How to NOT Be a Cynic at Church: Part 4

In my last post, I rejected a perfectly fine church because it wasn’t perfect enough. In this post, I finally find a church that is utterly perfect. On paper. I also realize the endgame of my cynical perfectionism.

Googling

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles for law school, I googled “Anglican churches LA” on a Saturday night. I didn’t expect to find anything. Instead, I stumbled onto a link for something called St. John’s Anglican Church.1 Shrugging, I clicked on it. It was one of those “continuing Anglican” movements that broke from the Episcopal Church years earlier to maintain doctrinal purity.

I read their website with widening eyes. They checked every box on my dream list. Apostolic Succession: check. Commitment to sound doctrine: check. High Mass: check. They even had Orthodox icons along the side of their web pages.

After years of toil, I allowed myself to hope. Was my rejection of all other churches about to be rewarded?

Chapel in the meadow

The next morning, I braved the SoCal traffic to meet my perfect church. After about twenty minutes of highways, my GPS veered me into a neighborhood, and then a cemetery. Odd. But the pastoral scene drove the oddness from me–green hills dappled with trees in the morning sun, a chapel in the center. The chapel was white and old and had a steeple. It even had a bell tower.

Walking reverently up the creaky steps into the church, I slid into an antique back-row pew, nodding at the icons lining the walls.

I checked the time on my phone and wondered when the people would show up. In front of me were a half-dozen parishioners: three retired ladies, an old man, and an empty-nester couple. I was three decades younger than anyone else.

A bell rang, incense wafted, and a golden crucifer was led down the aisle by a snowy-haired priest. Mass was starting. And this handful of people were the entire congregation.

I became acutely aware the church was in a graveyard.

Chapel in the cemetery

The liturgy had everything I could have wished for: incense, old English hymns, and readings from the Book of Common Prayer. It had the smells, sound, and rhythm of St. Mary Mag’s.

I sat there and savored the beauty. By myself.

There were light refreshments after the service. The parishioners were obviously thrilled to have a young person visit, with their pats on the back and beaming smiles and offers of more cake.

The priest asked why I came to an Anglican church, and I mentioned St. Mary Mag’s in Oxford. He was delighted–he was an Oxford man who attended Mary Mag’s during graduate school.

I finished my cake, thanked the parishioners, and left. In terms of beliefs and liturgy and location, I could not have picked a more perfect church.

But I knew I couldn’t go back.

Lessons learned

It wasn’t just the fact that there weren’t many people, or that they were older. The church reminded me of someone…me.

For years, I sought a church with the perfect mix of Anglican intellect, high church artistry, and zeal for doctrinal purity. I was seeking for an offshoot of an offshoot of an offshoot, whittling away anything I didn’t like and being cynical about whatever wasn’t perfect.

Instead of a perfect church, I ended up with myself. Because in the end, finding a church that suited my tastes was really just an exercise in selfishness.

I realized I didn’t want myself: I wanted a church.

For the rest of my time in LA, I went to a Presbyterian church. Then my wife and I went to a Baptist church in New Haven for two years. Neither of them checked all the boxes on my wishlist. But I did hear the gospel preached every Sunday.

When we finally moved back to Colorado Springs, we started going to International Anglican Church. We love it. Sure, it might not have all the high church trappings I’d like, but that doesn’t really matter.

After all, church shouldn’t be about me…

Have any of you let perfectionism get in the way of appreciating a church? How did you deal with it?

_________________

1  That’s not the church’s real name. If you really want to know which church I’m talking about, it should be easy enough to find through strategic googling. But I’d recommend against it. The people at the church could not have been kinder to me, and I have no intention of embarrassing them.

__________________

Photo: John Purvis

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