I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church on May 18, 2019. All confirmands in the Diocese of Olympia must write a letter to the bishop before their confirmation. Plus or minus a few revisions, this was my letter.

 

I’m ready, five years later, to step past some commitment issues and put down on paper where I’m going. It’s the same direction I’ve been going for the last five years—showing up now and then, depositing paychecks, reading and listening and trying to understand—but I’m doing it officially now, which feels different somehow. I’m not sure why. I’m learning that’s okay.

Even though I don’t know everything about it, or even most things, I’m ready to join the Episcopal Church in ink and paper. I’m committing to following this path as best I can, although I can’t see the turns ahead and everyone disagrees about the map. Or a better way of saying it, since this path began before I discovered the Episcopal Church (and from a different perspective, this path began long before the Anglican Communion ever existed): I’m committing to following this path with the guidance of the Episcopal Church. Certainty in uncertainty.

My journey started before I had a say in it, like all these journeys do. I grew up in an Evangelical Free Church that taught me about the Bible, the wages of sin, and the gift of God. As I understood it at the time, that childhood church was true Christianity, set above other, worldly Protestant denominations and, worse, idolatrous Roman Catholicism. A warning I heard more than once in Sunday School: a few of those misguided almost-Christians might get into heaven, but only “as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15), stinking of burnt hair and sulfur.

I didn’t encounter other forms of Christianity on their own terms until I found myself at Calvin College, where I met acronyms and slogans like CRC, “Creation, fall, redemption,” and “Every square inch.” Professors I admired lived by things like the Heidelberg Catechism, which I did not admire, and the contradiction threw me. It sparked a sort of spiritual audit of my own life: how I approached my education v. how I approached my faith, how I lived v. how I said I lived. Cultural context mattered when I read Shakespeare; did it matter when I read the Bible? Could a thematic arc of inclusion and acceptance outweigh Paul’s prohibitions on homosexuality and female leadership? Did my typical college rebellions make me a deliberate sinner who, as my youth pastor put it, might as well “walk up to Jesus on the cross and slap him across the face”? My understanding of Christianity crumbled, and I walked away from the church. I “believed in God” as something that existed, but not as a path I could follow. I found language for my crisis in Dostoyevsky: “It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”

But because I was studying at a Christian Reformed college, I kept learning about the Reformed tradition, and during a semester in England I learned a little about Anglicanism, too, or at least what an Anglican liturgy looked like. I learned that some people didn’t see creeds and saints as idolizations of “not-Jesus,” but as humility, connection to the past, and wisdom—and that tradition might be just as “valid” as the Bible. I discovered the flipside of original sin: the idea of original goodness, which meant God could use the “lost” secular world just as easily as the explicitly Christian one. Professors, friends, and books showed me that although I had walked away from Evangelicalism, I hadn’t necessarily walked away from Christianity. But I didn’t yet know what I could walk toward. The morally stringent Reformed tradition didn’t resonate, as much as I admired parts of it. Avowed atheism just felt like another rebellion. And for the most part, I still (unfairly) only knew Roman Catholicism by its pederasty problem.

One Sunday morning, residual Evangelical guilt pushed me out my front door and into an Episcopal parish across the street. I didn’t hate it. I even showed up a few more times. But then I left Michigan and moved to Washington State, rented a house in Renton, and didn’t bother with church for a while. Why would I? My life was easier without it. But I started to feel restless—not empty, but more aimless than I’d like—and Google Maps introduced me to St. Luke Church and The Rev. Kevin Pearson.

I kept going back for negative reasons—not in the sense that they were bad, but in the sense that they focused on what St. Luke’s was not. It did not focus on sin, a lost world, and a narrow gate. It did not demand PG-morality. It did not miss this world’s forest and trees alike by staring heavenward, turkey-like. I didn’t feel like I had to believe the right way at St. Luke’s, which meant I felt like I could belong.

But I belonged carefully. Still gun-shy of religious pressure, I didn’t trust my ability to discern between manipulative pressure and positive pressure, so I resisted all of it. Singing, prayer, giving, regular attendance. If I felt like I was supposed to do it, I didn’t. When I showed up at St. Luke’s on Sundays now and then, I showed up because I wanted to.

I warily became more and more involved. People recognized me, and coffee hour conversations stopped feeling awkward. I built St. Luke’s website and stepped in as communications director. I led a small group. And during that slow, five-year process, long after I discovered what the Episcopal Church was not, I began to discover what it was.

Among many other things, the Episcopal Church practices honesty and demonstrates theological humility. It recognizes spiritual authority in tradition and reason as well as in scripture, or more accurately (because every Biblical interpretation involves tradition and reason), it admits that it does so. Based on those three sources of spiritual authority, the church takes social and political stances, or more accurately (because every action is social and political) it admits that it does so. The Episcopal Church is honest about these things, and perhaps honest most of all about its own limitations. In his essay “Reason,” for instance, Anglican professor A.S. McGrade writes, “No single specific account [of the spiritual authority of “reason”] can be given. This is partly because Anglicans have disagreed among themselves about what counts as reason, partly because of historical change in what counts as reason in the world at large.” Certainty in uncertainty.

As one application of this theological framework—perhaps the most visible application—the Episcopal Church upholds same-sex marriage, yet values continual dialogue with dissenting member churches within the Anglican Communion, as well as with other denominations that hold opposing views. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said, “The inclusion that is at the heart of gospel that welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people is the same inclusive outstretched arms of Jesus that welcomes those who disagree with us.” The church doesn’t define almost-Christians. From a certain point of view, the Episcopal Church is spiritual tension, which means either very little props it up or everything props it up, but I’m learning that sort of easy dualism misses the point yet again, and the truth is something else. It’s something beyond my understanding, and beyond the church’s, too. As T.S. Eliot (another Anglican) writes, “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” The Episcopal Church’s humility leaves room for mystery, for the divine.

I don’t expect easy answers about church, God, or living. I’m still wary of those. But after years of caution and exploration, I’m ready to trust the guidance of the Episcopal Church as I follow this winding path. I suppose I can’t put down on paper exactly where I’m going, but I can say who I’m going there with.

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Beautiful. Compelling. Joy

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you, Mary!

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Fantastic letter, Josh! We have to talk about scripture some day; I have had a similar experience with regard to embracing the inherit tension and mystery in the church, but I am coming at it from being a ‘genetic’ (read ‘lifelong’) Episcopalian. Thanks for sharing such a personal letter, and welcome to the church!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you, Carter! I’d love to talk with you about scripture and your experience some day. Some day soon?

      Reply

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