Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Introducing my top ten . . .

Pig writes: "What I'm really curious about is why you have chosen the Episcopal Church. What do you love about it? Do they have a particular set of beliefs that ring true to you? What are the basic tenents of the Episcopal Church and what makes it different from other churches? Is it that you just like your particular Episcopal Church and its work, or is it the whole Episcopalian experience that works for you, because (and I really am not intending to be rude) with all its tradition, it just seems kind of an odd fit considering your wonderful but rather . . . ahem . . . irreverent sense of humor, and seemingly no nonsese type of personality."

Bethany writes: "Yes, all that she said! Tell us about the greenhouse of your faith."

First, a caveat: there's no way I'd presume to speak for all Episcopalians. What follows is based in my understanding and experience and certainly subject to factual error and theological weakmindedness. You'll notice I use the words "tendency" and "often" a great deal. That's because it's impossible to pin down any one idea to which all Episcopalians would agree.

Second, a bit of history and polity to frame the discussion: The Episcopal Church is the American child of the Church of England which broke from Rome around the same time as the Reformation. Neither Catholic, nor Protestant, the Episcopal Church is something in between. The Church of England has other "kids" spread far and wide around the globe. These churches are loosely affiliated through the Anglican Communion. (Thus, the Episcopal Church is an American expression of Anglicanism, and to some degree the words "Episcopal" and "Anglican" can be used interchangeably.) The Archibishop of Canterbury is the figurehead and spiritual leader for the Anglican Communion, but there is no central governing authority for the worldwide communion. That's part what gets us headlines; there's no consensus right now about how much authority the Communion should have over its member churches.

And now, here's the first installment of the top ten things I love about the Episcopal Church:

10. The Three-Legged Stool

Way back in the way back (around 1594), Richard Hooker an English theologian gave us a way of approaching our faith that we now call the three-legged stool. While some churches place their emphasis on a literal reading of Scripture, Episcopalians rely on a balance of Scripture, reason, and tradition. Alone, each of these three is vulnerable to distortion; together, they allow us to discern God's will.

We believe that God intends us to use reason when we approach Scripture. So, many Episcopalians tend to consider things like cultural context when interpretting scripture, and we often look for the overarching narrative to guide our lives rather than looking for a prescriptive do-and-don't list. The Anglican approach to Scripture tends to be wholistic rather than reductionistic--the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Metaphor matters. So we tend not to pluck out particular verses as proofs. That's why I'll never win a Biblical argument with someone of an evangelical persuasion.
Tradition also has value; the wisdom of those who have come before us can shed light on our present journey with God.

Note the order: Scripture comes first, then reason, and tradition comes last. The order implies the relative weight each "leg" should bear, but if any one is missing, the stool falls down.

What does this mean to me? It means that I can approach the Word of God with curiosity and a reverent playfulness that is reminiscent of Judaic midrash. The Word is not something to be merely decoded and parsed, but a living narrative that can inform and vivify my life. The contradictions in Scripture no longer cause anxiety, or need to be explained away, but like disparate elements in a good poem create a "rub" that reveals even more richness. Similarly, tradition is not a shackle, but something lovely and rare to bump up against my contemporary experience and see what sparks fly. I absolutely love the complexity and constant discovery that this three-pronged approach creates. And when this unfolds in community, the Holy Spirit gets a chance to really shake things up.


  1. Well I take it back. Not such an odd fit after all. I find this fascinating. Thank you for educating me. I am anxious to hear more.

  2. Yeah, me too! Richness and depth.

    "Tradition is not a shackle, but something lovely and rare to bump up against my contemporary experience and see what sparks fly."

    ~I love this.

    Which leg do you most enjoy?

    Looking forward to more ruminations.