Why I am Grateful to Be an Episcopalian: Part 3 – Thanksgiving

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

My identity as an Episcopalian stems partly from family history and partly from choice. On this Thanksgiving Eve, I am grateful for how the Episcopal Church has formed and is forming my Christian journey. I am particularly grateful for:

The Book of Common Prayer

I am a lousy pray-er. When I set aside time to pray, I spend far too much time figuring out what to pray about/for, or what kind of prayer to focus on (thanksgivings, intercessions, confession). When I try centering prayer, I fall asleep. I’ve finally come up with a twofold strategy that works pretty well. I offer lots of short, spontaneous prayers throughout the day of the Anne Lamott “help, thanks, wow” variety, in response to whatever events or feelings come up. And for set prayer times, whether at home, at church, or in some other communal setting, I rely on words other people have already written, especially the Psalms, the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), and the rich offerings of the Book of Common Prayer. Whether I’m confessing my sins with my congregation on a Sunday morning, using one of the daily devotions to structure my morning or evening prayer at home, or finding a suitable prayer for a specific need in the “Prayers and Thanksgivings” section in the back, I can always count on the BCP to provide authentic, beautiful prayers when I am incapable of coming up with anything on my own (which is most of the time).

A favorite scripture verse is Romans 8:26: “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” It is comforting to know that even when I am unable to pray, the Holy Spirit prays in me, articulating those things I cannot articulate. The Book of Common Prayer, by giving me words with which to pray, helps make audible the Spirit’s silent intercessions.

Sometimes, of course, we Episcopalians get a little too attached to our BCP, a bit uncomfortable with newfangled prayers and liturgies. The down side of having such a rich, beautiful book to guide our prayers and worship is that we become reluctant to see the value in other ways of doing things. I have occasionally penned original, informal liturgies for use during outdoor summer services, and watched as some congregants and visiting clergy have become visibly squirmy when reading words that aren’t taken straight from the BCP. But by and large, our Book of Common Prayer deserves a central place in our worshipping life, because it so often uses just the right words for the right occasion. The Church of England’s beginnings may have been a mishmash of political and religious impulses, some of them misguided, but Archbishop Cranmer’s book has stood the test of time. For me, the liturgies and prayers of the BCP are the language of home, their words reminding me week after week who I am and whose I am.

Sacrament and Liturgy

I wrote yesterday about why the sacrament of baptism is more meaningful to me than a generic infant dedication. Likewise, I have come to find other sacraments indispensable, particularly the practice of weekly Eucharist. Christianity is a religion of the tangible and the material abiding alongside the intangible and the spiritual. God came to us as a hungry, crying baby. He grew into a man who slept and ate and died a brutal death, complete with blood and thirst and pain. After the resurrection, Thomas was able to touch his wounded hands and side.

The Eucharist reminds us, week after week, of the material, corporeal nature of this world, our lives, and God’s involvement in both. The Eucharist is not a quaint custom to be done monthly, with little plastic cups of grape juice passed around that make it seem like nothing more important than preschool snack time. The Eucharist, rather, is the act of literally sinking one’s teeth into God’s lavish love and resurrection promise, an actual meal shared among the broken, beautiful people who make up the body of Christ. And it requires wine, for those who are able to drink wine. Wine is a drink for special occasions and for sharing. Grape juice is a drink for thirsty three-year-olds. A religion that recognizes the tangible nature of human life and God’s presence in it needs to get the tangible stuff right.

I am increasingly appreciative of the liturgical language and structure that are common to any Episcopal Church—or any church in the Anglican Communion, really. My husband Daniel traveled to Tanzania 12 years ago, to visit our then-church’s partner congregation in the town of Tabora. Although he did not understand much of the Swahili in which they worshipped, he could easily follow the service, because they were using the same exact liturgy we use in the U.S., just in a different language.

I also adore the special liturgies contained in the Book of Common Prayer, like Compline (the service for evening). Several Sundays throughout the year, my church hosts a Sunday evening Compline service, in a darkened church lit only by candles, with no sermon and few or no spoken prayers beyond the psalms and anthems sung by the choir. Surrounded by the gentle darkness, the warmth of mostly silent community, and the comfort of ancient hymns and scriptures, I am able to breathe in God’s peace and carry it with me into the week ahead.

“The Big Tent”

I am grateful that every week, the rector of my church finishes up the mid-service announcements by saying, “The most important thing I can tell you is that everyone is welcome to receive communion at this table,” as he points back toward the altar and the rail where we kneel to receive bread and wine. I am grateful that in the 13 years that I have been an Episcopalian (again), I have heard sermons and received pastoral council and worked alongside straight married clergy and gay married clergy and single clergy and male clergy and female clergy and clergy with kids and clergy without kids. I am grateful that being an Episcopalian means welcoming everyone, doing lots of outreach, making beautiful music, loving the words that say the right thing for the right occasion, and figuring out how to worship God and what God asks of us in the company of a beautiful variety of God’s children.

