I grew up in the Episcopal Church, where the experience for me centered around the rituals of worship. The Book of Common Prayer has contingencies for every part of the church year, resulting in a choose-your-own-adventure service capable of adapting to whatever the liturgical calendar can throw your way. Is it Lent? Omit these words in parentheses. Is someone being baptized? Turn to this page. You have four variants of the Eucharist, and six forms of the Prayers of the People from which to choose. Don’t forget to have fun!
I became an acolyte at the proper time for pre-teens at my church, and I felt a lot of pride at being able to do the job well, carrying my assigned implement to the front of the church reverently, genuflecting when I was supposed to, following the proper procedure for preparing the Eucharist just so. I like order, and Episcopalians have order to spare.
I found as I got older, though, that there wasn’t a lot of room for my own thoughts in the midst of all this prescribed order. I memorized most of the service and repeated it along with everyone else in the congregation. Even beautiful language can become commonplace, and that was certainly how it felt to me. As I grew older, I began to appreciate visits to other churches that actually changed their prayers from one week to the next. I could reflect on the unique words I was hearing, giving me different perspectives to consider and allowing different aspects of the Spirit to work on me. My church attendance was practically nonexistent throughout college because I just didn’t know what I wanted anymore.
But then an unexpected thing happened when my husband Jack and I moved to Louisiana for me to attend graduate school. The week we arrived, the Episcopal Church elected Gene Robinson to be bishop of New Hampshire, affirming their commitment to what I saw as a pretty major human rights issue, and making national headlines for weeks. I felt such fervent pride that Episcopalians were the ones leading this discussion, and I thought it was time for me to revisit the idea of church attendance.
As soon as we started visiting churches, I realized that Episcopalians weren’t as united on this issue as I had hoped. Each church we visited in Baton Rouge had something to say about wanting to leave the denomination, whether it was veiled in notes in the bulletin or out-front in the sermon. At one church, I was literally in tears for most of the service. My mother, a lifelong Episcopalian, had always been proud that her church was the only national denomination that didn’t split over the issue of slavery, and something about that has always resonated with me, that they fought hard to stay together and keep loving and listening through their conflict. In that same spirit, she taught me to value respectful dialogue and to place dialogue in the place of judgment, dialogue in the place of prejudice, and dialogue in the place of simply walking away with my hands thrown up in the air. But this modern struggle is apparently too much for most denominations to handle with thoughtful dialogue and prayerful consideration. Splitting apart is, more and more, the solution we seem to reach for. But it’s not the solution that *I* reach for personally, so it became really clear to me that even though I wanted to stay Episcopalian then more than ever, I didn’t want to be Episcopalian in Louisiana.
In a conversation with one of my professors in graduate school, I revealed a great deal about my personal beliefs and this problem I was grappling with as a Christian. His response was, “You know, based on what you’re saying, I think you would actually like my church a lot.” But it was Presbyterian. The things I knew about Presbyterians had nothing to do with their theology and everything to do with how the service at my grandparents’ church seemed so wildly different from the one I was used to as a child. Funny, isn’t it, how we return to those childhood perceptions of things during moments of transition?
They only had one acolyte instead of four, and that person didn’t even wear a robe.
Nobody crossed themselves at predetermined moments of the service.
Their prayers changed every week, and there was no Book of Common Prayer. I couldn’t memorize the whole thing. Presbyterians seemed to like keeping me on my toes.
They said “debts” instead of “trespasses”, and my ten-year-old brain couldn’t come up with a good reason for that one.
I think some of the things that made the Presbyterian Church seem so foreign to me as a child have made it seem more accessible now I’m an adult. I think and reflect in church much more than I ever used to. Presbyterians like thinking. (I think Episcopalians like it, too, but it’s harder to glean that from the worship experience.) This is the denomination I’ve chosen for myself, the one that feels like it fits me, and I love serving a congregation so committed to dialogue.
I also love knowing that my children will grow up in a church that invites their spontaneous participation to such a degree that children dance during “Somos Uno,” full of the Holy Spirit. They are invited to the front during baptisms and asked for their help in raising other children. They often help write parts of the service and bake the bread for communion. And my seven-year-old son Kent can run down the stairs from the choir loft, then dash up the aisle to see Carla’s book during the sermon, as he did last week. Everyone’s faces and hearts invited him to do that. This, to me, is exactly the right place to be.
Erica Angert is the third of our elders-in-training to contribute her story here. Erica and her family joined GPPC in May of 2013 after visiting and singing with the choir for almost a year. She has a masters degree in music theory, which she now uses in teaching her sons piano and solfège games. She works as a postpartum doula, supporting families through their early weeks and months with a new baby (or sometimes twins!).