By Roger Ferlo
For those who write for deadlines, what follows is a familiar story. Over a year ago, I received a call from an editor at a prominent church publishing company asking me to write a short book entitled Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers. Since, until recently anyway, Episcopalians have never considered themselves big on answers, my initial smart-aleck response was to suggest that we re-name the project Episcopal Questions, and Yet More Episcopal Questions. But no, this was to be a part of a series that already included Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers, with a United Methodist Questions, United Methodist Answers on the way. Surely an Episcopalian could come up with something.
Now, three months before the deadline, what I’ve come up with—besides my usual schemes of procrastination—is a dead lack of certainty that this kind of enterprise makes sense. Like my Presbyterian and Methodist counterparts, I am organizing my questions by categories, trying to map what my systematic theologian friends might call the Great Loci—those perilous intersections where the intellectual rubber hits the spiritual road. We’re talking about the big words here: Human Nature, God the Father, Sin and Redemption, Last Things. But sometimes it’s hard to discern any differences between the way we handle these questions and the way my Presbyterian friends do, which I suppose is part of the ecumenical point. Questions like “Why is the church so full of ‘sinners’?” seem even more apt for Episcopalians than they do for Presbyterians, given our current state of affairs. “Why are Presbyterians associated with ‘predestination.’?” These days, the Episcopal version would probably have to read, “Why are Episcopalians associated so much with sex?”
But the biggest question is this: Who wants to read this stuff? Don’t get me wrong. How Episcopalians navigate the Great Loci, how we act in the world because of what we believe about the Big Questions is something I care a lot about. But too much church gets to you after a while. For those who know nothing about the Bible except the nonsense they read in newspapers, much less care about the difference between a Presbyterian synod and an Episcopal convention, it must sound like I’m writing in a dead language. The people I’d prefer to reach spend a lot more time surfing Google and Wikipedia—or even this blog—than they do reading books like the one I’ve been asked to write. Does anyone besides church-obsessed bloggers or seminary professors care any more about the difference between Episcopal and Presbyterian polities (there’s a church word for you), or what Calvin or Cranmer or the Thirty-Nine Articles say about predestination? And to be perfectly honest, I can’t even get straight what the word Episcopal means, or the word Anglican for that matter. Since I signed the contract, the words Anglican and Episcopal—which I grew up thinking were pretty much synonymous—have in some quarters come to seem mutually exclusive. I mean, how much of this dirty laundry do I want air in public?
But then, when I look at the questions I’ve come up with, I realize that even people who depend on Wikipedia might get interested. They care more than most people about getting some honest answers, even if they have to come up with them themselves. What makes us human? How can we know God? Does God control human beings? What’s the worst sin you can commit? What’s a sin, anyway? Does God will evil? What’s a trinity? Does God suffer? Do Episcopalians believe that Jesus’ mother never had sex? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Are Episcopalians “saved”? Do I have to be Christian to pray?
These are questions that have some meat to them. The challenge is answering them without resorting to church-speak. I labor under a slight handicap here. In my job as a seminary professor, church-speak tends to come with the territory. My problem is that I am a great lover of what people often rightly revile as “organized religion,” perhaps because I am a great lover of paradoxes and oxymorons. I mean, for Episcopalians, paradoxes and oxymorons are us. Living in a messily disorganized church appeals to me, if only because whenever I experience God it’s usually through the fissures in life’s grand constructs, and not in the constructs themselves. That being said, I find myself trying to answer these questions not as an Episcopalian per se, and certainly not as some kind of Official Voice, but as a life-long Christian who has found in the North American Episcopal parishes I have known a fruitful way to live with God. The peculiar ins and outs of Episcopal thinking and Episcopal worship, our subtleties and hesitations and measured convictions, above all our shared sense that God is with us no matter what sort of mash we make of what the tradition has handed down to us—all this keeps me honest, makes me want to share what I’ve experienced, makes me want to think more cogently, pray more intelligently, act more like Jesus might have acted. God knows you don’t have to be an Episcopalian to do these things, but that’s the hand I’ve been dealt, and for the most part it’s been a pretty good hand.
So here goes.
The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. His books include Opening the Bible (Cowley 1997), Sensing God (Cowley 2001) and Heaven (Seabury 2007).