WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY

Earlier today, I sat with a Baptist and ate breakfast prepared by Roman Catholic neighbors in an Episcopal church.  All week long, I’ve shared community with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and folks from lots of other traditions I’m not even aware of.  I’m talking about WARM, the intentional network of faith-based organizations who provide shelter and food to persons who are homeless, but it’s obviously bigger than that.

Today, Jan. 18, is the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter — when Simon Peter said, “You’re the Messiah;” to which Jesus said, “Righto!  You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”  The week between now and next Friday – Jan. 25, the Confession (or Heavenly Knock-down) of St. Paul – is observed around the world as “the week of prayer for Christian unity.”  If you count it up it’s actually eight days, that is, an octave.  Begun by a Catholic priest in the early 20th century as the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the celebration was blessed by Popes Pius (d. 1914) and Benedict XV (d. 1922) and soon caught on among Protestant churches, as well, such that by the middle of last century the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was officially sanctioned by the World Council of Churches and is practiced today by 349 different Christian denominations around the world.

WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY Jan. 18 to Jan. 25

It’s fitting that it’s squeezed between celebrations of Peter and Paul, those two bright lights of early Christianity.  They were bright and gifted and shining lights, no doubt, but they also struggled, both of them, with pride and power and position.  Peter was with Jesus from the earliest days; he helped coordinate the disciples and became, in time, the spokesman for the original twelve and a key leader in the post-Ascension Jesus movement.  He had presence and longevity and personal relationships and skill.  Paul, on the other hand, was the brash, bold, new upstart.  Paul didn’t know Jesus personally, and even if you set aside that whole bit about Saul/Paul persecuting early Christians, he was still the new kid.  But that didn’t stop him from speaking his mind and following the Spirit where it led, even if it meant fights over what shape the Jesus movement was going to take.  If Paul and Peter, in spite of their very human posturing, could be on the same team and work for the same mission, so can we.  Hence, a week of prayer for Christian unity.

When I was in Chicago, serving as curate at the Episcopal church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, we did a pulpit swap on the Sunday nearest this week.  One block down the street there was a Presbyterian church, and two blocks down was the UCC congregation.  Three blocks down and two streets over was the big Roman Catholic parish.  The clergy got together around the first of the year and made a plan as to who was hopping over to which church at which service that weekend.  It was really fun not only to get together, at least once a year, with other Christian ministers but also nice to celebrate and hear different preachers and expose ourselves to the rich diversity of Christian faith and practices.

We don’t do a pulpit swap like that in St. Mary’s County, and one logistical reason is that most of us don’t have multi-staff parishes so one priest can stay back in order to lead the service while the other can go and preach.  But we do have WARM, which is, as I’ve said in a previous post, not only about helping people who are homeless but also about helping us, the so-called helpers.  WARM, by intention, brings into relationship people who might otherwise not meet, let alone spend quality time together.  Maybe it’s the way we set it up at St. George’s, Valley Lee, but from the very beginning (due to the fact that we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough help) we reached out to our partner Episcopal churches as well as our neighbor Methodist church and Catholic parish and Baptist congregation.  And they not only help us in the work but they partner with us, such that they are known in this congregation and we are known in theirs, such that we are now more than neighbors, we’re brothers and sisters and, indeed, friends.

Christian unity is a gift, not only to us who follow Jesus but to the world we are called to serve.  Christians model, by our very existence, a deep and real unity — not uniformity of belief or practice or custom, but unity in spirit, grounded in relationship, founded in God.

I’ve always thought that one of the greatest things about Christianity is the way in which we’ve preserved our disagreements – theological, doctrinal, liturgical, whatever.  I mean, no one ever went back over the New Testament and tried to downplay or “clean up” the disagreement between Peter and Paul or the others.  No, they left it all in, warts and blow-ups and screaming matches and all.  And we don’t try to water down our worship or diminish our traditions in order to make our modern-day differences less obvious.  Some of us handle snakes (yikes!) and some of us use incense.  Some base everything on the bible, as it is written, others bring in the traditional writings.  Some use the Apocrypha, some only use the Old and New Testaments.  There are priests in some churches, pastors in others, parsons, prophets, bishops, evangelists, and whatever else in every which one.  And that’s great.

