By Sarah T. Condon

It is my great desire to walk around this summer’s General Convention with a mic, sweetly asking people, “Are you a cradle Episcopalian?” and then yelling “No one cares” as they begin to answer.

The phrase describes a segment of the Episcopal Church that I have never understood. It almost makes my skin crawl, except that I find it hilarious. I mean, who thinks that the Episcopal Church has been on some sort of an upward trajectory for the past few decades? Friends, we have been in grave decline. For some time now, the Episcopal Church has been known for flagrant alcoholism, powerful wealth, and confusing ourselves with Jesus.

I will say, though, that when people say Cradle Episcopalian and mean Waspy repression, flagrant alcoholism (is there a theme?), and a spiritless spirituality, I think, that’s more like it. Because when you say “I’m a Cradle Episcopalian,” I generally think of a dysfunctional Mad Men character.

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My disdain for the phrase has a lot to do with my being a child of the Episcopal Church. My parents, former Southern Baptists, joined an Episcopal mission church outside of Nashville as young adults. The church met in a school cafeteria. I would later be baptized there.

When we moved to Mississippi four years later, our family joined the local Episcopal church. Our Sunday school met in a trailer out back, which also happened to host a lot of AA meetings in the evenings. In the teetotaling ethos of the South, our church was the only one in the area willing to host the group. This meant that on most Sunday mornings, the faithful laywomen who taught me about Jesus would begin the day by removing Styrofoam cups of cigarette butts and tobacco spit, and without comment.

One magical summer for Vacation Bible School, those same women transformed that trailer into Narnia so that we could all hear the gospel through C.S. Lewis. When people tell me that they are Cradle Episcopalians to signal their belonging and worth in a community, I want to tell them that I am a Trailer Episcopalian to signal that I don’t give a damn.

I realize that some of you regular Cradle Episcopalian users will see this as too extreme a view. As with any agitating phrase that people have to give up, you might even wonder why it is suddenly not okay to say. Isn’t it mostly harmless? Can’t I just leave the gin and tonic-guzzling (third time, folks), Great Gatsby wannabe characters alone in the corner to hiss Cradle Episcopalian at every visitor who crosses the threshold into church? No. I cannot.

Last fall Sam Smith released his second album, The Thrill of it All. Smith, in case you’re not familiar with his work, is a musical wonder. His style is internal and observational. And he claims St. Whitney Houston as one of his strongest vocal influences. So obviously I’m on board.

Smith’s best writing comes from his vantage point as an outsider, and his writing about the church should not fall on deaf ears. His ingeniously gospel-style song “Pray” speaks to the idea of needing a comfort that the world cannot provide. But as Smith sings, the church has been of little help:

I’m young and I’m foolish, I’ve made bad decisions
I block out the news, turn my back on religion
Don’t have no degree, I’m somewhat naive
I’ve made it this far on my own
But lately, that sh— ain’t been gettin’ me higher
I lift up my head and the world is on fire
There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones
And I just don’t know what to say

Maybe I’ll pray
I have never believed in you, no
But I’m gonna pray

You won’t find me in church, reading the Bible
I am still here and I’m still your disciple
I’m down on my knees, I’m beggin’ you, please
I’m broken, alone, and afraid I’m not a saint, I’m more of a sinner
I don’t wanna lose, but I fear for the winners
When I try to explain, the words run away
That’s why I am stood here today

And I’m gonna pray,
Lord Pray for a glimmer of hope

Smith may knock church because he’s British and the Church of England has had its battles with drawing people into the pews. Or it could be because Smith is gay and has felt turned away one too many times by Christians. His reasons are his to know. What matters to me is that he is willing to tell us the truth.

Will we be willing to listen?

The comfort the world offers us is no comfort at all. Smith sings about the dread in his heart and fear in his bones. I can only think of Ezekiel. Can these bones live?

He describes himself as being more of a sinner than a saint. And I wonder if anyone has told him about Romans 7.

