Christianity Lite? Puhleeeez.

Authentic-Christianity.013Back in 2003, when I decided to leave the Catholic Church and to be received into the Episcopal Church, people told me that I had chosen “Catholic Lite,” as in “all the grace but none of the guilt.” Just this morning, I read a blog by a woman who has read the Pew Research Center’s report on America’s Changing Religious Landscape, and she concludes that liberal mainline churches like the Episcopal Church are declining because we don’t “go all the way” with our Christianity; we have catered to the masses, whereas evangelical Christian churches are gaining in numbers due to their strict absolutist stances on social issues such as same-sex marriage.

To this author, to “go all the way” means to swim upstream against societal currents and to cleave to a life of prayer and Bible study. Evangelical Christians, she writes, are paying the greatest cost–giving themselves over completely to Christianity and paying a personal price.

The implication is that progressive Christian churches are practicing Christianity Lite, a version that demands little of us spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. It’s ironic that, on the one hand, the author points out how the Episcopal Church and other progressive churches are declining in number, and on the other, that we have not paid a price for our Christian commitments.

I have never found Christianity more demanding of me than in the Episcopal Church. And it’s precisely because the Episcopal Church does not embrace many absolutist statements, but rather requires me and other followers of Jesus to pray, worship, study, and serve to figure out what the heck God requires of us in a given moment.

In the Episcopal Church, I took Bible study after Bible study. In the Episcopal Church, I completed the four-year Education for Ministry course (a seminary-like curriculum of Bible, history, and theology for laypeople). In the Episcopal Church, I have routinely worshipped alongside people who did not all agree with one another, and this has required me to practice deep listening, peacemaking and conflict resolution and has reminded me to remain humble about my own positions on matters.

My religious order (the Third Order, Society of St. Francis) is an Episcopal/Anglican religious order that requires me to balance prayer, service, and study in community with other Third Order Franciscans around the world. We follow St. Francis of Assisi’s 9-point Rule of Life. The easy part is that tertiaries tend to be pretty compatible. The hard part is the Franciscan Rule of Life–it ain’t easy.

The governance of my church demands that I discern frequently about who our leaders should be and what we should permit or not permit. As a result, I have had impassioned discussions with fellow Christians about whether anyone should be allowed to take Communion at our Eucharist services, or whether only baptized Christians should be allowed. I’ve debated others about bishop candidates, same-sex marriage, and divestment from fossil fuels.  In other denominations, I would have no say in these matters.

Having a say requires us to think theologically and to pray about what our worship practices are, how we are living out the Gospel in our communities and ecosystems, who we are in relation to each other, and who we are in relation to God on a regular basis. That is hard work.

We do have existing standards and practices in the Episcopal Church, and we say our faith and practice rest upon the Creeds and the confluence of Scripture, tradition, and reason. Still, those are three mighty rivers to navigate, and they often are turbulent.

Last Sunday night, I was trying to summarize what the Episcopal Church was in 30 minutes to my church’s New Members class, and I briefly described our governance, our worship, and our reliance on Scripture, tradition and reason. Invariably, I get a question such as, “What is the Episcopal Church’s position on _____?” or “What does the Episcopal Church believe about _____?” While we have beliefs, the students’ questions are usually about a topic on which other denominations have sure teachings and our denomination does not. This past Sunday, for example, I was asked, “Does the Episcopal Church believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation?” (She wanted to know what we say is happening to the bread and wine during the prayers of consecration in a Eucharist service.)

Neither as a firm commitment, I explained. We describe the “Real Presence” of Christ, a mysterious presence that we do not define precisely. (Of course, transubstantiation and consubstantiation contain mystery, too.) This allows us to accommodate the theological commitments and religious sensibilities of those with a more Catholic understanding as well as those with a more Protestant understanding–as well as people who are thoroughly confused or don’t care, but just feel drawn to it. This requires flexibility and understanding and discernment on our parts, I added. It leaves room for God to keep teaching us.

I told them this story: I was serving wine (acting as chalice bearer) at our weekly, ecumenical Communion service at Yale Divinity School. To some people, the wine is wine. To others, it is the blood of Christ. To others, it’s both, or it’s confusing, but they know it’s important and they want it without needing to figure it out. As I offered the chalice, a student grabbed the full chalice and spilled some on the floor. The next student stepped on the puddle of wine–or in my case, blood. On the one hand, I did not wish to offend the students who had just been served and had a different understanding of Communion. On the other hand, my religious sensibilities were in an uproar. Jesus was on the ground.

