One of the interesting things working at the different Episcopal Community Services programs has been meeting the many (homeless) Episcopalians who live and receive services there. I met one women who was baptized by a friend of mine, another who as a kid acolyted during a visit by President Ford and another who was baptized by the same priest who baptized me!
Recently I invited several of the them to join me at the Cathedral and (as many of you have heard me say in the past, statistically more than 70% of the people you invite to church will say yes – and indeed that was the exact “yes” rate that I had!). We arrived and I proceeded to introduce my new friends to some of the clergy and acolytes who had gathered at the font to get ready to process in. It was about that time that of my new friends leaned over and said, “this is my church!” That is, although she had never been to the Cathedral before, because she was baptized as an Episcopalian, it suddenly hit her that this too was her church. As we got settled into the pews and I proceeded to introduce them to those sitting around us, she leaned over and said it again, “this is my church!” with a big smile on her face.
As someone who is thoroughly raised in the post-modern, post-denominational world, I often find myself downplaying the importance of denominational affiliations. I find this to be particularly true when talking about my faith journey with my (many) friends who are avowedly (and often with good reason) self-described, spiritual but not religious. I find that by downplaying denominational importance, and up-playing the Cathedral’s ecumenical and indeed, interfaith alliances, I see a lot more nodding heads.
I think the so-called spiritual but not religious are (correctly) suspicious of churches or denominations who claim to have cornered the market on truth. Describing the Cathedral as a place large enough to be home to a variety of expressions of Christianity, puts them at ease. People like to hear that we are comfortable with a Lutheran running our Sunday bible study, a Methodist as our ‘Preacher-in-Residence,’ priests who were former Roman Catholics, oh and did I mention our Rabbi-in-Residence?!?! To my spiritual but not religious friends who are so suspicious of all organized religion, I tend to describe God as something that we catch glimpses of through a variety of windows, never getting the complete picture by ourselves. After all, I have to believe that God is way too big for any denomination to fit into a box and that we ought to be leery of those who try. Thus there is plenty of room in the world for a variety of styles of Christianity, as we each bring a unique glimpse with us to the table; helping us develop a more complete picture of the divine. In short, we need each other.
Getting back to my story, this new friend, who upon entering the Cathedral for the first time, marveled at the idea that this was her church, made me aware of another truth as well: The power of a denomination to create a sense of community. That is, in addition to finding an expression of God that speaks to in the way you need to hear it, a denomination can help you feel at home. The Episcopal Church is a wonderful example of this. After all, no matter where you find yourself around the country, chances are you have a church home waiting for you somewhere not too far away. And when you enter, despite our many differences and varying worship styles, there are familiar rhythms, a comfortable flow of the liturgy and a common prayer. And although you don't know their names, the people sitting next to you likely said the same oaths at their confirmation, grew up singing the same hymns, extending the same awkward peace, sharing communion and being sent out with to familiar post-communion prayer. In short, it's not too hard to feel at home.
Sitting there next to my new friends from ECS, I saw that despite the passage of time and distance, that it is possible to feel a part of a church that you have never been in. That no matter who you are, wherever you find yourself, or however far you have traveled -- even if you got a bit lost along the way -- you can always find you way back home.
Chris Harris is Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and postulant for holy orders. His passion is helping people integrate their faith and a sense of call into all aspects of their lives -- workplace, finances and relationships -- while designing a life of purpose and mission. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with him on Facebook