on going to (an episcopal) church.
When I left the pastorate, I wasted no time finding another place to go to church.
There is no piety in that. I would not have had the time nor energy to think about “setting an example” to the people to whom I had taught the value of community. I would not have had the will to go out of a sense of duty or obligation—anything that ever rested on those pitiful pillars had already crumbled (as those twin terrors always should; they are far too weak to hold up a soul). I went out of sheer, bold-faced desperation for someone to preach the gospel to me, someone to lay hands on me, and someone to offer me the Lord’s Supper. There was no motivation more noble than hoping to not starve. I was not over Renovatus—I don’t think I ever will be. I had no idea what sort of new life I might have, just that I had to somehow clear space for any kind of life at all. I needed a place where I could learn how to be again.
I was not aspiring to go to an Episcopal church in particular. But in my own journey, my belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist had long become the center of my faith. I was aching to find a place where I could receive the body and blood of Jesus every single week. So that narrowed the field considerably. As a Pentecostal who has been largely shaped by women in pastoral work, I wanted to find a place where women would not be excluded from serving that holy meal. That narrowed the field even further. I was also craving a place in my town where ideally I could be a regular person for awhile, where most nobody would know who I was. Okay so I’m not sure if this is still even exactly a “field” now, maybe just enough grass or concrete to find a land where I’d be safe enough to land. But thanks be to God, I landed at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
I shuffled into the big red doors of St. Peter’s in uptown Charlotte a little awkwardly, a self-proclaimed hillbilly Pentecostal. The aesthetics of the place were foreign to me. Yet in a way, the simple artistry of the space made room for a sense of wonder, reverence and otherness that made me feel at home in a place I did not precisely know, but had longed for. I don’t remember how long it took for me not to cry all the way through every service. I could close my eyes when the choir was singing behind us, and actually felt like angels were singing over me. For all the ways some people may think of Episcopal churches in North America as rest homes for progressive white people, I can only tell you that St. Peter’s is as ethnically diverse church as I’ve been in. From the African-American male rector and white female associate rector, to the revolving door of beautiful faces on the pews around me, the church seems as integrated socio-economically and culturally as it does ethnically.
Ollie Rencher, our rector, and Joslyn Ogden Schaefer, our associate rector, trade off on preaching duties frequently. The sermons are shorter that I’m used to, but I love the focus, clarity and precision of them. Father Ollie speaks with a gentleness—a wise and weathered soulfulness—that breaks me open, effortlessly. Joslyn has something I would only know how to describe as the presence of God leaking through her eyes; a bright, sharp theological imagination; and an unforced poetry to her speech. The sermons are never overly adorned, not laden with academic or hyper-spiritual jargon—they are both authentic and artful.
I loved the warmth and compassion that seemed to radiate off the walls in there, and I loved being stone-cold anonymous. Off the grid from my Pentecostal and evangelical circles, I felt completely safe to come as I was, to receive, to just be. I loved that it never felt like the church was trying to sell me anything. I loved that really, nobody is fussed over at all—there is just is not that kind of VIP treatment for anybody. The vibe is, “this is the kind of worship we do here, and you are welcome to come and do this with us…or not.” The liturgy there does not try to coerce everyone into the same emotional experience, but in its corporate unity strangely creates space for us all to have a very personal experience of God. I have commented to friends that I have never actually prayed this much in church before.
With my own world feeling disordered and untethered, I am quite happy to be told when to kneel and when to sit and when to stand. I love that there is almost no space in the worship experience to spectate, because almost every moment invites (but not demands) participation. I have been in no position to tell my heart what to do. But because the Church told my body what to do in worship, my heart has been able to follow—sometimes. And that is enough for now.
