By Jean H Charles
I was born and raised in the Catholic Church and I am still a practicing Catholic, but my heart and my soul go with the Episcopal Church. It brings me back to my youth era when Vespers on Sunday night was the tradition and when the church was filled during the Sunday Service with the sweet odor of incense that goes directly to Godnostril pleasing Him and the assistance with good feelings.
As such during the solemnity of the Holy Week, you will find me ordinarily in an Episcopal setting. When in New York, I have been frequenting the august Trinity Church on Wall Street where the service is intimate in spite of the fact that the church might be filled with devotees. On Mundy Thursday the celebrant took time to wash the feet of all the attendees as compared to the Catholic Church where only twelve selected people are chosen for the ritual that reminds us to be as humble as Jesus was.
This year Holy Week, I find myself at St Georges Episcopal Church in Flushing, New York. It is a three hundred years old church, serene and austere in the middle of busting Flushing where the Chinese community have repeated the bustling and hustling of Shanghai or Hong Kong.
I went inside the church because I was intrigued by the invitation outside on the colonial wall, it reads: “Historic Saint George’s Church welcome you if you are male, female, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, eastern Siberian, young, old, gay, straight, single, partnered, divorce, visionary, a bore, non-Christian, questioning, seeking, smug, in relationship, in a dither, liberal, conservative, undecided or clueless, come on in and say hello.”
As such on Palm Sunday, I was right behind the priest celebrant with my branch of palm on hand in the outside procession leading to the church. The rector Father Wilfredo Benitez, in his homily in English and Spanish, reminds us of the fragility of men’s glorification that elevates you on Palm Sunday to demand your death and crucifixion on Good Friday.
In the spirit of the intimacy of the Episcopal Church, there was the comforting invitation of a small collation after service where I was fortunate to seat with the Pastor and his wife on the same table. I confessed to the priest my secret admiration for the Episcopal Church and I wanted to explore why it was built by men and has almost no issues and no challenges whilst the Catholic Church, built by Jesus the Christ himself is filled with challenges and issues.
He gave me an appointment for a later day where we sat down for a chat for an hour to explore a wide range of topics that made the headlines in the religious world today. Full disclosure for those who did not know or have forgotten, the Episcopal Church is the product of the will of King Henry VIII who in 1534 wanted to leave his wife, Isabella of Aragon who could not give him a male child as a future prince, therefore he decided to leave her, requesting an annulment from Pope Clement VII to take in matrimony Anne Boleyn.
The Pope refused but on the fact that the Pope has previously anointed Henry VIII with the title of “Defender of the Faith” for his role in being a St Michael for the Catholic Church against the preaching of Martin Luther,his advisers in particular Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer made him understand he could use the Protestant/Catholic angle to create his own church away from papal authority which became the Anglican Church.
The Anglican Church, akin to the Catholic Church that rode on the back of the Roman Empire in 313 with Constantine II to conquer the entire universe, spreads itself on the back of the British Empire to all continents. In the United States, The Anglican Church became the Episcopal Church in 1780 in the United States an institution more liberal than the mother church in England which was and is less hospitable to homosexuality and ordination of women as priest or bishop.
Yet in the United States, it is a strong institution with some 1.9 million practicing members with a culture of liberalism in regards to sexuality, ordination of women, as priest and as bishop. As the invitation said on the wall of St Georges, the Episcopal Church practices a full acceptance of gay or lesbian. There is no discrimination if you are a transgender. Divorced you can remarry in the Episcopal Church with bishop permission which is granted without formality. There is indeed a culture of tolerance within the Episcopal Church.
It is nevertheless the Church of the rich and the powerful. From Georges Washington to Georges Bush a quarter of the presidents of the United States claim their faith within the Episcopal Church. It carries its mission of liberation very seriously. But for the strength of the financial backing of the Trinity Church of Wall Street, South Africa could still have been an apartheid state today.
Bishop Tutu of South Africa receives all the support he was seeking for to help Nelson Mandela broke the bone of the racist system of relegating the black people in an inferior status than the white in the same nation. I asked Father Benitez whether the Episcopal Church carries the same strength to tackle the issue of the hundreds of thousands of migrants coming from the Caribbean and Latin America knocking on the doors of the United States seeking relief from hunger and from personal insecurity in their homeland.
The Episcopal Church might have to revive the leadership of Bishop Paul Moore Jr to gain enough strength to speak the truth to the President of the United States as well as to the leaders of Europe that the barrier against the immigrants in Tijuana or in Spain must be built in the homeland of the immigrants with decent institutions and excellent infrastructure without corrupt leaders so they will not become nomads in their country to become later nomads abroad. This structural operation might cost less than the billion dollars necessary to build the wall and emergency pick up at sea; as such, by ricochet, the story of migrant caravan knocking on the doors of the United States or Europe without invitation will become a nightmare of the past.
In the beginning, the Church of England came through the work and the ministry of St Augustine of Canterbury in 597. He was an Abbey of a monastery in Rome sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the Anglo-Saxons pagans. The relationship with the Church of Rome under the leadership of the successors of St Peter was strong and from top to button. The king was influential in making sure their subjects were practicing Catholics or death.
In the tradition of the Episcopal Church, St Georges Church in Flushing is busy like a bee nest with social activities. Serving a population that comprises a majority Asian, it has also a large portion of Black American citizens, including Caribbean residents as well as Latinos. Its food pantry on Saturday is legendary. A long line is formed early in the morning, with an enormous portion of good food and fresh produce distributed in order and with dignity under the baton of the director of the food pantry operation, Pedro Rodriguez.
Since the Episcopal Church and the Catholic Church are so similar in their liturgy and their rituals, I asked Father Benitez whether the Episcopal Church will one day become a satellite of the Catholic Church, the same way the Greek Orthodox Church is loosely affiliated with the Bishop of Rome. The answer was quick and revealing. Pope Francis as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby is on the same wave line in that direction. Except for the stir within the Catholic Church of the liberals led by Pope Francis and the conservative led by Emeritus Pope Benedict are playing its parts in delaying this momentous event. In any way, this tirade is healthy for humankind because Jesus after pardoning the female prostitute told her to go and sin no more!
How long I will remain an Episcopalian? I do not know, in the meantime, I enjoy my Sunday Services at St Georges, where Father Benitez and his wife (Rose who is by the way of Haitian origin) welcome you with all their heart and their soul. I learned, from the Episcopal Church you must maintain your property in eternity except you must be willing to accept the newcomers as if they were there at the beginning of the construction of the church and you should teach them they are just stewards of that property for those who will be coming later. My question is still open on how to get the millennial generation to frequent church as we adults did in our youth!
This is the challenge the Episcopal Church will have to address as urgently as today!