Two Types of Episcopal Identity

The Episcopal Church ShieldIn a big move, St. Athanasius School has decided to ask the vestry of the parish to approve a change in the school’s by-laws. It is requesting that the percentage of school board members who are parishioners be reduced from 55% to 40%. A variety of reasons prompted the school to ask this of the vestry, not the least being that it is increasingly difficult to find parishioners who will serve on the school board. There is also the need, the school board members believe, to make room on that governing body for a few people who may be interested in supporting the school financially. What better way, as the board president believes, for donor prospects to feel connected to the school than to be involved in the governance of the school?

The school head and board president present the plan to the vestry with clarity and enthusiasm, and yet are surprised to meet up with lots of challenging questions. “Is this the first of many moves to disassociate from the parish?” one vestry member asks. “Are you becoming ‘less Episcopal?’” asks another vestryperson. The head of school, in particular, feels growing frustration with the types of questions he is being asked to address. While trying to assure the vestry that this move is not a sign in any way of the school changing its religious mission, the head says to himself, “If you vestry members could only see the many ways we live out our Episcopal identity each day, you would not be raising these questions.”

This scenario can take a number of different forms, on a number of different levels. It is nonetheless an example of what we at NAES see so frequently. While the school understands its Episcopal identity in one way, the parish or diocese or other church entity interprets it often in very different ways. The school is likely to emphasize the lived identity—how its mission as an Episcopal school is carried out in active ways, such as through chapel worship, service to the community, teaching of religion, and the hospitable culture it seeks to instill for a wide variety of traditions and creeds—while churches often will look to what Ann Mellow and I would call the symbolic identity, how certain apparently external indicators reflect the degree to which the school is connected to the church. Hence the frustration the head of school at St. Athanasius feels as he senses that the vestry does not understand the extent and nature of the school’s lived identity, while the vestry sees—through a more symbolic lens—how a change like the one being proposed raises questions about the school commitment to the church.

All of this may simply be the natural, human result of what happens when one group that is of some distance from another group tends to judge that other group by external indicators. However, I think the differences in understanding the Episcopal identity of a school stem from deeper factors.

The Episcopal tradition, mirroring the larger Christian tradition, is a blend of lived and symbolic identity. Symbols are a powerful and pivotal means through which we understand our faith; human beings gravitate toward and find deep meaning in symbols. We see this in the way what some might view as merely external indicators can in fact be the stuff over which parishes and dioceses sometimes do battle. The symbol can be viewed as not only reflecting meaning, but containing meaning.

At the same time, our tradition means little without God’s call for human beings to live out their beliefs, to connect adherence to creeds and symbols with what we do each day. How we welcome those who are different from us, for example, is not only an example of how open-minded we can be, but how Christian we are called to be.

Wise school leaders need to be attuned to both dimensions of Episcopal identity, and how often one group can gravitate toward one dimension while another group understands it through the other.

To be sure, the percentage of parishioners on a school board does not, on its own, define the Episcopal identity of that school. There is indeed so much more. However, the school lives out its mission within the context of a tradition where symbols matter, let alone a tradition that has seen many of its institutions drift away from those symbols.

How great it would be if the members of the vestry were able to come and see just how lively the Episcopal identity of St. Athanasius can be, day after day. How wise it would be for school leaders to understand just how important symbolic identity can be to a tradition that not only attaches itself to symbols but finds deep meaning in them.