East Point, Ga.

Her Holiness

By Debra Cole

Recently my Aunt Alice posted on Facebook a statement of faith as to why she became Episcopalian 20 years ago. I remember it was a big deal at the time since our family is made up of conservative Methodists and vainglorious Baptists. However, Alice’s black sheepish behavior wasn’t all that surprising. As the accidental aunt or pre-menopausal surprise, she was of a different generation than her siblings. She was the cool relative. The one that watched “Saturday Night Live,” said cuss words and listened to jazz.

A Peppermint Patty look-a-like, Alice was always a purse-snubbing, plaid shirt-wearing lesbian. And the Episcopal Church was a haven from the hostility and illegitimacy homosexuals face in Southern families. Husband, wife, child, truck, church — these are the things that matter, and anyone outside of the model doesn’t have a “real life.”  

Burned out on evangelicals and other small-town limitations, I too became curious about Episcopalians when I moved away for college. More accepting of progressive politics and drinking, the change of venue was also convenient. The church was across the street from campus, and so I could make the 11:30 service even if I left the dance club at 2 a.m. The ushers were welcoming, I guess because a college student making the effort was unusual. You weren’t supposed to have refreshments, but they let me drink coffee as I listened to the lovely music and stimulating sermon.

Anglican church history also had a certain appeal. The basic story is that an overeating, womanizing king decided he would no longer answer to the Vatican. After all, he had his own kingdom. It finally came to a head in 1534 when Henry VIII told Pope Clement VII to fuck off. It obviously took a few more years, more laws and many beheadings to work out the administrative details, but the quarrel set the stage for independence.

I’m not saying I admire Henry VIII. For one thing gluttony is really unattractive. And a history of domestic violence can’t be overlooked. What I like is the story itself. What is not included. Henry VIII did not receive instructions from an angel wearing a hospital gown. In fact, there are no witches, virgins, warlocks, burning bushes, or talking snakes involved at all. It was simply a power struggle that resulted in a schism, a story about male ego. It’s not sexy or original. But it’s honest, and that is something I can respect.

I find that, in general, Episcopalians are well educated.. Most of them have a broker at Charles Schwab. A few have butlers. And many donate to the symphony. They have well rehearsed choirs and conversations with SAT words perfectly sprinkled about like croutons in Caesar Salad. They also take great delight in telling other Protestants about the real wine used for communion, much the same way Baptists claim that full submersion is the only “authentic baptism.”

Aunt Alice is a public-school teacher and can’t afford a butler. But I guess she likes to rub elbows with people who do. The girl thing aside, she is a bit traditional and likes the high-minded pageantry and pretty buildings.

The church I sporadically attend, All Saints Episcopal, in midtown Atlanta, is a beautiful space. It’s actually an architectural oasis, because the city that’s too busy to hate is unfortunately too cheap to decorate. Atlanta’s canopy of trees, great weather and friendly disposition are wonderful selling points. But unlike New York and Chicago, artistic integrity in public spaces is not a priority. In fact, if Architectural Digest issued report cards to cities, Atlanta would be recommended for a special needs class.

Seeing the list on paper, it is clear that the Episcopalians have more pros than cons for someone with my sensibilities. They are relatable, aesthetically minded and intellectually tolerant. My daughter’s choir director is the best in the city. And I feel comfortable giving money to their ministries. However, unlike Aunt Alice, I have no intention of ever joining them.

I’m still on the books at my hometown Methodist church. But that’s only because it would be strange to call the secretary and say, “Hey, Charlene, after you finish that country-fried steak, please take me off the list.” Southerners don’t publically declare they’re dropping Christianity. It would be less shameful to commit a crime. For an agnostic Southerner (however you want to label it — skeptic, secular humanist or New York Times subscriber), passive aggression is the key to happiness.

Despite the unwillingness to sign a contract, I gave serious thought to having my daughter baptized. Aunt Alice even asked her priest, a humorous, old-school Mississippi liberal with a Ph.D. in literature, to do the service,. I thought it would be a fun tradition and a way to fit in with the family. And I thought it would be a nice occasion for a party that would include gift cards. I am a divorced parent, so every bit helps. But when I began a web search for Baptismal cakes, I realized I preferred a big question mark rather than little crosses with white icing that spelled out “God Bless.”

