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Cradle Episcopalians: Who Cares?

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.

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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