It’s never felt like a tragedy there to not be up the guy up front speaking—I’ve been preaching since I was 19 years old. That part is only gift. Ironically, as long-winded of a preacher as I am, I love investing in a way of being and doing church where preaching really isn’t all that central to begin with. In the Anglican tradition, preaching is never the main event. Preaching is only foreplay at most. All the weight of the liturgy lands on the Eucharist—preparing for it, receiving it, reflecting on it. I love being part of a worship experience where so much emphasis is placed on the broken body and shed blood of Christ. I love that I get to come and actually kneel at the altar, where someone will look me in the eye (when I hold my head up high enough for them to do so) and give the elements to me. I’ve cried around that altar week after week. When my heart is too overwhelmed, I slip out the side door after I receive the Eucharist, where a sweet older man and woman lay their hands on me and pray for me. After years of being in healing lines down at the front of the church waiting for evangelists to lay hands on me, I surely don’t feel any shame or self-consciousness about just sliding into that back room for prayer. I go as often as I need to, without reservation.
I don’t feel any less Pentecostal than I ever have. In fact, in ways I don’t have the space to develop here, I have had some of my most mystical church experiences in the holy silence of that place. I have not disowned or detached from anything in my past that has come before. I love the Pentecostal church of my grandparents. I want to “include and expand” in my experience of God and Church, not replace anything.
The things that oriented my pastoral concerns theologically when I pastored Renovatus are still very much in tact. I still feel that the liturgy and the shout by no means need to be segregated, or for that matter, the head and the heart. I’m still crazy about the experience I had at Renovatus, however clumsy I was as a facilitator, of exploring those intersections—putting all the combustible stuff in the lab out and seeing what could explode. When I’m in churches like Sanctuary Church in Tulsa with Ed Gungor, or Word of Life in St. Joseph, Missouri with Brian Zahnd, I feel something of the same thing we had at Renovatus. For that matter, I know that she is only going deeper in her own experience of that kind of integrated worship under the leadership of Jon Stone, a wise old soul with an enormous pastoral heart, who is taking her all the places she needed to go, but I could not have taken her.
But as much as I loved my life planting and growing a church, that is simply not my life anymore, though it will mark me forever. In the meantime, my own experience of liturgy has been pretty impoverished historically. And in response to my hunger, the deep-rooted, whole-hearted worship at St. Peter’s has been beyond anything I could have hoped for. I love not being the kid with his father’s keys to a big car you don’t yet know how to drive, trying to feel my way around the city. I love being in the hands of compassionate leaders and a rich tradition that make me feel safe. By the way…I get to go to my pastors and openly tell them all of my business without shame or fear of judgment, and let them speak into my life. Who knew?! All this love and beauty, and they give the body and blood of Jesus away for free every week to anybody who wants it. I want everybody in the world to experience it, and yet to bury it as a secret from the world at the same time.
In short, I love going to church—maybe more than ever, even when I feel like I limp in and out the big red doors. I feel like I come up for air every time I walk through them, no matter how I might feel in the hours in between. I feel like I can love and be loved as a human being, without my gifts or my life being commodified in anyway.
I don’t know what any of that means for my future. Getting out of bed takes a surprising amount of discipline and focus sometimes these days. Trying to decide what I will have for lunch today alone sounds intimidating in this moment, much less how to make long-term decisions about ecclesial life. I can tell you that performing the liturgy every week is shaping me, very slowly, in ways that are subtle but deeper than my comprehension, and that there is something about this Anglican way of life that orients me when I have no other orientation.
One week a few months ago, I felt strangely compelled to visit an Episcopal Church closer to my house instead of going to St. Peter’s. It was a nice little brick church with about 60 or 70 people adults in the sanctuary, but didn’t have any of the beauty of St. Peter’s—their extraordinary choir, the architecture that in and of itself tells your soul to bow when you walk in the door. I very much liked that I could go into this very different church and know that I would just as connected to the exact same liturgy that is shaping and growing me every week. But the experience, at least within the first few minutes, frankly felt much more pedestrian by comparison.