And that’s how it should be, for if we’re not united on the outward things our unity must be deeper, much deeper within.  That’s where the Kingdom of God has been, He said, all along.

PRAISES SING TO GOD THE KING, AND PEACE TO MEN ON EARTH

On Sunday morning, April 23, 1865, the Rev’d Phillips Brooks set aside the sermon he was otherwise planning to preach at his church in Philadelphia and made note of a different, a more somber event.  On that very day, the Pullman car funeral procession carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln – assassinated in Washington, DC eight days earlier – had stopped and the President’s body was laid in state in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, on its way to where he would be laid to rest in his hometown of Springfield, IL.  Thousands of Philadelphians came out to view the body, and just a few blocks away that morning, in Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks – then regarded as one of the finest preachers in America – told his congregation that he wished to, instead, pay attention to what he called “that sacred presence in our midst.”

THE REV’D PHILLIPS BROOKS
Born 1835 – Died 1893
Rector of Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, 1862 – 1869
Rector of Trinity Church (Copley Square), Boston, 1869 – 1891
Bishop of Massachusetts, 1891 – 1893

Reading the sermon, even nearly a century-and-a-half later, one still feels the sadness, the shock, the gut-wrenching despair which overcame the nation.  Beginning slowly, almost fearfully wading into his subject, Phillips Brooks told the congregation he was going to talk about the “character of Abraham Lincoln, the impulses of his life, the causes of his death.”  And because that surely struck a chord in the audience, Brooks in the next breath mentioned:  “I can only promise to speak calmly, conscientiously, affectionately…”  “It is the great boon of such characters as Mr. Lincoln’s,” Brooks preached, “that they reunite what God has joined together and man has put asunder.  In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness.”

How we all long for “the greatness of real goodness, and the goodness of real greatness.”  How hungry we are for genuine, random acts of kindness, and how we love to hear about them – love for loveliness’ sake, kindness from the heart.  And how our hearts are broken, as they have been too often and too recently, by violence, senseless cruelty, and suffering.  We long to be at a wedding feast, hearing of that which and those whom God has joined together, but all too often in the events of this world it feels as though we’re at a funeral vigil, bearing witness with tearful eyes to that which we have put asunder, bitterly.

We’re not alone in these conflicts and, sadly, the brokenness of creation has all too often pitted real darkness against any hope of the Light of this world.  This was true for Phillips Brooks and the nation that mourned their President.  In fact, his sermon about Lincoln went the nineteenth century version of “viral” and led to even greater popularity and fame for the young preacher.  But his heart was heavy, very heavy, along with countless of his countrymen who experienced the destruction and brutal violence of the American Civil War, witnessing how it literally tore apart communities and families, culminating in the death of their President.  Not long after his famous sermon about Lincoln, Brooks left on a one-year sabbatical, seeking peace and some measure of healing.

In December 1865, Brooks travelled to Jerusalem, and ventured on Christmas Eve to Bethlehem.  In a letter home to his father, he wrote that “after an early dinner, [we] took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens.”  “It is a good-looking town,” he wrote.  “Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. … Somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been, and in the same fields the story of Ruth and Boaz must belong. As we passed,” he wrote, “shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ leading them home to fold. We returned and waited for the service. The most interesting part was the crowd of pilgrims, with their simple faith and eagerness to share in the ceremonial. We went to bed very tired.”

In another letter to the Sunday school at his Philadelphia parish, he wrote about the feeling, the peace, the renewal he experienced “when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.”  That time in Bethlehem, especially, was a healing experience for Brooks, and three years later the memory was still, as he wrote, “singing in my soul.” Singing so much that, in the fall of 1868, Phillips Brooks put pen to paper and wrote a poem, which his organist set to a tune in time for their Christmas service that year, and which we now know as the notable Christmas carol “O Little town of Bethlehem.”

