Saturday, October 24, 2009

Episcopalians, know thyself!

I had a nice evening out with a colleague of mine, a young Latin Americanist in my department. She turned out to be a southern Californian and, unsurprisingly, episcopalian by upbringing. We had a conversation about Episcopalianism not as a religion but as a community, a culture, a tradition, and yes, as a set of weird ticks shared by a paradoxically privileged yet discrete group of Americans. My colleague was very amused by my observations and she said, "I've never thought of it like that, but now my entire life makes sense!" It amuses me too, that so many of the cradle Episcopalians I have met never looked at themselves as an "ethnic group," precisely because they are so "liberal." Race theorists might well be right to say that being "white" and "privilege" somehow makes you "normal" and "colorless," namely, cultural diversity includes you being surrounded by other colors that are not white.

The truth is that Episcopalians, when scrutinized closely with an anthropological lens, betray all the signs of being a very distinct community, with a basis in Anglo-American culture. They usually drive beat-up cars (Toyotas or Suburus) and spend lots of money on wine. They have dog-eared books at home on anything from Hannah Arendt to Baudelaire to Franz Boas (Jackie, your copy of "Primitive Art" is on my shelf!), but they haven't read them for a long, long time. Many of them are very progressive but have a bizarre idealization of history, which distinguishes them from the European left-wing. They might not advocate return to pre-Revolutionary time, but they can't give up their grandparents' Queen Anne furniture even if they don't manage getting them re-upholstered. Many of them also don't consider "Jingle Bell" a proper Christmas song. They support women's liberation and the use of contraceptives, but are often closeted papists who get very excited about visiting St. Peter's and getting a glimpse of the pope. Nature and culture in their unadulterated form are what Episcopalians love: so they either have a cabin in the mountains, a cottage by the lake, or spend that money on family vacations in Europe. (Italy is top on the list - I suspect that it's thanks to English Romanticism, Ruskin, Keats, etc.) Little reproductions or actual Byzantine/orthodox icons may be spotted in their living rooms. Episcopalian men are often one of the rare species of American males who can be both very macho and love Titian. Episcopalian women are often very good at writing "Thank You" notes and organizing potlucks and auctions; they apply such skills to areas as diverse as art history departmental social hours and Hyde Park Jazz Society fundraising. Aesthetically, they are contradictory: their personal manners are very restrained, but they love the exaltation of the arabesque (look at the legs of their furniture). Politically, they are both Republicans and Democrats (which is why they're interesting). And, as pointed out by Gale a long time ago, their are united by having cocktail hour at 5pm, no matter what name they might grant to the occasion.

These are quirky observations but I think that Episcopalians should realize more that they are a kind of ethnic-religious group much like the Jews. This might permit them to be more self-aware as a large constituency of the American elite. They should be more courageous in promoting a socially responsible and culturally intelligent form of Christianity in the US, and dare I say, in the world. I find it insidious that Episcopalians are so powerful and discrete about their identity - the American Jews at least have a very visible role in public life due to their strong identity. The advantage of coming to terms with your religio-ethnic identity is that you can better see what your contribution to the world can be.


Jacqueline Schmitt said...

So, Joyce, what do you think that contribution might be?

Joyce Cheng said...

Hi Jackie!
I think if one's heart is in the right place, one can make contributions from no matter what religious or ethnic background. Someone like Amira Hass is taking from the Jewish tradition a sense of needing to be righteous even in a corrupt world. Episcopalians also need to reflect on what from the Christian tradition we can use to promote social justice. The siding with the oppressed as you advocate everyday is part of that contribution. But I also think that the Episcopalians are in general unwilling to sacrifice intelligence and beauty to populism, and I happen to think they are right. That's the tension that's very specific to this community, just like the tension they maintain between a strong sense of traditionalism and progressive politics. I remember Ryan Kurako's cocktail-hour socialism: "Everyone should have nice wine!" What we can do is to show that this is not the same as "Let them eat cake," attributed to Marie Antoinette. Episcopalians have traditionally been able to afford idealism, and this idealism has to be shared with the rest of the country. The working class needs bread but yes they need roses too, plus good food, good wine, William Morris, John Ruskin and everything else that makes the world beautiful.

Jacqueline Schmitt said...

A very good articulation. I knew a priest in North Carolina -- who inherited quite a lot of money; advocated public hospitals; named their daughter "Hamer" after Fanny Lou Hamer -- who drove a yellow Mercedes station wagon. His view of socialism was that everyone should have a Mercedes station wagon. I agree. There is more than enough to go around.

