Much has happened in the last few weeks that I’d like to offer some reflection on, but some of it, it seems to me, needs more context in order to make sense. So, I will try to catch up a bit first with this story, already in progress.
The period being covered here is approximately summer 1997 through summer 2003. In the previous installment of “Richard’s Religious Navel-Gazing”, I found myself at an Episcopal parish for professional reasons and wound up staying for confessional reasons, and it was a transition that I ultimately had to make by myself.
That summer, I was adjusting to a new job — more or less my first “real” job — I was trying, unsuccessfully, to end a relationship, I bought my first car, I was trying to figure out how in the world I was going to undo some vocal damage, and I was also trying to fully embrace life as an Episcopalian. I was also taking on some of my first “real” professional gigs; I joined the tenor section of the Tudor Choir for a good chunk of their 1997-8 season, which was part of what necessitated the car purchase — I needed to be able to drive to Seattle for rehearsals.
A couple of things struck me very early on as an Episcopalian; first, at twenty, I was the youngest person attending independently at St. Paul’s by at least a decade if not more like two. Where were all the Episcopalians our age? I asked rhetorically of my longtime friend who had told me I didn’t belong at Overlake. “Well,” he replied, “what in the world has the Episcopal Church ever done to make people our age the slightest bit interested in what they’re doing?” He had become a firm believer that Christianity could no longer make any assumptions whatsoever that those who walked through their doors had any idea what either Christianity was or what churches were supposed to be like, that previous models had for all intents and purposes failed the current set of generations, and that we had to start over with words and images and practices and so on that today’s people would actually understand. A church organization that theoretically made continuity of their liturgical and musical heritage a priority was incomprehensible from such a perspective.
One of the other things that I noticed was that despite making a big deal over our liturgical and musical heritage and having beautiful buildings and a Book of Common Prayer that had all these other services in it like Evensong, it seemed like a very real minefield to ask questions about why we didn’t do anything except multiple instantiations of Rite II on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, a 6am Eucharist on Tuesday morning and a 10am Eucharist Wednesday morning. Sure, fine, I could (and did) say prayers out of the St. Augustine Prayer Book if I wanted to do more, but why not organize a men’s schola to do Evensong on Sunday evening? Um, well, because we don’t do that here. Well, why not? We just don’t, that’s why. (If one were to see here the seeds of the kind of thinking that brought about the St. John of Damascus Society, one would not be entirely wrong.)
I will say that even if my friend didn’t see what the Episcopal Church was doing for people our age, however, and even if our church building had hours of operation predicated upon a “Sunday-only” model, I could nonetheless see how St. Paul’s was active within the greater community. The church made itself available for concerts and organ recitals, and it also hosted a “town meeting” when Bellingham’s first drive-by shooting occurred. They’ve also started their own school.
At the same time I was wondering why St. Paul’s wasn’t doing more than Sunday Eucharistic liturgies, I was learning to sing music with the Tudor Choir that drew heavily from that richer liturgical tradition. The first concert I sang with them was titled “Taverner/Tavener” in September of 1997, which introduced me to a number of liturgical and musical concepts for the first time — antiphons, motets, the Trisagion, and ison. (Ison, as contributed to by David Stutz, generated the sensation, even in the rehearsal room, of being strafed by a formation of fighter jets. Accept no substitutes.) It was also the first time I ever heard of Cappella Romana or met Alexander Lingas, since it was a joint concert with CR and Dr. Lingas had just returned from a postdoc at Oxford. I had met Mark Powell before, since he was the tour consultant for a European tour that WWU’s Concert Choir was taking during the summer of 1997. I didn’t go because I had dropped out, but I certainly remembered Mark.
Commuting between Bellingham and Seattle for Tudor Choir rehearsals (and, eventually, voice lessons back with my first teacher) saw me staying in Seattle during a few weekends. I struggled mightily with where life had led me at this point; I was a college dropout, I lived someplace I didn’t want to live, I was working in a dead-end job, I was in a relationship that I had no business being in, and I had no idea how to get out of it. Some people I knew from church were encouraging me to consider the priesthood, but without finishing a degree, seminary wasn’t going to be an option, and the woman I was involved with was not somebody who would easily fit into the category of “priest’s wife” by any stretch of the imagination. (Incidentally, that’s not intended to be a knock; she was a lovely person in every way. It’s just a statement of fact.) All of this found me despairing as I was driving around the little Eastside town of Kirkland late one Friday evening after a Tudor Choir rehearsal.
