Prolific author Greg Garrett reminds Episcopalians of the many gifts that our tradition can offer a doubting and hurting world. He reveals a church that values intellect, beauty, diversity, and community, and promotes thoughtful engagement with questions of faith, ethics, and community. This church espouses a generous orthodoxy, welcoming left and right, mystic and doubter. It values education, social justice, and engagement with
literature and culture. And in opposition to the radical individualism espoused by most of American Protestantism, it offers the unique gift of a tradition shaped by English culture that believes the individual is a part of her or his communitynot in opposition to it."
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My Church is Not Dying
Episcopalians in the 21st Century
By Greg Garrett
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Greg Garrett
All rights reserved.
The Anglican Way: Spiritual and Religious
It is evening, and the shadows are falling fast. Outside the church it may already be dark; inside we sit in candlelight. "Oh God, make speed to save us," a lone voice chants, and others join in, their notes echoing in the great open space, "Oh Lord, make haste to help us."
It could be Sunday night in my home parish in Austin, St. David's, where the choir is singing a prayer service called Compline. It could be any evening at the National Cathedral, in Washington, DC, when choral Evensong is being offered to God. It could be late afternoon in Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's in London, or one of the college chapels at Cambridge or Oxford. Wherever you are, sung evening prayer is one of the most beautiful and distinctive elements of Anglican faith and practice. Since the Book of Common Prayer was first released in 1549, choirs in England and the rest of the Anglican world have sung a moving service of prayer and thanksgiving at day's end.
It's a service that was created during times of great uncertainty and turmoil—we still use prayers that ask God to protect us through the night—and this great gift of Anglican worship continues to speak to us in our own uncertainty and turmoil.
Episcopalians are Anglican—that is, they are part of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide gathering of national churches under the leadership of the Church of England and the archbishop of Canterbury. The Communion is a confederation, not a top-down structure (as past archbishops of Canterbury have learned to their dismay), and the various members of the Communion around the world vary widely in their stances on social, cultural, and theological questions. If you were to ask members of the Anglican Church in Canada and of the Church of Nigeria (who might tell you they no longer consider themselves part of the Anglican Communion) how they feel about women in ministry or about gays in the Church, you are liable to get deeply contradictory answers.
But whatever we may believe about liturgy or gay marriage or feeding the poor or proper church music, we all have one thing in common: We all partake of the prayer book tradition that sprouts from Cranmer's original Book of Common Prayer.
It's important to be reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves with the prayer book at its heart. Americans in particular place a great value on rugged individualism, and we are prone to take our ball and go home when we don't like the way the game is going. Phyllis Tickle, a writer and Episcopal lay leader from Tennessee, often says that the IRS recognizes over twenty thousand Protestant denominations—each of them the result of a group of churchgoers taking their ball and going home. But, despite our own examples of priests, parishes, and even the occasional whole diocese trying to flee the denomination, Episcopalians are part of a tradition that calls us to play together—and if possible to play nice—because when we do, something truly beautiful happens.
The Reverend David Sugeno (who serves a parish in the Texas Hill Country) and I used to play guitar together in seminary. Together with the Reverend Cathy Boyd, who serves alongside David in Marble Falls, we would lead worship or play concerts or entertain at parties or just sit down to jam together. Although we favored somewhat different kinds of music, we chose to play together. When we sang together, we gave up our solo careers singing lead and allowed ourselves to create a wondrous harmony of voices and chords you can only get when you have spent time playing with somebody and have learned to trust and maybe even to love them. I still remember that what emerged from our time playing together was the kind of music you can only make when you feel secure enough to be yourself, the kind of music you can only make when you trust your fellow singers, the kind of music that only emerges out of true community.
That's why I thought it somehow appropriate that it was Dave Sugeno who asked me a formative question after I was first asked to write this book: "Why is it important that we come from an English tradition?"
Immediately I thought about the rugged individualism I mentioned above. Americans are solo artists; our heroes are lone wolves. Rambo and Batman are two of our archetypal American heroes, and they represent our belief that a single person who tries hard enough can succeed at anything. But when you look at English stories—think about the epic adventures of Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger, or the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson—they suggest a different way of seeing the world, in which we need each other to thrive and survive, in which we are all a part of something rather than exceptions to it. If our great novels are about singular individuals who are trying to become who they want to be (as in Huck Finn or The Great Gatsby), British literature and culture tends to ask how human beings fit into society rather than how they can be outside of it, unchained from it. It's a wholly different way of seeing ourselves and the world.
