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Welcome to the Episcopal Church

| 13.4.03
Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An Introduction to Its History, Faith, and Worship, by Christopher L. Webber

Welcome to the Episcopal Church is just what it claims to be --a short, readable book suitable for anyone interested in an introduction to the contours of Episcopalian worship and practices. While I've heard many Episcopalians say that the Book of Common Prayer is the suitable place to begin, Welcome to the Episcopal Church puts the prayerbook and the denomination into its historical and cultural context. Dealing with the church's history, worship, treatment of the Bible, teachings, spirituality, organization, and mission, Welcome to the Episcopal Church carefully, painstakingly, yet also relatively briefly, fleshes out a denomination that is steeped in tradition, governed by Scripture, and tempered by reason.

Writing about the history of the denomination, Webber uses the context of the American revolution, Celtic Christianity, and the Reformation to portray the church's diversity. From the revolution and in contrast with the Church of England comes a disestablished Anglicanism in the New World. Influences of Celtic Christianity are used to show that Anglicanism has always been different from Roman Catholicism --even when the catholic church was largely undivided in the Middle Ages.

In discussing the role of worship in the Episcopal church, Webber highlights what might be the most distinctive thing about the Episcopal version of Christianity. More so than beliefs or theology (although these are also important) the source of unity in Anglicanism is "unity through worshiping together." The prayerbook is seen as a symbol of unity in liturgy, and unity in prayer.

In the chapter on the Bible, Webber stresses how biblical the Book of Common Prayer actually is in order to underscore the larger point --that the Bible under-girds everything in the prayerbook and the liturgy. Much of the Book of Common Prayer is quoted directly from the Bible. However, the Bible is not necessarily interpreted literally. Instead the church's teaching about the Bible is more "right-brained", with a more evocative teaching meant to preserve a sense of God's ineffability, and great mystery.

Perhaps the most nuts-and-bolts chapter in Welcome to the Episcopal Church is "Church Organization." Webber teaches us about the role of bishops, General Convention, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet throughout he also stresses the democratic structure of the church, and the critical role of the laity at all levels of governance. In yet another paradox, the Episcopal Church's governance can perhaps be best described as congregational on the parish level, yet still thoroughly overseen by bishops (who are themselves elected by the laity) and organized into dioceses.

Perhaps the fuzziest chapter concerns the church's mission. In a world that seems increasingly smaller, and in an age of religious pluralism, the mission of the Episcopal church is portrayed, at best, more complex, and at worst quite confused. Webber seems to see this as the biggest challenge the church has going forward into the 21st century. While having a rich history and tradition to draw upon, the church will have to creatively reinvent itself in order to remain relevant to the ever-changing culture with which it must converse.

In conclusion, Webber depicts a denomination that is spiritually and theologically balanced --almost to a fault. Speaking from practical experience I can affirm this vision as an ideal, but not always the Episcopal church that I've encountered in real life. The parishes I've attended have either seemed more left-wing or more right-wing. Maybe on average they are more balanced. Welcome to the Episcopal Church portrays the denomination as it should be, but not necessarily as it always is. Still, it's an excellent outline that puts the emphasis where it should be --on worship and practices rather than on an overly detailed or propositionally based theology. As such, I'll heartily recommend this book and offer it to anyone I know who is interested in a short, well-written outline of who Episcopalians are.

PUBLISHER: Morehouse Publishing, 1999. Harrisburg, PA. ISBN: 0819218200

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