And that, in a nutshell, is why I’ve gone back to the Episcopal Church after nearly nine years as a Roman Catholic.
ETA: I realized later that, as long as this is, it’s still just the nutshell version. There are so many tangents I could go off on on all three of these aspects. This is just the “quick” explanation.
It’s tough to be a liberal Catholic. There are, actually, some fine-by-Rome opinions that are considered liberal in the US — guaranteed health care, for instance, or being opposed to the death penalty. But whenever you get into matters sexual, you’re walking in a minefield. I simply could not force myself to try to be on board with the no-birth-control, no-abortion-ever-n0-matter-what-n0-way-no-how, civil-unions-for-gay-folks-spells-the-end-of-civilization mindset. I heard the president I voted for compared to Hitler in a sermon — I am not even kidding. That was the beginning of the end for me. I think this may be different for cradle Catholics who are liberal, because it’s been their church since birth and they feel freer to disagree and yet remain. I felt, as a convert, that I should try to follow the teachings of the church as outlined in the catechism and encyclicals as best I could. I really did try.
I’m not a theologian, and I’m not even a gifted amateur in the field. So what I have to say is not the sort of thing I’d submit in a paper if I were taking a theology class, but just my own current take.
I began to disagree with the primacy of the pope even though I agree with apostolic succession; I was not able to swallow the infallibility argument either. I read Humanae Vitae and thought, “No. Just…no.” I could not agree with the belief that if you didn’t want to have children for whatever reason (didn’t care for kids; didn’t think you’d be a good parent; were dirt poor; had conditions you didn’t want to pass on; had conditions that might make childbearing deadly for you) then you should be relegated to celibacy and solitude. I found the argument that you could follow your conscience, but you needed to “correctly form” your conscience, and if you did so you’d be unlikely to disagree with the church, to be completely unpalatable to me.
I began to have problems with mandated confession, although I think the existence of the sacrament of penance is a good thing. I like the Anglican “all may, some should, none must” view of it. Because I was having so many internal disagreements, right down to the requirement of the sacrament of penance itself, I found I couldn’t go to confession. Since I couldn’t go to confession, I knew I ought not to take communion at Mass. Do most Catholics skip confession and still go to communion? Yeah. And I did too for the first few years, but then, like I said above, really tried to toe the line. So for the last year or so, I took communion only once or twice, after I had forced myself, all twisted up inside with guilt, anguish, and ambiguous feelings, to go to confession.
Amongst the devotions of the folks who did seem to be trying to toe the line, I was finding an awful lot of stuff I couldn’t accept. I read the life of St. Gemma Galgani, and I just kept thinking, “This girl was mentally ill.” She may very well also have been a saint — actually I believe she was — but I still find her life disturbing, some of the tales about her unbelievable, and I’m still convinced she was mentally ill. I enjoyed St. Faustina’s Diary, but some of what she says flat-out contradicts Scripture as I understand it, and I don’t believe that, for instance, someone reciting the Divine Mercy chaplet (which I do love) at the bedside of a dying person will save their soul. At least, not simply by its recitation; it’s quite possible hearing the chaplet might move the dying person to a moment of conversion, certainly. Then there was the priest who called Obama akin to a Nazi — he would also recount pious legend as actual fact in his sermons. He’s a very sweet man, but…
The space left for reason and common sense in the Episcopal church is a relief to me. I do like me some mysticism, but more on the lines of St. Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich, who were both some pretty commonsense women along with the mystical gift.
A toughie for me. I always felt like I was being shallow, but I’ve been at RC parishes whose liturgies were, well, awful. I was on edge, irritated, certainly not loving my neighbor, especially if he were the choir director or a lay Eucharistic minister in a Snoopy sweatshirt. I’m not saying they weren’t valid Eucharists; they were. Rather than list all my dissatisfactions, let me just say that I love the organ, traditional Western hymns (and singing the whole thing!), traditional language, vested acolytes, vested choirs (who can sing well), chant, incense, beautiful vestments, traditional church architecture.
OK, I do have to mention I went to Mass once at the cathedral, and when they broke out the tambourines for the Gloria, I got up and walked out and drove to my usual parish. Also, liturgical dancers in the Western church — oh please, no, no, no. I understand they may be traditional in other cultures; not this one.