Oddly (and not without controversy in its own time) “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is not a carol to God but a song sung to a city – a humble, insignificant-if-not-for-one-event Judean hill town.  Tonight and in Phillips Brooks own time, Bethlehem is also a city which knows violence, hatred, and strife: the poem mentions in its first stanza the town’s “dark streets”, but even amidst that brokenness shines “the everlasting light / the hopes and fears of all the years” which, profoundly, “are met in thee tonight.”

The poem widens its gaze and tells a larger, more universal story.  The stars and galaxies, the universe’s created order itself, in the second stanza, coalesce “to proclaim the holy birth” – “and praises sing to God the King / and peace to men on earth.”  Peace, that which Phillips Brooks went around the world in search of.  Peace, that which Christians proclaim and seek on Christmas.

Know this, then: The peace you seek is real; the peace, which scripture says, passes all understanding; the peace which Christ himself breathed on his disciples, not some passing relief, not a pain reliever, but God’s own: “My peace I give you, my own peace I leave with you,” Jesus said.  The peace you seek is established upon the truth, in Christmas, that the creation is not marred, not permanently at least, by our brokenness.  Like a resurrection story in itself, these places – Bethlehem or Jerusalem; Civil War battlefields or Ford’s Theatre; Newtown, CT, among too many others – do not bear for ever the mark of the slain, do not encase the suffering of this cruel world.  No, the prayers we lift up are still true – that God would “cast out our sin and enter in,” that God, Emmanuel, will “be born in us, come to us, abide with us.”

And yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with you one other truth about God’s peace.  So know this, too: Hard times will come, and come again, and that’s why we return, week after week.  The life of Christian faith is not an elixir from the hurt of this world.  Another hymn kept creeping into my heart as I was pondering these words for tonight, a hymn about Jesus’ disciples.  It ends with a particularly haunting line: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.”  I won’t pretend to know what that means – strife closed in the sod – but I know that it’s a true sentiment that peace, true peace, doesn’t mean the end of strife but, rather, a different way of relating to it.  That’s why we keep coming back, week after week.  I’m reminded that Gandhi once said, “I believe in peace, but I do not want the peace that you find in stone; I do not want the peace that you find in the grave.  I want the peace which you find embedded in the human breast, which is exposed to the arrows of the whole world, but which is protected from harm by the power of the Almighty God.”  Which is a theme the fourteenth century Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, also expressed with her words: “I never said that you would not be tempest tossed, work-weary or discomforted, only that you shall not be overcome.”

The end of the story is not relief, then, but peace, and peace built by God who is redeeming and renewing and loving and rebuilding this world, brick by brick, community by community, heart by heart.  The end of the story, then, is that love wins, that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met” … not in a city faraway, not in a distant time, not in a bygone era, but in you:  “born in us, come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.”  Merry Christmas.

TRANSFORMED BY THE RENEWING OF YOUR MINDS

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Romans 12:2

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SIR TONY BALDRY
Second Church Estates Commissioner addresses
House of Commons Nov. 22, 2012

Watching Britain’s House of Commons have a lively chat about their church’s recent disapproval of women bishops, I had at first a feeling of ‘Bravo!’ as well as ‘Uh oh!’  As is often the case, it was a spirited chamber on Nov. 22 when Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, rose to field an urgent question as the Member of Parliament who is the liaison between that body and the group responsible for the oversight of the church’s vast property assets.

I heard smatterings of Jesus in the thoughtful generosity of the MPs — their eagerness to move established institutional structures, no less than their own, to embrace a society in which gender distinctions and previous social mores are giving way to greater egalitarianism and justice.  The Labour Party’s Diana Johnson, who tabled the question, said it well: “…there should be no stained glass ceiling for women in our church.  The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision.  It appears that a broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds.”

