This post will serve as the second and final of what should have been a three-part Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge on “Why the Church?” I wrote several weeks ago on that very question. I was too busy two weeks ago to answer the “Why Anglicanism?” question, nut you can read smart people answer it better than I ever could on the Acts 8 Roundup. This week the final question as we move from 30,000 feet to a nice smooth landing on the center aisle of the National Cathedral is “Why The Episcopal Church?” I assume the BLOGFORCE powers-that-be would like something more substantial than my Elevator Pitch from back in March, so here goes.
It is the happenstance of history that The Church of England in American carries the name The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of American, or more commonly, The Episcopal Church. Back in the days following the American Revolution, when the Church of England in America was all but dead, leaders in ‘the Diocese of Maryland,” familiar with being the non-established underdog, began to develop plans by which they would keep the embers burning. This first iteration of a Task Force to Re-imagine The Episcopal Church (actually, Church of England in America, but bear with me) realized that the first thing they had to do was get rid of the words Church of England. According to Church History Guru, the Rev. Dr. Bob Prichard, the chose the name Protestant Episcopal Church by combining “the word Protestant, which differentiated the church from the Roman Catholic Church in Maryland, with Episcopal, the name for the 17th century English church party that favored the retention of the episcopacy” (A History, p. 83) and voila, we were born.
Of course, that’s probably not what the intent of this “Why The Episcopal Church” question, but we’re getting there. What the folks in Maryland did next is what’s really important. “They planned a state convention what would exercise the authority of the church, and drafted a charter that the legislature approved in August 1783, granting them title to church property and a government by a synod of laity and clergy. The legislature also recognized the independence of the church from any foreign power and the importance of episcopal ordination [thank you Roman Catholic Maryland]” (ibid.)
By now you’re thinking I’ve lost my mind, but here’s the deal, I love The Episcopal Church and think it is worth working to keep alive because of those things affirmed by the Maryland legislature in 1783. In fact, in my upcoming Doctor of Ministry Thesis, I’ll argue that The Episcopal Church isn’t just worth keeping alive for its own sake, but because the things affirmed in Maryland in 1783 help make us best suited to meet the needs of our rapidly changing world. Here’s why.
- Governance by a synod of laity and clergy. The calling card of Anglicanism is that we strive to be the via media, the middle way between Rome and Geneva; Roman Catholicism and Reformed Protestantism. In the former, the clergy rule. In the latter, the laity rule. In The Episcopal Church, we do it together. Ideally, the clergy, by virtue of their training and experience, lead with wisdom for the sake of the tradition, while the laity, by virtue of their place in society, lead the church into the trenches for the sake of humanity. Together, we have checks and balances which allow us to build the Kingdom together, raising the ability of both beyond their normal capabilities: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
- Independence from any foreign power. Due to the unpleasantness in the late 18th century, it was necessary that The Episcopal Church, for a time, sever all ties with the Church of England. Though several candidates for ordination grew old trying to figure out how to be ordained while not pledging loyalty to the crown, others back in the state were figuring out how to live faithfully here in the states. Over time, this brief historical anomaly has allowed The Episcopal Church to develop as an inculturated entity. Though there are branches in other parts of the world, we are, for all intents and purposes, an American Church. Our system of governance grew up with the American Republic, our Pension Fund was created by those who developed Social Security, our Prayer Books have been altered to meet the needs of American society. We are, as William Reed Huntington argued so long ago, the fledgling of an American Catholic Church.
- The importance of episcopal ordination. Apostolic succession is more than a chain of hands back through history, it is the sign and symbol of the apostolic witness that remains with us today. The Bishops of our church, that thing that makes us Episcopalians, are the carriers of that tradition. They call us to move forward with caution. They invite us into shared ministry in the spread of the Gospel. When they lay hands upon a new Bishop, Priest, Deacon, or Confirmed lay person, they make the sacramental sign of that apostolic ministry and send us forth to build the Kingdom of God. I’m not saying that other traditions lack that apostolicity, but that the symbol of episcopal ordination helps me better understand it in my life and work.
I’m an Episcopalian because it makes sense to me. Our system of governance, our inculturation into the American way of life, and most importantly our sacramental and apostolic witness to the risen Christ seem to suit me well, and I should think that others might find a home here also, if we could get past all our bickering and partisanship and find a better way to share our story.