A visit to a different church


Last Sunday, I decided to venture out into unknown territory and experience firsthand a religious service of a denomination that was largely unknown to me. I attended services at an Episcopal church.

I wouldn't have attended this church, except that after having discovered its web site I found myself attracted to its progressive ideals, as expressed particularly in its monthly newsletter and its statement of inclusion. What I feared, on the other hand, was just how creedal or otherwise theologically orthodox the actual service would be. The only way I would know was to see for myself. Accompanied by my significant other for moral support, I decided to do just that.

The one thing I didn't really think about prior to attending the service was Episcopalian ritualism, which turned out to be quite unlike what I was used to in the various Protestant denominations I had attended. I think the Protestant in me was turned off almost instantly by these rituals. One such set of rituals was the procession of the cross--where a group of robed individuals, one of whom bore a large cross, walked to the front of the church--and the later recession of the cross at the end of the service, when the cross was taken back in the opposite direction. These had such a formalism about it that was unlike what I was used to. That doesn't mean that they are wrong. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for others, and vice versa. This could not be clearer in the case of this service. During the recession of the cross, I watched the faces of the robed men and women who proceeded back towards the rear of the chapel. What they were doing seemed to mean something to them. I almost felt guilty about the negative vibe that I was probably issuing silently from my unhappy face. By the last fifteen minutes of the service, I was squirming and seriously considered quietly slipping out the back. What meant so much to the parishioners meant nothing to me. I sang none of the songs. I recited none of the recitations.

Almost from the beginning, I felt unconnected to the service. I clearly differed from the majority of those in the pews (which were nearly full) in what I was attracted to in a worship service. Everyone else sang the hymns and they recited their creeds as the service proceeded. They were a dressed up group of people, in their suits and so forth, except for one very casually dressed woman in a sweatshirt who had many piercings on her face; she sat by herself in the back row, but she did partake of the Eucharist. (The communion was open to all, but I did not participate.)

Other than reading books by the progressive Marcus Borg and the provocatively anti-theistic John Shelby Spong, I was mostly ignorant of the Episcopal denomination. Not only does the web site for this church proclaim a progressive and inclusive message, but its monthly newsletter drips with interesting forays into theologies that seem removed from the orthodoxy that I have so little use for. And yet, the service itself was so traditional. So orthodox. There seemed to be such a disconnect between the progressive, ecumenical, pluralistic theology that the church seemed to espouse, and the deeply traditional way in which its services were conducted.

Not only was there a Trinitarian creedal affirmation that I refused to affirm in the middle of the service, but there was also recited confession of sins. This focus on the idea of humanity's "sinful nature" represents a Christian theological emphasis that I never felt much attraction for. Not that I think that people aren't flawed, that there is not wrongdoing in the world; but to emphasize the idea of human "sinfulness" to the point that it becomes an important element in worship services is simply not my cup of tea.

The disconnect that I perceived between progressive theology and deeply traditional forms of worship is something that I can't quite fathom. I am aware that many people are attracted to the ritualism of this kind of worship. Many find the conventional patterns of worship comforting as they are repeated week after week. Many may have grown up in the Episcopal church and simply feel the most comfortable with this style of worship. But for me, it was clear from the beginning that I was not at home in this kind of experience. I would rather be in a progressive church that is not bound to including the old orthodoxy within its worship practices--where progressive theology expresses itself in how the worship itself is conducted. Some people would feel lost without those familiar creedal affirmations; some feel that the religious community would lose its bearings if the creeds were taken away. But I feel otherwise.

I have nothing but respect for those who find meaning in forms of worship that do nothing for me. This was one such case of just this situation. The church I attended clearly works for a lot of people. It just didn't work for me.