29 September 2007

I'm an Episcopalian

Wow. You may be surprised to hear it, but it's been kind of a journey for me to get to a place where I can say, once again, the three words in the title of this post. It feels good - really good, Spirit good - for me to say them, but they didn't and don't come easy.

That's because of something that happened a little more than a year ago. I won't go into the details (I've talked a little about them before), but a set of events transpired that amounted to an institutional church system (my institutional church) running on autopilot - running according to rulebook and blind tradition, as opposed to pastoral compassion. The result of that didn't hurt me. It hurt some people I love very dearly, at a time when they were already in unbearable pain and in dire need of unconditional welcome. It's hard to make me angry, much less screaming, grudge-holding, fit-to-be-tied angry. But that'll do it - yes, indeed.

Now, it's important to point out two things. First, my dear friends were hurting so much to begin with that I think this hardly registered as a blip in their suffering - and as a result of what happened, another faith community did welcome them, which for a variety of reasons turned into much more of a blessing than "plan A" would have been. Even at the time, I could clearly see the hand of God in these events - but that didn't stop my feelings of anger and betrayal. Second, I never, ever have felt that my other dear friends who are a part of my Episcopal faith community failed me or my unwelcomed friends. I was angry with the system, the "institution" - not the people. (And my dear, amazing, hurting friends were never angry with anyone.) But with that institution, I was really, really, truly angry.

Shortly after these events, I sat down with my Rector, Fr. Rick, a dear friend of mine, and tearfully told him that I felt I had to separate myself from the Episcopal Church (TEC) - I couldn't see myself continuing to minister in a context in which this sort of thing happened. During that conversation, Rick+ gave me an incredible gift. (Actually, many - but one that was particularly significant to me.) He asked me not to come down hard on the question of "membership". No-one was asking me to say "I am a member of the TEC" or "I am not" - least of all him. Technically - "on the books" - I certainly was, but I felt like he was giving me permission to be agnostic about the question of whether, in my heart of hearts, I retained that membership.

This "permission to be agnostic" about membership was a huge help to me in getting over that initial intense rage, guilt, and feeling of betrayal. It let me push aside the huge emotional issues that this had raised for me, and not feel that I must resolve them, one way or the other. It let me go on with life and ministry, and heal.

And so it went, for about a year. The principle focus for my ministry, fellowship, and formation shifted from my Episcopal church to my little nondenominational "emerging-ish" community of friends, but I maintained connections to my Episcopal community, primarily through my Discipleship Group and my friendship with Susan, the newest priest in that community. Whenever anyone asked about my denominational affiliation, I would say "I'm an Anglican - for me, that's a part of my identity - but I don't know whether or not I'm an Episcopalian."

I think that, as healing processes go, this was perhaps relatively healthy. I dunno.

But a couple of things nagged at me:
  • Before all this happened - beginning as far back as the previous winter - I'd felt strongly called to participate in youth ministry at my Episcopal church. At the time of these events, I had committed to playing a large role in Senior High Sunday school there - and it was heart-wrenching to me to realize - and tell the people I'd committed to - that I didn't feel like I could do that any more. And it continued to bug me, because it'd felt like a real call to me. Was my Spiritual discernment apparatus completely busted?
  • Although I'm the sort of person who's comfortable with mystery, this "membership agnosticism" was, I think, always bound to be a temporary, liminal thing for me, though I didn't really recognize that for a long time.
So it came to pass that Susan invited me to come along on a retreat for adult youth mentors in late August. And, not knowing quite why, I came along. At that retreat, Susan gave me another huge gift, to match the gift of "membership agnosticism" that Rick had given me almost a year before: She made me give Rick's gift up. She didn't know she was doing that. But Susan asked me questions - good, fair, sensible questions - that forced me to deal with some of the issues I had with my denomination. Issues that "membership agnosticism" had allowed me to defer engaging with for 11 months.

And that was a huge gift. Because when I prayerfully looked in my heart, I realized that I do not feel called to division and divisiveness. I don't feel called to grudge-holding and bitter cynicism. (Well, cynicism maybe, but not the bitter kind. Not so much, anyway.) I felt called to reconciliation. And at a time when division and divisiveness are rending the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion - and at a time when I see my Episcopal community forming in new and wondrously inspiring ways, including a large internal community of adult youth ministers that has the potential to be real, deep, and transformational - I felt called to stand with my Episcopalian sisters and brothers, and let go of Rick's gift. To be able to say, "I'm an Episcopalian" once again.

This wasn't easy. It was hard because I'd grown to love that gift. That "membership agnosticism" had been key to healing me at a terribly painful time. But the gift was inherently temporary, and the healing was incomplete. To hold on to it would have been to make it into an idol - heck, it was already an idol. To let go of it was to open myself to the possibility of reconciliation. Letting go was painful, but I think it was what God was asking of me.

So what does this change? Not too much, except my heart. My primary place of ministry, fellowship, and formation remains my little unconventional church - but I'm going to be a mentor for one young man (I don't yet know whom) in the confirmation class at my Episcopal church this year. I'm excited, if a little nervous, about that challenge!

I don't particularly consider myself to be under the authority of any given clergycritter in the Anglican hierarchy - but that's not saying anything, because as far as I understand it, the only people who are particularly under "authority" of an Anglican cleric (bishop, archbishop, whatever) are: other Anglican clergy. Not really planning on becoming one of those. And since I believe strongly in mutual accountability in the Body of Christ, I sort of am under the authority of my clergy friends - as I am under the authority of my non-clergy friends.

And I remain deeply skeptical of a lot of concepts that are pretty ubiquitous in Anglicanism - including the perceived need for church buildings, canon law, ironclad tradition, large congregations, "discipleship optional, deep community optional" church culture, bishops, hierarchical leadership, clergy in general.... Etc. Lots of stuff. I break major Anglican rules on a weekly basis, and don't plan to discontinue that practice. But Anglicanism and TEC have never demanded conformity on nonessentials as a condition of membership. Really. (There are, however, varying lists of "essentials".)

So if TEC will have me - and I'm pretty sure they don't excommunicate much these days - then I'm ready, once again, to say, "I'm an Episcopalian." And it feels good, and right, and something to be thankful for. So, thanks be to God, and thank God for faithful friends bearing gifts. :-) Amen!


Mike Stavlund said...

This is beautiful. Thanks for your openness.

Rachel said...

Wow- what a ride.
Good on ya' brother!

Ken Tennyson said...

This is great Mike, good for you.

Anonymous said...

"I break major Anglican rules on a weekly basis, and don't plan to discontinue that practice."

Try 'daily.' :) It's lucky to have you back.