need some encouragement, here’s something you could read:
Inside all of us is a voice that guides. This voice tells us when we’ve done wrong, and it pushes us towards what is right. We often call this voice the conscience. In some churches, we call it the Holy Spirit. To me, the conscience is the piece of the Divine that lives in all of us, the collective pull towards unity over division. If God is the name we give to that which is right and good in the universe, than the conscience is the part of that God that lives inside each breath of life.
I’m an Episcopalian, which is the noun used to describe a member of the Episcopal Church (FYI if you want to describe something of or relating to the Episcopal Church, the adjective form is Episcopal). My church has been around for about 230 years, and started after the American Revolution when members of the Church of England found they could no longer be a part of a denomination that required clergy to swear allegiance to the British monarchy.
As a descendant of the Church of England the Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion, an international group of churches that share similar traditions and beliefs. Recently the leaders of the Communion suspended the Episcopal Church from voting. This was in response to our decision to start conducting same-gender marriages in all dioceses. This suspension is in effect until our next church-wide governing convention, but there’s no reason to believe we’d go back on our stance. As Jim Naughton said, “We can’t repent what is not sin.”
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is the season of fasting, and modern Christianity tends to take a broader look at Lenten fasting as being any form of discipline. This means that while some may choose to take something away (sugar, candy, alcohol, Facebook, etc), others may choose to take on something new (daily prayer/meditation, gratitude journaling, etc).
For the last several years my Lenten disciplines have been somewhat lacking, both in practice and in purpose. The idea with Lent is not to give something up for deprivation’s sake, but to make more space in your life for the divine. And I haven’t really had a good idea for that until now.
For the next 40 days and 6 Sundays (that’s your first fun church fact – Lent is 46 calendar days long) I will post one thing every day about my church, my spiritual life, or the Christian faith as I see it. I will do this publicly, which is what will make it hard. I come from a denomination that shies away from public pronouncements of faith. Episcopalians are not natural evangelists. Those who know me well may find my discomfort surprising because I tend to talk about my faith rather freely. Free does not mean easy however, and it is still difficult to be honest about my religion when I know so many of my friends don’t approve of it. Yet in recent months I’ve had several people approach me because they wanted to talk about faith with someone and didn’t feel comfortable doing so with others in their social group. So perhaps being obvious about my religion isn’t such a bad thing after all.
It can be difficult to make a case for Christianity when the loudest voices don’t represent my faith, and my faith doesn’t incline itself towards shouting. So this is me shouting. Every day. For forty (six) days.