By John D. Sundara
Iam a cradle Episcopalian, and I care. But maybe I should clarify a bit. Technically, I am not a cradle Episcopalian. I really am a cradle Anglican. But since Episcopalian is American revolutionary talk for “we are not British monarchists,” and is a synonym for Anglican the same way that elevator is a synonym for lift, then I really am a cradle Episcopalian.
On one level I sympathize with the Rev. Sarah Condon. Episcopalian, as it turns out, is not merely synonymous with Anglican. But in a certain context it is largely synonymous with Waspish Americans in all their glory, with Scotch-drinking CEOs on their third failed marriages bequeathing big checks to their parish so that they can have their names listed in the parish bulletin, all the while understanding very little about Nicene Christianity. It should be noted, however, that this Waspish behavior is not exclusively endemic to Episcopalians any more than wealthy white boomer Protestant men boozing and cavorting is exclusively endemic to Episcopalians. Presbyterians have their version of this.
To say though that the concept of a cradle Episcopalian “does not take a need of God seriously,” and that “this insidious phrase attempts to boil down the whole of the gospel and the saving Grace of Jesus Christ into good breeding” disregards those cradle Episcopalians who are not white and wealthy men. Are there not Hispanic, African, or Asian cradle Episcopalians in North America? To reduce this term to boozing Wasps betrays a kind of churchmanship and a narrow experience of Episcopalians, not to mention the Anglican Communion, no matter how many Sam Smith references and Church of England missiological questions one raises.
Consider my story. I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, having been baptized in the Church of South India and confirmed in the Anglican Church of Canada, while living extensively in both areas. I am a cradle Anglican or Episcopalian (depending on your vernacular), and it gives me much pride to say so. But I am neither white nor Anglo-Saxon, and it is debatable if the kind of Anglicanism I practice is truly Protestant. Why would I confidently identify myself as a cradle Episcopalian?
It all started in college. I was involved with an evangelical college ministry made up primarily of Baptist and Bible-church, non-denominational, evangelical Christians. Being the only Anglican in such a context causes an insecurity and skepticism about the tradition. Why do we baptize infants? Why do we have rote prayers? Why so much ceremonialism? But it was the rote Prayer of Humble Access, securely implanting itself into my brainstem such that I found my personal prayers morphing into this prayer, that told me this Episcopalian thing works. But I would inevitably be asked Why did you become Episcopalian? as though I were becoming a circus clown. Well, I did not become Episcopalian in my memory. Rather, I have not known the faith entirely apart from my Episcopal context. I was born into this thing. I am a cradle Episcopalian, and it has valuably shaped my faith in a way that a free-church evangelicalism did not.
Here is another reason I identify myself as a cradle Episcopalian. In the last decade or so, there has been a steady stream of evangelicals slowly making pilgrimage on the Canterbury Trail, ranging anywhere from progressives exploring a liturgical and transcendent expression of the Faith, to conservatives seeking refuge in the timeless and rooted traditions of a more Anglo-Catholic expression of the Faith. Both witnessed the crumbling walls of a decaying fortress of evangelical cultural conservatism incapable of withstanding the waves of epistemological suspicion, moral relativism, pastoral insensitivity, and (quite frankly) the exhaustion of local church politics and divisions on a whim. Canterbury became their refuge. Yet, some of these pilgrims seek to recast the Episcopal Church into the image of their favorite pilgrim guide (whether Rachel Held Evans vis-à-vis John Henry Newman). To say I am a cradle Episcopalian is to provide some epistemological legitimacy that wants to protect this limb of the Anglican Communion and the Church against these new churchmanship battles and a familiar kind of idolatry.
Finally, I like using the phrase cradle Episcopalian because it puts me in the same boat — nay, ark — as the caricatures in Condon’s article. When I use the phrase cradle Episcopalian, it implies that there is more to the Episcopal faith. No cradle Episcopalian, not even the caricature that Condon feels embarrassed about, has bristled at or rejected this usage. Why would they? When I use the phrase in many settings, Episcopalians intuitively understand and accept that we are both children from the same cradle, eating and drinking at the same altar. Their understanding of Communion was greater than Condon assumes for them.
Communion isn’t just a nice theory that makes us feel smug about our denominational choices. Communion is a messy thing that expects us to embrace the brothers and sisters who embarrass us. Not to mention that these Waspish cradle Episcopalians have put their wallets where their mouths are. As much as we berate them for their spiritual superficiality and moral looseness, many large parishes survive and thrive today because of the large endowments and legacy gifts made by many a cradle Episcopalian, even perhaps including the parishes where Condon and I serve. To remark “No one cares” is to be culturally and pastorally reductionistic and simplistic, while criticizing a system that benefits both of us.
Cradle Episcopalian is not a wholesale embarrassing phrase. As much as any of us can see exactly what Condon writes about, there is more breadth and weight to this phrase than her experiences, and this is something to be mindful and charitable about.
The Rev. John D. Sundara is curate for adult formation at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.