About a year ago I started attending St. Thomas Episcopal Church. It's a wonderful church in the heart of the city of Sunnyvale. At the time I was trying out different churches to see where I would feel comfortable being at and where I could find God again. Since that time I've been reading what I can about the Episcopal church and getting to know the people at St. Thomas better. They have been very kind to me. I asked the pastor if I could submit some cartoons for the church bulletin to illustrate some of their weekly passages and she agreed. I'll illustrate this post with a few of those cartoons.
One of the things that struck me was how similar the Episcopalian service seemed to the Roman Catholic service. I grew up Catholic, so it was in some ways like returning home to a service that was so similar to those of my childhood. I think the only major difference was that the pastor was a woman. That didn't really bother me, as I've always thought that women are just as good spiritual leaders as men. Another thing that I noticed was the care that they had for their Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer was created in 1549 and has over the centuries been revised periodically. It's a book that has various prayers, services and modes of worship of the Episcopal Church and as I've read through it, many wonderful prayers. Each Sunday, our service is based on the services starting on page 323. Over the past year, we've had various prayers for the elections, for our veterans, for the safety of people who've gone through natural disasters, and I admire this congregation for bringing the worries of this nation in prayer.
After the worship we usually have donuts and coffee and talk to each other about our week. A group then goes out for morning coffee, while another group goes for a discussion on their sermon. I enjoy the talks and listening to the very different opinions that people hold. We all have different experiences and it's a learning experience to hear how those experiences shape how we understand the bible readings and the sermon of the week. The pastor, Reverend Wendy Smith, has very insightful sermons and during the discussions, she is a good listener who makes sure that everyone is heard and their opinions are respected. That has been one of the things that I most like about this church.
Several years ago I had been involved in a series of conflicts at another church, and I wanted to find a place where one could ask questions and express a difference of opinion without fear of retaliation. When I attended an evangelical church, I learned to be quiet about my views because I knew people would not approve of how liberal I am. But I didn't want to attend a church with the opposite problem, where people who weren't liberal felt afraid to speak. Though St. Thomas is a fairly liberal church, more conservative voices are not afraid of speaking out, and they seem to have friends and are not shunned.
I think this tolerance for differing views is due to the Episcopal Church's idea of the Via Media and the history of the Elizabethan Settlement within the greater Anglican Church, of which the Episcopal Church is a member. Diana Butler Bass wrote a good definition of the Via Media in her book Strength for the Journey.
"Episcopalians pride themselves on one particular aspect of their tradition: they are the church of the via media, the middle way. Forged in the decades following the Protestant Reformation, Anglicanism defined itself as Protestant in its theology and Catholic in its worship. Its two foundational documents- the Thirty-Nine Articles, with their Protestant doctrines, and the Book of Common Prayer, with its medieval liturgical practices- present the vision of a comprehensive church."
The Elizabethan Settlement occured in 1559, during the early part of Queen Elizabeth's reign. During the previous reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I, the Church of England had been in a constant battle between Christians over its severing its ties with the Roman Catholic Church and attempts to reestablish the ties to Rome. When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, she had to find some way to settle the religious conflicts brewing in England. So in January 1559, Queen Elizabeth's first parliament passed two act, the "Act of Supremacy" and the "Act of Uniformity". These acts abolished any foreign jurisdiction in England, made Elizabeth the Supreme Governor of the British church and state, and established the Book of Common Prayer of 1552 as the official prayer book. It had elements to try to pacify both sides of the Protestant and Catholic divide, and though Puritans and some Catholics were not supportive, the Elizabethan Settlement had the support of the vast majority of England and it led to a period of religious peace and tolerance during most of her reign.
I admire the via media because of my experiences in both Protestant and Catholic Churches. There are things in the Catholic Church that I admire and there are things in the Catholic Church I dislike. And the same goes for my feelings of the Protestant, or Evangelical, Church. The Episcopal Church seems to combine the best of both worlds.
One of the things though, that has caused a lot of pain within the Episcopal Church has been the recent controversies involving the ordination of women and gay clergy and bishops. In 1974 women began to be ordained within the Episcopal Church for the first time, followed by the ordination of women bishops in 1988, and this caused great controversy within its ranks. The conflicts within the church grew more heated with the ordination of openly gay priests, culminating in the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
Episcopalians have a lot of sadness and anger at the recent controversies. Some people want the church to remain neutral on these social issues as they feel that a church should be a place where people could put aside their political differences and come together to worship God. They support gay rights and women's rights, but believe that such issues should be debated in the political realm and not within the church walls. Those who hold an opposite view believed that the church's stance is an attempt to be inclusive of groups that have historically been marginalized within the church community. If women and gays are going to be equal members of the church community, they should be treated equally in all matters.
Though I am firmly on the side of having women and gay clergy, I sympathize with the anguish that long time Episcopalians have over seeing the Anglican Church being divided by these issues. I've only been an Episcopalian for about a year, so I don't have the emotions invested in the church the way long time Episcopalians have. Though it's been painful for the church, I admire the Episcopalians for their courage in debating these issues out in the public. It seems that whenever Christian churches have tried to stifle debate or to cover things up, it has always had a bad effect on the church in the long run. Though I admire the Catholic Church, for instance, I think their decision to try to cover up the pedophilia problem of some of their priests was a big mistake that only made the problem worse.
One of the most admirable things of St. Thomas is their commitment to social services. They run a program called Our Daily Bread that prepares lunches for needy people 3 times a week. The church also takes part in a rotating shelter program with other churches in the area, where for a month they get to shelter and feed homeless men. St. Thomas also provides English classes for those trying to learn the language.
I've truly enjoyed becoming an Episcopalian. Whenever I travel, nowadays, I always look for an Episcopalian church in the area and try to attend a service or to just take a picture of the building. In San Francisco there is a church called St. Gregory's of Nyssa Episcopal Church that has these wonderful murals of various reformer in history, from Jesus to Mother Theresa to Eleanor Roosevelt to Malcolm X. In Kauai, I attended All Saints Episcopal Church and my wife and I met the pastor and his large dog. In Sedona, Arizona is St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, which was across the street from our hotel.
In finding St. Thomas, I found a place where I could ask questions, make friends, and learn from a group of believers. I can't say that I'm a strong and faithful Christian, but I can say that I'm in a place that can help me to find God again. In looking through the Book of Common Prayer, I found a prayer that I thought could end this post.
"O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen"