10 Years As An Episcopalian: A Progress Report
The Decalogue: Traditional
God spake these words, and said: I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none other gods but me. Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law
New York City has its share of glorious autumn mornings when it's tempting to commune with God by taking an extra long Sunday walk, rather than finding one's place in a pew. Oct. 3, 1993, was just such a day.
I was staying over the weekend on the upper West side after arriving early for a weekday conference at Columbia University on religion and the news media. I decided that if I was in the city that is the spiritual heart of the Episcopal Church then I should visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Besides, this was the feast day of St. Francis and friends told me not to miss the media circus at the cathedral's annual blessing of the animals.
Liturgical dances with wolves is, literally, one way to describe this green high mass, which centers on the spectacular music of jazz musician Paul Winter's ``Missa Gaia (Earth Mass).''
In the Kyrie, the saxophonist and his ensemble improvised to the taped cry of a timber wolf. A humpback whale led the Sanctus.
Skeptic Carl Sagan preached, covering turf from the joyful ``bisexual embraces'' of earthworms to the greedy sins of capitalists. The earth, he stressed, is one body made of creatures who eat and drink each other, inhabit each other's bodies, and form a sacred ``web of interaction and interdependence that embraces the planet.''
Most of the faithful came for the blessing of pets, a few of which grew restless during the long service. Several rows of large dogs nipped at the dancers who were racing through in the aisles. At other times they howled along with the piercing tones of the amplified soprano sax. Nevertheless, the final procession was spectacular and included an elephant, a camel, a vulture, a swarm of bees in a glass frame, a bowl of blue-green algae and an elegantly decorated banana.
After the service was over, a line of men from the choir captured the mood of the day by cheering ``New York! New York!'' as they waved to television crews on the steps outside the cathedral.
But, for me, the most symbolic moment of the service came at the offertory. Before the bread and wine were brought to the altar, the musicians offered a rhythmic chant that soared into the cathedral vault:
OBA ye Oba yo Yemanja
Oba ye Oba yo O Yemanja
Oby ye Oba yo O O Ausar
Oba ye Oba yo O Ra Ausar
Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens
Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens
Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life
Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life
Praises to Ausar, ruler of Amenta, the realm of the ancestors
Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and the resurrected soul.
—From the printed worship booklet for ``Liturgy and Sermon, Earth Mass — Missa Gaia,'' distributed on Oct. 3, 1993, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Then the congregation joined in and everyone sang ``Let all mortal flesh keep silence.''
I sat down, confused. As a journalist, I have attended many interfaith services and I know all about the kinds of rites now being used at many seminaries and New Age conferences. I knew all about the trendy reputation of this particular cathedral.
But this was a Sunday morning Mass, led by a diocesan bishop. Once again, I checked the printed liturgy.
What was going on?
Ra? The sun god of Egypt? Ausar?
Meanwhile, the service continued. At the altar, New York Bishop Richard Grein raised his arms and began the consecration prayers.
Still, my heart was troubled. For the first time, I decided not to receive communion at an Episcopal altar. I was not sure what I would be receiving.
Days later, I realized that my visit to St. John the Divine came on the tenth anniversary of the Sunday when my wife and I joined a confirmation class to prepare to become Episcopalians.
58. For Guidance
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices. … Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Back in 1984, I wrote an article called ``One Year As An Episcopalian: A Progress Report'' for an Episcopal newspaper. Several papers reprinted it, including the newsletter of the Anglican Institute, and people invited me to speak about the article in a number of Church settings.
People seemed interested in evangelicals who were setting out on the Canterbury trail.
My article was positive, but did include a few gentle jabs. For example, I found it strange that many Episcopalians didn't seem very familiar with the Book of Common Prayer's doctrinal content. A few were confused or even angry when I found support for many orthodox beliefs in the pages of that supposedly familiar book in their pews.
One part of my story bothered more people than any other -- my defense of the traditional doctrine that accepting Christ as Savior is a decision with eternal consequences.
The editor of one publication even excised the following:
``As for me, I have ... absorbed some thoughts from C.S. Lewis. There is a door of choice between man and God. The only lock is on man's side of the door. Or, to use the image of The Great Divorce, maybe there is a crack in the turf of God's presence and some choose to create a tiny private hell in the midst of heaven -- anything to keep from confessing their faults and releasing their own cherished guilts.''
Simply stated, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, the Life. Thus, I believe in heaven and hell and that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone. I quickly learned that many Episcopalians disagree, especially those with clerical collars. In response, I quoted the prayer book's ringing affirmations of traditional doctrines about God, Christ and salvation. I also began asking if this issue was linked to our church's statistical decline, in contrast with more evangelistic Anglican flocks in many other parts of the world.