I found myself, rather unexpectedly, in front of St. John Episcopal Church. I parked and walked around the darkened church building for awhile; at some point, I tried the doors, expecting them to be locked. They were not. I went in, and there was one flickering candle burning in the nave. I sat down in one of the pews, looked at the candle, and let self-pity wash over me.
What happened next is the kind of thing I don’t write about much because it’s only happened to me perhaps three times total, maybe four. For a certain kind of Christian, I suppose, these kinds of occurrences are presumed to be normative; I must be honest and say I’ve never trusted that, because it’s the kind of thing that’s too easy to manufacture, to either convince yourself that it happened or fabricate it for somebody else so that they think it happened, and who is anybody to argue, since by definition the whole thing is subjective and unverifiable anyway? All of that is to say, I mention this expecting skepticism, and that’s okay. I wouldn’t mention it at all except that it’s an experience I point to as a moment on the other side of which things went in a different direction.
As I was sitting there in the candlelit church and wallowing in my own unhappiness, I became aware that there was another physical presence in the nave. I had the sensation of this presence putting an arm around my shoulders.
I know, this presence said, and I’m sorry. Will you trust me now?
I don’t have any particular memory of giving an answer. Still, I was aware of a sense of peace that was replacing the despair. None of my problems were solved, and I had no idea how any of them would possibly get worked out, but I felt that I could have faith that things would work out for the best one way or the other.
Two days later, I attended St. John’s Sunday morning service. The Rt. Rev. Sandy Hampton, our diocese’s suffragan bishop, was visiting that day; he gave a sermon from which I don’t remember any of the substance, but I felt truly comforted in a way that built upon my experience two evenings before, and when Bp. Hampton invited anybody in the congregation who wished to renew their baptismal vows with those he was confirming, I went up and joined them.
From there, many things in my life changed rapidly. By February of 1998 I was back in the Seattle area, having been afforded an opportunity to pretend to work for the software industry, and I was all too eager to take advantage of it. Initially, when I relocated, it seemed to make sense to me to attend St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral; I had a number of singer friends who were there, and they appeared to have a rich liturgical life and community presence. There were a number of things about St. Mark’s that I found off-putting, however, such as a penchant for apologizing for the things expressed in the liturgy while they were being expressed. “Let us affirm our faith in the fourth century words and images of the Nicene Creed,” was something the canon said in the liturgy at St. Mark’s, for example, which left me scratching my head. If you’re going to qualify it in that way, why bother at all? The moment when I realized that I didn’t belong there was Easter 1998, when they had a brass band, a string quartet, lots of majestic music and pomp and circumstance, but Dean Fred Northup’s homily didn’t once mention the Resurrection — in fact, he seemed to be going out of his way to avoid mentioning it. Well, okay, if the Resurrection isn’t worth mentioning on, oh, I don’t know, Easter, then what’s the freaking point, Father? I could recognize some of the good that St. Mark’s was trying to do by being the way they were, but I didn’t see for a moment how they were actually being a Christian church if they weren’t willing to affirm Christian teaching. “Unitarians with prayerbooks” was a phrase that escaped my lips, and not for the last time.
(I went back once more for Pentecost Sunday, where there was a remote control mylar balloon floating through the church that was supposed to represent the Holy Spirit.)
I wasn’t quite sure what to do; I wanted to see this whole being an Episcopalian thing out, but the only other church community in the area that I knew I would feel comfortable at was Northlake Lutheran. I paid them a visit, but it had been four years by this point and nobody really remembered somebody who had only been there for a few months to begin with.
I lived five minutes away from an Episcopal church, St. Margaret’s, but I hadn’t been there — somebody had mentioned to me that they were a bit “weird”, so it hadn’t occurred to me to go. Finally, one Sunday, I just decided to go ahead and go since it was close. It was a lovely little church, they had a more or less decent choir and organist, they served the liturgy in a reasonably straightforward manner without any apologizing for it, and they had a really nice group of clergy in Steve Gehrig, Wally Bristol, and Rachel Endicott… but yes, it seemed a bit “weird”, in that nobody except Fr. Steve seemed to take the slightest notice that there was a visitor, and for somebody who was all of 21, had no family around, and who was going to church on his own, that really wasn’t a great feeling. I went again, and had a similar experience; that day, however, Fr. Steve encouraged people to fill out feedback forms, and I figured, what the heck. I said, in essence, lovely place, but for somebody who’s looking to fit in with a community, you guys seem like an awfully closed group.