And then I attended a Baptism. I sat in the pew and noticed that the family looked so proud gathering together in Brooks Brothers suits and Jimmy Choo shoes. It felt nice to watch them. However, that feeling didn’t last long as I began to carefully read the Book of Common Prayer’s pages on baptism. By the end of the service, a dull stomach ache had grown into an existential ulcer.

The question is posed to the parents, “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”  Perhaps I could jump through some rhetorical hoops and tell myself that “Satan” is a metaphorical term representing all that’s bad in the world. I could tell myself that I’m simply making a promise to teach my daughter what is right. I also have to give these Episcopalians credit for having a black Jesus in the Christmas pageant and for marching in the Gay Pride parade. But no, it’s still not going to work because they really mean Satan, and I just can’t sign up for that.

And then there are other parts in the baptism. “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?” “ Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” Hmmmm… Well, that would be no and no. I’m sure Jesus was a fine person. But let’s be honest, the media in his day didn’t exactly follow deadlines. And there are some assertions in the gospels that are truly ridiculous, like the claim that Jesus was single. To put it in perspective, we have the Kennedy assassination on film. There are police reports and eyewitness accounts recorded within hours of the tragedy. And yet we still don’t know what happened.

“There’s one lord, one faith, one baptism.” Holy shit! This section is worse than the bit about the Devil. In practice, I know in my heart that these “Downton Abbey”-loving Anglophiles are not going to drive a Mercedes on Fundamentalist Boulevard. I know Aunt Alice respects people from all backgrounds and perspectives, but the words matter to me and I can’t ignore them to please a few family members. If I did, what kind of example is that for my little girl?

I don’t think that religion is altogether terrible. I would never attend services if that were the case. Of my list of favorite people, at least half are religious. As a teenager, church gave me musical performance and travel opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. At funerals, the rituals provide a structure, an outline of sorts for how to carry on during the worst time. And who doesn’t love the tenor solos in Handel’s Messiah?

Perhaps if I had been raised in a family with a more laissez faire approach to religion, a few prayers and a little water on my child’s head wouldn’t matter so much. But I was not, and the ugly things I experienced, specifically being scolded and feeling alienated for seeing things differently, is a scar that still remains. It’s like a tiny makeup bag inside the larger suitcase that goes wherever I go.

Living in the United States, my history certainly doesn’t compare to women in Old Testament like places such as Afghanistan where girls can’t go to school; or Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive a car; or Iran, where douchebag policemen will arrest a woman for not wearing a headscarf. No one tried to marry me off at age 11 or attempt to cut up my vagina like thousands of girls in Egypt and Somalia.

I grew up with the milder side-effects of fundamentalism. The highlights include anti-intellectualism, black-and-white thinking, detachment from people of differing opinions, uncompromisingly judgmental attitudes, unrealistic financial contributions, obsessive praying, pressure to  talk constantly about Christ, manipulating scripture to control others, and other buzz-killing behaviors.

Upon graduation I said, “No, thank you,” and moved away. I systematically altered the religious mindset instilled in me. And while I’m grateful for freedom of choice, leaving home intellectually came with a price. Isolation and guilt became my companions. And knowing my successes will never count for much because I don’t claim them “in Jesus’ name,” can be overwhelming, even heartbreaking at times.

Aunt Alice is lucky to have found a spiritual club. She worships in a pretty sanctuary filled with forward-thinking congregants that don’t mind her Birkenstocks. The minister is both funny and smart. His wife charmingly quotes Monty Python skits.

And the organist, an Oberlin graduate, buys the finest pinot grigio for dinner parties.

I’m happy for Aunt Alice, because we all want to belong. However, her path is not for me because I’ve concluded that ultimately, religion closes doors rather than opens them. It stops conversations, shuts down curiosity and puts a padlock on creativity. It’s like cake. A small piece is fine, but too much of it will put you in a diabetic coma. So I’m comfortable with the agnostic label. I can cautiously participate in a spiritual exercise, but I don’t need it to show love and be loved. I don’t need it to be a good person or a good parent. I’m good enough the way I am.


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