Dear catholic-minded Episcopalians (from a lowly, catholic, parish priest),
Now, I am no one’s bishop and church polity on that level is quite literally and figuratively above my pay-grade, but please allow this lowly, parish priest to talk you back off the ledge of perceived oblivion by reflecting on the faith we say we profess. Next week the Primates (leaders) of the Anglican Communion, charged to “guard the faith and unity of the Church,” will meet at Canterbury Cathedral to “discuss key issues face to face.” According to the event’s website, these issues include “religiously-motivated violence, the protection of children and vulnerable adults, the environment and human sexuality.” (I find it a bit awkward that a British based website missed the Oxford comma in that sentence). In anticipation of this meeting the the Most Rev’d. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Most Rev’d. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, have both called for prayer for those gathered – not a bad idea anytime a group of Christians gather in one room. We can be feisty bunch. I, for one, will be praying and I hope you will join me in prayer too.
The tension in the Anglican Communion for the past few decades over issues such as the ordination of women and the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the Church as well as the threats of the Archbishop of Uganda to refuse to participate if “Godly order” isn’t established has led some to predict that this meeting is the “funeral” of the Communion as we know it. It might be. The Most Rev’d. Stanley Ntagali, Archbishop of Uganda, stated in a recent pastoral letter that the GAFCON churches are not in communion with the Episcopal Church of the USA or the Anglican Church of Canada. Although this is an unfortunate development, I am resolved not to despair. If the Primates’ Meeting next week results in a disintegration of the “Anglican Communion” as we know it, the sun will still rise and fall and it will be morning and evening on the next day, and Christ will still be made known to us in the breaking of the bread. Perhaps it is especially in the “breaking of the bread” that we will come to know Christ (somebody will get that one on the way home). The Church has not survived for 2,000 years because of the names we’ve called ourselves or the alliances that we have forged, but because Christ promised to be with us and in us.
There is a picture that hangs in Bowden Hall (the parish hall) of my former parish – St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Atlanta, GA) that is burned into my spiritual consciousness. This painting, a gift (or loan) from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (I think) depicts what I envision to be the vocation of the Church in the present age – a space of bread-breaking faith in the face of fear and brokenness. This painting, a visual depiction of Acts 27, recalls a beautiful story that might be helpful for our collective reflection. The story goes that as Paul was headed to Rome, the ship that carried him ran into a fierce storm that lasted for weeks. On the fourteenth day of the storm, some of sailors attempted to escape by fleeing in the lifeboats, but Paul instructed them, “unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” I have always found it interesting that even after making this declaration and despite the best intentions of all on board, the ship still broke apart. Perhaps the ship broke up to reveal that our salvation is not tied up in the ship, but in the presence of the Savior. Right before the ship breaks up, Paul “took break… [gave] thanks to G-d… and broke it…” and gave it to everyone on board. The way the painting in Bowden Hall depicts it, all the light in the scene is focused on the broken bread. Even the fiercest lightning pales in comparison to the light of Christ among us, illuminating our darkness. The chapter ends with this statement that ought not be overlooked – “And so it was that all were brought safely to land.” A broken ship could not save them. Broken bread did.
It is true that schism diminishes us all: each of us is lessened when one of us walks away from the table. It grieves me deeply that the ordination of women and the affirmation of the humanity of LGBTQ people created such a theological dilemma for some that the only recourse was excommunication. I am conflicted that what has brought me so much life and joy has caused so much despair for others. I pray deeply that our brother bishops (no… no sisters are present) can find a way forward together. But even in my deep catholicity, or maybe because of it, I deeply believe that so long as Christ is alive and so long as the Holy Spirit still moves in our hearts and world, oneness is our destiny. In fact, I deeply believe we are one now, despite our Christian proclivity toward excommunication and estrangement. We claim “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One G-d and Father of all” every time we welcome new converts through the waters of baptism. All that is missing in the present is the awareness of our oneness (this is a preview of Sunday’s sermon on Baptism). I wonder if our Lord’s prayer that we “might be one” is more of a prayer that we open our eyes to behold the unity that is right in front of us.
Prior to my year of vocational formation in Sewanee, I had the esteemed privilege of studying in an interdenominational seminary where it was nothing for Baptists, Anglicans, a rainbow of Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, and many others to share classrooms, worship, sacrament, and relationship. While each of these communities possess something that makes them unique, in practice we were able to witness Christ being made manifest in our expression of catholicity that transcended the delineations of our small tribes.
I deeply value catholicity as it is expressed in the Anglican tradition – couched in the ministry of bishops, in the confession of the historic creeds, and in the presence of Christ in the sacraments. I don’t just say that to avoid a Title IV offense; I actually mean it. In a stormy time in my life when all my moorings of faith had given way, these marks of catholicity provided touch stones for my spiritual journey and I continue to be deeply grateful for them. And I also have enough experience of G-d with the tongue-talking Pentecostals; or the singing-preaching Baptists; or in the songs of the ancestors who, lacking bishops, creeds, and sacraments, spoke of a G-d who was made known in the “music in the air” to know that catholicity itself is not G-d – it merely speaks of G-d. Icons and images ought never be confused with the real deal.
I get it. We Episcopalians are a very orderly people. We took Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians to do everything “decently and in order” and ran (or walked with sufficient dignity) with it. We like our traditions – they cradle us. We like our history – it names us. We like our structures – they guide us. I take nothing away from that. It is really a beautiful thing. G-d is made known to us in order and stability. And G-d is made known is us in chaos and mystery. We see this throughout our communal story where G-d chooses to be made known both within our structures and without – in the sacred liturgy of the Temple and in the mouths of locust-eating, hair-shirt wearing prophets, in the burnt offerings on the altar and begging for alms outside the Beautiful Gate. Perhaps the shifting tectonic plates of our ecclesial life are reminders that G-d is still moving.
In the end, I believe the most powerful statement we can make in this moment is not a collective descent into the depths of fear, but a statement of faith in G-d who makes all things new. Although she is probably not very popular among the crowd that is predisposed to despair in this moment, I love the perspective of Rachel Held Evans and I believe she might have something to say to us in this moment. In Searching for Sunday, Rachel offers these sage words that could only be born out of a deep and close encounter with the Risen Lord:
…lately I’ve wondered if a little death and resurrection might be just what church needs right now, if maybe… our empire-building days are over, and maybe if that’s a good thing. Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It’s certainly not something resurrection people worry about.
I wonder the same thing, and I wonder if in this moment we are being invited to experience the most ancient form of church – church without pretense, gathered around broken bread and sacred stories. Maybe. Maybe not.
What I do know is that, in words attributed to His Holiness Pope John XXIII, “It’s your Church, Lord. I’m going to bed.”