OK, I guess it’s time to talk about it.
I was first really alienated from the church of my upbringing about the time that the youth group was ordered into a multi-week course called “The Fundamentals Of Our Faith.” It was rapidly apparent in the late 1980s that something was not the same as it has been. An innocent childhood question of “wait, are we the Pharisees” was pretty clearly being answered “yes” as we were hammered with one thing after another about the evils of rock music (without a single example from the past ten years) or anti-abortion propaganda that I think was more meant to scare us out of having sex than to warn us against terminating a pregnancy. And then, when the old church responded to an instance of youth suicidal ideation with a film about a prisoner who converted, it became apparent to me that the Southern Baptists had lost their way.
I’ve said before how Chapel at 6 was, with basketball, one of the two worthwhile things in my four years of undergrad. And yet, it wasn’t enough to keep me seeking out the same experience once I was free of that institution. The occasional dabble into the Episcopal Church began in the mid-90s and carried on for a while, whether splitting the difference with my Catholic girlfriend on an occasional Sunday evening during the Vandy years or popping into a 5 PM service in Arlington, Virginia in the early 2000s. But at that point, the Irish Catholics of my acquaintance had made me ethnically Catholic: Irish nationalist, Celtic supporter, sympathetic to Notre Dame, the works. And a couple years of Catholic adult education and attending Catholic services with my family in California made me feel…well, I don’t know. It felt right, but it also felt like more of an intellectual and historical engagement than anything spiritual.
And at some point, as the Obama administration wore on and the enemy showed its hand and its true colors, it became very difficult to reconcile what I had been told Christianity was growing up with my actual experience of it, and at some point – probably in my cups after being overserved at a Super Bowl party or something – I had to admit that in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe in God any more.
And I was right. Because I didn’t. Because I was still stuck at some level on that Southern Baptist Old Testament version of God – a God who owned the only factory in your small town, where the pastor was the foreman and was very good at telling you just what God wanted you to do without you ever hearing it directly from God. And that’s a God I didn’t, couldn’t believe in any more. And I still don’t, and can’t, and won’t, because that God doesn’t exist – that’s a God that man created in his own image as a club to beat brown people with. That’s not snark, that’s not my own prejudice, that’s history.
I don’t know where things started to change up. The Trump years were no time to revisit Christianity, certainly not as is conceived of in America – because the mainline Protestants have long since abandoned the field. In the American mind – especially the East Coast media mind – there’s Catholicism, there’s “the black church,” there’s various permutations of Islam and Judaism and Mormons and such, and looming over it all is the Southern Baptist Convention at the head of a whole fundamentalist-charismatic-whatever blob that has displaced the old mainline denominations. Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, all gone, and the ancient depiction of the Episcopalians as “the Republican Party at prayer” is wholly inoperative in the 21st century. And while there’s plenty of religion around in Northern California, there isn’t any in Silly Con Valley, other than the unbridled worship of bullshit backed by venture capital. People around here love to tell you that they’re not religious, they’re spiritual. Which…what the hell does that even mean? I believe in some kind of woo-woo thing that just happens to coincide with what I believe already? I have some vague sense of be-good that doesn’t really actually require anything of me? I just want to seem deeper than you? All horseshit.
I think the switch really flipped for me on the day that I conceived the blog post about how God is the name we give to the idea that no one is above an ass-kicking. God is huge. God is abstract. God is not anthropomorphic At All, no matter what the telephone-game-translation “created in the image of God” might mean to you. God is too big and too much to get a handle on, and we can only get a handle on God through a glass darkly.
And that’s where the whole Jesus part comes in. Baptists have a thoroughly illogical grasp on this. Jesus is the son of God. Okay, concede that point – so then what? It would stand to reason that the thing would then be to ask what Jesus said to do, and then do that. Instead, the Baptists go running straight to the original mansplainer, Paul, who probably didn’t even write half the letters that Baptists rush to to tell us are what Jesus actually meant and never mind those words in red in the pocket Bible the Gideons gave you. So my thought was, bugger that, I will read the Gospels. And then I didn’t. And then it took me a year to make the effort to get all the way through Mark (generally accepted as first), and then Matthew and Luke (which interpolate both Mark and the “Quelle” source that was found in Nag Hammadi as the Gospel of Thomas or something), and I haven’t even looked yet at John (which seems to be the artistic-interpretation version).
And what I have come to is this: God is very much beyond our comprehension. Jesus is providing the toolkit by which we ascertain what it is God wants from us. And what God wants from us is of a piece with what we owe to each other. Thus is the first and most important commandment on which all the law and the prophets hang: “Love God with all your might and love your neighbor as yourself.” And that is genuinely challenging. God does not have it for the rich, for the powerful, for the wealthy. God wants you to provide for others. God wants you to give it away. God wants you to reject the ways of the world and care for others, radically.