They could easily get away with this conversation, of course.  Sir Baldry reminded them that he himself couldn’t possibly justify the odd parliamentary procedures which enabled the General Synod of the Church of England to strike down a measure which was clearly supported by the vast majority of the church:  42 out of 44 dioceses expressed support for women bishops; counting the number of total votes cast, 324 voted for and 122 against; 94% of the bishops and 77% of the clergy voted for the measure; but it failed to achieve a 2/3 majority in the House of Laity, even though a significant majority, 64%, of them voted in favor of the measure.

It’s an odd thing when the State appears more inclusive and egalitarian than does the Church, the Body of Christ.  A Canadian friend told me a few years ago that this was perhaps the one issue most besetting the Anglican Church there: how could they appeal to others to follow the teachings of Jesus when, in practice, they are less welcoming than their secular government?  I’m aware we’re mixing issues here — church and state (fairly modern concepts) with Jesus and Empire (more ancient and biblical ones) — but it’s more than clear that Jesus himself and, certainly, a dominant strand in New Testament Christianity fostered profoundly egalitarian communities, gatherings which were radical in the eyes of their contemporary, stratified secular society and which were, therefore, incredibly attractive.  Followers of Jesus have always had a difficult struggle with the ruling powers and principalities, such that 20 centuries after Jesus (and 17 or so after Christianity was perverted into a state religion) H. Richard Neibuhr contributed to the conversation in his now-classic text, Christ and Culture, helping people identify with integrity their position with regard to the relationship between the Way of Jesus and the ways of the world.

Thus my ‘Uh oh!’ moment.  Jesus and the world, church and state have always been uneasy bedfellows.  That’s a good thing, if you ask me, because the tension within that relationship is what has the potential to give rise to a profound, meaningful faith in God.  The principle of moving the church along with the world — to make the church relevant or hip or up with the times — is therefore a dangerous principle, no matter the issue.  It’s not inclusivity versus exclusivity, liberal against conservative, outdated giving way to modern.  And if we, the Body of Christ, let secular politicians and pundits remain on the forefront of this conversation it will be stuck in those divisive, neatly categorized, but meaningless concepts.  Look again at the Nov. 22 conversation in Parliament.   The Conservative Party’s Eleanor Lang declared that “when the decision making body of the established church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society which it represents then its position as the established church must be called into question.”  And the Church Commissioner agreed, adding that “if the Church of England wishes to be a national church, reflecting the nation, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.”  Some people may put an exclamation point at the end of his statement because it’s boldly open-minded.  I’d put an exclamation point because the principle it expresses is as frightening as hell!  (And if you think it’s just talk, the Episcopal Cafe reports that there is scheduled a Jan. 18, 2013 Parliamentary vote on making it illegal “to discriminate against women in the Church of England.”)

Over on these shores, then, give thanks we don’t have an established church and, in fact, have a clause in our Constitution that prevents that sort of thing — the one, by the way, which doesn’t “separate church and state” (it drives me nuts when people use that phrase, taken from an 1802 letter of Jefferson’s talking about “…a wall of separation between Church & State”).  Our First Amendment makes way for a vibrant church and a free state by not marrying the two: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

So let’s talk about a vibrant church.  A vibrant church is one which does precisely what early Christian communities tried to do — build community of disparate folks, indeed, make family out of people who aren’t blood relatives and wouldn’t even socialize with one another.  That’s the one and only way the New Testament shows how we’re supposed to reconcile all things to God in Christ.  A vibrant church, then, is other-worldly and necessarily so because its organizing principle is in contradiction to the ways we would put things together.  A vibrant church gives ordinary women and men a taste, albeit fleeting, that their lives are caught up in and wedded to the life of God, the creator and lover of all.  A vibrant church is not easily described, and has few smatterings of worldly concepts.  It’s neither conservative nor liberal, and it’s sometimes both.  It’s neither stuffy nor outdated, and it delights in its eccentricity while it doesn’t take itself, at least its structures, too seriously.  It has no problem putting random people together, sometimes people who would otherwise disagree, and it’s bold enough to referee those contests and call its members, all of them, to confess their pride and arrogance.

