An Evangelical’s Progress Report
By Terry Mattingly
58. For Guidance
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It was a hot, muggy Sunday morning in July, 1983. The temperature in Charlotte, N.C., would later top 100 degrees. It was already hot at 7:50 a.m.
I was making an exploratory trip to an Episcopal church service. My wife had blessed the effort, but was at home getting an extra hour of sleep. We would be going to “our” church later.
I should explain that my father is a minister in another denomination, along with my brother and brother-in-law. My wife’s background is similar. For reasons that are our own to understand we decided to look for a new church home.
Think of the holy catholic church as a large city. We were from the same city as the Episcopal Church — but from a distant suburb on the more conservative side of town. Still, we were not fleeing commitment or traditional doctrines. We simply discovered that we are off-the-rack, orthodox, Christians. I guess that is what happens when you are hooked on classical music, liturgical worship and C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle.
Inside the sanctuary it was cool and quiet. After signing the guestbook I walked down the center aisle and sat close, but not too close, to the front. The few people present were kneeling in prayer. They did not turn and greet me.
I kneeled and tried to pray. I felt very self-conscious.
The bulletin offered no clues about how to find my way through the service. I stumbled along. No one offered to help. It made it easier that there was no music in the Rite I service, only spoken prayers and a brief sermon in honor of some saint.
I took communion and the priest remembered my name from a previous encounter when I had dropped by for a friendly chat and answers to a few questions about the Episcopal Church. When I walked back to my pew people gave me strange looks.
Long periods of silence are the main things I remember about that first service. I knelt and realized I could either pray or be very aware of the fact I was not praying.
Dear God, I feel very strange. Debra and I are trying to make a big change. Help us, Lord. And help me not to judge these people because they were standing around in front of the church smoking before the service. Help me to be friendly even though it looks like they are going to ignore me. Amen.
I soon learned most Episcopal churches are two churches in one. The people at the 8 a.m. service and those at the 10 a.m. service are part of the same parish, but not really. That’s why at church suppers when the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” about two-thirds of the people say, “And also with you,” while the others say, “And with thy spirit.” You have to learn little things like that.
I was fascinated with the Book of Common Prayer. And, I began learning how to handle the various books and booklets you need to get through the service. (An article in the national magazine The Lutheran, entitled “Surviving Episcopal Worship,” had helpful tips.) I continued my dialogues with local priests.
In a few weeks, Debra and I visited the 10 a.m. Sunday service at another parish. The atmosphere was very different. I later told the rector it was “like a very warm ecclesiastical mugging.” We were swarmed with people welcoming us and sizing up our reading and singing voices. We made many new friends and learned a few new lessons in Episcopal culture.
For example, we had seated ourselves behind a middle-aged couple always described with the eyebrow-raised label “devout Episcopalians.” All I knew at the time was that the people were formal during the service yet friendly afterwards, made the sign of the cross often, sang hymns enthusiastically, knew many parts of the service by heart and often called the service “Mass” instead of “Eucharist.”
Two weeks later was the parish’s weekend at Kanuga. That settled the matter for us. We joined the next week. The looks on people’s faces told us they were surprised when we quickly joined the choir and began volunteering to do things.
It remains shocking to me that many — maybe most — Episcopalians are shocked, almost put off, by people who are enthusiastic about church.
64. Before Worship
O Almighty God, who pourest out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and of supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship thee in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
One of the most attractive aspects of Anglicanism for me is its wholeness, its daily and annual cycle of worship and discipline. That there even is a Book Of Common Prayer is a constant challenge to me to pray, study scripture and support the church’s ministries. The Anglican concept of reason, scripture, tradition and inspiration as pillars for faith makes sense to me. Where else can I find images and relationships magnetic enough to hold my attention in this age?
I soon realized I had been hungry for strong images — theological, artistic, liturgical — with beauty and integrity. I needed a standard for measuring the modern world.
I was not seeking an ancient faith full of pumped-up mysticism. At the same time, I have never been comfortable with a simplistic faith built on sentimentalized ’50s values, church growth principals and modern technology. But here was a way to honor the cloud of witnesses and a way to take the modern world with a grain of salt. I felt a sense of release.
All that said, I quickly learned that unless I planned to practice the Anglican faith alone, or at home with my wife, cat and dog, I had better learn to get my fill on Sunday mornings. When I asked how often the church offered Evening Prayer services, I am afraid people thought I was joking.
How about mid-week services at night for people who work? Any extra Bible studies and reading circles? How about prayer meetings? Special outreach and evangelism circles?
Many people told me to wait until Lent and Holy Week. Then we would have to go to so many services — especially since we had joined the choir — that we would never want to see the church at night again, they said.
I am not trying to be harsh. I just think many churches, and not just Episcopal churches, try to sell a kind of minimal religion. However, I know of no more powerful forces in America than television and apathy. It seems to me Anglicans pay an especially high price for sell-outs to modern convention.
Open a prayer book and explore its contents. It is one piece of cloth, a work of graceful and artistic discipline. Inside are seeds of inner voices that speak in practiced silence. That takes time.
Of course, I realize silence can occur in solitude. However, this is a noisy, strident world. Surely God wishes us the crutch of good company during our sojourn. For me there is power in our cloud of witnesses and the present fellowship that is its living shadow. It is the Book Of Common Prayer. I am afraid that for many its contents are becoming too uncommon.
“Well,” you say, “how judgmental! What makes you such an authority on what constitutes good Anglicanism?”
I hear you. I know idealism burns brightly, and easily, in converts.
