“The Episcopal Church is a church where you can come in without leaving your brain at the door and then have the opportunity to love all of those who managed to come in with their ‘wrong’ ideas.” — The Rt Revd Leo Frade, Bishop of the Diocese of Southeast Florida
“We deeply love the intellectual as well as the spiritual life that is cultivated in our members (‘you don’t need to leave your mind at the door’)” – Progress Report from the Task Force for Re-Imagining the Church
Yesterday I saw these quotes pop up in two different places. As I read the report from the Task Force, I had a difficult time reading after the “mind at the door” line. I found myself thinking, “Is this what we want a reimagined Church to emphasize?”
I get what people are saying when this line is put out there – many of us come from traditions that were overly dogmatic, prescriptive, or even fundamentalist. Yet I find there to be a sad smugness to our adopting this line as a party platform.
I have chosen this Church over the Roman Church and yet I do not want my Roman Catholic family members and friends to think I chose this Church because they are all leaving their brain at the door when they go to Church.
What does this kind of message say to a single mother who goes to the local Baptist Church because they invite her and her kids to sing in the choir and to be part of the Singing Christmas Tree? What does it say to the widow who goes to the local Roman Church because it was the last place she felt real peace? What does it say to the Methodist dentist who goes there because his family has for four generations and they built the church steeple?
The Episcopal Church has enough issues with people perceiving us as a club that is not for them. Why would we perpetuate that perceived haughtiness by adding yet another perceived barrier – a lack of smarts – to coming to our churches?
As we are undertaking mission work here in Denver, one of our challenges is that there are many who can’t read English or can’t read at all. I don’t want them to ever think that this is not a place that they could call home. If the Episcopal Church wants to put up signs that say “All are Welcome” then we need to be prepared for all kinds of people to come through our doors – people who aren’t there to prove that they are smarter than other faithful people.
I wonder what exactly qualifies as checking one’s brain at the door? If one believes in The Virgin Birth, The bodily Resurrection, the Second Coming, miraculous healings, and the efficacy of relics – has one checked one’s brain? If one both rejects the death penalty and abortion – has one checked one’s brain at the door? If one believes that God, indeed, has sent angels to watch over us – has one checked his or her brain at the door?
Much of our culture already thinks that we have checked our brain at the door simply for believing at all.
I have met clergy with shocking gaps in their theological, liturgical, and organizational training. My own gaps in Scripture, contemporary theologies, and modern music are sources of real distress at times. In other words, even our seminary trained ministers have lots of learning to do – especially when I talk with Methodists about preaching, Roman Catholics about social doctrine, Baptists about Scripture, and Pentecostals about the power of the Spirit.
Comprehensiveness as a Church must mean that we are open to learning from brothers and sisters of the faith rather than dismissing them as insufficiently smart or lacking in self-awareness. It is unhelpful for us to position ourselves as the Church that isn’t full of unthinking spiritual drones when there are faithful, kind, and generous people all across Christian traditions.
I recognize that we have methodological differences in interpretation of Scripture and ecclesial differences with regard to authority – and these differences have hurt many – yet every other church out there is not some version or another of Westboro.
Frankly, we’re just not that smart – and thankfully Jesus doesn’t seem to be searching out smart people to share his message. He looked for those who were least likely to be “in” or even thought of as people let alone who might be smart. Jesus calls us to the deepest love for one another and a charity of spirit that this kind of language undermines.
I pray that we’ll be careful talking about checking brains at the door lest people just think we’ve decided to check our hearts instead.
Tim Dunbar said:
Great post, Robert. I completely agree.
Well done, sir. I appreciate the thoughtfulness in this post. Words matter and how those words are “heard” are of particular concern these days. Careful speech takes time and slogans are easy. I’ve been an Episcopalian for over 20 years and a priest for 11. The intellectual openness situated within a liturgical tradition was a key part of the appeal for me when I entered the Church. The ability to ask questions and be open about one’s doubts was how the “don’t have to check your brain…” slogan was exegeted for me. Perhaps instead of “don’t have to check your brain…” we could say something like, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You — and your Questions and Doubts Too!” Thanks again.
