I am the product of a religiously-mixed marriage: a Reformed Jewish mother, and a Roman Catholic father (neither of whom were active in their familial traditions during most of my growing up time). As a family, we joined (loosely) the local Reformed Church in America. Once a year, on Girl Scout Sunday, I went to the local Episcopal Church. I loved the music, the vestments, and the fact there was a book I could use to follow along most of the service. I knew, even at seven years of age, that if I was going to be religious as a grownup, it would be as an Episcopalian.
The Reformed Church was okay, but only just. We had an adequate youth group, Sunday school, confirmation class. But I always felt as though I was being scolded, and I got enough of that noise through the rest of the week, so I attended less and less (which, to be honest, didn’t seem to bother my parents all that much). By the time I was sixteen, I was pretty much out.
I had almost twelve good years of agnosticism-bordering-on-atheism. Then, on 3 March 1989, my mother passed away unexpectedly at the age of 58. The family was not attending church or other religious services at the time, so my mother’s funeral was conducted by a Roman Catholic rent-a-priest that the funeral home had on call for just such an occasion. He read through the service of Burial for One Who Does Not Profess the Christian Faith.
It was all right, and I’m sure the priest was perfectly nice and good. But it struck me that the valedictory words said at the close of a person’s life should reflect that life, and resonate with their loved ones. That awful “I didn’t know her, but from what the family tells me….” didn’t do the job.
And I made the decision that I would not be without people who could say meaningful final words at my funeral, who would take my death seriously, and be able to comfort and support those who were left when my time to die comes. Institutional religion is probably still the best venue for that. And so I sought out the most attractive church experience I remembered from my past–the Episcopal Church.
I embraced it wholeheartedly, perhaps too much so. I not only joined the church, was confirmed by a bishop shortly after my 30th birthday, but earned a Master’s degree from an Episcopal seminary, and went on for a doctorate in theology, in the hope of serving the Episcopal Church upon graduation.
That hasn’t happened. The Episcopal Church has been singularly disinterested in what I’ve tried to offer it for the better part of two decades. I invested heart, soul, time, and boatloads of money in the hope of giving my life to a church that I find out does not want what I have to offer. That hurts deeply, but I’m too old to keep trying to have relationships with institutions that don’t reciprocate. I’m tired of begging. If what I’ve got is wanted, they know how to find me. If they want something other than what I can authentically offer, they will need to look elsewhere.
I went in to ECMC on 6 October 2014 to have surgery to repair the wrist I had broken on 3 October. It felt like forever to get through the intake process for the day surgery unit–filling out (or in my case, talking through) all the forms for insurance, consent, allergies, family contact. Even in my pain-and-opioid induced haze, I got through it fairly coherently, until the nice lady asked me one simple question:
I don’t remember answering when I went in for the knee repair in January 2013, or to have the hardware removed the following October. I don’t remember if the question was asked, but I suppose it must have been, and I probably answered “Episcopalian.” At least for the initial patellar fracture, I was in mind-altering pain and pretty doped up, so I can’t say for sure what I answered.
We all know that question is code for “If everything goes wrong, what boat do you want taking you to the other side?” It’s an important question, because if the whole thing goes south, you do want someone who knows you but is a little removed from you to help your family through all the crap that goes along with an unexpected death. You’d like people who knew you well to be able to bear most of the burden of the public farewell.
I could not answer “Episcopalian”. And I don’t have anything else I could have answered. I’m not really an atheist or agnostic, and I’m not a member of any other religious tradition. But I couldn’t choke out that if I skated too close to the boards that I wanted an Episcopal priest to come and say final words to me, for me, or about me. Because I did not want that.
I would still want my death to be taken seriously. But at the present moment, the idea of having a formal representative of an institution that has shown so little interest in me during my life, present at the moment of my death, is unappealing. It feels like inviting an abusive and neglectful ex-spouse to one’s deathbed. And giving them the power to make you ask that they forgive you.
The service of “Ministration to the Sick” indicates that the sick (which is code for dying) person is the one in the wrong, the one who has to ask forgiveness, and the Church is the entity entrusted with saying yes or no, and assuring the sick person that God is loving and forgiving no matter what. There might be a place for that.
Where it fails miserably is the idea that anyone needs the sick or dying person’s forgiveness (or that it is automatically forthcoming). Worse, it completely ignores that the Church itself might need to be forgiven for things done and left undone. And the Church sometimes–often in cases much more dramatic than my own–need to make strong, sincere, and perhaps even public apology.
What needs to be remembered is that my identity as an Episcopalian, an Anglican, and even as a Christian was and continues to be chosen. It was not an osmotic process through family tradition or environment. I decided this was who I was, after long deliberation and examination of both my self and this tradition. What the Church does not acknowledge is that every Christian chooses his or her identity–sometimes with more conscious attention, sometimes with less. And every Chrsitian can de-choose as well.
The churches in the western world have been in an overall decline over much of my lifetime, and all the quick-fixes of congregational development and church growth have failed to reverse that. We have an idolatry of youth and young families. What hasn’t been taken at all seriously is the idea that people leave toxic, painful, disappointing relationships. And for some people, the Church has been that unfaithful, neglectful partner, or the mother whose parental rights need to be terminated.
I don’t rule out the possibility that I will return to church at some time. But it will be warily, cautiously, and self-protectively. At least until there is some acknowledgement that the relationship going bad isn’t entirely the fault of one party.