A few days later, I got a voicemail from Fr. Steve that said, I’m so sorry, please forgive us, if you come back and give us another chance I promise you we’ll do a better job. I later found out that I was hardly the first person to offer this critique of St. Margaret’s, and that Fr. Steve often had harsh words for the congregation when things like this happened (as I heard for myself once or twice in the following 5 years).
So, I went back, and yes, it was a much different experience. Most importantly, it started a friendship with Fr. Steve that I really valued; he was a spiritual father to me in many ways, even in a tradition that didn’t necessarily know those words, and I am thankful for his presence in my life to this day. He was one who strongly encouraged me to consider the priesthood, and he also assured me — after I had inquired — that if I wanted to give a confession, he was willing to hear it (rare in my experience amongst Episcopal clergy). Neither of these ultimately went anywhere, but the things we talked about in the context of those encouragements got me thinking along lines that led me to start reading Catholic apologetics. Not because, at that point, I thought I would leave the Episcopal Church, but rather because I was starting to think of myself as an Anglo-Catholic, and I wanted to develop a better understanding of what the “Catholic” side of that meant.
Still, there was a very real way in which I continued to feel like neither fish nor fowl. I was, again, the youngest person attending independently, and I was again left wondering why we didn’t at least do Choral Evensong one night a week or something like that. The answer in this case seemed to be because The Other Episcopal Church in Bellevue (The One That Was Big, Rich, and Liberal) was renowned for a beautiful Sunday evening Choral Evensong service, and St. Margaret’s didn’t want to be anything like them. St. Margaret’s had some vibrant community outreach going, including a thrift shop located in a park and ride, and they had a ten-year vision for how to keep it up that included building a new church building that would accommodate all of their intended ministries, but I continued to wonder, where are all the Episcopalians my age? They weren’t at the Cathedral, they weren’t at St. John’s, they weren’t at St. Paul’s, and now they weren’t at St. Margaret’s, either. I tried inviting my friends; even Rite II was just too foreign to the suburban Evangelical experience to be anything remotely identifiable to them as Christian.
Well, by the following spring, I wasn’t attending St. Margaret’s by myself anymore. I was now attending with the previously-mentioned Megan McKamey, who, despite having been functionally agnostic when I met her, had returned to Christianity, and who fell in love with St. Margaret’s after going with me once shortly after we started dating again. So, there was at least one more person my age there.
The story of our relationship is to be told another time; suffice it to say that having known each other for four years by this point and having taken some knocks, both of us had a pretty good idea of what it was we were looking for, and within a couple of months we were talking about marriage. Religion was something both of us took very seriously in the context of marriage; for my part, seeing what my parents went through, I wanted us to be on the same page, and I was willing to be the one to make changes if necessary to make that happen. Megan had been raised Catholic; once we were engaged, and it was clear that there were a couple of members of her family who would have something of an issue with her marrying outside of the faith, I asked, after some consideration, “Do you want me to convert?” I explained that being an Anglican had gotten me thinking about various doctrinal points, and that I found myself closer to the Catholic position on a lot of things than I had ever thought possible, so if it was what she wanted, I would be willing to go the rest of the way. She thought about it, but ultimately the answer was no — she said, simply, “I don’t think I need you to do that right now.”
To expand on what I just said — the best way for me to put the shift I was going through is that in the context of the liturgy, I would find myself confronted by certain theological issues as expressed in the service (yes, even in Rite II). In thinking about it, I concluded for myself that I either believed it as it was affirmed in the liturgy, or there was no meaning to the liturgy. The Real Presence in the Eucharist was perhaps the most obvious issue, but there were others. This was a slow process for me; it was maybe three years after my confirmation before I even felt entirely comfortable making the Sign of the Cross. Anyway, it was clear to me that many of my more liberal friends (inclusive of — and perhaps especially — former clergy) knew and and understood the significance of affirming something in the liturgy too, because they were very up front about telling me, “Well, that’s why I don’t say the Creed.” The more I went the other way, however, the more Anglo-Catholic I found myself trying to be — or, maybe more accurately, the more I found myself thinking in ways that I imagined Anglo-Catholics to think (remember we’re talking about the Pacific Northwest here).
Megan was confirmed two months before our wedding, and our ceremony included a full Eucharist (and yes, there were family members of Megan’s who chose not to attend). Fr. Steve explained Communion to the congregation in the following way: “All can, some should, none must.” Megan’s dad received Communion; I didn’t know this at the time, but this was evidently the first time he had received since the divorce. As I understand it, this led to him taking steps to be reconciled to Rome so that he could commune again in his own church, and Holy Week of 2002, we found ourselves down at St. Patrick’s in Tacoma for his reconciliation and Megan’s stepmother’s baptism and confirmation.