I was married in the Episcopal Church, although not the one I’m attending now. I had the highest of high-church weddings. We had gorgeous music, incense, a nuptial Eucharist, a priest and deacon, the works. It was awesome. I could have had a wedding like that in the Catholic Church, but only in the parish where I heard the Obama/Hitler sermon. The parishes I knew who were more liberal were not likely to have folks who knew how to handle a thurible.
I did always feel, and feel still, that those folks who could be faithful Mass-goers under these circumstances are much better people than I am. I admire them.
And so then
About six months ago I threw up my hands and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I just don’t believe a lot of the things I’m supposed to believe in order to be Catholic. I can’t go to confession and I can’t take communion. I can’t do this “square peg/round hole” business anymore, where to get a liturgy that doesn’t make me want to stab myself with a fork I have to listen to reactionary politics from the pulpit and pretty much be told outright, ‘You can’t be a Democrat and a Catholic.’ There is no place I fit in here, and although for a few years I was convinced that if one were to be Christian one ought to be Catholic or Orthodox, I don’t know what to think now. I simply can’t do it.”
So I didn’t go anywhere.
However, in a forum I read, there’s an Episcopal priest and a couple of Episcopalians. One of them had just left the Lutheran Church for the EC. Apparently a seed was planted deep in my brain.
After awhile, I checked out Episcopal Churches in the city I live in and the city I work in. There’s an Anglo-Catholic parish near my office, which looked interesting, but I didn’t think I wanted to commute on Sundays too (although I could hit Evening Prayer or holy days after work). I didn’t want to go back to my original Episcopal parish; I read the Web sites of others. And I decided to visit the one I’ve been going to. They’re traditional but not high church (Morning Prayer once a month, no incense, that sort of thing). It’s okay about the lack of high-churchiness. I like that a lot, but that’s not a requirement for me. The facts that the music is wonderful, the liturgy is dignified (Rite I, the liturgy of the Eucharist celebrated ad orientem; the 8 AM service and the monthly MP service are out of the ’28 prayerbook — and if you live in my area you can now easily find my parish), the preaching and the writing in the bulletins and newsletters is serious and reverent where appropriate but also contains humor and even-handedness; that the Peace is controlled and calm and not a free-for-all; that no one applauds the music; that we’re allowed to intinct; that I can go to communion without having had to go for formal confession — all these things make me feel like I’ve taken off shoes that were too tight and put on a good pair.
Actually, that’s exactly what I felt when, several weeks before I went to this church, I got myself a BCP (not sure where my old ones went) and started saying Compline before bed again. It had been ten years since I had, but the words rushed over me and I thought, “Ah! Yes!” I wanted to test these waters before I got back into them. I didn’t want to be a Church-hopping dilettante. So I said Compline for about three weeks before I got up my courage and walked into an unfamiliar — and small! — church. As shy as I am in these situations, I still felt relaxed and at home.
I find that I feel freer to pray now that I did before. I still like formal prayers, of course, but for a long time as an RC I relied solely on them. I felt distant from God and really unable to simply speak to Him. Now I am better able to pray both formally and informally. I realize that God doesn’t change, but my perspective has.
This is just me. It’s not an indictment of Catholics or Catholicism; I’m certainly not anti-Catholic even as I disagree with some of the official teachings of the church. I realize the more stridently orthodox will say that I’m a heretic and an apostate; that I am overly concerned with liturgy and not concerned enough with being in a state of grace; that my discomfort with mandated confession is just evidence of my unrepentant sinfulness; that my comfort with Anglicanism is just me settling into moral laxity. I disagree, of course — but for those who believe that, I say, good for them and God bless. I certainly don’t mind if they pray for my soul, because certainly we all need that. And surely, if I find myself unable in good conscience to be a faithful Catholic, would it not be better for me, again in good conscience, to attend a church whose tenets I do believe, and try to do the best I can there, rather than simply give up on faith altogether?
Also, the question may be asked: “Uh, didn’t you know what you were signing up for when you converted?” That has a “yes with a but” answer that will have to wait for another time.
And on that note, I am going to bed!
My favorite part of Compline:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake. Amen.