Back 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.