Becoming an Episcopalian: Observations on Spiritual Practice In The Episcopal Church- Part 1

Confirmation Picture April 7, 2019

Confirmation Picture: St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland, TN, April 7, 2019.

*This is Part 1 of a 3 part post. This series will offer observations on the following 8 subjects, the first 2 covered in this post: Praying the Psalter, The Role of Scripture, Praying Written Prayers, Memorizing Prayer/Scripture/Songs/Creeds, Worship Space, Role of the Sermon, Crossing Oneself, & affectionately Smells and Bells.*

In January I embarked on a Spirit led journey into Anglican tradition via the Episcopal Church. My place of departure was the Church of the Nazarene, a specific branch of the Methodist tradition that is a precarious balance of 18th century Wesleyan Theology and 19th century American Holiness theology.

At the local level, the Nazarene church has been greatly influenced by both Baptist and Pentecostal forms of spirituality, at least within the South and within my context in East Tennessee. For many, the University is the first exposure we ever had to a deep sense of what it means to be not only Nazarene but also part of the Wesleyan tradition. It should be noted that Wesleyanism has its roots in Anglicanism.

To be sure, there are aspects of Wesley that are alive and well in Nazarene Church, the extent of which typically depends on congregational context and the education of the local pastor. For the most part, however, theology and doctrine have taken precedence over spiritual practices as major influences in Nazarene Tradition (which I should also note is a young Church, founded in 1908 as a result of the Holiness movements of the 19th century).

As far as Nazarene life goes, the parts of Wesley most dismissed, or simply not even known, have been his spiritual practices and any form of spiritual routine that reflects a history in the Book of Common Prayer or even historical vestiges of Methodist societies. When it comes to personal piety, however, it is often subjective, up to the individual on what they say or do. Further, when congregants are admonished to memorize and learn scripture, there are few opportunities built into worship or communal life that would help anyone memorize anything beyond the routine order of service or hymns/music, good and noble to be sure but not scripture, prayer, or creedal. Of course, this varies on context.

This is a brief sketch of the place from which I came as I encountered Anglican spirituality, not merely as an academic, but as a participant. Through the years my course of study exposed me to catholic tradition. It is one thing to know some facts about a tradition; it is quite another to know a tradition by living within it and allowing it to shape you. For most of my life I have been shaped by the American Holiness tradition as embodied in Nazarene life. For another large portion, University professors and teachers shaped me and offered me Wesleyan roots that lay dormant underneath the American Holiness influences. And now, as one who has left my homeland, I have begun to be shaped by another rich tapestry of Christian tradition: Anglicanism & The Book of Common Prayer.

This month marks the 7th month I have been in the Episcopal Church and the 4th month since my confirmation. My family was baptized into the church on Refreshment Sunday (3/31/19), an odd day traditionally for a baptism, but one that makes sense theologically. I offer these remarks as one who had heretofore only observed from the outside, while now on the inside and doing them daily. I further offer them as one with a theological education (and now pursing doctoral studies) yet one who has only begun to scratch the surface of liturgical theology and Anglican forms of life. Thus, my sentiments may be true to intent, or slightly off, but these are my impressions of the piety I have thus far encountered and experienced without any Anglican academic credentials.

1. I never knew the power of praying the Psalter until this year.

Prior to Anglican spirituality, the Psalter was Israel’s prayer and song book; it was also a book I never used for those purposes. Maybe I was a bad Nazarene. I’m not sure, but the Psalter wasn’t a central part of any piety or practice offered to me and I was raised, educated, and ordained in the Nazarene Church. The Psalter is one of the ways the Holy Spirit confirmed to me that I was in the right place.

I had never chanted the Psalms until my first Sunday at St Lukes. I didn’t even know how to chant them. As we came to the Psalm after the first lesson, suddenly the Holy Spirit came over me in an unanticipated way. The Holy Spirit is an old friend, one that I know is present when it comes around, and in this strange new place my old friend, the comforter, came alongside of me and confirmed in my spirit I was in the right place.

The beauty of the Psalms words, the collective chanting of these ancient signs with the contemporary people of God, and the way God spoke to me through this means of worship, was palpable. Tears gently filled my eyes as the chant filled my mouth and my eyes focused on the Christ making himself available through his visible presence in the stained glass at the head of the chancel. The psalm had brought me into the sanctuary, and I caught a glimpse of majesty I had never seen, nor did I expect to encounter.

This sort of experience does not happen every Sunday, in fact, it hasn’t happened since, but the chanting has become something I look forward to each Sunday and praying the Psalms are something I regularly do in my morning/evening prayer. They are a powerful source of divine communication, constantly reminding me that my own words are unnecessary, and I can lean into the words of the Psalmist to say what I often feel but cannot describe. It is has been described as the prayer book of ancient Israel and now it has also become my own.

2. The Bible is Everywhere.

Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan made a notable statement when he remarked, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” (The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities).

It is often noted by those in more “spirit filled” (experientially spontaneous) religious traditions, that more formal churches are cemented to their tradition and shackled to their structure, not having the freedom to respond to God in worship. Authentic worship is measured by a person’s ability to respond at will, at any moment, to the moving of the Holy Spirit in the service.

Further, it is believed by many that these formal traditions are not “biblical” and are more faithful to their traditions and liturgy than to scripture. In other words, it is believed that many in Anglican and Catholic churches are living out traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) and calling it faith.

While I could compose a treatise in response to these non-reflexive prejudices, I will simply note my experience. As a confirmed Episcopalian I engage more scripture in church each Sunday than I ever did as a Nazarene. Scripture is literally everywhere in the Episcopal church. We pray it. We read it. We sing it. We responsively say it. I find myself rehearsing it at work because of my frequent recitation of it.

Most of the prayer book is composed of scripture. Scripture and prayer are central; in fact, it is this commonality of practice and commitment that unites the church over any doctrine or theology. Many that find their way to the Episcopal Church, after being in lower church settings that claim a high view of scripture, are surprised to discover the centrality of scripture in the Anglican Tradition. The bible is not dead here. It is alive and well.

Further, liturgical structure does not imply a dead spirit. Quite the contrary; it is in the very structure of worship that I have had the Holy Spirit commune with my spirit in unexpected ways, God not needing my “freedom” to respond in a charismatic fashion. Tradition, like scripture, provides time tested avenues through which God can commune with the us.

The freedom so touted by experiential expressivist spiritualities is not found in the anarchy of spirit but in the order of creation and ordered response, a case that can be made theologically and biblically. There is, therefore, freedom to be obtained within the structure. As in any institution, freedom happens inside of limits. I quote Augustine loosely at this point, “Love God and do what you please.” The love of God being the structure within which our freedom is expressed.

I do not get the sense of cold traditionalism in the church I attend nor in any I have attended (which at this point is 5 different Episcopal churches). I get the sense of a deep commitment to the tradition handed down, a deep commitment to preserve it as a means of communication used by the Holy Spirit, and a deep sense of holy awe inspired within in the liturgical offerings. Of course, this may rely upon the participant and I do not deny that things can become routine and dry or that some churches are “cold.” But no tradition holds that tendency hostage. One can even become numb to Pentecostal ecstasy when those modes of worship become too familiar or normative, no longer having the power to allow the Word to be made Strange and, therefore, no longer alluring.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to be posted Sunday…

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