Barbara (bls) said:
Well said. I do feel that we often make ourselves into an “exclusive club,” in a variety of ways, without realizing it.
(How about, if we want to use a slogan, something I read the other day instead: “When Anglicanism is at its best its liturgy, its poetry, its music and its life can create a world of wonder in which it is very easy to fall in love with God”?
I think this comes from Urban T. Holmes’ “What Is Anglicanism” – and what a great, positive way to describe our faith that might be! )
Scott Knitter said:
Also, when greeting folks after Christmas Eve Midnight Mass and being introduced to a parishioner’s Roman Catholic parents, it’s nice to refrain from saying, “Oh, you’re Roman Catholic! We have lots of recovering Roman Catholics here.”
Barbara (bls) said:
Fr. Mark G. said:
Good point, Scott.
C. Wingate said:
Oh God, do people really DO that?!?
Jay Blossom said:
Yes, yes! Thank you for this!!!!!
Urthman (@gndwyn) said:
Also, it just sounds so whiny and defensive. “We’re not dumb like those other guys!” Too many Episcopalians seem to define themselves in negative terms: not Roman Catholic and not Fundamentalist.
Cynthia C. Selby said:
Amen! That phrase has always troubled me.
johanna s said:
I think if anything this phrase is a good nudge for *us* to examine how to live with both faith and reason/science/evil/etc.
Neither do the family and friends I left in the RCC check their brains at the door. But there is a difference between whether one happens to check one’s brain and whether one is asked to do so. As a Roman Catholic, I was made abundantly clear that it didn’t matter whether the Pope’s pronouncements about queer people like myself made any semblance of theological sense, because the Pope had said it: Roma locuta est. And of course, the exercise of private judgment was at best a “retail” Catholicism and at worst a Protestant corruption leading to “sola scriptura” and a Pope in every pew. So fair play to the Roman Catholics (and Southern Baptists, and Missouri Lutherans &c &c) who don’t do as they are asked. But that doesn’t make the Episcopal Church any less distinctive (though certainly not unique) for not asking it of us in the first place.
On the other hand, the caution against the anglican besetting sin of smugness and superiority is always welcome.
Charles D Absher said:
George Waite said:
I’m glad I’m an atheist; nobody asks me to do anything.
Poulson Reed said:
Thank you for this. I’ve been uncomfortable with the phrase for a long time, and appreciate your exploration of what it says and doesn’t say about us.
Lizette Larson-Miller said:
Thank you again Robert, for a very thoughtful reminder of collective cluelessness…. I have to say the anticipated report on saving the Episcopal Church – with all of its systems management proposals, community bulding, marketing, etc, is so sad that it overshadows all this week. What is the theology of church, the ecclesiology, of this church? Do we have any idea of what it means to be the Body of Christ, not a country club…???
Thank you, Father, for saying what has needed to be said for a while. I have always been uncomfortable with this quip, and your post has helped me to put my feelings into words.
I agree with this discussion. It’s one thing to define oneself negatively but that’s immature (like how “NO!” is one of the first things a toddler learns to say). But to define what one is–that demands maturity. To say, in the affirmative what one is demands prayerful discernment. What does it mean positively to be Episcopalian? How are we following Jesus? How are we sharing the Good News. Define that and then put that out there…
Matt Marino said:
Thank you, Robert+. Smugness is never becoming.
The reason I am an Episcopalian is because my Grandfather was rejected from other denominations on account of being a genetic scientist. The fact that the Episcopal Church welcomed him, his scientific inquiry, and that he held priest up to logical scrutiny is what has maintained our family as members of the Episcopal Church for the past three generations.
The majority of non-Christians think that inherently all Christian’s are anti-science and anti-intellectual. The voice of Christianity heard in the media is consistently one that rejects academic inquiry. The major complaint from many agnostics is how they are unable engage most Christians in any form of intellectual dialog involving the critical questions that individuals like Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and Feuerbach, amidst others, bring up about theology and the human tradition.
The key reality is that as Anglicans we are not allowed to check our brains at the door. Speculative spirituality of the brain is as essential to our tradition as affective spirituality of the heart. To attempt to jettison either is to deny the heart of via media.
