Monday, March 18, 2013

Why the Episcopal Church?

It's come to my attention that many of you are wondering about my seemingly sudden decision to leave First Baptist Church and join St. Paul Episcopal Church.  While I am choosing not to say why I have left First Baptist, I will share my reasoning for joining St. Paul's.  This statement comes a little less than 3 months before my Confirmation and Reception into the church.

Scott Bleile:  My Roman Catholic Friend

Scott Bleile is one of my closest friends and my favorite theological sparring partner.  At first, we didn't agree on anything except Jesus.  We debated many theological points over the years, mostly about the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism.  During the course of these debates, I defended the Baptist position time and time again, but the questions that Scott was raising began to haunt me.  Questions such as:

 "How can you ignore that Jesus said: 'This IS my body, broken for you, and this IS my blood, shed for you'?"

 "How can you KNOW that an infant will be okay until they are able to be baptized as an adult?"

"How can you say that God's grace is present in Communion when you don't believe it's a sacrament?"

 These were questions that I could neither answer myself, nor find a good answer in either the Scriptures or in all the works of Baptist theologians I have studied over the years.


The first of my Baptist convictions to change because of those debates was my conviction on Communion.  The Bible places a lot of emphasis on this Sacrament, or Ordinance, if you prefer that term, and the Baptist practice of Communion, at least the one I was familiar with, didn't seem to do this focus justice for two reasons:

1.  Communion was just tacked on at the end of the service the first Sunday of every month.
The first Sunday of every month was dubbed  "Communion Sunday."  Sadly, the only thing about the order of service that changed was that Communion was nestled between the end of the sermon and the benediction.  This never made it feel like "Communion Sunday."

2.  Communion seemed to have little meaning to most people, I even knew a few congregation members who saw "Communion Sunday" as their day off from church.

I couldn't reconcile these issues with the direction my theology was headed.  Concurrent with these issues that I saw around me, what happened in my heart when I took Communion was changing.  For most of my life in the Church, I had seen Communion as a way of remembering Christ's sacrifice on the cross, and only that.  But, I found that it was beginning to nourish me in a way that wasn't consistent with my theology.  Communion, partially due to the unanswered questions above, was becoming not only a memorial of Christ's death, but also a source of spiritual life for me, I felt as though I was receiving a gift from God when I received the elements, and this gift was transforming my life.  I am now able to name this as receiving God's grace through Communion.  It seemed more than a memorial, although it would only be recently that I would be able to name what that "more" was.


Baptism came much, much later.  Though the questions from my debates with Scott lingered in my head, it would be a long time before my understanding would change.  This issue, and this issue alone, is what kept me Baptist for a long time.  More on this later.

Why Not the Roman Catholic Church?

As much as my theology was changing in certain areas, it stayed the same in others.  I could neither let go of women in ministry nor full inclusion of LGBT people in the Church, and the Episcopal Church was and is making great strides in both these areas.  Whereas the Roman Catholic Church, well, isn't.


The Rev. Margaret D'Anieri

Margaret, first my friend, and now my pastor as well, came along during this time, and began informally beginning to be my spiritual director.  She never pushed me toward switching churches, but she listened to my theological struggles, and shed new light on old struggles.  She also encouraged a love for the liturgy in me that has continued to grow.  She was very supportive when I came to her about switching churches, though she encouraged me to investigate our local Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (hereafter, ELCA) Church, and look at other Baptist churches in the area before committing to my decision.  Which, I did, I investigated churches for a long time, Baptist, Pentecostal, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, ELCA, but still felt drawn toward the Episcopal Church.

Back to Baptism

It was really Margaret who finally convinced me of the Sacrament of Infant Baptism.  She not only reminded me about Jesus's statements about letting the little children come to him, but pointed out that Original Sin is present in all humans, so infants are not sinless as Baptist theology tended to suggest, if not say, but in need of Baptism just like any other person for the cleansing of that sin.  After spending months both considering and studying that statement, I realized that both the Bible and Church tradition supported such a belief, and so, I was forced to change my thoughts on this subject.

The Congregation of St. Paul Episcopal Church

The final straw was when I finally went to St. Paul, and met the people.  The first feeling I received was a profound sense of welcome.  The first time I stepped through those doors, one of the members of the church greeted me, and invited me to sit with them, which I did, and she explained things to me as we went, and assisted me in getting a feel for the liturgy.  Afterward, she invited me to join them for fellowship, and I was invited to share my story, and to allow my story to become a part of their stories.  For the first time, church was about the whole congregation for me, and not just the pastor.  I truly felt loved by this community, though I was broken.  I would find out later that these people understood the Church to be a Hospital for Sinners, whereas I was used to the understanding of church as a Gathering of Saints.
I understand that the Church is both, but my experience was that I couldn't open up and talk about my struggles with sin a lot without being looked down on and judged by certain people.  At St. Paul, I found that these people loved me as I am, and because of that love, they push me to be better than I am.

In summary, I became a part of the Episcopal Church for both theological reasons and because I simply found a place to be loved and nurtured in a way I hadn't been before.  There you have it.