But you know, it was funny—just a few minutes into the service, two things happened that made me feel like I understood “why” I was there. One was in the hymn before the Scriptures would be read. There was a middle-aged interracial couple sitting in front of me, and while everyone was singing the hymn with a kind of austerity, the African American woman gently lifted her hands in worship. I am not quite sure even now why that simple gesture, in that particular hymn, in that particular environment, had the effect of breaking me open so much, and making me feel so much more at home. It was just a moment that slid in between my ribs. I was irritated to once again be unable to make it through a service without crying.
The rector got up to preach. I liked the sermon just fine, but found myself wishing I could be listening to Ollie or Joslyn instead. And then he said something toward the end of the short message that just smacked me in the face like some kind of wave. He did not claim this originated with him, and I’m not sure where it came from. But he told us that in other parts of Christian tradition, when people think of worship they think of God as the director, the choir or band as the actors, and the congregation as the audience. “In the Episcopal church,” he said, “we think of the priest as the director, the entire congregation as the actors, and God as the audience.”
The air was suddenly still. It felt like I was in a sci-fi movie where time freezes for a moment, and every movement in the room was on pause. The analogy started slowly clicking through all my gears on the inside as it went down. I marveled at just how much, on a soul level, this way of thinking about church made sense to me now—how much more resonant it is to understand Christian worship not as much as being for people as it for God. I was surprised that my heart could agree with such a statement so quickly and easily. It was evidence of how sneaky liturgy can be, and how much it had messed with my insides—while I was just going to St. Peter’s ostensibly just trying not to drown outright. Sometimes you don’t know you are on the boat until you wake up already out in the middle of the ocean.
reflecting on the broad story so far
To be clear, I don’t feel like I’m Columbus discovering America over here. I always think it must be funny to friends in the Catholic and Anglican traditions when people like me say are saying things like, “Hey guys — whenever you practice the sacraments, God shows up EVERY SINGLE time! Can you believe it?!” This is just telling about finding a church that means a lot to me. I am just a guy who quite imperfectly loves Jesus and thus loves the Church, and does not know how to not talk about either. I’m an ecclesial mutt with no particular point to prove, and no particular claim to authority or credibility.
But given the context of my own story so far, I can’t help but reflect on my own experience, and how it fits into my broader understanding of Church. For all the ways I’ve lost my naivety and childlikeness, and often misplaced hope altogether, I am just as hopeful about the Church in all her diverse expressions as I’ve ever been. I don’t know how much longer Charlotte will be my city, but as long as I am here I will be happy to cheer on the kingdom wherever it may be found. I love to go to Elevation Church to amen Steven Furtick, one of my best friends. I love to go to my adopted big brother John P. Kee’s church, New Life Fellowship Center, and get down with surely the best gospel music you could find in America on any given Sunday. I see, hear and feel God in all of those places and in all of those people. And yet I am thankful for my particular place in this very particular moment of my life.
People still talk to me a lot about their own experience of trying to find their place within the Church, and it is always a conversation I am interested in. I have always thought that when you can, it’s ideal to find a way to integrate things that you need from other parts of Christian tradition into your own—while staying where you are. But there are other times where you need to go a little bit more directly to a stream that is different from your own in order to get the nourishment you need. This is such a time for me right now, though I still feel very much invested in the life-long project of trying to learn to live at the intersections of the traditions that are shaping me in some way.
Truth be told, I think it is good to stand within most any sort of Christian tradition and be nourished by it. I think it’s not so good to stand outside of any and all forms of Christian tradition, and make yourself a judge over all them. I know there are a lot of people these days coming from evangelical and Pentecostal backgrounds who, like me, are looking to connect their experience with the rootedness and ground-beneath-your-feetness of more ancient liturgy. In and of itself, I think that’s a good thing. I am sometimes concerned though about how we can be attracted to the ascetics of liturgical worship, but not allow ourselves to invest in the content and form of it. Liturgy then becomes little more than an exotic fashion statement, when we aren’t really willing to wear the clothes.
