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A Message from Duncan- January 17, 2024

A Message from Duncan- January 17, 2024

The joy and the frustration of being Episcopal


The late comic genius Robin Williams said there are ten reasons to be an Episcopalian.  Here they are:

10. No snake handling.
9. You can believe in dinosaurs.
8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.
7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.
6. Pew aerobics.
5. The church year is color-coded.
4. Free wine on Sunday.
3. All of the pageantry — none of the guilt.
2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.
1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

Since this memorable snippet of stand-up, other commentators have added reasons like: ‘Guilt-free royal-watching — because we’re Anglicans’; ‘we’re the only ones God trusts enough to let us take the summer off’; and ‘Washington National Cathedral?  Yeah, that’s ours.’

But it does raise an interesting topic.  What makes us different from other churches?  I’m pleased to get asked this question regularly.  Each time I give a different answer, depending on who is asking, what’s been on my mind recently, and how I’m feeling at that moment.

My answer today, right now, in January 2024, as I sit at my computer and survey the life and times of St John’s is this:

One of the great things about us is that we have fuzzy boundaries.  And one of the awful things about us is …. we have fuzzy boundaries.

 As with many things in life, our greatest strength is also our biggest weakness.

Here’s what I mean.

Fuzzy boundaries – the upside:

  1. You can attend an Episcopal Church for several weeks – even years – and no one will ask you embarrassing questions about your faith, challenge your life circumstances, or make you feel excluded from key elements of the worship.
  2. You can become a full and active member – and even be a leader – and disagree with the clergy about theology.
  3. You can be an outright atheist or agnostic and find the space to belong to the community, while you grow into faith – belonging before believing.
  4. You don’t have to sign a contract or give a specific percentage of your income to be a member.
  5. You may have made some painful mistakes in life, but you are welcome just as you are and can take part fully just you are.

Now the frustrating parts.

Fuzzy boundaries – the downside:

  1. Because it is easy to slip into the Episcopal Church unnoticed, it is also easy to drift away unnoticed.
  2. Because people are not required to sign statements and contracts, or even give their names to anyone, when someone experiences a traumatic event or needs pastoral support, this can go unknown. In extreme cases, a parishioner may stop attending because of serious illness, and no one notices.
  3. Because people are given space to think for themselves and make their own decisions, sometimes they make poor ones.
  4. Because people are not directly challenged by the clergy, they miss out on the joy that follows personal transformation.
  5. Because no one is told how much they should give, they fail to experience the fulfilment that comes from sacrificial pledging – and the church is unable to make the most of its opportunities to share God’s love.

So this got me wondering whether these drawbacks are inevitable, or can some of them be transformed without watering down the five upsides?  In particular, can we take better care of people while still being respectful of their need for privacy?  Can we give people space and freedom to dip their toes in the water but also create meaningful relationships with them, if that is what they want?  Can we keep the front door wide open, while closing the back one a bit?

It goes without saying that I believe the answers to these questions are ‘YES! YES! YES!’  In that order.  All we need to do is talk, explore, listen, pray, and be brave.  God and the people will do the rest.

2023 has been an encouraging year of growth at St John’s.  Attendance is up, online views of our services are up.  We are enjoying new ministries, new members, new members of staff, and new energy.  Next Sunday at the Annual Meeting I’ll talk more about this.  I’ll also tell you why I’m excited about the prospects of 2024.  Thank you for all you did for St John’s in 2023.  Please share my joy and hope, and let’s move forward into whatever God has in store for us.