All glory, laud, and honor

Today is Palm Sunday. While I have not actively observed Lent in some while, I am acutely aware that today churches are empty because of the coronavirus, when they should be carrying out one of the most dramatic liturgies of the year. (The churches that were full today, in defiance of public health orders, are most likely those who don’t follow the liturgical year very closely, but that’s all I’m going to say about that.)

I have said for years, only slightly in jest, that everything I need to know about magic I learned in church. You want to achieve an altered state of consciousness? I highly recommend putting on special clothes and walking in a figure-eight, chanting repetitively, while someone proceeds you with a pot of hot coals that is streaming frankincense smoke. (Just keep a reasonable distance between yourself and overenthusiastic pot-swingers.) Before I read of witches re-enacting ritual combats or plunging the athame into the chalice, I was chanting crowd responses in dramatic singings of Jesus’ Passion from the Gospels and watching the priest plunge the lighted Paschal candle three times into the fresh waters of the baptismal font.

The church I wound up attending for between 20 and 25 years was a High Episcopal church, that is, one whose liturgy resembled the Roman Catholic church’s rather than the services of our Methodist cousins. We had weekly communion in a time when that was still rare and called it Mass. We observed Holy Week and Easter as well as Christmastime with elaborate special liturgies. We called our priest “Father” plus his last name and he wore silk damask chasubles at the altar. In Lent we had Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament with the choir on Wednesday nights, and just Stations on Saturday mornings, attended by the altar guild ladies and a handful of kids, including me. When he retired and we got a new priest, around the time I was seventeen, new priest was even more Catholic and elaborated the liturgy still more, which was fine with me because I conceived a mad crush on him pretty much the first time I laid eyes on him.

When I walk into a holy space, I expect to see rich colors and lighted candles, to smell beeswax and incense, to hear chanting and heightened language, to walk in processions and make sacred gestures. I expect to kneel, stand, or sit at certain times. (Alas, when I go to church nowadays, I sit through most of it.) Palm Sunday at my childhood church got every person in the pews who could walk processing round the church singing, waving the long fronds of palm trees that would be treasured at home for a year afterward, then returned to the church and burnt to become the ashes of a new Ash Wednesday. A few years ago, I had the thrill of starting our Palm Sunday liturgy at another Episcopal church out in a city park and processing through the streets to the church, singing and waving our palms.

My childhood church was a small parish, a small physical plant, and not particularly rich. My Aunt Margaret gave me money for the collection plate, and we held parish dinners maybe six times a year, crab cakes, fried chicken, spaghetti, cooked and served by parishioners and attended by much of the neighborhood, to raise funds. Yet we put on a pretty good show for the church’s wheel of the year, with our silk vestments and beeswax candles, frankincense and myrrh and holy water. If you want to lure me into your religion, you have to do at least that well.

A prayer book and a hymnal

The Church of the Advent, Baltimore

My first memory of anything religious is singing in the choir of a Lutheran church. I was six or seven years old at the time, one year younger than the usual minimum age for choir singers. I conclude from this that I had two skills that were needed: The ability to sing on pitch, and the ability to read the words of the hymns better than most children my age.

I don’t remember any men or boys in this choir, and I don’t think we sang every Sunday. But there was singing and I wanted to be involved with that, more than I wanted to be in the Sunday school classes we must have had. I have a memory of practicing hymns around the piano and another memory of putting on some kind of vestments, including a little red cap, and walking in two lines out into the sunshine and wind, across a yard, into the church, to sing a couple of hymns during the service.

When I was seven, my sister got married; she was eighteen and eager to be away from our mother and in charge of her own life. After that I didn’t go to the Lutheran church any more because my sister wasn’t around to take me. My mother felt it was important that her children go to church, but not important enough to go to church herself. Her Sunday mornings were for recovering from her late-night Saturday outings with my dad.

