Finding love and redemption in the Anglican Church
By Emily Garcia
Photo by Jaewon Monica Choi
I first met Steve White in the doorway of a pantry in a big shambly church in Trenton. I was there for Community Action, working with the Crisis Ministry, and he was there for our Professor's Night to discuss Tracy Kidder's "Mountains Beyond Mountains." During the discussion we had been mulling over Paul Farmer's exhortation to help the world in whatever way you can. I brought up the passage from the New Testament in which Paul speaks about the church as a body, saying the eye cannot take the place of the hand and so forth, and in this same way, how we must all find own places in the whole world working towards social justice.
After our dinner, I snuck away to grab a glass of water, and at the doorway to the pantry I ran into Steve. He was dressed formally, in black with a white collar, with clean rimless glasses and neatly cut hair. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I do remember my first impression was something like, "Oh gosh, not a priest! I've got enough guilt already!" He thanked me for my comments during the discussion and introduced himself as the Episcopal chaplain. At the time, my knowledge was such that this brought up in my mind a small note-card which read only, "1: The American version of the Anglican Church; 2: Like the Roman Catholics, but without the pope." (These assumptions are actually in many ways correct: the Episcopal Church is the American "daughter" of the worldwide Anglican Communion, so anyone who is Episcopalian is also Anglican.)
Steve asked about my religious background; I told him that my family is evangelical, but that I hadn't been going to church for a while — two years in fact, and not because I was uninterested, but because I didn't find our evangelical services helpful or enjoyable. I would leave on Sunday mornings feeling conflicted, angry and guilty — feeling unworthy without knowing how to make things right.
Of course, I didn't actually say all of this to Steve, but I think he could tell. That semester they had a seminarian leading a Bible study every week, he told me, and she had in fact been raised evangelical — would I like to join? He wrote down my name and said he'd put me on the email list.
I was intrigued. I joined the Bible study and met the second person who would change my life. Jill Young is an intelligent, thoughtful and profoundly spiritual woman; with her guidance I found a way to escape the black-and-white world of pseudo-intellectualism in which I had trapped myself. Through her intellectual integrity and sensitive heart, I began to discover in myself an inclination toward an intuitive truth that is believed and understood rather than "known," and toward a greater appreciation for uncertainty and grayness, a defining characteristic of Anglicanism as a whole.
I began the Bible study joking with my parents, "Don't worry, I'm not going to become Episcopalian or something!" In December I took part in my first service (Lessons and Carols), and the Sunday before Ash Wednesday I started attending regularly. I asked Steve at least one question every time I saw him. Why do we pray for the dead? Do you believe in Purgatory? Where does the Book of Common Prayer come from? Why do priests have to wear fancy clothes? Our discussions always went further than the initial questions, branching into bigger ideas: How should we read the Bible? How should we interpret it? How should Christians act in the world? I was shocked — and relieved — to find a place where people thought it acceptable to disagree with Paul's thoughts on women, where silence and stillness were valued and where poets were cited as theologians.
I joined the confirmation class, not because I wanted to be confirmed but because I had so many questions. As I kept learning, however, I started to fall in love. I cannot even express what it was like to learn that perhaps all my questions were not signs of sinfulness or fault; I can't begin to explain the overwhelming and startling joy at encountering a God who did not look at me only to see where I had failed, but who accepted me and called me to higher places. On Easter morning I was baptized. Four weeks later, on Good Shepherd Sunday, I was confirmed, and officially, happily, enthusiastically joined the Anglican Communion.
I have found in the Anglican Church a long sweep of tradition and a wide spectrum of beliefs and doctrines, all centered around a message of love and redemption. I have found an intellectual engagement with Scripture and theology that is balanced precariously but perpetually with a sincere spiritual yearning for holiness. To be fair, not all of my interest and passion for "religion" (i.e. God) arose solely from having joined the Anglican Church; rather, it is in this particular expression of Christianity that I have found my home. It is the place where I have found safety and acceptance enough to explore myself and the world, and to continue the journey toward knowing God.
Amen and Amen!