And when he belts out that while he doesn’t want to lose, he fears for the winners, I find myself moved by the Holy Ghost. Because Lord, if that verse does not cry out for Jesus’ proclamation that the first shall be last, I do not know what does.

I suppose I most despise the phrase Cradle Episcopalian because it does not take a need of God seriously. It does not take people like Sam Smith seriously. Every Sunday, people still show up on the doorstep of churches desperate for relief, forgiveness, and a way to make sense of the world. And what do we offer them? This insidious phrase that attempts to boil down the whole of the gospel and the saving Grace of Jesus Christ into good breeding.

Praise God that we have all been adopted through Jesus Christ. Praise God that our need for exclusivity is not stronger than his desire to love us. Praise God that he is wholly uninterested in how long we have been going to church or which specific denomination we happen to belong to.

And finally, praise God that our wretched selves have managed to stumble into a church that offers us Good News, belonging, and the knowledge that this fallen world is not the final word.

The Rev. Sarah T. Condon is assistant for pastoral care at St. Martin’s Church in Houston and a frequent contributor to Mockingbird.

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19 Comments on "Cradle Episcopalians: Who Cares?"

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Amen and amen.

I’m biased as a wanderer and a newbie, albeit one who attended a mostly Episcopal seminary, worked in an Episcopal church, and was the most surprised of anyone to see himself ordained by a bishop. And yet there is a real undercurrent that my legitimacy in some circles hinges upon circumstances of my birth rather than the grace of God and whisperings of the Spirit I have followed.

Thank you, Rev. Condon, thank you.

I felt this way during The Greatest Showman. When she says where else would we go or own mothers didn’t want us. This is where the church should be making sure people on the fringes feel wanted and loved

I see where Sarah is coming from. Some folks invoke that status with a bit of (seemingly) classist pride that can be off-putting to newcomers and other lifetime members as well. It *can* be indicative of snobbery, in the same manner as a seminary classmate from a (non-Episcopalian) modest background being asked by a member of their Diocese’s commission on ministry how they would “relate to the average Episcopalian, who comes from a wealthy background.” However… The bigger problem, in my mind, is that cradle Episcopalians are so *rare*. And sometimes the proclamation of that reality ought to have us… Read more »
There’s only a short step between the point here and Paul’s “true circumcision”, or Jesus saying, “God is able to raise up from these stones children unto Abraham.” I’ve preached something similar when those passages come up in the lectionary. The Sam Smith bit seems tangential to me, but I sympathize with the desire to see Christians define themselves as disciples first and foremost, rather than social or even ecclesial partisans. I have wondered, praying at the deathbed with cradle Episcopalians, whether they were prepared with active faith to face their Maker. Not all of them are. The early Church… Read more »

[…] Finally, Sarah takes on the whole “cradle Episcopalian” nomenclature in an essay she wrote for The Living Church. This ought to whet the appetite, and then you can read […]

Not all cradle Episcopalians are elitist snobs. I will identify myself as a cradle Episcopalians or as a life long one. It is a descriptive term that reflects some of my faith choices, just as much as someone who has described themselves as being from another denomination or faith that has joined our church. I have been in the church long enough to see the prejudice cut both ways. Both with old guard being intolerant of the new, and the new being intolerant of the old. I don’t see what purpose it serves in castigating “cradle Episcopalians” and painting us… Read more »
Well bless her heart. I’m sitting here trying not to be hurt by this unpleasant little opinion piece. I seriously thought it was safe to be an endangered minority in the Episcopal Church, as that’s what “Cradle Episcopalians” are… every other group seems to be entitled to express pride in their minority status, but apparently it doesn’t apply to me. All I can say is that while my ancestors may have been WASPs, and they may have liked their Scotch, and they may have been repressive and stuffy, they were busy establishing hospitals, protesting against slavery, campaigning for women’s rights.… Read more »
I think you missed the mark. Having wandered the American religious landscape, at least a very small fundamentalist part of it, I find the phrase somehow comforting and even joyous. To me it means someone who grew up in the church finds worth in continuing. It means someone was lucky enough to have had parents who loved their child enough to avoid filling him with fear; to teach him of God’s love. It means he has been immersed in the beauty of the prayers and liturgy and that he has a sense of tradition, the knowlege he is connected to… Read more »

Exactly my feelings! I found a home in the Episcopal church, and I am very proud to be a mother of a cradle Episcopalian and two cradle granddaughters.