A vibrant church is one agent in God’s mission of reconciling all things through Christ, and I’d say it’s a pretty important agent.  But in order to be vibrant, the church needs a large, disparate, somewhat disorganized, diverse, random collective of ordinary women and men, a sizeable group of people representing a significant cross-section of human experience and, especially, who this world would never, ever put together in a social club or institution of human construction.  The institutional Christian church in the western world is hardly that body any longer.  And Parliament hit that nail on the head this week, taking note that a big issue raised by General Synod — see Labour MP Diana Johnson’s quote, cited above — is that the established church has done a poor job of bringing the nation into the Body of Christ or, we should say, bringing the Body of Christ to the whole of the people.  Affirming that fact, however, is decidedly not the same as saying what Conservative MP Eleanor Lang said, also quoted above; namely, that the church must get on with the times and reflect society.  Doing so would only confirm for the increasing percentage of people, in Great Britain and the United States and everywhere else, that the church has become such a human institution that there’s no reason to participate in something so small and worldly and so devoid of its much more attractive, deeply spiritual commission.

This is not a problem reserved exclusively for an established church in a foreign land.  We have abandoned our voice and public theologizing, yes, even we in America.  And the “we” is not the state — not the politicians and the pundits, nor the marketers nor the secular institutions nor the school systems which stopped enforcing prayer long ago.  It was never their job to enforce faith or, for that matter, even be Christian.  It was our job, ours as the Body of Christ.  It was our job to be counter-cultural, not the place to see and be seen. It is our job to do the things which this world says cannot be done, and that includes creating a safe space for diversity of all kinds, and that diversity must and should include theological diversity as well.  The longer we fail to do this in our congregations and communities — and, add to that, the longer we let our own Episcopal Church be ruled by worldly institutional structures, determinining via legislation and policy who is in and who is out, even if the majority agrees — the more irrelevant we will become, not because the world is looking for another, better human construct but because it’s yearning for the opposite.

At least a group of people who call themselves “little Christs” and act like it, being at peace with disagreement and disorder because they go about practicing hospitality and seeking God’s blessing on the whole, messed up thing.

TO PRESENT THE WHOLE OF OUR LIVES, SAYING ‘THANK YOU’ AS WELL AS ‘HEAL US’

It’s only been two weeks since Election Day, although it feels to me like much longer ago, so quickly have I put it out of my mind.  This has been a particularly bruising time in our country.

The origins of a commonly-shared national Day of Thanksgiving are also rooted in conflict and strife, in fact.  A day to give thanks following the annual harvest goes back to old world customs, and was brought over to these shores most notably by those pilgrims seeking religious liberty.  It wasn’t until 1863, though, that a commonly-held day in November was established as Thanksgiving Day, credited to then-President Abraham Lincoln but due chiefly to the tireless efforts of one Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor.  (Lincoln proclaimed that it would be the last Thursday in November.  In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt established it would be the fourthThursday in November, arguing that an earlier celebration would provide a greater economic boost to the country.  Guess Thanksgiving and Black Friday were destined for each other!)

LINCOLN’S 1863
Thanksgiving Proclamation

The origins of a day, in Lincoln’s words, to give “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” is rooted in an experience of  bitter enmity and strife.  That most bloody and destructive Civil War was raging in October 1863, when Lincoln penned his Thanksgiving Proclamation.  The sentences of the Proclamation move swiftly and poetically between blessings and terror, between joy in the abundance of God’s gifts and horror at the sight of what we have done to ourselves and our common person.  Lincoln:  “[This] year…has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”, and yet only a few sentences later he mentions “the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field.”  The President writes seamlessly about “thanksgiving and praise” and doesn’t fail to mention “our national perverseness”;  waxes about “peace, harmony, tranquillity” and takes note of the “widows, orphans, [and] mourners” who suffer under “the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Thanksgiving, then, is not only a time to come together and set aside that which divides us.  Thanksgiving is also a time to confess – confess both our thanksgiving and praise, but also our sinfulness and pride.  Thanksgiving is a time in which we present the whole of our lives to God, saying ‘Thank you’ and yet also ‘Heal us’.

