I was baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic Church, a church that claims to be the original church founded by Jesus and recognizes the apostle Peter as its first pope. My parish priests and Catholic school teachers presented the Catholic Church’s spiritual credentials throughout my childhood and early adulthood. They taught me that priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes all attended seminary and immersed themselves in the Bible and extra-biblical resources. They all mastered Latin, the language that I, like many other Catholics, mistakenly believed was the Bible’s original language. Thus, I learned that the Church’s doctrines, creeds, and canons were not composed by an uninformed leadership. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church was also unique to me for being the only church to be in possession of real relics like the Shroud of Turin. The church asserted its spiritual authority through much of my life with its exclusive knowledge of God and narrative of Church history.
When I went to college, my professors, mostly from the German and history departments, taught me about information literacy and asserted their scholarly authority. I learned that theories were not developed loosely, and I experienced the hard work that goes into research. Science professors also taught me about the authority of scientific theories. These theories aren’t “just theories”—their ideas are well tested. Like the Vatican leadership, my college professors pronounced their authority in their fields of expertise and highlighted their credentials to gain my respect. As a result, I became very skeptical of claims made by people without advanced degrees. Even today, I won’t readily accept new information from someone without the proper expertise, and I question uninformed decision-makers.
So I was shocked to learn in confirmation class that much of the National Episcopal Church’s theological positions are voted on by volunteer delegates at conventions. Our denominational beliefs are fluid and can be changed at the next convention. I asked Rev. Dr. Beth Kelly whether delegates at these conventions are required to have any kind of theological background. When she said no, the Catholic and academic side of me was kind of terrified. How can we just let anyone without a basic understanding of the Bible or theology vote on the Church’s beliefs, policies, and practices? I wondered whether I could hypothetically lead a committee and get the convention to vote on changing “Peace be with you” to “May His force be with you”. Then if many church members wanted to change my Jedi-inspired phrase at a later convention, could a committee of Trekkies get a majority of delegates to vote on replacing it with “Live eternally and prosper”? Am I ok with this? Am I really that liberal and open?
I didn’t spend much time reflecting on my criticisms and questions before Jesus pointed to the Gospels and reminded me that everyone reflects the image and likeness of God. He reminded me of the many times he corrected the Pharisees who were considered experts in the Law. In that moment, God uplifted the image of those delegates without much background in theology, helped me see that the Holy Spirit works through all Christians, and turned my criticisms into respect for the Church’s democracy. I remembered that following Jesus is ultimately about loving God and loving my neighbor, not about having the right theology and doctrines. I also started reflecting on the Episcopal Church’s commitment to respectful listening. Listening to everyone’s truths is at the heart of Rev. Eric Law’s Gracious Dialogue ministry, and listening to EfM participants share their experiences with God each week has helped me find God in unexpected places.
The Episcopal Church gives me the lenses to look for God in everyone and in every place. It challenges me to listen for God in people from a variety of backgrounds with or without any kind of authority or expertise. Although it‘s difficult, it’s a challenge that makes me more receptive to Christ. Most importantly, I realize that the democracy found in our denomination promotes the ministry of the laity. It affirms that we are all the body of Christ. And quite often, God does speak to lay (and ordained) ministers through pop culture, so why can’t we say “Live eternally and prosper”? But for now, may the peace of Christ be always with you.
Author: Richard Burck, August 2018