During Holy Week, several of the images passing before my eyes moved me deeply. One moment on Good Friday hit me especially hard. The turnout was small for what to my mind is one of the most significant moments in the church year. As the altar was stripped I realized the action could be seen as a symbol for how we often treat the beauties of faith and piety.
Strip them. Get them out of sight. Scourge them with our apathy. Put all the images and prayers in a tomb and seal it tight. We promise we will visit from time to time. Leave us alone. We have too much to do to tie ourselves down.
I cried. Some of the tears were bitter.
Just the other day I was talking with another new Episcopalian — not my wife, by the way. I asked, “How’s it going at church?”
“Very well,” was the reply. “I just find myself wanting more of it. You know?”
Exactly. I plead guilty to idealism and to a thirst for common prayer. Sue me.
From Prayers of the People, Form V
For those who do not yet believe, and for those who have lost their faith, that they may receive the light of the Gospel, we pray to you, O Lord.
Which brings us to the word “evangelical” and a related curse word, “evangelism.”
As I mentioned earlier, I talked with many local priests about the Episcopal Church before making a decision to join. Near the end of one such conversation there was a long pause. Finally, the young priest said, “Why aren’t there more Episcopalians? This is a great church! With traditions of openness, beautiful worship, music, art, social action, scholarship.”
I told him that, as far as I could tell, there were at least two answers to his question. (1) Few Episcopalians care if there are any new Episcopalians. (2) Few Episcopalians care if there are any new Christians.
I have decided that most Episcopalians believe the church should practice some form of evangelism. They also, unfortunately, would place a heavy emphasis on the words “the church.” So, if not “personal evangelism,” or to use the more militant term “soul winning,” then what?
The spotlight again falls on the church. But there is one big problem. The Episcopal Church’s strength is its liturgical worship. This is a strange frame for “evangelism,” at least as the term is usually defined.
Episcopalians are left with deep stirrings that evangelism is needed, but they are not sure what they want it to look and sound like, or even what should be its content. What it should not look like and sound like is clear. The style of TV evangelism is out. The revivalism of the Baptists is out.
I believe many Episcopalians use the word “evangelical” when they mean “fundamentalist” or even “Charismatic.” Without an understanding that the individual faces a choice between embracing God and rejecting God there is no motivation for evangelism. The meaning of “evangelical” is getting lost in verbal politics.
As for me, I have, of course, absorbed some thoughts from C.S. Lewis. There is a door of choice between man and God. The only lock is on man’s side of the door. Or, to use the image of The Great Divorce, maybe there is a crack in the turf of God’s presence and some choose to create a tiny private hell in the midst of heaven — anything to keep from confessing their faults and releasing their own cherished guilts.
Just before making the decision to become Episcopalians, Debra and I attended services at Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in Victoria, British Columbia. A young bearded priest, the Rev. David Widdicombe, preached a sermon I can only call shocking. I will attempt to paraphrase part of the message. He had no manuscript and I, for once, had no reporter’s notebook.
The church, he said, has fallen for the most subtle of temptations: accepting the good instead of the best. He would not reject any of the church’s recent causes, he said. Equality for women, civil rights, arms control — they are all valid.
But the church had forgotten the hot core of the Gospel: that Christ wishes for us changed lives, in this world and the next. If the church did not return to preaching “the best” it would have no people with which to do “the good,” he said.
Standing in the high pulpit, he asked some questions. Do you feel cut off? Do you feel that you cannot be forgiven by God because you cannot forgive yourself? Would you know Jesus?
He pointed down at the Communion rail.
Come forward and experience the mysterious presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Widdicombe said. Confess your sins. Repent and be converted for the first time — or be forgiven again, and again, and again. Accept the grace of God.
It preached, it really did. It was an evangelistic sermon and it was also sterling Anglican theology. At least that is what I have come to accept as Anglican theology. What a theme for evangelism! It is an image for conversion and rededication that is as complex and mysterious as all the choices in our lives. It is a symbol with integrity for all ages.
Will we use it? Do we dare? Deep down inside, do we really believe evangelism is needed? What does it say if we are afraid to use an image for evangelism that is at the very heart of our own theology, our own tradition?
Dear Lord, I believe; help my unbelief! I love the church; forgive me my pride. I have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. Amen.
Our own tradition. I would like to emphasize “our.” I have learned I started becoming an Episcopalian long before I visited that first 8 a.m. service and certainly long before October 30, 1983, the day Debra and I were confirmed.
Despite all I have said, the reason I became an Anglican was to be able to move to a more positive stance on matters of faith and practice. This has — praise God! — come to pass.
During the past year most of the mental and spiritual energy I have spent at church has been focused on prayer, worship and scripture. When I have felt the need to crusade I have been free to crusade for evangelism and the need for adults to experience the works of great Christian writers. That is much more positive than having to spend my time defending the validity of reason in studying the Bible, or fighting for the ordination of women, or pleading for the church to embrace the arts.
Debra and I have felt loved and welcomed. More than anything, we have felt needed. Homes are not perfect places. They are places you love and to which you are committed. The Episcopal Church is becoming a home for us.
I believe with all my heart that God wants us to care — passionately! — about the institutions we love and about their futures. I love the church and I now love the Episcopal Church. The more we love people and institutions the more we care about them and the more insights we have into their strengths, and weaknesses. That is the truth.
67. After Receiving Communion
…Grant us, we beseech thee, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption. … Amen.
This article was written in the fall of 1984. Today, Terry Mattingly teaches at Milligan College in East Tennessee and writes the weekly “On Religion” column for the national Scripps Howard News Service.