Going to Church, Betraying My Ancestors, and Encountering the Holy

My family has lived in eastern Pennsylvania for the last ten generations. Nearly 250 years. My wife is always shaking her head because no matter where we go it seems we meet someone who is a great-aunt, friend of my grandparents, or third-cousin once removed.

“So how do you know that person?” she asks after they walk away.

“You know so-and-so?” I ask. She nods. “That’s so-and-so’s brother’s mom’s sister. Remember that family?”

“Oh, yes,” she says in a deadpan voice. “How could I have forgotten.”

It’s a unique place, but it is also a place that gives me a strong sense of who I am, a deep sense of belonging.

* * * * *

For the last five months or so we’ve attended St. James Episcopal church on the corner of Orange and Duke Street in downtown Lancaster. We started going there because after we moved into the city some friends invited us, and then we kept going there because it’s within walking distance, they have a wonderful children’s program, and there’s something about these old traditions that feels like a balm to my over-stimulated, until-now-Evangelical-church-attending soul.

We also like the fact that anyone seeking God can take communion, and just this past week a woman gave the sermon and led the service. In my opinion, both of these are sorely lacking in the Evangelical community in our county.

But what I really love is the quiet. The stillness. There are moments of silence, for one thing, times when everyone just stops and waits. During the prayers. Just after the sermon. There’s something powerful about the liturgy, about asking for forgiveness every week, about reaffirming what I believe. There’s something wonderful, groundbreaking even, about taking communion as a family every single week, of watching Cade and Lucy reverently take the wafer and dip it into the wine.

“The Body of Christ.”

“The Blood of Christ.”

I walk back the side aisle, the taste of wine still lingering, and I am impacted again with the depth of this death, the completeness of this resurrection.

* * * * *

My ancestors would probably have serious issues with me attending an Episcopal church. After all, it was the high church Protestants of their day who were chasing them around the countryside, demanding that they either baptize their infants or burn at the stake. As is heartbreakingly common throughout the church’s history, this policy had more to do with politics, money, and control than any sincerely held religious beliefs, but there you have it. Anabaptists were dismembered, burned at the stake, hung…you get the picture.

Now I take communion within a tradition and a way of doing church very similar to the one that hunted down my ancestors.

I think, I hope, that they would understand that the main reason we go to St. James is that we find Christ there. The leadership gives us the space we need during the service to encounter Jesus, to reflect on our week, our weaknesses. Each time our family crowds into one of those box pews, it is a reaffirmation of this path we have chosen.

Eternal God and Father,
by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed:
guide and strengthen us by your Spirit,
that we may give ourselves to your service,
and live this day in love to one another and to you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

* * * * *

It’s been cold these last few weeks when we walk to church. The kids get bundled up in their coats and wool hats and I walk down with the older four while Maile feeds Leo at the house – the two of them come down later, Leo strapped into a baby carrier, Maile using him for his warmth. I leave the kids at the chapel where they have choir for a half hour, and I walk down to Square One Coffee to get something warm to drink. Sometimes Miguel, the guy with all the keys, will ask me to carry empty coffee pots down with me, and I happily oblige.

There is something holy about walking down an early-morning, mostly empty city street on a cold Sunday, your breath bursting from your lungs as you head towards church. There’s something weighty about entering a hundreds-year-old church just as the adult choir is finishing their morning practice, their voices ringing through the stained glass.

Thy Kingdom come
Thy Will be done
On Earth as it is in Heaven

6 Replies to “Going to Church, Betraying My Ancestors, and Encountering the Holy”

  1. You know, if you go back another couple of generations, your family and those who persecuted them were members of the same community of faith. Shunning may be a useful tool in bringing backsliders back to the church, but forgiveness is an essential to any faith that has the slightest claim to calling themselves “Christian.”

    Organized religion can screw people up. After my first wife died, I met a wonderful woman which did a lot to heal my wounds, and I thought I married her. She was very aggrieved, as she was a divorced Roman Catholic, and wasn’t sure she *could* marry. Her brother, a RC priest, assured her that it was OK with God that she remarry, but when we went together to church, she about had convulsions when I accepted the elements. I felt OK in doing that, but she felt that since I confessed directly to God instead of to a RC priest, I had purchased for myself damnation. She renounced our marriage as improper, and obtained a civil divorce. Not wanting to cause her distress, I raised no objection.

    I don’t think a loving father would want her to spend her days alone, nor do I think he would object to you joining in worship with others who may or may not differ in doctrines which are not central to belief. Where two or more are gathered in his name….

    Having grown up in the Methodist Episcopal tradition, I was always taught that church itself was useful but not essential. I’ve attended churches of many flavors over the years, and I’ve learned things from reading the Bible that would lead many to categorize me as non-Christian, but I worship God any way, and try not to disrupt the faith of any man. It can be very useful in time of crisis, and yet is so very fragile.

    As long as you remain true to yourself, I believe God will be pleased, and Maile, Sam, Abra, and the others will be well served.

  2. I commend you in believing that liturgy does impact. It does for me. Weekly communion blesses my soul. Weekly. More blessings are better.

    I’d like to attend St James some time. Maybe I’ll contact you in the future.

    Dave Miller

  3. Thanks for sharing your story Shawn. I too broke with family tradition and became an Episcopalian. It just made more sense. It is clear in your writing that the service is very meaningful for you and your family. If my wife and I ever get out that way we will visit St. James.

    One wing of my family (Shupe) comes from Lancaster. Who knows, maybe we are distant cousins as well!

    Rev. Fred Steinbach

  4. I love this. I also attend a church that my parents feel is too liberal. I grew up in a very strict denomination that took the following scripture literally – “come out from among them and be ye separate”.

    I have many friends and family in this church. I feel uneasy and unsettled when I attend church with them. It is obvious by my shorter hair and by my shorter sleeved dress that I am not one of them. So I sometimes feel as if I have betrayed them.

    Like you I feel a connection with Jesus where I am. Where the condition of my heart and the fruit of the spirit is more important than the length of my skirt or the fact that I’m actually wearing slacks.

    Keep on keeping on.

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