After one of my talks, a cathedral dean offered a fascinating interpretation of my love of quoting the prayer book -- saying this proved that I was still, in my heart, a Baptist. Many Episcopalians, he said, would reject my literal readings of the creeds and many other parts of the prayer book.
Turning the conversation back to universalism and the uniqueness of Jesus, I opened my prayer book and read ``Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ.'' This statement begins by rejecting all who say, ``That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth.''
The dean shook his head and said, ``There you go again, quoting the prayer book.''
From the Examination
A bishop in God's holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ's resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ's sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings. You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church. ...
Bishop Moses Tay is soft-spoken, but not timid. The shepherd of the Anglican flock in Singapore knows what it is like to have to preach in a marketplace that is crowded with the claims of other gods.
Today, Christians everywhere must learn to recognize pagan voices, said Tay. In Singapore, Christians know that people worship other gods. They recognize paganism when they see it. But what about America?
Preaching in Denver in 1992, the bishop took as a text Revelation 2: 12-16, in which the exalted Christ says to the angel of the Church of Pergamum, ``I know where you are living, where Satan's throne is.''
Is it possible, asked the bishop, that Satan had set a throne in that Church? ``Would we be shocked if that is true, that Satan has his throne in some of our churches?''
This text offers two danger signs, Tay noted. The first is the presence of corrupt teachers who bring other gods and idols into church life through forms of syncretistic worship. ``I believe this is ... very prevalent within some quarters of the Anglican Communion,'' he said. ``I say this with some shame and sadness, because this is the very thing that the Bible forbids.''
Danger sign No. 2, he added, is compromise on issues of sexual immorality.
The bishop didn't need to say much to explain this point. Even in Singapore, it's impossible to escape headlines about the Episcopal Church.
Afterwards, Tay said it's tempting to focus on debates about sex. But these clashes are almost beside the point as parts of the church have embraced other gods and universalism.
Yes, sex has made headlines during the past 10 years.
Even in the Episcopal Church, ``Sexuality: A Divine Gift'' - - which redefined lovemaking as a sacrament -- was news. A nationally known priest knocking Mother Teresa's sex life was news. The Bishop of Newark marched through the media.
Many other news flashes graced the past year or two.
At least five U.S. bishops have openly ordained sexually active gays and lesbians, and others have said they plan to do so. Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning was taped as he told the gay caucus Integrity that traditionalist fears are ``B.S.'' An AIDS pamphlet for Episcopal young people mistakenly included a toll- free number for Manfinder 800, which bills itself as ``America's wildest, hottest phone sex service.'' House of Deputies President Pamela Chinnis told Integrity that, as the ``mother of a gay son,'' she pledged her vigilance and advocacy on homosexual issues. Bishop Otis Charles announced he is gay, soon after his retirement as Episcopal Divinity School's dean. Integrity member Thomas Chu was named national staff officer for young adult and higher education ministries.
And so forth and so on.
Meanwhile, the official Episcopal teaching on sex outside of marriage remains: ``Physical sexual expression is appropriate only within the lifelong monogamous `union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind.' '' The Prayer Book continues to proclaim that ``The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation. ... It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.''
For now, all of the Ten Commandments remain on the books.
Bishop Tay reminded his listeners to remember the signs that reveal the presence of Satan's throne in a church -- the worship of false gods and compromise on sexual immorality. These very weeds are plaguing the modern church and Satan is sowing the seeds of confusion, said the bishop.
But Christians must not flee, when faced with confusion and darkness. They must proclaim that darkness is not the same as light, said Tay.
``It is in that growing darkness, even darkness within the church, that we are called to be light,'' he said. ``It is in the increasing darkness that light is necessary.''
7. For the Church
Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.
Not long after the St. Francis service at St. John the Divine, I attended another unusual communion service.
In this case, I was in Nashville working on several articles about the Jerusalem of country music. On another sunny Sunday morning, I slipped into a pew at Christ (Pentecostal) Church, a booming congregation attended by many professional musicians. I was prepared for an emotionally uplifting service, a fiery sermon and powerful music.
Then it came time for the Lord's Supper.
The faithful bowed their heads as associate pastor Dan Scott raised his arms and began to pray: ``Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your Holy Name; through Christ our Lord.''
And all the people said, ``Amen.''
Once again, I was caught off guard and it was fair to ask: What was going on?
In his book, The Emerging American Church, Scott has offered his answer. He is convinced that creeds, sacraments and apostolic teaching have never been more relevant to the lives of people caught in a whirlpool of change. But the powers that be and many ``high potentates'' in churches are dashing off to worship at the altar of relevance, according to Scott.
But millions of Americans don't want to go.
