I read Those Episkopols, by the Rev. Dr. Dennis Maynard, as part of an on-going adult Sunday school class at my parish church. For the most part I enjoyed it. The author presents a short, informal, and readable introduction to the Episcopal Church, based on his own experience as a priest in the Church over the last four decades. He writes that “This book is written out of a profound love and appreciation for the Episcopal Church” (pg. 6) and that “the preceding chapters are dedicated to answering some of the most frequently asked questions this priest has received from inquirers. This is not intended to be a comprehensive study of Anglicanism or The Episcopal Church.” (pg. 87)
Recognizing the book for what it is and what it is not, I felt the author did a fairly commendable job, though there were a few typos that I found annoying, and at times the organization and content of the chapters seemed a bit haphazard. The author’s writing style was sometimes overly repetitive, in my opinion. My greatest criticism, however, concerns the perceived demeanor in which the content is presented. Perhaps it is inevitable that a book of this nature will rely heavily on generalizations and stereotypes, but I was bothered by the extent to which the author contrasted the Episcopal Church with other churches, stating essentially that “we are not like those other Christians, thank God”. A prominent example is his mention on more than one occasion of the Episcopal Church as “the thinking person’s religion”, thereby implying that all other branches of the Church discourage their people from approaching their faith intelligently, curiously, and rigorously. I understand why people say this, but the broader implication is ludicrous, and this kind of caricature is not accurate, charitable, or becoming of a church which prides itself on resisting the urge to give simplistic answers to complex questions (as Rev. Dr. Maynard asserts elsewhere).
That said, there was much that I did enjoy in the book. The author does a fine job presenting a compelling view of the life and culture of the Episcopal Church, and there were plenty of phrases and paragraphs that eloquently and succinctly expressed the reasons why I also love this church. For example, I loved what the author had to say about The Book of Common Prayer:
When we come together for common prayer we are very intentional about the utilization of this book. It contains the wisdom of the ages. Some of these prayers are thousands of years of age. Some of them were familiar to the lips of Jesus. These prayers are most appropriate for public worship because these are the prayers that we have all agreed on. We hold these prayers in common. When we pray these words we are verbalizing words that we have all agreed on. We all believe these prayers so we can pray them without hesitation and in one voice … Basically, The Book of Common Prayer protects us from one another’s creativity, political leanings, prejudices, bad theology and current passion. (pg. 46)
The Book of Common Prayer solidly ties us to the historic Catholic understanding of worship. The Prayer Book is not an alternative service book. If you’re going to be an Episcopalian you will use the words of The Book of Common Prayer in the services of worship. The Book of Common Prayer, not doctrines and dogmas, is the most visible unifying symbol in the Episcopal Church. (pg. 54)
I can stand up and shout amen to that!
There were also passages in which I heartily agree with Rev. Dr. Maynard, even as I remain skeptical about the extent to which his assertions are in fact accurate. Indeed, the preceding excerpt about the BCP could be considered an example; though I think it is correct to say his observations here are true generally, the use of alternative liturgical resources (e.g. Enriching Our Worship) and even shameless disregard for the rubrics of the BCP seem to have become more frequent in TEC today, a trend I personally find troubling. Another example:
Because the Holy Eucharist is a great mystery Episcopalians resist any effort to introduce sentimentalism into the service. We even become hostile to any effort to make the service of Holy Communion faddish or cute. Our English heritage becomes very apparent when it comes to diminishing this great mystery. Anglicans steadfastly believe that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper must be done with decency and order. (pg. 55)
In reading that, unfortunately, I couldn’t help but think of the appearance a few years ago of various “themed Eucharists” (e.g. Seuss-charist, Clown-charist, Pirate-charist, and any other of which I am mercifully unaware). Of course, it’s true that these travesties are not reflective of the whole of TEC, but rather got attention and some much deserved criticism for their astounding irreverence and incomprehensibly bad taste. But the fact that enough Episcopalians somewhere though this was a good idea is still disconcerting. Thankfully, it seems that fad was short-lived and very limited.