In this respect, Dave's question suggests that there might be a number of fruitful reasons it is important that we come from an English tradition, the first of which must be that it reminds us that we are meant to be part of a larger whole. American religion too often emphasizes individual belief and religious experience; some of our Christian brothers and sisters, for example, foreground the importance of taking Jesus as one's "personal lord and savior," of having what they call a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Some American Christians flit from church to church seeking the one place that will perfectly match them and their beliefs. Other Americans treat faith and spirituality as a smorgasbord from which they can take a little Buddhist mindfulness, a sprinkle of Islamic charity, a pinch of Benedictine order, and roll it all into wisdom they use for their own personal advancement. Church or religious institutions may simply be means to the end of individual salvation or enlightenment.
The Anglican tradition stands in contrast to the purely personal spirituality practiced by many Americans. Our tradition is broad, and it encompasses many practices and beliefs, but it also still suggests that the heart of human spirituality is not personal advancement but common praise, that we are saved not in our own bodies, but in corporate bodies. Bishop Andy Doyle notes that as Episcopalians, "we believe that it is in Christian fellowship that we come to know Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, and that such stories are translated and interpreted through the eyes of worship and scripture ... through fellowship, we discover our salvation."
The importance of community—that we are saved by and for each other, not by and for ourselves—is an ancient idea. St. Anthony the Great, the founder of desert monasticism, was surrounded by hermits who had fled civilization to seek enlightenment, but he knew that even for such radical individualists as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, "Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ." That lesson is approaching two thousand years old, and many American Christians still have not learned it. But for those of us who descend from the Church of England, reminders appear daily in our liturgy, in our diversity, and in our commitment to common prayer.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told me that this recentering is the very DNA of the Episcopal Church: "We encourage people to love God and God's creation (human and otherwise) with the same attention and passion with which we love ourselves. It's about learning that none of us as individuals occupy the center of the universe, and that a holy and whole and healed life seeks the flourishing and well-being of the rest, not ourselves alone."
This is certainly a countercultural way of being; individual Americans (me included) probably need to be reminded on a daily basis that they are not the center of the universe. But a tradition that incorporates community, and that suggests that I am at my best when I am shaped, challenged, and supported by my brothers and sisters, does remind me on a daily basis what truly matters. That is a gift from our English tradition—and from the overarching idea of the Anglican Communion.
The name of our church—the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America—reflects a simultaneous break from and embrace of the traditions we inherited from the Church of England. Once we launched a Revolution against England (you may have heard about it), we could no longer recite the prayers for the British royal family in the liturgy, yet the words on either side of those prayers still spoke to our hearts and our situations. American Episcopalians were no longer a part of the Church of England after the Revolutionary War, but they still believed in governance by elected bishops, in organization by dioceses and parishes, and in democratic meetings where they voted to determine important policies.
They still worshipped in parishes distributed in small geographical regions more like neighborhoods than today's city-wide churches. They still thought the spiritual leadership of priests and deacons ordained by bishops (who had themselves been ordained by bishops who had been ordained by bishops, a principle known in the Catholic traditions as "apostolic succession") was a powerful model for spiritual leadership that also conferred a sense of historic connection to the larger Christian tradition.
And, of course, they accepted that a Book of Common Prayer—an American version—would be the basis for their worship together, whether they were Southern planters, Northern whalers, or Northwestern fur traders.
Despite our rejection of some of the worship language of the Church of England, we remain much more like the CoE than we have become unlike it, and so it's essential that we grasp how this tradition has shaped twenty-first century Episcopalians. Christianity in England was indeed shaped by the sixteenth-century split with the Roman Catholic Church, but that history stretches back much further than Henry VIII. It goes back to Roman Britain, and also includes a similar but distinctive tradition of Celtic Christianity that had been largely lost but has been reclaimed in the last two centuries.
Christianity originally came to Britain from two directions. The official mission of Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with the much better known Augustine of Hippo) came to the British Isles in 597. Augustine was the first archbishop of Canterbury, and one of the formal founders of the English Church. But there was another Christianity already in place, the indigenous Christianity represented by St. Patrick (fifth century CE), St. Columba (sixth century CE), and the great monasteries of Iona (563 CE) and Lindisfarne (635 CE), which were founded by Irish missionaries.
