Friends of mine have circulated an ad for the Episcopal Church on Facebook. The ad portrays a female priest, a gay couple with two children, and a handsome fellow raising a martini. The text of the ad says, “The Episcopal Church: Resisting Fundamentalism since 1784.” The ad almost looks like someone with the intent to mock the Episcopal Church crafted it as a vaguely metrosexual (a word that spellcheck is uncomfortable with) fellow toasts us with a martini.
The sentiment of the ad seems to be that the Episcopal Church is not the kind of religion that marginalizes women and gay Christians. The problem is that the ad seems to communicate that we are the kind of religion that sees ourselves as better than many other Christians.
Recently someone else I know posted an ad created by breakaway Anglicans which depicted the Presiding Bishop with the tagline “Don’t believe any of that crap? Neither do we.” The ad was an obvious (or maybe not) hit on the Episcopal Church’s doctrinal wobbliness (as the breakaway cleric sees it) and our apparently flexible approach to Scriptural warrant. The friend posted it without irony believing it to be a progressive statement of the Episcopal Church’s liberation from outmoded beliefs. It was one of those moments when mockery and self-awareness passed one another by without a backward glance!
Not long ago I took part in a brainstorming session in which the participants, almost all in their 20s and 30s, were asked what it meant to be Episcopal. Here are some of the responses:
“Heritage, Bridge, Reverent, Liturgy, Music, Incarnational, Contemplative, Richness of Language, Common Prayer, Connection to Tradition, Connected to Ancient Communities.”
On the negative side, answers also were “snobbish” and “elitism.” The ad above reinforces these unfortunate stereotypes both in its text and especially in that third picture.
What are we communicating as our core identity?
A couple of years ago I watched a video interview with several Episcopal members of the Executive Committee. They were asked the question, “What is the Good News of the Episcopal Church?”
Answers ran the gamut. However, the main theme was that the Episcopal Church was open and welcoming to all. This is a good thing – but it is not the heart of the thing – the “thing itself” as DeKoven says.
Toward the end of the video a member said, “The Good News of the Episcopal Church is that Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.” He had the Good News exactly right. The Good News was not an answer to unfortunate strains of Christian fundamentalism – the Good News is that we preach Christ and Him crucified.
As I attend meetings of clergy, diocesan conventions, see online posts, and the like I have become increasingly worried that many in the Episcopal Church see our vocation as an oppositional one. For many, our message is that we are not the Christians that scare you. Really.
The challenge is that oppositional messages are rarely the ones that capture the heart or the imagination. They might be emotionally satisfying for the moment – a kind of cathartic response to seeing the Church used as a vehicle for political or cultural voices that victimize all too many.
Ultimately, the Episcopal Church cannot simply be a response to misrepresentation of the Gospel, it must be a voice for the Gospel. There are varying voices in the Church that define themselves by saying what we are not. We are not Roman. We are not Evangelicals. We are not fundamentalists. On it goes as we ever define ourselves on others’ terms.
Who are we though? This is the crux of our Church’s dilemma. We struggle to say who we are without saying who we are not.
We might begin with our Catechism and some of its answers to the core questions of the faith.
|Q.||What is the Christian hope?|
|A.||The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.|
|Q.||What is Holy Baptism?|
|A.||Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.|
|Q.||What is grace?|
|A.||Grace is God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.|
|Q.||What is adoration?|
|A.||Adoration is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.|
|Q.||Why do we praise God?|
|A.||We praise God, not to obtain anything, but because God’s Being draws praise from us.|
|Q.||For what do we offer thanksgiving?|
|A.||Thanksgiving is offered to God for all the blessings of this life, for our redemption, and for whatever draws us closer to God.|
|Q.||What is penitence?|
|A.||In penitence, we confess our sins and make restitution where possible, with the intention to amend our lives.|
|Q.||What is prayer of oblation?|
|A.||Oblation is an offering of ourselves, our lives and labors, in union with Christ, for the purposes of God.|
I chose these particular answers because they articulate an Anglican approach to grace, joy, repentance, offering, adoration, and hope. Were I creating an ad campaign for the Episcopal Church, I would begin with these Anglican answers to the core questions of the faith.
Those searching for a church home are often looking not for an agenda or a church defined by its opposition. They are searching for a church that will enrich their spiritual lives, help them raise their children, fill some deeper yearning, help them help others, and more. The reasons people come to church are as varied as the people themselves.
At its best, the Episcopal Church offers an apolitical inclusion that embraces all as they search for the One who is All. The Church is not a response to the world around us but a response to God. The Episcopal Church lives into this response of love and self-offering in manifold ways that are expressed in the answers of our Catechism. We might also use Scripture, language from the liturgy, or hymn verses – in other words those things that bind us together as the Body of Christ in this Church – to articulate our shared witness and faith.
Yes, the push for justice and equality are part of a response to God. However, that cannot be the defining character of a Church that hopes to grow and serve Christ in ever expanding ways. We have to be more nimble, more full of joy, more creative than that.
We cannot allow any agenda to define us. Whatever the agenda is it can never capture the fullness of our life in Christ. All we can do is attempt to describe our life with and in God. As we do that, we offer, in fits and starts, a glimpse of our collective response to God as the Church. Agendas are part of our life as the Church. Every wing, faction, and group within the Church has an agenda – items and articles that it elevates or prioritizes. Each of these expressions is one part of the totality of the church.
However, the Church is diminished whenever we see those agendas as somehow definitive or defining – especially when those agendas are crafted in opposition to culture rather than response to God. We can not be the church of “better than…”
The Episcopal Church is a way of being in response to God. An ad campaign for the Episcopal Church should stress how we worship together, how we live together, how we pray together, how we serve together, how we adore Christ together. An Episcopal Church campaign should offer the Episcopal Church as an alternative not to any other church, denomination, or cultural prejudice because faith is greater than the sum of that which is opposed.
We are a Church of grace, dignity, awe, reverence, prayer, hope, and joy. We do ourselves a disservice by ceding the ground upon which we define ourselves to others.
With this in mind, I dawdled around and made what I thought would be a good first ad in a string of ads communicating an Episcopal Church identity. I like the “since 1784” tag so I used that but I think it could be blended with different images and text to offer a broad image of the Church.