Instead, they are joining ``churches like ours, churches led by people so backward ... that they still believe in a physical resurrection, in the Holy Scriptures, in the effectiveness of the sacraments, in the immutability of God's law, in our Savior's virgin birth and in the literal truth of his promised second return. The people excommunicated their bishops,'' writes Scott.
At times, it's hard to make sense of it all.
Some people praise Ra in a cathedral, while others recite ancient liturgies in a Pentecostal megachurch. Freewheeling charismatic flocks are petitioning to join Orthodoxy, with their clergy waiting in the same entry line as Episcopal priests.
Clearly, many on the Canterbury trail will journey on to Constantinople or Antioch. A few will stop in Rome. But it also must be said that many will seek a church that embraces the creeds, biblical authority, renewed worship and an openness to women in ministry.
What will happen to the high-Church evangelicals?
It is hard to study the Episcopal Church and other old-line Protestant bodies over the past 30 years without noting the spiritual and statistical importance of two groups: converts longing for catholic roots and the frozen chosen seeking Pentecostal fire.
Where will these people find common prayer in the future?
Where will my family kneel to pray?
New churches could emerge, but will immediately face a major problem. An Episcopal Church needs bishops and clergy, yet the lives of ordained ministers are, by definition, woven into the established life of the church.
The first Episcopal joke I learned says Episcopalians will do anything for God, as long as it's not tacky.
It is hard for establishment people to be tacky. Sadly, it is often easier to change prayer books and creeds than to change paychecks and property laws. Mundane details of daily life loom larger than eternal truths and doctrine. The Church Triumphant's pension plan does not offer benefits in this world's banks.
After 10 years, I have decided we are racing to a crossroads.
The bottom line: Will the establishment collapse, financially, soon enough to allow the rebuilding of an Episcopal Church that will claim, if not proclaim, enough orthodox faith for millions of creedal Christians to continue to draw paychecks from it and to make donations to it?
From the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
In 1992, the editors of The Witness did a courageous thing.
In an genuine act of openness, they asked the leaders of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry if they could mark the magazine's 75th birthday with a conference at the seminary.
Thus, on Oct. 24, some of the Episcopal Church's most articulate liberals gathered for 11 hours of seminars, forums and worship with the students and faculty of that small evangelical seminary in the struggling steel town of Ambridge, Pa.
Naturally, many people on both sides were skeptical.
Before the meeting, Witness editor Jeanie Wylie-Kellerman was unusually candid: ``The intent is not to reconcile our communities. It is not to reach consensus. It is not to convert. ... It is possible that we share neither a Lord nor a faith, only a baptism that is laden with irony.''
To which I say, "Amen."
This is the essence of the most important issue facing the Episcopal Church in the upcoming year and in whatever future the Lord grants us.
The structure of the Church is an important issue, because the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is important.
Sexuality outside of marriage is an important issue, because the authority of Holy Scripture is important.
Salvation through Christ alone is an important issue, because Christology and resurrection are at the heart of the apostolic faith.
But today one issue looms above all others: Who is our God?
People who worship different gods are going to have different faiths. It should not surprise us when they have trouble agreeing on the meaning of revelation, marriage, ordination, the church, salvation or resurrection. Singing praises to Ra, or Mars, or Sophia, or whoever -- and singing a Christian hymn in the next breath -- doesn't help matters.
In fact, it makes it worse.
In the final novel in The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis describes a terrifying time when a corrupt teacher -- a cynical ape -- claims that the Christ figure, the great lion Aslan, has returned and is twisting the laws previously revealed to his people.
One of the most confusing messages is that Aslan and Tash, the terrible god of Narnia's hostile neighbors, are one and the same. Hence, ``all who are enlightened'' pray to Tashlan, while believing that all faith is a sham.
Soon, a deathly smell and a smoky vision drifts into the land of Narnia. It is roughly the shape of a man, but with the head of a bird of prey, with a curved, cruel beak -- a figure remarkably similar to the Egyptian god, Ra.
Apparently, says one friend of Aslan, ``there is a real Tash, after all.'' Yes, another responds, ``People shouldn't call for demons unless they really mean what they say.''
Later, Tash claims those who worshipped him. Aslan dismisses him by saying, ``Begone, Monster, and take your lawful prey to your own place.''
This is the issue that is before us. We can only honor one God. In the end, we may have to decide between honoring the one Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or honoring the Episcopal Church.
We can, and must, pray that God will save the Episcopal Church. We can also find comfort in the fact that God only blows out lamps when it is time to let the fire fall somewhere else.
60. For Protection
Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of thy servants towards the attainment of everlasting salvation; that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, they may ever be defended by thy gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.