The Episcopal Shield

This Friday GG and I were invited by our dear friend Brad, i.e. Father Snort to talk about interfaith relations at an Episcopal conference for high school students.Father Snort’s intention was that instead of having other Christians talk about carrying on a dialog with non-Christians, he’d have non-Christians come in and tell it “from the horse’s mouth” so to speak.

I gotta admit, I was a little nervous. Excited, because GG and I love talking about faith, but this time we’d be surrounded. Would they be weirded out because we’re (oh-my-gods!) Pagans?? Would they want to proselytize to us while we were there? Or, worst of all, would Father Snort be horribly disappointed in our contribution?

We got to the school where the conference was held, a gorgeous Episcopal private academy in the hills of west Austin, and found Father Snort. GG and I have known him since college, before he was a priest, and we still find it so cute–and terribly impressive–to see him in his pressed black shirt and white collar (and the earring that still looks like our Bradley). After hugs and a little time to catch up, we headed into a packed classroom to start our panel. One of the students made a crack about hoping to learn about how to get along with Catholics, to which Father Snort issued the reminder that Catholics are not, in fact, members of a different religion. But he did bring some people who were…

At this point I started thinking, uh-oh. If they think Catholicism is a different faith, these guys and gals are going to flip a gasket when we mention the “P” word. (And seriously? I’m married to a Catholic. In my experience, they’re not hard to get along with.) Father Snort introduced us without mentioning religion and talked about how we met in college before he was a priest, and how after college when we became different faiths, he realized he didn’t want to lose our friendships over that (for which GG and I are quite grateful!). He then discussed the difficulty of talking about faith until he was more comfortable in his own. I hadn’t thought much about that, but he made a really good point. When we feel insecure, it’s hard to have a conversation because it tends to devolve into “why do you think I’m wrong” instead of, “hey let’s share what we do.”

GG told her faith journey story first, and I watched the room change when she first mentioned she was Pagan. There was a wide-eyed almost discomfort to it, and I watched more than a couple gazes shift to Father Snort to see his reaction. Of course, he already knew this and didn’t react. After GG spoke I told my story, Steven Curtis Chapman song and all. I didn’t know if SCC was still “in” or too old-school for teenagers to recognize, but to my delight not only did quite a few know who he was, but I got shocked and impressed smiles when I recited the chorus to Dive.

Apparently Pagans and Episcopalians can have a couple things in common.

I talked a lot about questions and faith and how having enough faith to ask questions got me to this point. Father Snort took up on that theme and addressed the questions that he himself continued to have, even after joining the priesthood, and how having the courage to ask them brought him to a point of confidence and deeper faith. GG talked about the importance of connecting with faith through your heart and being at peace inside. When we were done sharing our faith journeys, the shocked stillness had been replaced by a more relaxed, if still nervous calm. Questioning beliefs, working through fear, and a gut level connection to faith are things people of all different faiths can relate to. They’re the kind of struggles we all deal with, no matter what we believe (or don’t believe).

We opened the floor to questions, and one young man had the guts to raise his hand. He asked about dealing with prejudice and how do we talk to people who are so convinced of their own rightness and attempt to force their beliefs on others. He very clearly spoke from personal experience. It was a good reminder to me that as much as we Pagans get frustrated with what we perceive as bullying by the Christian majority (particularly in politics), Christians, despite their majority status, do get harassed, too – by fundie atheists (and occasionally, sigh, fundie Pagans and folks of other faiths), by the media and entertainment, and by each other for differences in doctrine. I answered that my normal response is to wonder why they’re so insecure that they need me to agree with them. GG said to find the confidence in yourself and accomplishments to answer from a place of strength.

Father Snort then talked about a conversation he’d had with a particularly avid evangelizer who described proselytizing as a necessity because he feared God’s wrath if he failed to bring more souls to Jesus. For Father Snort, this was a moment of clarity because he realized the person wasn’t converting others out of love, but out of fear for his own soul. This self-protectionism, he reminded the room, does not in any way conform to Jesus Christ’s example or commission of love. He admonished everyone to think about their reasons for engaging in conversations about faith and to remember that when you feel attacked that the other person does not have more righteousness.

We all agreed that discussing religion with people of other faiths could be fun and enlightening, but only if we were secure in our own faith and could communicate with respect and understanding, instead of a need to change each other.

After that the hands started going up all over the room. Mostly the students had questions about what it was we believed, if we had holy texts, and what a Pagan service looked like. Father Snort made notes on the board as I described a basic ritual and pointed out how many similarities there were to their own church services. It was as if all the curious questions they had were suddenly okay to ask in a safe setting with normal (looking 😉 ) people who weren’t taking offense.

By the end, I thought inviting Pagans was brilliant of Father Snort. Paganism is sometimes seen as an exciting or mysterious form of rebellion for young people, and neither GG nor I are all that mysterious or rebellious. Plus I got to talk about how much research and reading old books is involved in being Pagan. Yay homework! But by taking the veil of the forbidden, or at least the unknown, away, the teenagers (and a couple other adults in the room with us!) were able to dispel any misconceptions and realize Paganism is just another religion, with all the work and questions and faith of any other belief system.

I’d like to thank Father Snort and all the wonderful people at the conference for being incredibly open-minded and kind. We had a great time and hope y’all did, too!

+Featured Image: Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury England by: Mattana