This is a lot. This is challenging. This requires you to forgive a lot. This requires you to move the difficulty setting off “easy.” This requires you to extend to others the same grace God has extended you, including people who absolutely do not deserve it. But deserve doesn’t enter into it. That’s how grace works.
I don’t know when exactly I started playing the podcast from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. It was before the pandemic, certainly. I think at some point, the despair of the Trump years made me look for something, anything that would give me some kind of light that we weren’t just doomed in every respect. And…slowly I began to find things out. Like how the Episcopalians were formed with the help of Scottish bishops only too happy to lay hands on American bishops who refused the authority of the crown of England. And how the apostolic descendants of those bishops consecrated women as priests in the 1970s and dragged the church along with them. And how despite threats – and with a bulletproof vest under the robe – they elevated a gay man as bishop. How the entire thing starts from a premise of “you are loved by God and therefore you are loved by this church, and you begin from being a valid and worthy creation of God.”
That’s a lot. That is a hugely significant data point. When you come up through the hellfire of the Southern Baptists who seem to hate everything, even their own youth group, and who start from a premise of “you are lost and damned until you get saved”, it’s unsettling and transformative to reject all of that, start over from first principles, walk into a church and begin by hearing that you are welcome and affirmed and worthwhile. And after watching the presiding bishop of that Church say just those things while marrying the Duke of Sussex to an American actress, it occurred to me, maybe I should give this a look.
So I reached out tentatively to an Episcopal priest, one of the ancillary participants in the Vanderbilt tailgate crew of which I myself am ancillary at best, and she was encouraging – but I still needed an actual church. I would Zoom into hers in Nashville periodically during the pandemic, but when she was exploring an offer to become rector of one of two different Episcopal congregations in easy driving distance, I decided that wherever she landed, I’d start attending and give it a try. And then she wound up at St Mary the Virgin up in the city, which…was not close.
But one evening, while listening to the Grace podcast down the pub, the priest at Grace mentioned his former parish – and I hadn’t even realized it existed, let alone that it was an easy five to seven minute drive from my house. And after some hemming and hawing, in a moment of existential despair (right around Election Day 2022), I just decided to show up at 8 AM and see what happened. Small crowd, short service, get in and get out and see what it did.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the church was a smell. It was the same sort of old-books-and-time-lost smell I remembered from Yeilding Chapel in college. The second thing I noticed were the enormous floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows, which called to mind the four cardinal windows in different colors in Yeilding Chapel. And the third thing I noticed was the rector, a woman younger than me, who spoke movingly of her own struggles in college in a way that rather made me feel like I’d been pinned in at right angles. I got out as quickly and politely as I could at the end without my voice breaking, sat down in my car, and said “okay, you win. We’re doing this.”
And so I have. It was mostly the 8 AM service until we went off on our sabbatical trip last spring, after which I added the 9 AM adult education class on top of it for a few weeks – which was dealing with the history of the church in general, the Episcopalians in particular and Christ Church more specifically, and was basically the prerequisite class for eventual confirmation. In the last couple of months, it’s switched to the 10:15 service, with hymns and music, some of which is familiar from Catholic services and some of which actually draws on stuff I know from childhood. And hearing it re-contextualized in this setting is…not nothing.
Because the Episcopalians hold to the formula that the misdoings of an individual clergy doesn’t invalidate the sacrament. No matter how far out of pocket the Baptists are, the baptism in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit I experienced in July 1983 is still held canonically valid. Even though I have rejected the wrong track I was on, the aspects of my upbringing that were true and right are still true and right and count for something. Which means that the things I believed in childhood are still valid, and there is a thread of continuity there. That’s not nothing.
Here’s the thing, the point of all this: this feels right. Sunday morning at 10:15 feels like the thing that’s been missing from my schedule. It’s the possibility of community. It’s affirmation. It’s an opportunity to step out of time and set aside the things of the world for eighty minutes or so. It’s a chance to meet people (a couple, close enough to walk over for dinner, a few years younger than us and of eerily similar background – proof that this is the right path for me to be on and that what I am is not alien here). It has reached equal standing with the Sunday night pub simulation as the thing I look forward to during the week that will give me an escape from my worldly cares and concerns and let me unwind. It’s something to do that I’m interested in and doesn’t feel like a waste of time or a pointless exercise.
There isn’t an endgame here. This is not “achievement unlocked, move on to the next thing.” It means confirmation and membership, and from there, who knows – but it ticks so many boxes that I didn’t realize were part of a God-shaped hole in my existence. And now that I’m getting a look at that space and figuring out how to fill it properly this time, I feel better for making the effort. Because no one is making me do this. There is no social expectation that I will do this and quite a lot that I won’t, actually. Every grown-up in that sanctuary at 8 or 10:15 is someone who wants to be there. And now, so do I.