I go to church, religiously. That’s a pun, but it is true. I go to church almost every week, sometimes multiple times. When I was growing up, my mother was in the process of becoming an Episcopal priest. Not going to church wasn’t an option. We went. I kept going, and eventually found myself in the ordination process. Three years ago, I was ordained. It helps that I work for the church, as often I am paid to be present (but not always).
I would go if I wasn’t paid.
I chose a church for myself for the first time when I was in college. As a clergy kid, I had always been along for the ride with my family. I flirted with some evangelical congregations in high school, and went to chapel at my Roman Catholic college. I never felt quite at home in these other theological traditions. I joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral congregation in San Diego, and while I seemed to be the only person there in my twenties, I stuck around.
I kept going partly because I was impressed by the new dean, the lead priest for the Cathedral. The Rev. Scott Richardson had just come to San Diego, and he was a thoughtful preacher. In one of his early sermons he invited the congregation to commit to a “rule of life.” A rule of life, like that to which monks and nuns commit, is a set of practices that a believer commits to live. Rev. Richardson’s proposed rule was simple:
- Pray daily
- Worship weekly
- Give generously
- Serve joyfully
- Learn constantly.
The challenge to “worship weekly” stuck with me in particular, and I stuck around St. Paul’s.
Eventually I got involved in developing a group for those in their twenties and thirties. Simultaneously, I saw the average age of the congregation drop, and as more younger people joined in, the energy of the church changed. We got involved with a foster care facility in our neighboring city of Tijuana, Mexico. The Cathedral served as a hub for organizing against California’s Prop. 8, which sought to outlaw same-sex marriage. A group of hikers emerged, and eventually an environmental justice group taught parishioners about kitchen gardens and composting. It’s reasonable to suspect none of that would have happened if those in our twenties and thirties didn’t make a commitment to worship weekly with this austere, beautiful, aging congregation.
The Episcopal Church is part of the wider Anglican tradition, and we Anglicans are sacramental in our approach. That is to say, we believe that outward and visible signs point to inward spiritual grace. I go to church to participate in something bigger than myself, something bigger than what happens on any given Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. I go to church because I belong to the Body of Christ, which is to say I belong to the Church. I am a part of a people, and the best way to remind myself of that reality is to go to church.
Usually that means I participate in a weekly service of Holy Communion, where we celebrate sacrament of the Eucharist to remember Christ’s own table fellowship, which, by the way, involved mostly sinners and outcasts. Christ shared food with all of the wrong people.
So, when we remember his final meal with his friends, we remember that we follow a 33 year old Palestinian Jew who gave his life, gave his body and blood, for the sake of a vision. Jesus was captivated by a vision of community: a vision of humanity coming together across all of our divisions, caring for one another, caring for creation. Jesus asked us to remember him and his sacrifice for that vision. One of the ways I remember is by joining around the table each week.
But all of this visioning isn’t to say I go to church uncritically. I work now on the denominational staff as a church-wide organizer of young adults. I see a lot of congregations. God help me, these days I have to stifle my commentary on the choices communities makes in worship. My poor husband often has to suffer through my play-by-play. Often I would make a different set of what I am sure are superior choices in organizing worship (NOTE: I am not really sure they are superior).
But when I get caught up too much in that head-space, too much in mind-games about how I’d do church differently, I’m missing the point. Going to church is an outward act because it offers me grace, and as a sacramental person I believe an important act. Spending too much time wondering how I’d do things differently, I miss all that grace.
I choose to practice the outward work of going to church because I’m looking for that grace, part of which comes from the church teaching me to be more graceful. Each time I have joined a new church, it took time for me to let my guard down and for the congregation to let me in. But once I did, once they did, I knew we were getting somewhere because I started to feel challenged. Usually, the challenge invited me to grow up a bit and to treat others with a little more grace and a lot more patience. I’d have missed out on all of this if I was intent on only seeing how I could change the church, rather than on receiving the graceful offering of how it might change me.
No church will ever live up to all of our expectations. Church will let you down, even if I’m the priest, especially if I’m the priest. I have been incredibly lucky in the communities I have worshiped with. When I was a young kid, struggling to accept myself as a gay man, I belonged to a congregation and a denomination which was already ahead of me. I have been lucky in that sense, but I have also been let down at times. I have seen racism, sexism, and classism raise their head. I have seen people disappointed when their friends from church didn’t show up for a lunch meeting or to visit them in the hospital. People are flawed, and we let each other down.
If we stick with the outward work of going to church, through the disappointments, through the frustrations, sometimes grace breaks through. Part of the sacramental nature of the church is that any congregation we belong to is provisional, always arranged or existing for the present, always subject to changing and growing. We are people setting up tent together on the journey toward the Reign of God. When we start congratulating ourselves too much on the beautiful Gothic architecture or on our exquisite music, we risk forgetting that we have much growing to do. Conversely, when we spend too much time wondering about how differently we’d do church, we miss celebrating the grace-filled place to which our gathering together has brought us thus far.
But when we can live in that middle and liminal space, full of awareness of where we have been and where we are standing currently, sitting with the tension that exists therein, we recognize our belonging. In these moments, worship is at its very best, and it points us beyond the past and the present to where we’re going next.
To get there, I must keep practicing — we have to keep practicing . For the sake of the journey we share as a disciples of Jesus, we must stick with this practice of going to church.
We go to church because we belong to the Church. We a part of a people journeying toward God, and the best way to remind ourselves of that reality is to be in one another’s presence.
Header Image ©CreationSwap/Lee Steele
Congregation Image used courtesy Morgue File under Creative Commons License.
Bread and Wine ©CreationSwap/Danny J
Bombarded by Love ©CreationSwap/Matt Dalrymple
Rev. Mike Angell is an an Episcopal priest who connects Episcopal Church initiatives with young adults. Mike and his husband, Ellis, live in St. Louis with their labradoodle, Oscar. Mike previously served as a priest at a church near the White House in Washington, DC, and graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of San Diego. He has served as a missioner on college campuses and as a young adult missionary in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Mike loves to read, write, travel, play ultimate frisbee, and goof around with various acoustic instruments.