Most everyone we tell is uniformly thrilled to hear that we have secured the privilege of a nuptial ceremony at the high altar of the Washington National Cathedral. But my Catholic mother has complained of one particular aspect of our high cathedral wedding-to-be: the National Cathedral congregation, of which & and I are now members, is Episcopalian in both theory and practice.
“You’re going to convert???” was Mom’s alarmed reaction.
Technically, it’s not really conversion. If you’ve already been confirmed in the Catholic church, as I have, then there’s no requirement that you redo any of the initiation sacraments before your “reception” into the Episcopal church (which, I gather, is not itself a sacrament). You already count as One Of Us, so to speak. And yet I too was discomfited by one aspect of the beautiful Episcopal Eucharist at my beloved National Cathedral.
It took me a LONG time to muster the nerve to take the sacrament in what is now officially my home congregation.
The first time we Went To Church at the cathedral, I at least had the plausible excuse of ignorance. In the tradition of my youth, neither the uninitiated nor the unshriven were invited to the Eucharist. For the right to queue up with the believers, you had to (1) be Catholic and (2) have gone to confession with some reasonable recency. Since plenty of people at any good-sized Catholic mass meet neither criterion, the pews at communion time frequently remain populated with the respectfully abstaining. I figured that Episcopalians did the same thing, and spent my first few Cathedral Eucharists politely ensconced on my knees while everyone clambered around me en route to the holy buffet.
Turns out Episcopalians do NOT do the same thing. Communion at the Cathedral is open-invitation. More than that, it’s specifically intended to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Remaining in my seat was practically a snub — as impolite in the Episcopal rite as taking the sacrament unshriven would have been at a Catholic mass.
I mentally chewed on this for weeks. If it was ruder to hold back than to participate, why was I reluctant to take the Episcopal sacrament? Did I not believe that the blanket prayer of absolution in the liturgy accomplished the same purpose as a sacramental confession, at least enough to qualify me (or anyone else) to step up? Did I believe that there was transubstantiation going on up there at the Cathedral altar? Did they? Did it matter to me if they didn’t? I am no great Catholic, nor have I ever been, nine years at St. Mary’s notwithstanding. But having been taught with such force and absolute certainty that this was How Things Worked In Church, I had no idea how to react to a church where they worked differently.
Faced with such quandaries I did what any good Episcopalian churchgoer would do: I took the vicar out to lunch.
And, being a good Episcopalian vicar, he proceeded to solve all my problems.
He happily agreed to shepherd us through Episcopalian premarital counseling and officiate our ceremony at the high altar. More importantly, he talked me down out of my tree on the sacraments. He had no transcendent mystical powers, he told me, nor was he working any magic up there at the altar. There was no confessional prerequisite to the Eucharist, he told me. Reconciliation was an act best done in, and with, one’s community of peers, he told me, since they’re the ones who are actually harmed by any wrongs you’re confessing. Both the absolution blessing and the communion blessing — in fact, pretty much all the sacraments in the Episcopal rite — were not so much magic spells as shared communitarian bonds.
I was enormously relieved. The tension of my Catholic upbringing — a tangle of visceral received wisdom that brooked no argument, pushback from my natural skepticism, and the siren song of my superstitious heritage — drained away like bathwater as the vicar and I nursed our cups of coffee. For the first time in my adult life, organized religion was assuming a nonhostile form. “Blessings on our food!” the vicar smiled, with a slight shrug, when our salads arrived: the least awkward grace-before-meals I’d ever heard.
I can get behind a religion of blessings, of generosity and hospitality, where you answer to the deity by answering to the people next to you. Cathedral-style Episcopalianism is not without its rules and requirements — we will not, for example, be allowed to select ceremonial readings from Dr. Seuss or Kahlil Gibran — but it *is* free of most all of the spiritual and sociocultural drama that I found discomfiting in the faith of my fathers. And this I like.
We didn’t just join the cathedral congregation to qualify for the wedding venue, I continue to insist to my mother. This is the kind of church where you can anchor yourself and raise a family.
And that’s our plan.