The Episcopal Church isn’t in the news very often. Even an annual spate of headlines — like the current one — seems excessive. Bishop Michael Curry stole the show at last year’s royal wedding with a charismatic sermon celebrating love. And this year, just in time for Holy Week, there’s been a flurry of attention thanks to a presidential hopeful, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Mayor Pete, who left the Catholic church of his upbringing to marry his husband, is crafting a candidacy aimed at the Christian left, where there’s a wide-open lane. His status as a devout Episcopalian came up on the campaign trail when he wielded it to cut a contrast between his faith and the anti-LGBT policies of Vice President Mike Pence, another cradle Catholic, whose turn to evangelicalism shaped his politics.
Co-opting Episcopalianism’s political pedigree is a sensible play. Inclusion has been central to the church’s “brand” since the 1970s, when it started ordaining women and declared that gay men and lesbians have “full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.” The ordination of LGBT clergy came next — followed, in 2003, by the controversial election of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire. Conservative parishes who protested in the months leading up to his consecration would later split from the Episcopal Church altogether. In the colonial Connecticut town where I grew up, some families left our church for Catholic or evangelical alternatives.
Reading about Buttigieg’s Episcopalianism brought me back to the uneasy air of 2003, and it’s made me yearn for the big hallelujah of Easter. Specifically for a yearly tradition, established in adulthood, that will bring me to Boston. It started with an invitation to an uncommonly festive Passover seder in Brookline — a black-tie affair. The first year I went, it was mainly for the novelty — most seders aren’t overtly glamorous. I also took it as an opportunity to stretch the trip into an interfaith expo for me and my date, a chance to soak in the splendor of H.H. Richardson’s Trinity Church in Copley Square.
It has become tradition — and when Passover and Holy Week align, as they have for two years in a row, attending the black-tie seder in Brookline and then Easter at Trinity is a divine double-feature, a two-way celebration of being welcome in one another’s faiths. And I find I’m looking forward to it this year with a fiercer hope than in recent memory, what with the events of 2003 and their legacy weighing on my mind, thanks to Pete and Pence.
The crisis of 2003 changed me: I was 12, and while some chose to switch churches during the months between Robinson’s election and consecration, my family stayed — not so much as an affirmation of Episcopal inclusivity but because it was our church. My sister and I had been baptised there, as had our father and his father. We sang in the choir every Sunday. The same faces showed up week after week, kids and parents we’d known our whole lives. Until, suddenly, some stopped coming.
One Sunday, at the height of the congregation drain, a guest rector came to carry our collective anxiety to its apotheosis. She preached about being a bastion of God’s loving and infinite welcome. More than half the congregation stood and applauded. Most of the choir did too. But, for a nervous couple of beats, those of us in the children’s row sat and looked around in stunned silence, waiting for a clear-cut cue that wasn’t going to come. Extra-liturgical standing, let alone applause, was highly irregular. Probably unprecedented. I tried to read the room. I remember the look of the people who stayed seated and stone-faced: Picture the planet’s tidiest preppies, then tighten their laces another tug. Something told me I was never going to see them again. After another beat, I stood — and then so did the rest of children after me.
To my middle-school-aged mind, steeped in Wednesday-night confirmation classes, the choice to stand seemed like a test of whether we meant what we said, sang, and chanted in literal unison every Sunday — most of it about God’s love, grace, and mercy. It seemed like a test of whether and, if so, where we were going to draw a line around whom we meant by the denominational tagline “All Are Welcome.” Or to whom we would extend the “COME UNTO ME” in gilt lettering under our church’s gauzy late 19th-century altarpiece painting of Christ, arms outstretched, seated on an inviting-looking puffy cloud.
Mayor Pete’s prodding of Pence seemed to cast the Episcopal Church’s stand as a calculated play for popular approval. The conservatives who left our church would agree, calling the acceptance declaration a politically convenient compromise — at the expense, they’d argue, of Christian values. The Easter liturgy and hymns are etched into the earliest reaches of my mind, as they ever were, and Trinity Church is going to be breathtaking as always. What feels different about this Easter, though, is that with these memories tangled up in politics again, the question is even clearer now: What was the declaration of acceptance, if not the practice of a few truer Christian values — love and good will? Whatever it was, it started several centuries sooner than 2003. These days when I think about the Episcopal Church, it’s a welcome that beckons me back.
Alice Lloyd is a writer in Washington, D.C., and was previously a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.