By Clint Wilson
The second episode of The Living Church podcast discussed this article at greater length. Have a listen in here.
I am thankful to work in a parish with an excellent bookstore, where I spend too much money on books and other religious goods, such as my recently acquired garden statue of St. Francis that doubles as a bird feeder. (Don’t judge me.) I walk by this bookstore multiple times each week, and I usually cringe slightly when I pass by a small table featuring the ever-popular “Top 10 reasons to be an Episcopalian” swag:
Top 10 reasons to be an Episcopalian
10. No snake handling.
9. You can believe in dinosaurs.
8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.
7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.
6. Pew aerobics.
5. Church year is color-coded.
4. Free wine on Sunday.
3. All of the pageantry — none of the guilt.
2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.
1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.
A lot of people love these reasons plastered on coffee mugs and T-shirts, but I think they are cringe-worthy. Why? To be clear, it is not that I am ashamed of my denomination, or that I do not find sufficient reasons to celebrate our unique denominational heritage, or even that I do not possess a sense of humor (although some might disagree). Indeed, I have lightheartedly leveraged some of these “reasons” in conversation with college students and parishioners, choosing in certain moments to embrace their utility rather than offering a more nuanced explanation. They have a dialogical place in the same way that fast food has dietary utility — one does not always have the time for a fine or healthy meal. Fast food is food (some might quibble here), and it does fuel the body, but eventually one must move onto a consistently more substantive, edifying, and nourishing diet.
In such a spirit, for those who take pride in being Episcopalian, I offer the following “Top 10 reasons not to boast in Anglicanism,” inspired by the Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity (In One Body through the Cross) and The Gospel and the Catholic Church by Archbishop Michael Ramsey. These are not intended as a replacement meal, but rather an ecumenical entrée and counterbalance to our enthusiasm and zeal for desserts, upon which we have overindulged.
10. To refrain from forms of tribalism that are antithetical to the uniting gospel of Christ. The reasons provided above may be fun in our context, but often create more heat than light in genuine dialogue, especially given their thin nature.
9. To avoid spiritual consumerism. From the Princeton Proposal: “When Christians are divided among themselves, each group must distinguish itself from the others by claiming its own special ‘strengths’ and ‘insights’” (p. 33). Ultimately, this ends up fueling our consumerist tendencies and our divisions from those to whom we are bound in baptism.
8. To be Christians of intellectual integrity. Rarely do lists of pithy statements promote intellectual virtue among people.
7. To avoid shallow theology. The final reason on the more familiar list is: “No matter what you believe, there is bound to be one Episcopalian who agrees with you.” Really? The problem is, of course, that it matters very deeply what one believes, and one cannot just believe anything and remain Episcopalian — or Christian. The reasons we flippantly and perhaps even lightheartedly hand on to others will fossilize over time into our raison d’être, especially for those who have been fed a very light theological diet.
6. To practice intentional ecclesial humility. The interlocutor might reply by saying that this post is an overly serious response to a lighthearted list rooted in comedy. “People don’t really take such lists so seriously.” That is, until they do, and such shallow reasons become the apologetic muttered by parishioners to their friends who are struggling with their parish.
5. To be more missional. As the Princeton Proposal mentions, “[o]ur complacency about division undermines our mission” (p.33). Denominational boastings celebrate and are predicated on our division, even if only inadvertently, thereby hindering our mission locally and universally.
4. Because most of our divisions from other Christians are not justifiable. As the Princeton Proposal suggests, “Many confessional and denominational families now contain within themselves far more serious divisions than those that once divided them from other Christian communities; this calls into question their claims that historic divisions are maintained solely for the sake of truth” (p. 30, emphasis mine).
3. Precisely because we are Anglican. Consider Ramsey’s famous line from The Gospel and the Catholic Church:
For while the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and the travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as “the best type of Christianity,” but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died. (p. 220)
2. Because our story is not our own, but is God’s larger reconciling story. Again, Ramsey’s words:
Hence its [the Church’s] story can never differ from the story of the Corinth to which the Apostle wrote. Like Corinth, it has those of Paul, of Peter, of Apollos; like Corinth it has nothing that it has not received; like Corinth, it learns of unity through its nothingness before the Cross of Christ; and, like Corinth, it sees in the Apostolate its dependence upon the one people of God, and the death by which every member and every Church bears witness to the Body which is one.
1. To exalt Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah. The Princeton Proposal notes how the “distinct identities of our churches tempt us to relish the special marks that distinguish our communities from others, and not to glory in the confession of the crucified Lord we share in common” (p. 34). If it is true that we become what we celebrate, then we must first and foremost celebrate the Jesus who binds us together with people from every tongue, tribe, and nation.