A couple of years passed before my mother decreed that I would start going to an Episcopal church. It was just one block away from us, two streets to cross, but I was not allowed to go unescorted. An elderly lady whose name I am sorry to have forgotten knocked at the door on Sunday mornings and walked with me to the back door of the church, which led into the small parish hall. I’m not sure now why my mother was so fussy about this, as I spent plenty of time on weekends and in the summer ranging around the neighborhood without any adults holding my hand. In any case I was still walking to church with our neighbor lady almost up to my teens.

Another couple of years passed, I think, before I auditioned for the choir of my new church and was accepted. By the time I was nine or ten, I had in my hands two of the most important influences on my spiritual life: The 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the Episcopal Hymnal 1940.

One of many, really, just a particular one

This Sunday I had the pleasure of entertaining a friend in my new apartment for a couple of hours. In the course of our conversation, my friend, who is a polytheist like myself and, in addition, a former Catholic, asked me how I was handling returning to regular (Episcopal) church attendance, as a polytheist devoted to Antinous. Was it strange or difficult, she wondered, getting involved with Jesus again?

The question proved surprisingly easy to answer, or maybe not surprisingly, given that I had been thinking about it anyway. And given that I know of more than one pagan or polytheist who is a member of an Episcopal or Unitarian church, I thought my answers would be worth sharing.

First of all, being in church does not necessarily involve a devotional relationship with Jesus, if by “devotional” you mean having a lot of feelings. I have a lot of feelings for Antinous, and I pay him cultus every day; I don’t have the same feelings for, say, Mars or Minerva, but I still pay them respectful cultus at certain times. Sunday is a day when I pay cultus to Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit, in a gathering with other people.

Second, being in church is mostly about the other people. It’s about community and communion with the people sitting in the pews with me, and with the people who came before us in the tradition. It’s about pre-Reformation saints like Benedict, the father of Western Christian monasticism, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich; it’s about specifically Anglican forebears like John Donne, George Herbert, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle. And it’s about my childhood, the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal, a body of literature that includes but is far from exclusive to the Bible. The luminaries of the Anglican spiritual tradition are also leading lights of English literature. Being in church, thus, is as much ancestor worship as anything else.

It’s true that the Christian liturgy, no matter how progressive or in what denomination, assumes a theology of monotheism and, ultimately, the superiority of Christianity over other religions. However, there is a lot of ancient religious literature, including a good chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures, that assumes polytheism, but still addresses a particular deity as The Greatest of All Time. Many of the deities of Egypt were hymned as creator, all-giver, supreme on earth and in heaven, all-wise, all-powerful, and so forth–while twenty miles away, another deity entirely was praised in the same way. The fancy word for this is henotheism, which Wikipedia defines as “the worship of a single god while not denying the existence or possible existence of other deities.” In ancient Thebes, you called Amun the supreme god; in Rome, Jupiter was the all-ruler; in Athens, it was Zeus, but the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did not argue woh was *really* the supreme deity. While I’m in church, the Christian Trinity is the One God (even if I think they are actually three).

Antinoan scholar P. Sufenas Virius Lupus once said to me, “Jesus and Antinous have been friends for a long time.” This seemed self-evidently true to me at the time, and still does. PSVL also once wrote about looking at the gods as individuals who hold certain values, rather than as bureaucrats with certain functions. For example, Antinous is not really The Gay God (a lot of the gods are pretty gay by our standards) or a god of gayness, sitting behind a lavender desk in a celestial bureaucracy and signing forms pertaining to gay people with a purple pen. Rather, he is a god who values gay and lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans people, along with prophecy, healing, poetry, hunting, theatre, and introducing mortals and immortals to one another at parties. Jesus is a god who values the poor, the marginalized, the excluded, the Othered, which means that in our culture right now, he and Antinous are concerned about a lot of the same people. And Jesus also likes parties with plenty of wine.

From a Christian point of view, I suppose, I am a contumacious heretic, but from a polytheist point of view, Jesus is one of many gods and it’s up to me, or any individual, whether I want to worship him. Ask me about my heresies, and I’ll gladly explain them to you.