Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Christianity, Part 1
Our Region—Like Our Nation—Remains Predominantly Christian. But What Exactly Does That Mean To The Religion’s Various Adherents?
(page 2 of 3)
Win Lewis, rector of Christ and St. Luke's
The Episcopal Church, especially so. For one thing, its precursor—the Church of England in America—was the established Church of pre-Revolutionary Virginia. As other denominations—especially the Methodists and Baptists—grew in the 19th century, the Episcopal Church lost its dominance. Today it represents only slightly more than 1 percent of the adult population. And yet, throughout much of our history its influence was disproportionate to its numbers. More than a quarter of all U.S. presidents, for example, have been Episcopalians.
Today, for roughly 3 million adults in this country, it retains its appeal for a variety of reasons.
“I think there is a sense of inclusion in the Episcopal Church,” says Win Lewis, the popular rector of Christ and St. Luke’s in Norfolk’s historic Ghent neighborhood. “This value of inclusivity actually runs very deep in the Anglican spirit going way back, but I think it has become more clearly defined—as one of acceptance without judgment—since 2003, with the election of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire. People who come here tell me they like a church where they’re free to express their beliefs and ideas without criticism—and where they can therefore also explore them and test them.”
Someone walking into a traditional Episcopal Church for the first time might be surprised to hear this, since the Anglican liturgy remains firmly grounded in the language of the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed, as well as the Eucharist—the ritual of Communion. Within the Church, however, one finds parishioners with a wide range of theological interpretations of those rituals.
Lewis himself says that while he’s a “cradle Episcopalian” and comes from a long line of Anglican priests, he did a lot of soul searching during his first two years as an undergraduate at William & Mary.
“I was really kind of exploring different paths,” he says. “At one time I thought of Judaism. I also considered Catholicism. There are factors of both that I really appreciate. I love the domesticity of Judaism—that there’s a sacredness that can go on in the home, with a Seder, for instance, and Hanukkah. And I like the mass and some of the other traditions of Catholicism.” By the end of his junior year, however, he realized that he was most “at home” in the Episcopal Church—so much so that he decided to become a priest.
“I went to see the bishop,” he recalls, “and he said, ‘I think you need a little seasoning. So I got a master’s in special education and taught at Eastern State Hospital. Then I went to seminary at Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria.”
At the church’s heart, he says, is a deep commitment to tradition balanced by an embrace of the ways in which we have evolved as a species.
Christ and St. Luke's Church
“We are a church that is not afraid of mystery,” Lewis says. “We’re not afraid of intuition, and we’re not trying to define everything perfectly. We do believe in scripture as foundational, but we also believe in reason, allowing for a dialogue between scripture and the context of the world in which we live. When we talk about sexuality today, for example, we’re talking about something very different from the ways in which it is presented in the Bible. Homosexuality was seen as not being true to oneself. What we now know, of course, is that for many people homosexuality is being faithful to their identity.”
Among those parishioners at Christ and St. Luke’s who value that outlook are Tim Bostic and Tony London. You may recognize their names. In July 2013, the couple filed a federal lawsuit which helped pave the way for the legalization of gay marriage in Virginia. Two years later, they were married at the church, with Lewis officiating.
“My faith is one of the pillars of my life,” Bostic says. “It’s always been there for me.”
As a child, he recalls, he went to a Lutheran church, attended Sunday school every week and prayed every night before bed.
“One night when I was 12, I had a nightmare,” he recalls. “When I told my mother she said, ‘Honey, don’t ever forget—God’s always with you and loves you no matter what.’ That was the message I got from my family and my faith community—never messages of hate. Never, God’s going to smite you.”
Bostic realized that finding the right church would require some exploration and deliberation. Having been raised in a deep liturgical tradition, he feels at home at Christ and St. Luke’s. “We have been accepted with open arms by that congregation,” he shares. “The people there truly live their faith; they’re not just giving it lip service.”
Bostic notes for example, that one of the parishioners—“a pillar of the community”—volunteers his time to teach homeless people how to paint. When they complete the paintings, they sell them and get to keep the money.
Living in faith, for Bostic, also means opening ourselves up to experiences and growing as a result. He was particularly struck by something a fellow parishioner said to him at a dinner party held to celebrate the couple’s success in the lawsuit.
“When I sat down he said, ‘You know, Tim, if someone had told me 20 years ago that this conservative would support gay marriage, I would have told them they were out of their minds. But I’m so grateful to the two of you for making me a better man and a better Christian.’”
The inclusiveness of some churches notwithstanding, many people I’ve talked with still reject Christianity because of its apparent claim to be the only true religion.
Particularly troubling to people who respect all religions is a statement attributed to Jesus in the Gospel According to John: I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
Lewis argues, however, that this is “one of the misunderstood passages in Scripture.”
First of all, he notes, it is only found in one of the four Gospels, and that Gospel needs to be read “through the lens of the prologue, which talks about the cosmic reality of Jesus: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
“When Jesus is speaking, he’s speaking as the embodied word of God that is reflected in all of creation. It’s no one comes to the Father unless they experience this heart of God, which is found in Jesus but not exclusively in Jesus.”
“When Gandhi went to England,” Lewis adds, “and read the Sermon on the Mount, he said, ‘I’ve known this Jesus all my life.’ He recognized in Jesus what he knew through his own faith. So how can we say this is exclusive?”