Over time, I found my interest in liturgy and sacred music continuing to develop, and I continued to wonder why, for a communion that supposedly prized itself on its liturgical heritage, it seemed like people were reticent to embrace much of it beyond an 11:15am organ and choir service for the blue-hairs (and the Barretts). In another somewhat proto-St. John of Damascus Society move, I started to explore the possibility of commissioning a program of Christian art songs (and this in fact yielded a lovely result in “Blessed are those who mourn”, composed for me by current SJDS advisory board member Matthew Arndt). In trying to generate interest at St. Margaret’s in supporting a fuller musical and liturgical program, I put together an adult education program about sacred music that was given over a few Sundays (and, alas, I can’t say it was terribly successful). Fr. Steve seemed to be sympathetic to my interests, but ultimately he seemed to feel that the future for St. Margaret’s lay with “contemporary” music and worship and the raft of young families that attended the 9am service. He had designed St. Margaret’s new church building to be basically a smaller version of a seeker-friendly megachurch that just happened to still have the Book of Common Prayer in the pews.
Other adult ed opportunities at St. Margaret’s included a daylong workshop on rosary making, which Megan took to like a fish to water, and she started making a lot of them as gifts for family and friends. Another one was titled “Discover Your Prayer Style”, which on the whole I’m not sure was entirely productive (enneagrams? Seriously?), except that it was my introduction to icons (which, I have to say, I found to be incredibly gaudy and pretentious in 2002).
I continued to read Catholic apologetics, and Megan and I had some conversations about hypothetically converting (or perhaps “reverting” in her case) down the road. What would it mean? What would it look like? What would the circumstances have to be? We never came up with any definitive answers, but it had been very definitively on our minds since Holy Week of 2002.
There was a Tudor Choir concert in the spring of 2002 that found my friend Mark Powell and I having a conversation right before we went on that somehow led into he and I saying the Creed together. I knew Mark was Greek Orthodox, but I had no real idea what that meant except that he wore his wedding ring on his right hand, he usually celebrated Easter on a different day from the rest of us, and his services were notoriously long. I cannot for the life of me remember what the topic was that got us there, but I do know that as soon as we got to the section on the Holy Spirit, I said “…who proceeds from the Father and the Son…” and Mark stopped me cold. “No, no, no,” he said. “That’s not how it goes. ‘…who proceeds from the Father.'”
I gave him a blank look. “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about this.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Mark asked incredulously. “That’s the whole reason East and West split in the first place.”
I apologized for my ignorance, and after the concert, Mark sat me down for sake at a Japanese restaurant and gave me “Orthodoxy 101”. This is who we are, these are our distinctives, this is why the filioque matters, this is what we believe about Christ, the Church, the Virgin Mary, and so on. It was all fascinating, particularly in comparison with the Catholic apologetics I had been reading, and I listened eagerly.
After dinner, I went home and forgot about it entirely.
In the fall of 2002, Megan and I were asked to serve as delegates to the convention for the Diocese of Olympia. This was, to say the least, a seriously eye-opening experience, and it disabused us of any notion that our experience at St. Margaret’s (to say nothing of my experience at St. Paul’s in Bellingham) was at all representative of what the Episcopal Church looked like in our Diocese. It opened up with our bishop announcing that he was getting a divorce, and the weekend also included St. Mark’s Cathedral trying to revise its governing structure so that it was a secular community center that happened to host church services, replacing “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” with “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” lest masculine imagery be distastefully employed, and in general there were problematic sides of things I had never had a problem with before that were rearing their heads all over the place. On the whole, the face that the Diocese of Olympia presented to us that weekend was one of an organization interested in being a secular social services organ first, and a Christian church… ninth? Tenth? Twentieth?
Up to that point, I had assumed that I would have an Episcopal funeral, that my children would be raised as Episcopalians, and that my wife and I would grow old complaining every Easter about how cheesy and freaking long “Hail thee, festival day” is. But after that weekend, such an outcome seemed terribly unlikely.
We stayed put for the time being. But it became clear shortly thereafter that a geographical move was going to be in our immediate future, and it seemed like an opportune time for a confessional move. If you had asked us about it right then, we would have said that we assumed that meant Rome.
Then, on Saturday, 26 April 2003, we got a phone call from Tatiana, a Ukrainian woman who was Megan’s boss. “Hey,” she said. “This weekend is Orthodox Easter, and the woman I usually go with got deported. I don’t know who else to ask, but I know you guys go to church. Do you want to come with me?”