The heart of it is that not stating clearly and with no restrictions that we warmly and overwhelmingly welcome intellectual inquiry and those individuals for whom it is an essential aspect of faith is an act of closing our hearts excluding those desperately seeking a faith that is not afraid to risk standing out for their sake.
Charles D Absher said:
Fr. Stephen said:
Well said. Thank you for this.
David Galloway said:
I think the original intent is to suggest that thinking is encouraged in the Episcopal Church rather than following in a lock-step mind that follows dogma or literal meaning given by someone deemed authoritative. Every person, even clergy, are asked to reflect, think, and decide. I appreciate the sensitivity to others and their views but to use this tag is to say something about the ethos of the Episcopal Church that we need not apologize for. Being an Episcopalian does differentiate us from other approaches, a difference that we are criticized for repeatedly. The Episcopal Church is not for everyone. You must be able to live with ambiguity and be willing to wrestle with subtle distinctions. I like the phrase as it gives invitation to those who see the Christian Church as anti-intellectual, and God knows there’s plenty of reason for that opinion.
Charles D Absher said:
Another phrase I dislike: “The Episcopal Church is not for everyone.” Having returned to the Episcopal Church after 30 years in evangelical and charismatic churches, I can say that I never heard a church member or preacher ever state that what they offered and believed, “wasn’t for everyone.” There are many reasons for loving our Episcopal denomination, and tolerance for those who think differently is touted as one of them. But this is belied by the ironic intolerant Episcopalian boast that we are the “Thinking Man’s Church” as though our brothers and sisters in other denominations are not or cannot think. The smugness of calling other church traditions “Sesame Street Churches,” or “Bouncy-ball Churches,” exhibits a spiritual pride reminiscent of the ultra educated Pharisees in Jesus’ day. “I thank you God that I am not a woman!” We can learn from each other if we try to appreciate the best of each denomination and refrain from elevating our own position by putting other Christians down.
Rowena Kemp said:
Thank you, Robert! Well said.
Reblogged this on Dover Beach and commented:
Many Episcopalians are in the habit of referring to TEC as “The thinking man’s church and the even worse, “Small-minded people can’t spell ‘Episcopalian’!”
There has to be a less arrogant, self-congratulatory, and self-deceptive way to express whatever good thing we want to embrace in such slogans. This is a great post addressing this terrible habit of Episcopalians.
This rant manages to extend sympathy to some people the author wishes to welcome, while condemning the people who’ve escaped from other churches’ soul-prisons and claiming they have no right to celebrate their freedom.
Think we could possibly make a positive point in an Anglican middle way?
Gretchen Chateau (@Jetteyeknight) said:
Thank you, Josh. http://open.salon.com/blog/jett_noire/2013/12/19/you_neednt_leave_your_brain_at_the_door
Suzanne Marie Amaral said:
Way to go Father Robert! Well said, indeed.
Alan C said:
I just found your blog. I never thought about that slogan that way, but I get what you’re saying. What it means to me is, “If you come from a religious tradition where you felt like you couldn’t think for yourself, you’re welcome here. If you struggle intellectually with aspects of Christian doctrine, come pray with us as you struggle.” I deeply appreciate that about the Episcopal Church. it’s certainly true of some other denominations, but that and some other reasons are why I found a home in TEC. What I wrote above, unfortunately, isn’t as pithy as “You don’t have to check your brain at the door.” Let’s work on that.
Kathy Rooney said:
I don’t know how old this blog is, but I just found it. It really resonates with me. I, too, have been very uncomfortable with the “you don’t have to leave your brains at the door” attitude. It can seem elitist. It is a put down of others who worship in different traditions. It says that the Episcopal Church is for the smart folks – others won’t really fit in. Thank you for putting into words what I’ve felt for a long time but never could express as well as you have here. I am a former Roman Catholic who has found the Episcopal Church suits me. I have learned much from the churches I attended on the way to becoming an Episcopalian – from the Roman Catholic church I learned much about social justice, from a Methodist Church I went to I learned the importance of small groups in Christ growth, a Vineyard church I attended for a while was really into showing God’s love in tangible ways to the community – like handing out free bottles of cold water at a summer parade in town.