Wineskins Archive

December 8, 2013

Church of Christer On the Canterbury Trail (May 2012)

Filed under: — @ 9:24 pm and

By Michael Brown

“Why are you still here?” my friend asked.

At first I thought he was talking about the local deli where we were eating lunch. Then I realized that he was talking about “there,” a local Churches of Christ congregation we both attended.

I stammered and mumbled something about “staying for the kids,” two of whom had already flown the nest. The youngest, a rising high school senior at the time, had stopped going to youth group and recently to church altogether for reasons of his own. “Staying for the kids” was no longer relevant. I realized that finally, after nearly 50 years in the Churches of Christ, I had run out of reasons.

It gives me no pleasure to write that. My wife and I cherish our Churches of Christ roots. It was the denomination of our youth, the cradle of our faith. We raised our own children in the Churches of Christ, and for the most part, it was good.

We didn’t leave because we were angry or injured beyond repair. We were surrounded by people we loved and who loved us. Yet we were starving. Our leaving was painful “emergency surgery” necessary to save the patient—our faith. What does it profit a person to persist in a particular tradition yet lose his or her own soul?

It was more than just an epiphany over a tuna melt on rye, though. For me, it was a lifelong process that began when I was a teenager listening to a well-intentioned Sunday School teacher read from Leroy Brownlow’s Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ. A natural skeptic, I inwardly rolled my eyes at the long list of self-serving clichés, shibboleths, and presuppositions which didn’t seem to ring true. My subsequent personal study in church history—all of it, not just the part from Cane Ridge on—confirmed those initial impressions.

For my wife, it was the realization that in recent years the Churches of Christ in our neck of the woods had adopted the watered-down theology and worship of evangelical megachurches. There seemed to be lots of milk, but very little meat. She listened closely to the never-ending streams of words (moments of silence were increasingly rare), and to her they seemed designed to manipulate and control and to perpetuate the “corporate brand.”<

e felt our souls withering, so we sought nourishment elsewhere. What began as an occasional trip to a local parish of the Episcopal Church for, as we often joked, “a liturgy fix,” became a regular habit. We discovered sacred space there, room for the peace and quiet contemplation that we sorely missed in our increasingly wired, over-produced, and chatter-filled world.

In the Episcopal Church, public reading of scripture is the backbone of the liturgy; not just scripture dissected, parsed, and patched together to prove a point, but the whole bolt of cloth. Scripture isn’t viewed as an “instruction book” with step-by-step directions on “how to get saved.”

Instead, Episcopalians regard the Bible as the story of man’s search for God and God’s reaching out to man. We, male and female, read it aloud, allowing its enduring truths to wash over each listener and produce its varying effects without interpretation and spin. The result, for us, has been that we believe the Bible’s core message of God’s love—and act on it—more than we ever have before.

The prayers that we offer up in common are beautiful and old, connecting us to generations of Christians in centuries past. We had always heard that so-called “set prayers” were “vain repetition.” We have found the opposite to be the case. Repeating similar prayers week after week—especially The Lord’s Prayer—keeps us grounded and centered in First Things: confession of sin, love of neighbor and enemy, compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden, and dependence upon God. The Book of Common Prayer has been a welcome relief from the sermonizing and politicizing that we often heard in “spontaneous prayers” in the Churches of Christ. This presidential election cycle, we have the assurance that regardless of who wins in November, we will pray for him, aloud, by name.

In the Episcopal Church, the sermon, or homily, is not the “main event.” Sermons tend to be shorter than those we heard in the Churches of Christ, and they are always focused on the lectionary readings. The lectionary covers nearly the entire Bible every three years and acts as a bridle bit which keeps the speaker focused and on track. We have several ministers who rotate speaking duties at our church, lessening the temptation of developing a “cult of personality.”

The Eucharist is the culmination of the service and our main reason to meet. As we break bread and drink the wine, we accept by faith the mystery that somehow, some way, Christ is there and that we receive him into our spirit. All are welcomed at the Table, without judgment, and no blessing is withheld.

The Eucharist is not merely a time to focus on Golgotha. It is also a celebration of Christ’s overcoming victory and his abiding presence with us. This sacramental aspect to communion is something we have come to cherish as a constant, week after week. In the Eucharist, we have discovered the strength and nourishment to carry on with our journey and to do the work God has called us to do.

We’re not the first “Church of Christers” to turn onto the Canterbury Trail in search of older and deeper waters (we’ve met several Churches of Christ expats at our local parish). There are a million and one other “Why I Left” stories, but this is ours.

We believe some are called to stay, and some are called to leave. Each has its place in the Body of Christ.

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