So I crouched and daubed the puddle gently with the “purificator,” the white linen cloth given to us for just this purpose. When I stood up, I was staring into the face of the dean, a Roman Catholic who seemed relieved that I had mopped up the blood.

In that moment, I felt somewhat embarrassed, but also reverent. I felt reverence for the students and the dean I had just served, and for the God I am trying to love as best I can.

I encouraged the New Member class students to approach Communion that way: with a reverence and respect for Jesus and also the religious sensibilities of others.

And isn’t that the point of religion, to inspire love for God and neighbor and to encourage us to act in loving and just ways toward one another?

I realize that Communion is not the burning social issue of the day. As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments about the legality of same-sex marriage, I imagine we will hear more religious rhetoric about the loosey-goosey Episcopal Church with our commitment to honoring all matrimonial love and our lack of moral absolutism. My faith will require me to remain open and loving and reverent toward those who oppose me and to defend the rights of the marginalized.

That’s not Christianity Lite. That’s Jesus 101.

15 Thoughts

  1. Thank you for this! We are expected to engage our whole selves rather than having strict beliefs poured into us! That is so not lite.

  2. Dean Penny Bridges from St. Paul’s Cathedral-San Diego shared this link. This very much ties into her sermon this morning (we also had a 90 member choir from Utah singing; all Mormon who appreciated having the bulletin so they could follow our service). I realized that your are the priest that will be marrying my daughter, Meghan, and her fiancé Kyle this coming October at St. Paul’s. I am looking forward to meeting you. Meghan already shared one of your sermons with me.

  3. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking blog. I especially found intriguing Rev. Schenone’s reference to the Eucharist. In essence, the whole of our Christianity has only to be trusted to, guided and shaped by faith and belief through Jesus Christ in the hope that God’s grace, through prayer and reflection will provide personal understanding concerning the mysteries. The humility by which we approach our faith is essential to gaining that understanding, that no one person or religious organization has all the keys and that none of us is so perfect as to profess otherwise. We should therefore listen with our hearts to what God is telling us through his son Jesus Christ as he speaks to us, through us and through others around us. We must learn to seek Christ in all things.

  4. Are you Alex Metcalfe?

    You are being asked to login because is used by an account you are not logged into now.
    By logging in you’ll post the following comment to Christianity Lite? Puhleeeez.:

    Thanks for this. I am, I think an Evangelical. Never sure. I’m trying to make my lifestyle as Christlike as possible, with mixed results. I do hold to the authority of the bible and what is said there fairly rigidly.

    I don’t know the term is, but at communion I believe the bread and wine (or juice) for us, stays physically as they are, but are made special, holy somehow. I love what you did to mop up the blood. Whilst, for me, it was still wine, I would never have knowingly trod in it, and I also so relieved that you mopped it up. It’s the reverence which, I think, is the key thing here. It shows that what ever substance may or may not be, it is special. Sanctified. At the very least represents the divine.

    In our church (Finnish Evangelical Free Church), we don’t have a purificator – but my Anglican background does worry about the crumbs left over after the communion meal. The left over bread and wine is maybe washed away or eaten after service in a way which would leave you in a cold sweat, but so far no-one has been hit by lightning, so I guess we are doing ok. 😉

    The cool thing about the body of Christ, is that it is a body. Just as St. Paul describes it. The Free Church cannot say to the Episcopalians, you wear funny clothes so we don’t need you, and the Catholics cannot say to the Methodists you don’t use a thurible so we don’t need you. We are all parts of the same body.

    Just like a diamond has many facets which refract light in different ways, so each tradition of Christianity will reveal a different facet of Christ.

  5. I can’t help but noticing that any comments that disagree with the simple minded thoughts of the author are quickly deleted. Sorry folks, only fawning messages are allowed.

    Of course the author cannot grasp that she is doing what she accuses other religions of doing: judging others and making broad and unfounded claims based on her limited knowledge and understanding.

    If someone finds God and serves man in the Episcopal church, that’s great.

    But please don’t sit here and infer that all Evangelicals are simple minded homophobic dolts.

    I dare you to let this post stand.

