Two recent Church House visitors to Grace Silver Spring got me thinking about “Episcopal evangelism” and whether or not it’s an oxymoron.
Bishop Mariann came to Grace in March and spoke between services to our Adult Forum. During Q & A, one person asked, pretty directly: “What does it mean to be an Episcopalian today?” I didn’t write down the Bishop’s words at the time but spoke to her afterward and she kindly sent me some thoughts that were the basis for her answer: “At a time when people all around us hunger for meaning, we in the Episcopal Church offer beautiful and thoughtful worship, grounded in both intellect and mystery. At a time when young people seek authenticity, we offer personal relationships and the space to ask questions and explore doubt without fear. At a time when all Christians are asked to live in a multi-cultural, pluralistic world, we offer an expansive understanding of God, a faith rooted in Christ, and yet appreciative of other traditions. And at a time when our society is increasingly polarized, we offer a respectful way of engagement with those who see the world differently.”
A few weeks later, Canon for Congregational Vitality Joey Rick came to Grace and spoke to the same Adult Forum on the topic of the “missional church.” She surprised most of us lay people by pointing out that the official, fine-print name of the Episcopal Church is actually “The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.” Hmmm. How does this very purposeful, Victorian sounding moniker square with the more expansive vision the Bishop describes of today’s Church? I’ll set aside a discussion of foreign missionary work for now (though it’s a topic well worth exploring). Closer to home, how do we reach out and bring others in to the churches we know and cherish and, at the same time, allow doubt, tolerate differences, and respect other traditions?
I can only speak to my experiences at Grace but it makes sense to me to start in our own parishes and think outward, about what we “offer,” to use the Bishop’s words, and how we offer it. Grace is ethnically and economically diverse, and we have cradle Episcopalians but also a large number of people who grew up in a different faith tradition. I think we’re doing well at meeting people in our community where they are, by offering rich and meaningful ministries such as Sunday school, a Day School, a vibrant youth choir, homeless outreach, and a wide variety of fellowship opportunities. Our worship services reflect our rich diversity while staying faithful to our common Episcopal liturgy. And we’ve worked hard at purposefully welcoming others, sharing friendships and strengthening bonds with current parishioners while offering our attention “outward” to newcomers. Finally, we’re also more conscious of the Diocese and supporting its good work. Things are going pretty well now. When we’ve not done well, it’s because we’ve turned inward, and parochial. We dwelt on issues that divide us as a parish and did things such as “worship the worship,” as Joey phrases it. We only served ourselves – we did not serve, or offer ourselves to, others.
There is no litmus test to being Episcopalian. Certainly, our rich traditions help to define us. But as I thought more about what Episcopal evangelism looks like, I found that it was consistent with God’s message at Easter, when we are called to open ourselves up to new experience, to begin anew. That openness to the new is compelling to others, is missional, as long as we offer to share it.
Paul Brown is a member of Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring. Share your thoughts, comments, and reflections on Facebook.