By Catherine Shaw
My bed in the House of Prayer rectory is a comfortable full-size mattress, but my sheets don’t quite fit, since I was told I would be sleeping on a queen bed. This isn’t a big deal; I’m only mentioning it because I’m going to use this image as an analogy later on, so bear with me.
I moved to Philly from a Cleveland suburb, and, before I moved, everyone was telling me that I was in for a really big change, that I would probably be dealing with culture shock for a while, and that I should prepare to be bewildered. Well, they were right, but not in the way they thought they were. I’ve been in Philly for about six weeks now, and I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the city itself: I’m jaywalking like a pro, SEPTA and I are tight, and I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring sirens. So the city and I are good, at least as far as I’m concerned.
However, my experience in the Episcopalian world is a different story. Although I currently consider myself nondenominational, I grew up in the Methodist Church, and my thinking about Episcopalian worship and practices before Servant Year went along these lines: “We’re Protestant, and so are they, so it can’t be that different.” Yeah, right. I’ve attended nineteen Episcopalian masses since I arrived in Philly, and I feel a bit like a full-size mattress trying to fit into queen-size bedding.
Eleven inches. That’s the difference between a full and a queen. It doesn’t seem worth noticing, but those eleven inches (five in width and six in length) lead to a difference of 730 square inches (roughly thirty square feet), which is a significant difference. In the same way, the short, “it’s all the same” distance between the Methodist and Episcopalian traditions has morphed into a vast and bewildering gulf that I cannot bridge.
Here’s a short list of some the things I’ve found discombobulating: saints; praying to saints; real wine at communion (gasp!); incense; chant during mass; it’s called mass; crossing oneself; the eerie proficiency exhibited by Episcopalians while reading responsively; bowing left, right, and center; the hymns don’t have titles, which makes finding a familiar one difficult; even familiar hymns often have a small difference in words or music that throws me for a loop; the Book of Common Prayer; etc. (Note: some of these are listed because St. Luke’s, the parish where I work and worship, worships in the Anglo-Catholic style; not all Episcopalian churches use incense or chant.)
Much of what I’ve listed is superficial, but, combined with the more profound differences, it has made finding my footing in the Episcopalian world difficult. I wish it were as easy as solving my sheet problem: I just stuffed the extra material tightly under one side of the mattress, and now I’m good to go. Unfortunately, becoming more comfortable with the Episcopalian tradition will probably take a little more effort. I’ve mostly figured out when things happen in the service (i.e. crossing, bowing, etc.), and the conformist in me wants to be satisfied with that and just assimilate as quickly as possible. The rebel in me disdains such an approach and thinks I should refuse to “give in” to assert and maintain my independence (yes, I know it’s petty). I’m hoping that they will duke it out, while whatever rationality exists in me tries to understand the questions that face me now: Where do these Episcopalian practices and beliefs come from? What is there meaning and significance? Which ones do I want to integrate into my own spiritual beliefs and practices and which ones do I lay aside?
I probably won’t have figured everything out by the end of this year, and I also doubt that I will fully embrace the Episcopalian tradition. So I will still be a full-size mattress amid a company of queens, but I hope that, instead of trying to fit into the wrong size bedding, I will be at peace with being a misfit and able to say: “This is who I am. I don’t quite fit, and that’s okay because I don’t really need to.”
Catherine Serves as Outreach Coordinator at St. Luke's Episcopal Church.