When we did our discernment process here, having declared what was once an Episcopal congregation now dead, we asked, What is God calling the Episcopal Church to be and to do in such a neighborhood -- working class, immigrant (mostly Cape Verdean, Brazilian, Caribbean) non-white -- what could we possibly have to offer: we have culture. High culture, accessible to all. Music, art, literature. Yes, Ruskin, yes, Morris, yes, Nuestra Senora la Reina de las Americas. The hardest part is convincing the "powers that be" or that at least control budgets, that such culture is part of evangelism, church growth and what God calls us to do as citizens of the commonwealth of heaven.

The obstacle to such lived theology in the U.S. is that we don't live out that sense that the English church has of care for the whole parish -- American churches are all about "me" and what "makes me fulfilled" or whatever, and the organic sense of the people of God, gathered in a place, charged by God with the care of that place, is harder for Americans to understand.

How do we communicate that this culture, as you describe it, is part of what God is calling forth from people, is spiritual, deep, serious, and not just upper class culture -- or culture that is a commodity that people can buy by going to church and putting money in the plate. Really, in New England, I think that's most of what higher education is about, why people spend so much on going to college (undergrad) in Boston -- it buys them class, and if they go to certain Episcopal Churches, it buys them culture.

How do we not fall into that temptation? How do we make this culture, that you so poignantly describe, theological, spiritual, serious? It's certainly not just for rich people!

Off to that cocktail hour now, while the pork chops cook ...

Joyce Cheng said...

Jackie, I was so moved by what you wrote! And the fact that you understood what I was talking about. I think the Episcopal Church attracted me when I was at Northwestern because I realized that these people have culture - culture understood precisely in the way you put it, namely a holistic sense of how values tie together through care, and all the quirky things I pointed out were after this precisely. The Episcopalians have a sense of BEAUTY that goes beyond commodity fetishism. It took me a long time to figure out that this sense of beauty DOES have a social dimension, which the Episcopalians themselves for the most part don't realize. Thus their churches have dinners with roast lamb and handmade breads (remembering the Canterbury dinners), yet they collect Campbell soup cans to give to the poor. There is something very sad in this - we're looking at a fracturing in the capitalist society that the church itself reflects. This is not really the church's fault, but I do think that Episcopalians we can do something to repair it in a limited way.
I want to know more about the culture aspect of the Episcopal ministry in poor neighborhoods that you were talking about. Needless to say it is always difficult to advocate for music and art when people are having trouble buying food. But didn't the woman pour perfume over the feet of Jesus, who welcomed it instead of accusing her of waste? Jesus, the carpenter's son who like the peasants turned his flesh and flood into blood and wine, is saying to us that luxury is also vital to life.

Jacqueline Schmitt said...

Yes. I need to have a theological reflection group with you and others to help me articulate what I think our mission here is emerging to be. The church is an early Ralph Adams Cram -- one of our bishops (the monk, who prays daily in Cram's last ecclesiastical structure) gets it -- beauty in the midst of the city, of blight -- and the other bishop would tear it down just to build something energy efficient. But the poor -- who live in terrible places, and the streets which are cracked and full of poison ivy -- need such places of transcendent beauty. Believe me, it is just a so-so Cram church, with ok-pretty nice windows, from the 1930s, and a conventional stolen from any generic English church choir and reredos -- but for here, it is a place of transcendent beauty. We feed lunch to over 100 people a day -- no, they are not pledging units, but they are the people God has given us. I want to hire Eric to do music here -- these people, more than any other people, need/deserve the best.

In our city, a former mill town, social service is the business now. We are the only place that serves lunch, but we don't need to do any more social services. People oppose our building affordable housing, because they do not want more poor people here -- but really they are already here and have always been from here. These same people would support our doing arts and culture -- like places like Lowell have been able to bring artsy cultural stuff into old mills. Odd how the civic culture supports what we are just talking about now -- art, beauty, meaning -- but the church powers that be think it is just fluff and we should just play guitar masses and get pledging units and pay the bills. I think we can pay the bills with the arts -- it's just getting from here to there!

gale said...

Did you see the article on the Brooklyn church in the NY Times? Jeremy selected it as one of his "recommended" ones. It's a wonderful example of a church adapting to its neighborhood - albeit a hipster neighborhood with struggling young artists. It does tie the community service element with art, and I think it reinvents/resurrects the role churches played in medieval villages - the center of the community. I think the use of the word "feast" is well chosen.

Jacqueline Schmitt said...

Yes, I loved the Brooklyn church - I saved the article, too.

We had a fruitful congregation a Portuguese-speaking 7th Day Adventist church that is next door to us, about our project and about sharing our space --they have a much better space for the soup kitchen -- and we could work on sharing worship space (ours is larger) and parking.

Our PleasantGreen Development needs to have that multi-faceted arts component; I'd love hipsters.