Toward the end the book, the Rev. Dr. Maynard offers some thoughts about the Episcopal Church’s focus on welcome: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you”. It’s a mantra that can be controversial, in that we run the risk of turning our church into an organization of bland, purposeless gatherings if we go so far as to subject everything (including the revealed truths of the very faith we proclaim) beneath a generic “welcome”. Such a welcome offers no transformation of life or hope of heaven. While the author acknowledges as much when he writes “there is a need in the world for the Church to hold up the plumb line of God … standards against which we must measure our behavior” (pg. 84) he nevertheless affirms this attitude of radical welcome.
If God is calling the Episcopal Church to be the branch of His Body that places love above judgment and proclamation above prophecy, than it may well be the role that we need to embrace with enthusiasm. The voices reminding us of our sinfulness and the need to condemn sin are indeed plentiful … Perhaps God is calling the Episcopal Church to bid welcome to those who would not feel welcome any place else. (pg. 85)
I have begun to feel more at peace about the Episcopal Church and her future, despite my disagreements and disappointments with much of the current leadership and their vision (or lack thereof). Because, like the author, I am suspecting that who we are now as a church may indeed be a reflection of God’s calling, to be a church that errs on the side of generosity and openness. Undoubtedly, sometimes we’ll get it wrong, perhaps go too far in our attempts to accommodate or incorporate; accordingly, we must always move humbly, with fear and trembling. But if the Episcopal Church sometimes speaks too little about sin or fails to proclaim her doctrine with sufficient clarity, there are plenty of other churches that have and will continue to more than compensate in that regard. So perhaps the generosity of TEC is a needed corrective. I do believe that the whole of the Church (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox) is needed if we are to more fully apprehend and enter into the life of God. Each branch of the Church Catholic possesses its own unique strengths and insights, and we all must learn from one another as we embrace each other in love. The openness of the Episcopal Church can indeed be a source of frustration and difficulty, because it means we are willing to live with questions, to entertain variant ideas about God and the faith of the Church, etc., while still seeking to maintain communion with one another. We are in the midst of an era in TEC and in the Anglican Communion when those bonds of communion are being severely tried amidst many disagreements. Many have felt called to leave TEC or the Anglican family altogether. I know there are those who feel that they have finally “come home to Orthodoxy” or at last found “the fullness of the faith” in Rome (while not willing to concede the point, I am, in good Anglican fashion, willing to entertain the idea that these may be correct). But I also believe and have heard testimony that many of those who have journeyed thus would probably never have entered the Church at all had they not first found a sincere welcome in the Episcopal Church. I think it is indeed true that no small number “who would not feel welcome any place else” have been welcomed into the Episcopal Church, and have there encountered God in His people and the Lord Jesus Christ, and have there been born anew into the family of the Church and introduced to the riches of her tradition.
Lastly, the Rev. Dr. Maynard closes with a heartfelt testimony of his love for the Episcopal Church, despite her recent trials and schisms. I close with his words now, because I feel like they could just as truly be my own:
I love this Church’s determination to balance scripture, tradition, and reason. I love her majestic worship, the mystery of her sacraments, and the emphasis on God’s love and forgiveness. I love her courage to stand up to the forces of bigotry and to fight for the equality of all people. I love her sensitivity to the poor, the sick, and the needy. I love her great hymns that have outlived the catchy jingles and campfire songs of every generation …
Oh, I do get angry with this Church of ours. I often wonder if those in authority have lost touch with reality. I have come to fear the religion section of the newspaper lest there be another article on my beloved Church that puts us in a most unfavorable light. I pray hardest when the bishops gather, and pray harder still when the General Convention meets. I fear which special interest group shall prevail, and I wonder just how many more storms this old ship can endure before she does, in fact, fragment.
I do not like all that she does. I do not agree with all who attempt to speak for her. There are many times I feel out of step with the rest of the band. On occasion I do resist the newest step of marching orders. But leave her? Leave the Episcopal Church? Leave the Church of my conversion, confirmation, and ordination? No, as far afield as she may go on occasion, I could not leave her. I love this wonderful Church. I want to spend the rest of my life in her bosom, die in her arms, and have the faithful remember me in their prayers. (pg. 82)
Peace of Christ.