    1. I implied no such thing, Gary. I encourage you to listen to my sermon, “The Snark Factor,” in which I take issue with Christians who claim that Evangelicals are simple-minded, homophobic dolts. I delete comments that are ad hominem and those that are not delivered in the loving, Christian manner that Jesus demands of us. You can find the text and the sermon of my feelings on this matter here:

    1. I have not had a chance to look at this sermon. I do know that you deleted a thoughtful , respectful comment on your blog that took me an hour to compose. I suggested that we love each other instead of judging each other. I stated how I loved things about the Evangelical church and I loved things from my 15 years in the Anglican church. I stated God works in the Catholic, Evangelical, and Mainline faith traditions and we should all find the place that fits us the best.

      And you deleted it.

  6. I have been an Episcopalian for 78 years. No one has ever asked me what I believe. I believe very little as I see Christianity as a spiritual world in which I “DO”. Intellectual content called Theology is man made and usually a game called “Gotcha”. That is why I glory in the Episcopal Church. Being Liberal for me is being Adult. I see figures showing decline of Christianity. Lots of kids don’t accept 6000 year old Earth, inerrant Bible, Creationism..only old adults buy that crap. People treat the Old Testament as equal to the New. The Old justified enslaving Blacks. The New Sermon of the Mount Text was ignored. How could that happen?? Anyone?? I read about a Native American holy man who met a young white missionary, say 1870. The Holy man said you tell your people you must all believe the same thing and you have God..we tell ours you must look every day to see the work of God in your life. Changed my life..I looked and saw, still see. I go to church in deep gratitude for what Christ gave, gives and takes away to grow me up. I experience God most Sundays at 9 and will this one.

  7. Here’s the thing…I was an Episcopalian all my life, still am but not active. I began to struggle went I saw the denomination nationally was not the same church locally. The reason why Episcopalianism may seem challenging is that absolutely EVERYTHING is up for grabs. John Spong has demonstrated this with crystal clarity…and puhleeeez don’t tell me that we all recite the Nicene Creed or that we participate in the same liturgy. Reciting and participating (“DO-ing”) is not the same as BELIEVING. The Episcopal Church hasn’t swum against societal currents for AGES but rather it has been riding the crest of that wave.

    The Episcopal denomination leaves us in the pews to work out everything for ourselves. Most Episcopalians have no better religious education than grade-school level Sunday school. The clergy class is no help. Questions are dismissed with a polite “don’t worry about it” or “you need to figure that out for yourself.” The end result is absolute chaos. You might be fine if you never leave your home parish. But try moving and finding a new parish that suits your individual proclivities.

    When the common core is so bare and thin, individuals waste too much time thrashing about creating their own individual religion. Yes, that may give the ILLUSION of hard work but in reality it is inefficient and ineffective. When you are left ill-equipped to handle the basics you can never hope to plumb the deep riches that Christ has to offer. If you do try you can easily find yourself further off-base.

    1. Well said Thomas. What you described is the Episcopal Church has become relativist. To the author’s point traditional Orthodox Chistians could do a much better job in speaking truth in love. Jesus was the ultimate example. He never shied from calling sin for what it is. The Apolstles certainly were absolutist when it came to the fundamentals of the faith, so much so the died martyes death. Fortunately, us in America do not face martyrdom however we need to remain steadfast what we believe.

    2. Dear Thomas, it sounds like you have struggled to find resources for spiritual growth and answers to your questions at your churches, and I am very sorry to hear this. I have had a very different experience in the Episcopal Church (lots of Bible study and other courses, including the Education for Ministry program, a nationwide program available at many Episcopal churches). While not all churches do a good job of formation of children, youth and adults, many work hard at it. I agree that the Church in general (all denominations) needs to make formation a priority, and that we need strong formation programs for adults to continue their studies in Christianity. And, as you say, being Christian is not simply about being educated in the teachings of Jesus; it is about living them out. I was praying about your post yesterday at our Pentecost service, in which we baptized seven children and renewed our own baptismal vows. The Baptismal Covenant (pages 304-305 in our Book of Common Prayer) reveals this foundation of the Episcopal Church: we both believe and act on those beliefs. We profess an incarnational faith: a belief that the Triune God was incarnated in Christ, and we too are expected to seek and serve Christ in all persons, etc.

      I was also thinking about your comment while I was praying the Daily Office (Morning Prayer) the morning of Pentecost, and one of the readings was from 1 Corinthians 2:1-13:

      “When I came to you, brothers and sisters,[a] I did not come proclaiming the mystery[b] of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,[c] but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

      6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,

      “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
      nor the human heart conceived,
      what God has prepared for those who love him”—
      10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”

      I pray that the Spirit leads you to sources of spiritual nourishment and peace, my brother in Christ, wherever you may find them.

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