The prophet Joel, in his second chapter, offers a vision of God’s lavish kingdom, restored to the people.  “Do not fear, O soil…the pastures of the wilderness are green,” the prophet declares, foretelling a time in which vines will be full of plump grapes, the people’s pantries overflowing with grain, and their wine-racks stocked with really good vintage.  I suspect it’s the first part of this one verse which landed it in today’s observance: “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.”

But the prophet, not unlike a certain 19th century American president, is pointing to God’s abundance when his people have experience great scarcity, not only of provisions and livelihoods but also of the feeling that God, their God, was advocating for them.  Joel is most likely written near the end of the prophetic period: after the people have returned from exile, after they had experienced – some of them witnessed – the rampant destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, after they had watched the great glory of God’s chosen people become a mockery to the dominant foreign powers.  They, too, were tired, exhausted, devastated.  What, again, were their leaders fighting for?  Just what did they win?  Those now-renowned prophets from years earlier, those who preached against the status quo and foretold the destruction which proved to be profound, even they seemed unnecessarily vitriolic.  True, their message was vindicated in history but that period, too, seemed forlorn and lamentable.

Worship and praise of God does not come, exclusively, from perfect lives of total blessing and abundant joy (there are no such lives out there, anyway, so stop looking).  Utterances of thanksgiving and prayers of praise come from perfectly ordinary women and men who lead challenging, normal, stressful, busy, uncertain, happy, resilient, and hopeful lives.  All of us experience ups and downs, and sometimes our ups are really up, for which we give extraordinary gratitude, and sometimes our downs are dreadful.  Sometimes we fight and fight hard, and come out bruised, all of us.  Sometimes we pit ideology over relationship, and partisanship over love.  And sometimes we are our own worst enemies, engaging, in years past, blood-stained wars and, recently, confilcts which aren’t as bloody but are no less destructive.

When that conflict is over, and when the battleground of life is fought, we are tired.  And we are directionless.  We’re not only tired of fighting, but tired of following fighters.  One dangerous turn, in this, would be towards utter hopelessness and resignation, verging on what Kierkegaard called “the greatest hazard of all – losing one’s self.”  And, Kierkegaard reminded, losing one’s self “can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.”  That’s the root of despair, and that’s even worse than depression, further removed than resignation, more acute than mere unhappiness.

The biblical witness is a straightforward response: your self is connected to a web of greater meaning and, indeed, ultimate transformation; you will not be lost in God.  Moreover, your life in God will not be a battlefield, a conflict, a series of competing ideologies.  It will be marked and cleared by love — radical, unconditional love.  And that’s why we give thanks, and that’s also why we give our whole selves, good and bad, beaten and bruised and glorious and ascendant.  The message of Thanksgiving Day is to give, then, the whole of your life to God.  And strive to make your life not perfect, nor conflict-free but, rather, perfectly simple, following those lasting words Paul wrote long ago to young Timothy: “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  In doing so, you will work out your salvation with fear and trembling, and the world will be redeemed through your witness.

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Excerpt from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Thanksgiving Day, 2012.  The full text of the sermon can be found by clicking here.

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3 October 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

BY SCHISMS RENT ASUNDER AND HERESIES DISTRESSED

Perhaps it’s an issue between South Carolinians – a vocal progressive minority in the Episcopal diocese and their theologically conservative bishop and, let’s be honest, most likely the bulk of that diocese.  In October 2012, after the Episcopal Church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops certified that Bishop Mark Lawrence (SC) had abandoned the Episcopal Church “by an open renunciation of the discipline of the church,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori restricted Lawrence’s ministry.  Immediately, the South Carolina Standing Committee announced that that action “triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the diocese from the Episcopal Church and called a special convention.”  On Nov. 15, the Presiding Bishop offered a pastoral letter to the faithful in South Carolina who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church, a letter which affirmed our much-treasured Anglican comprehensiveness and offered a compelling vision of the contested core at the center of our lively tradition.  That being said, the Bishop of Springfield is also correct to assert that Jefferts Shori offered a fairly one-note legalistic document when a message of nuance and grace and love was best intended. And on Nov. 17, the majority of Episcopalians in South Carolina voted to affirm the actions of their bishop and diocesan leadership and disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church.