On this Thanksgiving Eve, what are you most grateful for in your spiritual life?

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Mike

    To identify with Jesus is to embrace non-identity as identity. One cannot yield to the ego and its concerns, like identity, and see their faith as the unfolding of a path to spiritual growth. This is Christianity’s core problem: it has been seized by the ego.

  • Marcie

    You touched on several reasons I left the Southern Baptist Church and became an Episcopalian.

  • http://Timfall.wordpress.com Tim

    One of the things I have enjoyed most from the Anglican tradition is evensong. Participating in the service at Canterbury Cathedral soon after becoming a Christian is still one of my fondest, and in a sense wildest, memories.

  • Jeannie

    I very much enjoyed this overview of the strengths of the Episcopalian (or here in Canada, Anglican) tradition. My family & I attend a much more casual, non-liturgical church now, which I also love, but I went to an Anglican one for several years as a student — and I appreciated all of the things you mention. Walking forward for communion, kneeling at the rail, smiling at friends as we met in the lineup — all that still stands out as a good memory.

    Thanks for this series; besides highlighting the Anglican tradition I think it shows that it’s actually OK to look for different faith communities at different stages of our lives — that it’s not necessarily a sign of a consumer approach to religion (a criticism often made by those in the church that you’ve just left!). I also cringed at the examples of things that made you decide against certain churches. I’ve experienced the “These seats are saved” thing too and it’s such a turnoff. If only I was quick enough on my feet to say, “Well, so am I, so they’ll suit me just fine.” :-)

    • DaveP

      > I’ve experienced the “These seats are saved” thing too and it’s such a turnoff. If only I was quick enough on my feet to say, “Well, so am I, so they’ll suit me just fine.”

      Thank you for making my day. :)

  • jdens

    Although your story inevitably differs from mine in the particulars, so much of this resonates with my own experience. Having grown up in the evangelical tradition and moved to the Episcopal family as a young adult, I find myself nodding my head at your sympathetic descriptions of the differences between them. One of the things I appreciate about this tradition is the space for stillness, for quietness. I know that for some, moving from the liturgical to the more conspicuously emotive styles of many evangelical churches, there is a sense of relief in feeling permitted to express that emotion. For me, it was a relief to find quiet in the liturgy, to find the space to breathe in the presence of God. In this frantic, busy, noisy world, stillness is a rare and sacred thing.

  • Linda Richard

    Wow Ellen, changing just a few details your whole story is mine. Except I was raised United Methodist. In college in Utah I first joined the Mormons, then an Evangelical Campus Ministry Group. I too returned to my “home church” when I got away from college. After 4 years as a Hospital Librarian or Medical Records Clerk I felt called to the ministry went to seminary where I met and married my husband. What I really relate to though is how the familiar liturgy is powerful for me. And as you know we United Methodist’s are really close cousins with the Episcopal Church when it comes to the form and the content of our liturgy. I have nothing against contemporary worship- but I derive so much spiritual zest from the traditional that I probably could never feel fed in a totally contemporary setting. Blended worship with some contemporary elements is fine. And I love communion, love serving the needs of others; and derive a deep personal satisfaction from United Methodist spiritual practices. I frequently use elements from the Episcopal Book of Common prayer for both my personal devotions and prayer life and even in Worship! I felt a kindred spirit with you in all three parts of your story!

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      You also have much in common with my husband, who grew up Methodist and was a health sciences librarian for 12 years (at med schools, though, not a hospital). Thanks for your thoughts on liturgy and worship!

  • Ken ball

    I attend an Anglican Church on the evangelical wing in the UK and have to admit though having being there for 20 years never really feeel at home. I think its trying to understand really complex theology, like the need to say the creed each week confess our sins. Being the UK we have set areas to speak and usually I wont speak to anyone during a whole service. We have closed communions and I sense God is distant and only available to the few who have been to Theological college. The issue of women bishops in the UK is way beyond mine and most peoples understandings I am not sure how we can make our historical understandings open to people like me and the unchuched.

  • Joe

    Just imagine this as your confession:

    “ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

    Just imagine saying this beautiful prayer before taking communion:

    “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”

    Those are the prayers of the Episcopal Church for the 15 years of my attendance, and still to this day the prayers of Rite I in the BCP.

  • DaveP

    > … to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood …

    Hmmm. Blood is pretty specific, but does “flesh” mean just the meaty bits (arm meat, thighs, calves), or does it also include the organ meats (heart, kidneys, liver)? I believe Jesus didn’t say “flesh” but actually said “body”, so are the bones, genitals, intestines, etc, donated to poorer denominations? :)

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      Dave, I’d be blessed by toenail clippings.

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