Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Changing Churches (part 4, Episcopalized)

Tonight, I became a member of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church here in Houston, which also means I have joined the Episcopal Church and, most significantly, have left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I'm still a bit surprised to say that. I don't know how long it will be before I'll be able to say "I'm Episcopalian." That doesn't sound quite natural, yet. Even tonight, as they had us sit in the front row of the nave, I said to my neighbor, "I'm Lutheran. I don't sit in front pews."

Some thoughts, some serious, some silly:

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In the year and a half of attending St. Stephen's, I've had both moments of going, "say what?" and "oh, that's totally what I do/think/believe already." Some of the "say what?" moments come when I realize that this is, in fact, the church of the British Empire and occasionally it becomes apparent. 

I have issues with the British Empire, to say it simply. 

But I am also reminded that Martin Luther was successful with his revolution in part because he had the protection of a prince. If this isn't being touched by Empire, I don't know what is. And really, any communion of any size since Constantine knows something about Empire. This doesn't excuse the corrupting influence of Empire, neither does it mean I need to search on for the "pure" church. I have the feeling that many thoughtful churches are aware of this influence and are working against it, at some times more actively than at others, but self-awareness is a start. 

What I do like about the Episcopal Church (despite a little bit of suspicion about it) is that they don't really do systematic theology. Their theology is in the Book of Common Prayer, which is quite orderly but not exactly systematic in the way we think of systematic theology. And I say that having actually enjoyed my systematic theology course in seminary.

Having a theology that is shaped by prayer, however, makes sense to me and as I've long said that I was an "experiential theologian," I have sort of believed it and lived for a while now.

My seminary friend, the late great redheaded wild woman of God, Kathy Glenn, had accused me some time ago of having crypto-Episcopalian tendencies. I've found she was right. 

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Someone asked me after the service if I heard Martin Luther crying "Nooooooo!" from heaven. I said, no, he just grunted and said, "Ach, das ist adiaphora."

(Really, I don't mind saying that my Lutheran soul is slightly annoyed that the bishop has to come and receive me into membership. I would have joined months ago had it been allowed via some other means. Concessions. We make 'em.) 

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 There is some real and difficult sadness around this transition. For one thing, I do think of myself as Lutheran. "Luther" and "Lutheran" are words that permeate my history.

Luther League. Lutheran Campus Ministry. Lutheran Student Movement. Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. Voting member of the 1991 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. Former employee of Augsburg-Fortress Publishers, the publishing house of the ELCA. I'm sure there are other things I'm forgetting. 

And I've said a few times now that I'm not really leaving the ELCA so much as I'm joining St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, which seems to be a really good place for me. 

Having said that, part of what makes St. Stephen's a good match for me is that I brought to St. Stephen's my idiosyncrasies (a religious performance artist? art-making as a sight for theological reflection? who says things like that?) and it was one of the few times in my life that I wasn't looked at oddly. Even the few times I was listened to in the Lutheran Church, there was still a general confusion about what to do with me. 

But the rector at St. Stephen's not only listened to my ideas, she embraced them, encouraged them, and facilitated their implementation. Really, if my little company, Breath & Bone/Orts Peformance, manages to do much of anything, enormous credit has to go to St. Stephen's and the support I've received there. 

It makes me sad that I'm not saying that about a Lutheran congregation. But sometimes you have to follow the joy.

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I have mentioned to the rector the possibility of St. Stephen's joining the ELCA. She laughs as if I'm joking. So maybe she doesn't take me seriously in all matters. Still, the seed is planted . . .

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I think it's a really good time to be the ELCA. This also makes this transition hard. I think there are great things moving in that church body, on a national level. LGBT people are welcomed as clergy (well, officially, anyway). The first openly gay bishop was elected to a synod in California a few months ago. The first woman was just elected, a few short weeks ago, as the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA.  The excitement around her election electrified my Facebook newsfeed for a couple of days and I was excited, too. Something interesting and exciting is happening the ELCA. I hate to leave it. It, and it's predecessor body, the American Lutheran Church, has been my family for all my life.

But if it's a cliche that gay men often create their own families, well, I feel that's a bit of what is happening here. Having learned that I just sort of make the "old family" uncomfortable, I've gone and found a family that seems willing to take me, oddities and all.

I'm celebrating. I may look back wistfully now and then, I may have moments of sadness as I watch the old family do wonderful things without me, but I feel adopted into something new. And adoption is something to celebrate.

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Finally: Years ago, my friend Martha joined the Episcopal Church. I don't know if she remembers this bit of silliness, but she said that after her reception into, she swore that she could now see auras.

After this evening's service, I so very much was tempted to go up to Bishop Andy Doyle and say, "You know at first, seeing auras was a little disorienting, but you adjust really quickly, don't you?"