It's probably too reductive to simply place this native Christianity in opposition to Roman Catholic Christianity. The traditions employed different practices to set the date of Easter and its monks cut their hair differently, although both groups would have identified themselves as followers of Christ who accepted the authority of the Pope in far-off Rome. But it's easy to find both superficial and substantial differences. Celtic Christians often understood God to be moving in all of life, not just inside the church during the service of prayer or Eucharist. They encountered God in nature, on journeys, and in beautiful things, and the tradition of which we are a part still claims this deeply incarnational spirituality, a faith that God is moving in the world and present for us to claim, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
This Celtic spirituality was also deeply embedded in the everyday lives of the people who practiced it. Scholars starting in the nineteenth century began to recover prayers that had been a part of this native Christianity for centuries, and these prayers from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England often have a homely quality because they are about the most mundane of practices. Celtic Christians composed prayers to be recited when lighting the morning fire and banking the evening fire. They composed prayers for weaving, and prayers for turning the cows out to pasture. They prayed that the angels would be present as they worked and as they slept. Nothing in human life was considered to be too insignificant to involve in prayer.
An old Celtic saying, "Heaven is six feet above a person's head," acknowledges that we are not so far removed from the next world as we sometimes imagine, and that God is not some distant deity sitting on a throne somewhere. Many of the prayers and songs and pieces of liturgy that have grown out of this tradition imagine God as near at all times, imagine Christ accompanying us on our daily journeys, and suggest the great crowd of witnesses swirling about us, saints and angels close at hand.
During the morning Eucharist at Gladstone's Library in Hawarden, Wales, the Reverend Peter Francis closes the Prayers of the People by invoking "Christ, our brother and companion on the way." It is a distillation of this Celtic belief that faith is not segmented from our lives—something to be experienced only on Sunday morning, say—but interwoven with our lives. What this liturgy suggests, in fact, is that the daily practice of our faith is our real life, and that Jesus walks with us every step of the way.
The prayer book tradition also partakes of this awareness that faith is what goes on every day, and that we are not seeking a destination so much as we are people on a daily journey. Mary Earle's love for the everyday spirituality of the Episcopal Church reminds us that the Book of Common Prayer offers us a framework for regular encounters with God, all in concert with the believers praying around the world. At this—or any—moment, I could stop what I'm doing (that is, writing this sentence), pick up the Book of Common Prayer (or call it up on my computer, or even an app on my phone), and turn my thoughts to morning, noon, or evening prayer. I could read the lessons of the Daily Office (a daily lectionary used by many of my priest friends). I could recite a creed that's been in use for centuries as a way of reminding myself about the essentials of what I believe and hear in its familiar words God moving again in my life.
None of these words belong to me—that is, they are not the extemporaneous products of my heart—and yet they are my own. Repeated day by day, year by year, the liturgy of the prayer book has become like my blood and bones, below my surface yet necessary so that I can walk through my days. Sometimes I hardly notice it's there. Sometimes it shakes me to my very foundation. I am a different person every time I read, hear, or recite it, and so like any great and powerful work, it affects me differently day by day, year by year.
In our experience of the language of the prayer book—whether the seventeenth-century prayer book still in use in English churches or the 1979 prayer book employed in American churches—we are also partaking in some of the most beautiful language available to us, another tangible gift from the Anglican tradition. As we saw in the Introduction, Thomas Cranmer's prayer book launched phrases that have become a part of our common tongue: "movable feast" and "vile body," "miserable sinners" and "peace in our time." Thanks to its beauty, dignity, and majesty, we participate in beautiful worship by saying words that are not are own but that we have come to own: "Lord, open our lips / And our mouth shall proclaim your praise."
Different Anglican Churches around the globe have created different versions of the prayer book—the liturgies of the Welsh and New Zealand prayer books seem particularly lovely to many American churches, who incorporate them in their own worship—but all of them operate for the faithful in the same way: They present the opportunity for daily worship in a country's vernacular English, in communion with others, or in prayer with the rest of the body of Christ even when we are alone.
Excerpted from My Church is Not Dying by Greg Garrett. Copyright © 2015 Greg Garrett. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword: The Right Reverend Greg Rickel,
Introduction: My Church Is Not Dying,
The Anglican Way: Spiritual and Religious,
Living the Questions: A Faith That Stays Open All Night,
Worship and Community: One Way God Touches and Heals Us,
Beauty and the Life of God: Music, Culture, and the Incarnate Way,
Living Together: How the Culture Wars Almost Killed Us—But Made Us Stronger,
Telling the World: Evangelism for a World That Hates Evangelism but Needs the Church,
Doing Justice: A Church That Works,
Reaching Out: Touching Lives All Week Long,
About the Author,