One thing that scared me away from the chaplaincy program at seminary was the requirement of having the support of a specific denomination. I lived under the “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” banner at the time, so the thought of having to align myself with a “religious” label abhorred me.
My academic adviser said something very wise: “You can’t force yourself to find your people. It has to happen naturally.”
Unfortunately for me, that didn’t happen until long after I quit seminary, and the denomination I found is probably too “liberal” by the seminary’s standards anyway. But just like the cliched love advice that “The One” will enter your life when you least expect it, I discovered the Episcopal church under similar circumstances. I wasn’t looking for a new church at all – in fact, I had seriously considered leaving it for good.
I haven’t found a permanent Episcopal home yet, nor have I been officially confirmed. Unlike the Catholic church, which limits communion to members only, the Episcopal church offers the Eucharist to everyone, which helps alleviate my fears of getting sucked into unhealthy tribalism.
But like the Catholic church, one aspect I find comforting is that no matter where you go for worship, the service format is the same. Episcopalians all over the world are reading from the same Book of Common Prayer and reciting the same Nicene Creed.
The sermon content may differ from church to church, but the sermon isn’t the focal point of the Episcopal service: communal acts of worship are. That’s the biggest difference I have found from the evangelical-style services I participated in for most of my adult life. In the Episcopal church, the focus isn’t on one pastor and his funny jokes, cute family pictures, and creative PowerPoint slides. In the Episcopal church, I get to be a full participant rather than an audience member.
The format of the service – the call-and-response participation of the congregation, the catalogue of prayers, the inclusion of ritual – is similar to the flow of synagogue, where I spent my childhood. The similarities, but respect for differences in creed, is why I find more comfort there than in Messianic synagogues.
As a former member of mainstream, non-denominational churches, I understand the criticism of liturgical traditions. It’s easy for the ritual to become rote, or perhaps a replacement for genuine communication with God. “Going through the motions,” as they say, can be unhealthy, but from a Jewish perspective, I was taught the opposite: “going through the motions” of ritual is what you do when you want a wayward faith to come back.
Ritual doesn’t have to become a replacement for God, but rather, a way to reconnect. There is a predictability to it, which may be dull for some, but it’s quite fitting for my OCD and type A personality. Knowing what to expect helps alter my mindset from the mundane back to the sacred. Reflecting on “prescription prayers” help me better understand what I believe, and why I believe it.
Lastly, but most importantly, the Episcopal church is commonly advertised as a “thinking church.” It is unafraid of science, critical thinking, and asking hard questions. Every church I’ve attended so far has offered pamphlets and verbal affirmations that me and my doubts are welcome.
And that is how this Jew-“ish” writer found her new home.