Why I am an ecumenical Episcopalian

Here is Bowie Snodgrass’ column from the January issue of Washington Window.

My dad believes there is one water table, reached by many wells. We must each choose a well, he says – a way to the water. The deeper we go, the more we understand that we all drink from the same source.

Further proving Newton’s theory of gravity, this apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

I spent my undergraduate and seminary years studying how religions both reflect and affect culture – the webs of meaning that constitute our social norms. To gain perspective, I lived abroad, and to find my faith, I walked a pilgrim’s path. As an adult, I have returned to drink from the Episcopal well, knowing my way will always be ecumenical – worldwide and cooperative.

‘Ecumenical’ comes from the Greek oikumene, meaning ‘the inhabited earth’ (oikos, meaning ‘home,’ is also the root for ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’). The specifics and structures of our cultures shape how we live in the world – how we inhabit this earth. I propose that ecumenism (as a principle and practice) allows us to celebrate the varieties of our Christian traditions, to critique mainstream cultural practices, and to consider what meaning we might find if we lift off the layers of culture that cover what lies beneath.


The ecumenical movement invites us to celebrate the rich diversity of Christian traditions. Anglican and Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant, America’s historic black churches, the practice of Liberation Theologies – the list goes on and on.

Merton found that monastics across cultures had much in common. Like the disciples on Pentecost, we too can encounter Christ in our neighbor, understanding beyond words, finding that what we share in faith trumps that which divides us.

There’s more….

We have many cultural differences, but others are scriptural. The Bible is the common foundational text for all Christians, yet one that is read differently in various communities of faith. Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt Jr., president of the National Council of Churches in Christ, says the Bible is a library, but most of us are only interested in one section. Our focus only on the creation narrative, prophetic writings, laws or apocalyptic tradition causes blind spots.

Faced with the threat of being myopic, let us instead approach Scripture as a multivalent and multicultural text. Rather than staring darkly down one well, let us travel sometimes, knowing there are wells in places nearby and far off, with water from the same source.


Looking through the lens of faith, yet viewed from a broad perspective, Ecumenism provides a basis for the critique of mainstream culture. For example, three P’s have emerged as the NCCC’s social policy platforms – eradicating poverty, protecting planet earth and waging peace.

Even before the flood waters and news footage that followed Katrina exposed the poverty that kills in America today, the NCCC had committed to fighting for a “living wage” as part of its Let Justice Roll campaign. The NCCC’s eco-justice programs make me think of the slogan on a camp T-shirt from my childhood – One God, One Earth, One People. No Justice, No Peace also comes to mind when thinking about the NCCC’s efforts to articulate and activate a broad Christian vision of peace in this time of war.

Just as Christian social critiques are made stronger by ecumenical dialogue and cooperation, working together to identify our priorities helps us move past all that is superficial. We all struggle to follow Christianity rather than Church-ianity, to be Christian rather than Christian-ists. We pray that, lest church become a holy hobby, our holy God will make us whole. We work to make more room at the table, so all may be fed, even if elbow-knocking ensues.


Apocalypse is Greek for “uncovering,” “unveiling,” or “unfolding.” The Latin equivalent is “revelation.” I do not use “apocalypse” to imply a literal end of culture, but rather the dissolution of cultural confines. Perhaps, in the chasms between our different cultures, an explosion is brewing. God might blow the cover right off.

What an apocalypse it would be if our religious concepts – love and grace, mercy and hope, joy and peace – could be our way, our truth and our life.

The first time I read the book of Revelation, I had no ears to hear it. I associated it with fire and brimstone, death and destruction, and the threat of a hell, which did not resonate with my Anglican sensibilities.

In the past few years, I’ve come to hear Revelation in the voice of Johnny Cash (especially through his timbre and tempo in his song “The Man Comes Around.”) Despite all else he did, Johnny fulfilled the Biblical mandate of visiting the prisoners. He sang to them and they sang back!

Christ started a new culture, revealing new ways for us to live in the world. To break bread with a prostitute, kiss a leper, care like the Good Samaritan – these acts form an apocalypse of culture.

“Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.”

— Revelation 19:6

Bowie Snodgrass, editor of EpiscopalChruch.org, is an Episcopal delegate to the National Council of Churches in Christ and worked in the Office of Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations at the Episcopal Church Center during her last two years of seminary.

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