On Sunday I started my tour of local churches to see what looks promising. In addition to looking at the entertaining blurbs in the phone book, I also looked up as many as I could on the Internet. Unfortunately this confirmed my general impression that most churches are behind the curve on the Web thing -- many had no sites at all, or very sketchy ones. One of the better ones was for St. Bede's Episcopal, so that was what I kicked off the shopping with.
It was different from Christian Assembly, of course, but it was also quite different from All Saints, the other Episcopal church I've been to. It was a light, airy modern chapel, decorated with a few stained-glass windows. The altarpiece was a stained-glass image of Jesus standing with his arms outstretched, his robe a kind of phantasmagorical riot of colors blending into the sky behind him. (I liked this in contrast to the more typical altar images of Jesus crucified. Being reminded of his sacrifice is all very well, but it's nice to see his risen self.)
The congregation was small -- there were just a few dozen people there -- and many of them were elderly. I guess this shouldn't have surprised me, since mainline denominations are known for this, but I hadn't seen it at All Saints. I wondered what this meant for the vitality of the congregation, but of course, you're only as old as you feel. As I sat waiting for the service to start, I noticed a middle-aged woman across the room with the most extraordinary hair. It was short and blue -- not blue-rinse blue, but blue -- with a great splotch of hot pink on the left front. She was in the choir, I would later see, which I guess goes to show that arty types are pretty much the same at any age.
The service was one of a series that the minister has been doing that recreate Anglican services at various points in the past. This one was from the 1600s, after the church had recovered from repression under Oliver Cromwell. The minister, I learned later, was a history major, and he was clearly really into this. On the back of the liturgy was a diagram of different church designs through the ages, showing the gradual inclusion of the laity, among other things.
One thing I noticed about the liturgy was the importance of the Ten Commandmants. The minister said most churches then had them up on the wall, and early in the service one of the clergy recited them. This was interesting after Allen Brill and I both questioned the significance of the Decalogue to Christian faith; I guess whether we like it or not, the issue goes back a long way.
They also performed the Eucharist in a much more traditional way than I'd ever seen before. The evangelical churches I've been to don't do it regularly, and when they do they pass around trays with separate little crackers and cups for every person. Here the supplicants came up and knelt around the altar, and the minister actually broke up some flatbread with his hands and handed the pieces to each. (Unlike the Catholics, they didn't actually put them right in their mouths.) Then he went around with a silver chalice full of wine and each person drank from it. I thought that was cool, since they were actually sharing the bread and wine as in the Last Supper. I guess hygenic concerns are what usually stop that from happening, but after the service the minister said the combination of the alcohol, the silver and the clergyman wiping the cup after each drink made germ transmission very unlikely. (Still some people played it safe and had the bread dipped in the wine, instead of drinking it straight from the cup.)
Not all of the service was in the past. The Bible excerpt that was read aloud, and that the minister expounded upon, was very similar to the Romans passage I quoted here, about each person bringing her own gifts to the body of Christ. He talked about coming back from the big Episcopal convention -- I guess the one where the whole thing with the gay bishop went down -- and having a nervous conversation with his conservative evangelical aunt. He and the aunt disagreed about Biblical literalism, but he would not condemn her for it. He and his fellow clerics sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit and acted in what they believed was accordance with it, but he knew they were fallible. "I would rather face God having made the umbrella too big," he said, "than having made it too small."
After the service, I learned that in stark contrast to the bigger churches where I often got lost in the shuffle, there was no way I was going unnoticed here. When I went over to sign the guestbook, the lady with the amazing hair came over and asked if I was a "potential choir person." (I noticed when she was closer to me that her hair including green as well as blue and pink.) I said I was just visiting and not ready to make any commitments, and went downstairs to the coffee.
There I was approached by a guy who was sure he'd seen me there before. (I can't help noticing its resemblance to the common pick-up line, but maybe I'm just being paranoid.) We got to talking and when he found out I was a seeker, he immediately started thumping for a book that had played a role in his own conversion. It's funny, there's nothing that my seeking seems to have attracted more reliably than book recommendations.
I also talked to the minister for a while, mostly about his historical interests. He's much more low-key than the pastor at CA or the priest and All Saints; going there would probably be a much mellower experience, for good or ill. But as the line about the umbrella suggests, he lacks the theological narrowness of CA and the political narrowness of All Saints.
One group the umbrella apparently covers is gay people. Another guy I met there was pretty flaming; he even had a lisp (which is actually not that common in gay men, in my experience). Although CA people rarely mentioned homosexuality, there were no obviously gay people there. One Alpha leader told me that the church's official position on it was rather like the Catholic one, in that they think same-sex attraction is probably innate, but acting on it is a sin. It always bothered me, this issue. I don't like to argue with people about it because, as a straight person, I know that homosexuality is ultimately unknowable to me. I'm inclined to believe the gay friends that I've had when they talk about their lives. And I feel protective of them, because I've seen so much bigotry and stupidity directed at them. Yet I know no one really has the last word on the subject. Other people like David Morrison have had quite different experiences, and I'm not going to deny that because it disturbs my neat little theories. But I guess my feeling is the same as the minister's: I would rather open the umbrella too big, and face God having erred on the side of generosity.