A colleague of mine (I started to say “younger,” but these days most of my colleagues are less experienced than I, if not always actually younger) approached a number of us with questions. He is in the process of ordination in the Episcopal Church, and his questions fall into the general range of just how Episcopal an Episcopal chaplain needs to be. By the chaplain’s request, I won’t identify his diocese or the location of his ministry. However, I do feel I can adress his questions.
So, just how Episcopal does an Episcopal Chaplain have to be? In one sense, that is a question of identity. I am committed to serving each person, and to do so as best possible in the tradition that the person brings. At the same time, I do not identify as an “interfaith chaplain.” I don’t really have a sense of what that means, inasmuch as each chaplain is rooted in his or her own tradition (or, at least, should be). I can be multifaith in my service; but I am a chaplain formed in the Episcopal Church.
One consequence of that is that the Book of Common Prayer informs everything I do. That’s not to day that I carry it with me (well, there is that really good app from the Church Pension Group that’s on my phone) or explicitly use it with every patient. I am in the unusual position of an Episcopal chaplain serving an Episcopal health system; and yet that level of use of the Book of Common Prayer is not an expectation.
Rather, I have been formed in the Episcopal tradition, and that language is ingrained. Folks comment at how easily I pray extemporaneously; but in fact the forms, the phrases, the words of the Books of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (1979, certainly, but also 1928) are the forms and the vocabulary out of which my “extemporaneous” prayers are based. It’s perhaps like how important is it to continue your finger exercises on the piano, even if your performance mode is going to be jazz.
I would also note that, while I am most facile with the American Book of Common Prayer, I have looked for other resources in the larger Book of Common Prayer tradition. I have use those rites and liturgies approved by the General Convention. I have drawn from the Prayer Books of other Anglican bodies. In part, this is because of my seminary education. Marion Hatchett taught his students at Sewanee to assess the needs of the congregation, and then draw, not just from the current Prayer Book, but from the full breadth of the Anglican tradition, and even of the Christian tradition.
It is also significant to me that the Episcopal and Anglican tradition that worship is to be “in a tongue… understanded of the people.” That allows me plenty of latitude to draw from the context to make the prayer meaningful to the person and persons, and to the moment. The patient and the patient’s tradition is certainly part of that context. To seek to respond to the individual’s tradition does not seem to me to betray my own. Rather, it shows the hospitality and the community that are central to the Anglican worship tradition.
I am also a part of that context, and where I can do so authentically I draw on my own experience, both Episcopal and otherwise. I grew up, as I sometimes say, “breathing Southern Baptist air.” I have a pentecostal streak (“not all that wide, but it goes all the way through”). I think that also contributes to my Anglo-catholic liturgical sentiment (yes, I believe Anglo-catholic liturgy is how most Episcopalians touch that part of body and spirit touched in Holiness churches by charismatic experience). And there is someone, somewhere in the Episcopal Church living within the Prayer Book tradition with each of those traditions. It is not inauthentic for me to share with the patient for whom one of those experiences is central to his or her spiritual practice.
So, how Episcopal does an Episcopal Chaplain have to be? I think that is affected by how broad we understand the Episcopal tradition to be.