[…] my friend Sarah Condon wrote a piece, which was published over at The Living Church, expressing some exasperation at the oft-used phrase […]

Of the active members, about 20% (and that’s optimistic) are ‘cradle’. I think the questions that ought to be asked are, 1., What has happened to the ones that have left and why, and 2., why attack the loyal members that have stayed? This article just fans the flames of division and derision.

Whew! Hopefully, there are other points along the spectrum between the two realities: newbie evangelical & entitled cradle Episcopalian. Right/wrong thinking at its most extreme. Are there other valid ways to claim Episcopal experience and identity? So, though I attended my Father’s ordination to the Episcopal priesthood in utero (pre-cradle) and then after 10-years of being a preacher ‘s kid, my Father came out of the closet, and he was forced out of the church, then my cradle Episcopal experience can only be as an entitled, exclusive and alcoholic congregant? And, after exploring other life and faith experiences, I returned… Read more »
Rick Benton, you totally miss the intent of the article you are critiquing. Reread with an open mind and then I think you will see to what the cradle Episcopalian writer is referring. It is very thought provoking and one that is meant to raise discussion. I hope that you will get the “chip” off your shoulder, reread and learn. I think it would be a great article to discuss for several weeks in Christian formation. I know a lot of cradle Episcopalians who are wonderful people and wonderful Christians. I think that they would enjoy reading this article and… Read more »
Whenever I’ve said this, it’s because I’m happy that I’ve made it when so many others have fallen away. I’ve stayed in the race and kept the faith. As a black person, TEC as a whole doesn’t really gel w/ black culture-at least not in the US. I am amazed that not only am I cradle, but I’m a 3rd generation. Somehow, we’ve found something in a church that really wasn’t designed for us. I marvel at that, and I’m even proud that we’ve managed to create this unique paradigm of being a black church within within a white church.… Read more »
I’m sorry Rev. Condon but I found your article very narrow minded and childish. I’m not a cradle Episcopalian but I know plenty who are and I never feel like they are using that to exclude anyone or show their “credentials” as a Christian. To be honest I wish I had been a cradle Episcopalian because I grew up in the southern Baptist church which rejected me for my sexuality. Also, I don’t know if your claims of flagrant alcoholism is true, but I doubt Episcopalians are any worse than anyone else. I think we’re just more open about it.… Read more »

Thank you for expressing so well what I have struggled to post. As a lifelong Episcopalian I chose to continue the religion my parents introduced to me. I found the comments in the article very hurtful, and, I believe, judging all by the behavior of some. I hope this priest will do some serious soul searching. I hope she will learn to value both old and new members. In my opinion both have gifts to offer.

To my mind, the kernel of pastoral care is to meet people where they are. If people describe themselves as “cradle Episcopalian,” lovely. It is a factual truth not a declaration of sanctity. They are a wellspring of church lore, history and witness to which I, as a new Episcopalian, would not otherwise have access.

This piece is so dead-on correct. Thank you Sarah, for directing attention where it needs to be directed – presenting the Gospel to a hurting world rather than luxuriating in labels that, to be honest, no longer have any of the cultural (or even ecclesial) cache they attempt to signal.

I am not a cradle Episcopalian. But of the not a few I have met who have uttered this phrase which so causes Rev. Condon’s wail to rise and teeth to gnash, not a one fits the profile with which Rev. Condon proceeds to brush the whole lot. This very topic was addressed far more ably than I could in a post some years ago on the worthy blog Sed Angli: “If the term ‘cradle Episcopalian’ is an issue, it is such only because people’s feelings get hurt too easily in the Church, and they get hurt over stupid things… Read more »