Feb 2, 2014

The Beautiful Unfoldment of an Episcopal Diocese

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

"I just stopped believing God was a mystery you could nail down with one book." ~ Keanu Reeves in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

I was contemplating last evening, apropos of nothing, just why I did not become an Episcopal priest. I strongly considered it in my youth and even well into my college years. I knew I was "called" to religious service. But I outgrew the Church. What it came down to, I finally realized, was that as open and forward leaning as the Episcopal Church is, it's dogmatic enough to make me uncomfortable. I still felt too limited by doctrine. I couldn't be comfortable devoting my life to it, and worse, teaching things I really couldn't endorse.

I drifted in and out of the Church for some years. There were so many things about it that I loved but other things that were quite jarring. I vividly remember being at a funeral, after not having been at a service for a year or two, and hearing the "Prayer of Humble Access" as if for the first time.

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table...

I'd heard it hundreds of times before but suddenly it was like nails on a chalkboard. So shame-based. What possible good could come from such self-denigration? That moment crystalized in my thinking the reason that Christian orthodoxy was just never going to work for me. It probably didn't help that I've always had an inherently mystical orientation. How could we be so much less than God when we we are God, I thought. I began to realize that, in fact, that central belief of mine wasn't actually endorsed by the Church. As egalitarian as the Episcopal Church was, it was also hierarchical. God was "up there" and outside of us. It didn't really make sense to me. So I went another way.

This morning I noticed that another tempest in a teapot is brewing in this Church for which I still have great affection. Once again, an Episcopal Diocese has made a step toward greater inclusivity and once again there is backlash. And this time it's over sacred geometry. 

The pediment of The Cathedral Church Of St. Paul in Boston has stood empty for 190 years, as the builders of the impressive Greek Revival structure ran out of money during the initial construction phase. It was finally completed in May of 2013, but since then it's come under fire for its unusual design, which features a backlit nautilus sculpture.

Though the original plans for the Episcopal church called for a classical relief of St. Paul preaching to King Agrippa, the current design is absent of traditional Christian iconography, featuring instead the clean lines of a seashell's interior which allude to Oliver Wendell Holme's poem "The Chambered Nautilus," writes The Living Church in a review.

On the one side of this divide, we have the artist who designed the piece to express a more universal "spiritual but not religious" ideal. On the other, priest and blogger Tim Schenck argues that, "A Christian cathedral by its very nature is and must be 'religious.'"

It's not that I don't take Father Schenck's point. But the idea of the Church moving past its circumscribed mythology and embracing a deeper spiritual truth appeals to me. While I have my own issues with the "spiritual but not religious" meme, it speaks to a growing trend away from dogmatic religion that I don't think the Church can outpace.

What I find striking about the nautilus sculpture, aside from its elegant beauty, is that it speaks to that deeper spiritual longing that has driven so many people away from organized religion. While it is not expressly Christian, it is very potent geometric iconography. The nautilus expresses the Fibonacci sequence which approximates the Golden Mean. It is a geometric expression of creation itself. Such forms speak directly to the soul.

One of the things I always loved about the Episcopal Church was its ecumenicism. I loved the outreach to other local denominations. I loved that we did things like bring the local Rabbi to speak to my youth group and then visit the synagogue. This openness has always been the hallmark of the Church. Reaching out with a more universal iconography seems like a natural progression to me, as natural as the unfolding of a logorithmic spiral.

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
        As the swift seasons roll!
        Leave thy low-vaulted past!
    Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
        Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
        Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

~ From "The Chambered Nautilus"
by Oliver Wendell Holmes

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