I remember as a child I was taught that the Roman Catholic Church was the “one, true Church.” If someone chose not to be a part of the one, true Church, then they would face severe consequences. “But what about people who didn’t go to a Catholic school?” I remember asking. “Not everyone goes to St. Mary’s!” The answer was simply, “Well, if they haven’t had a chance to know the Truth, then God will take care of them.” That seemed to make sense. But what about the people who stopped going to church? Would God still take care of them? “No. If they leave the Church on their own, then they are in a state of sin.” This became more complicated when I had conversations with some of my family members who attended the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You see, their denomination also told them that they belonged to the “one, true Church.” How can this be? I mean, to Roman Catholicism’s credit, at least it has been around for a couple thousand years. The LDS Church came along about 180 years ago, and now it’s the “one, true Church?” And how about our Muslim friends? Islam has been around for 1300 years and its followers believe their faith is the one, true expression of faith. And Judaism? Judaism has been around for something like 8000 years! Buddhism has been around for about as long, and Hinduism is around 1500 years old. Roman Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism account for about half the population of the world. That’s not even considering that these religions are further fractured into different sects, many claiming to be the real expression of the one, true faith. So who does God save and who does God ignore? What if someone was a Catholic and became a Muslim? Or what if someone is a Muslim and becomes a Catholic? Which person does God take care of and which one does he condemn? It’s enough to drive an Episcopal priest (this one!) crazy!

               I remember when I found an Episcopal parish for the first time. When I entered the door, I felt incredible shame. I had stopped going to church at all because I didn’t believe the Roman Catholic teachings were in line with my values. But I remember distinctly the nuns telling me that it was bad to not go to church, but even worse to go to a different church. Gasp! I felt like a fraud and imposter. What was I doing in this place? There’s a word for the kind of person I was: I was an apostate. It took a while to overcome these feelings of apostasy. I wrestled with it for years. There were things I wanted to bring with me to my new church home to help me feel a little more comfortable. I wanted to bring with me my devotion to the Blessed Mother and I wanted to continue to pray the rosary. I wanted to bring my understandings of the sacraments and I wanted to bring some of my Roman Catholic pieties. For example, on Easter and Christmas, I enjoyed attending Cathedrals instead of my home parish. I wanted to continue to do this. So I did.

               I didn’t reconcile my feelings of apostasy until I had studied in seminary for a while. If you’ve been reading these reflections regularly during Lent, then you’ve noticed the way I write is not the kind of writing you’d see in a newspaper. That’s because I was all but forced to learn how to think and to write theologically. Unlike academic thinking, where we set out to argue some kind of point, citing examples along the way that back up our arguments, theological thinking requires us to ponder much more questions than answers. And sometimes we just have to be ok with not knowing what the answers are. The theological thinking I was taught, interestingly enough by Roman Catholic Jesuit priests, helped me to realize that the view of God and religion I had as a child (and even when I began seminary studies) was inadequate and in fact wrong.

               I thought I would eventually move toward believing the Episcopal Church was the “one, true Church.” But guess what? It isn’t. The Episcopal Church—and Anglicanism—is not even a “church” per se. It’s a denomination within the Church. The Church that is all encompassing and has room for everyone. Now, it is important that I say I am a priest in the Episcopal Church. To become ordained, I had to stand in front of God, the Bishop, and the community and say that “I solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.” But that does not mean I have to follow blindly, just going along with everything and being ok with it. It means that for me, the Episcopal Church allows me to the be the fullest expression of who I am, and I have an opportunity to lead a congregation of people to be the fullest expression of who they are. That doesn’t mean we’re right or wrong and it doesn’t mean people who do things differently than we do are right or wrong. It just means we get to do what works well for us.

               I’ve heard people say things like, “Fr. Tim sure doesn’t seem like what I’d expect him to be as a priest.” And it’s probably true to some extent. Not every priest wears comfortable clothing and looks for humor just about everywhere. I am a strong believer that our faith should be life-giving. Things that are life-giving to me might not work for someone else. Just like the things that are life-giving to them don’t really work for me. I’m not very good at contemplative prayer, for instance. I find it boring. I’d much rather do something else. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. And unlike the nuns who taught me in grade school, I would never tell someone that their way of finding the life-giving presence of God is “wrong”. Because I don’t know what kind of relationship they have with God. Who am I to get in the way, anyway?

               “But Fr. Tim! Does this mean you believe people who are not Christians can go to heaven?” Yes. It does. Now, we know that in John’s gospel, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me.” And I happen to believe that statement. But I also believe that each of us has an ability to be in communion with God if we hone it in. And our abilities to commune with God can and do work differently. Who is to say that my wearing of aloha shirts is any less effective at bringing me closer to God than another priest’s decision to wear a cassock every day? Neither of us is “right” and neither of us is “wrong”, provided we are doing what we have discerned God is calling us to do. God can and does make revelation to his people in many wonderful ways. The way he has made it to me is through the person of Jesus Christ his Son. But maybe someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ in the same way I do simply has another experience that to them is a different manifestation of what I call Jesus. I don’t claim to say my understanding of Jesus is perfect. But it works for me. And I share it with you because I hope it works for you, too. But if it doesn’t work for you? Well, then I want you to find the understanding of Jesus that works best for you!

               I believe that God is present with each of us. Why? Because that’s what it says in Genesis. God created us in his image and likeness and loves us very much. That doesn’t mean just Jews or just Christians or just Buddhists or just Muslims or just Hindus. It means each of us. It means that there isn’t a “one, true Church.” Now, certainly, I wish everyone would come to the Episcopal Church, and I wish everyone would come to St. John’s specifically! I mean, we’re a pretty great church and I love all that you do to show the love of Jesus in the world! But I also understand that God is much more powerful than I can imagine him to be, which means he is perfectly capable of loving and caring for people who do not go to St. John’s, who are not part of the Episcopal Church, and who are not even Christians. We have to do our best to reveal his love in the world, and we have to trust that he will reveal it in ways beyond our ability. If you are a Christian, then I encourage you to love God and to show the love of God to those in your life. If you are not a Christian, then I invite you to share the love of whatever God is to you with whomever is important to you. Chances are, even if we use different vocabulary, we’re talking about the same entity. Provided, of course, that we’re both talking about an entity that is loving, caring, life-giving, and sustaining. As Bishop Michael Curry says, if it isn’t about love, then it isn’t about God.

Welcome to the One, True Church! Or is it?