Those of us from evangelical traditions often end up going more or less outside of it when it starts to feel too constricting, without exactly going inside another tradition either. We can stubbornly refuse to reflect seriously enough on the Church in her diverse forms to have to contextualize ourselves—which is a tradition in and of itself, but only an American one. We can spend our days being outraged by fundamentalists for being fundamentalists, and feeling very good about ourselves for not being like the people we don’t like. You know—like fundamentalists. Sometimes I think it is far too easy to get used to being the smart ass kids at the back of the class complaining about all the Church is not, without ever taking the initiative to come into a tradition and humbly learn from it. And yet, we may be equally critical then if we don’t find our experience of church to be entertaining enough. “I want the aesthetics of liturgy, without the tedium of all that actual liturgy.” It’s a way of being the guy who doesn’t really want to read the great book, but wants to be able to say they read the great book. But I digress.
Whatever respective traditions we do find ourselves in and however we get there, I become only more convinced that the practice of coming to the Table together in the Eucharist is the only hope we have for any sort of unity, cohesion, and renewal in the Church as a whole. The problem in Protestantism in general, historically but much more profoundly now, is that have we far too much emphasis on getting the beliefs right. No wonder we now have over 40,000 denominations—the search for perfect doctrine is endless, and thus so are the schisms. It is one schism after another, in search of perfect belief. The thing I love about Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal tradition (when it is rightly understood), is that they are based on shared practices rather than shared beliefs. At St. Peter’s, we recite the Nicene creed every week. But the practice of the liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer in general, and the shared experience of the Eucharist in particular, is what holds us together. Beyond that, there is plenty of room for difference. The emphasis is not on sharing dogma so much as it is sharing the cup.
I believe this is the great hope for the unity of the Church: that though we may hold almost nothing else in common we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, know that somehow Christ is revealed to us around the table, and have burning hearts afterward to prove it. The experience of God in and through this meal gives us the resources to transcend the temporal boundaries that might otherwise divide us.
I know that across church traditions, we can all fall too easily along existing cultural fault lines—skewing too much toward garden variety conservative or liberal politics. But perhaps there is actually far less difference between competing conservative and progressive ideologies within the Church than we once thought. The divisions are not just about how we interpret Scripture and tradition. They may be less about what we believe, than what we have failed to believe about the Eucharist. When we don’t believe that God is revealed to us in the bread and wine, something else will be more determinative for our understanding of church—music, politics, ideology, culture, popular current conversations about sexuality and gender. Yet being the Church can never be about being on the “right” side of these lines, but rather the abolition of these lines through the blood of Jesus. Without an over-arching belief that the love of God expressed around Christ’s table is bigger than any and all such things, we damn ourselves to a temporal tribal identity based on belief, rather than a transformational identity located in the cross of Christ.
I suspect that sounds the worst to those who find such a sentiment to be broad and oversimplified. But I would not know how to nuance it more. I want to be part of a church where the practice of coming to the table is more determinative than anything else. I find St. Peter’s to be blissfully free of bland cultural rhetoric of “tolerance”—but I’m sure it would be too inclusive for many of my evangelical friends. I am okay with that. And if you think I favor a more inclusive church experience because I fear I would not otherwise be myself included—BOOM. YOU GOT ME. That’s absolutely true. Being in great need of grace does in fact radically alter your experience of church.
I can tell you this: I have never heard less talk about passing ideological battles and culture wars in all of my life than I have at St. Peter’s, in one direction or the other. There are no secret litmus tests or cultural shibboleths. There is less of the rhetorical tumult I find in popular culture because there is too much talk of the gospel; and less time for debate because there is too much time devoted to feasting at Christ’s table. There is just the prayer book and the table spread for whosoever will.
Between those Eucharistic meals, some of these days are better than others, and some days worse. But it always does my heart good to remember that I am never more than a week away from no longer bearing the sole responsibility for my own sins. In the corporate confession, my brothers and sisters will share mine, and I will share theirs, and we will hand them over to Christ together—then hear words of absolution. I do not always know how to keep my heart open and my desires known. I feel like a secret even unto myself as often as not. But on Sunday when I walk through the red doors, the clouds will part again when Father Ollie begins:
“Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”