BISHOP MARK LAWRENCE
of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina

The issue, as I’m sure it’ll be reported, is going to be about yet another fight between a liberal Episcopal Church and conservative Diocese of South Carolina, or between a left-leaning bunch in the diocese and their right-wing bishop, or between those who uphold biblical faith and others who are theological revisionists.  Yet not one of those interpretations would really get to the core of the issue.

This is about the Christian faith as it’s been received and practiced in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church — and not the ways in which it’s been twisted and perverted by those who talk more often about catholic faith and orthodox theology.

This is about schism — breaking away and setting yourself apart — which in the early church was considered a grave sin and was not at all distinct from heresy; in fact, schism was a vastly more important issue than the latter.  In recent years, I recall the 2008 conversation in the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy (IL) when that diocese voted to leave the Episcopal Church.  The Dean of the Cathedral, which was the single-largest congregation, making up 22% of membership in the diocese, educated the cathedral congregation about the misdirected motives of what he called the ultra-conversative diocesan leadership as well as the benefits of staying, even if one disagrees with the majority, and the spiritual disadvantages of schism. From the Episcopal News Service article of 3 December 2008: The Very Rev’d Robert Dedmon (Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Peoria) “beseeched the synod ‘not to further divide the body of Christ’ by what he termed an ‘impossible and compulsive pursuit’ for a perfect situation. ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners,’ said Dedmon. ‘Heresy can be remediated, people can change their minds, but schism, once it occurs formally, is never reconciled.'”  In a comment on Kendall Harmon’s blog in Nov. 2011, Dedmon poignantly quipped: “As a Quincy Episcopalian, I can only say, once again, schism breeds more schism, until at last we are all alone.”

From the Greek, schisma, meaning to tear, shism is an intentional separation from the body.  The New Testament records the apparent tendency of some believers to focus on particular theological sticking-points and isolate those issues as the issue — in turn, establishing that those who disagree with them are the false believers.  That’s why there’s no biblical distinction between schism and heresy.  The Greek verb ‘aireomai (from ‘airesis, heresy) means to choose or to prefer, a tendency in theology, according to Karl Rahner, of taking “a truth out of the organic whole which is the faith and, because [one] looks at it in isolation, [one] misunderstands it.”  There is no right theology without right relationship or, in hip seminary-speak, no such thing as orthodoxy without orthopraxis.  That so-called ‘false brethren’ were separating themselves from the body and setting up churches and interpretations of their own in early Christianity seemed an established fact (Acts 20:30, Col. 2:18), and Jesus himself predicted that that would happen (Mark 13:6, Matthew 24:39).  Moreover, the vast majority of New Testament literature is concerned with community formation and ensuring that churches stay together, no matter what, and only when significant brokeness is at hand and the offender is unrepentant shall the bonds of fidelity be severed.  This is a constant theme in the letters of Paul, whose own ministry was constantly undermined by those who came in after he left and un-did what he worked so hard to build, and the Gospel of Matthew, in particular; see Matthew’s entire 18th chapter about community norms and, with specific reference to a process by which offenders should be heard and tried, Mt. 18:15-20.

Outside of the New Testament, the technical term, schism, first emerges in Irenaeus’ c.180 CE polemic, Adversus Haereses, written against the popular gnostic heresy.  “Schism” shows up in book IV, chapter 33.7, and yet that entire chapter is a case-in-point of this larger issue — namely, that relationship with the whole body, no matter whether you may disagree about particular points of interpretation, is an essential ingredient to right belief.  Needing a better editor, the chapter is entitled: “Whosoever confesses that one God is the author of both testaments, and diligently reads the scriptures in company with the presbyters of the church, is a true spiritual disciple; and he will rightly understand and interpret all that the prophets have declared respecting Christ and the liberty of the New Testament.”  Section 7 continues: “[The true spiritual disciple] shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it, — men who prate of preace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.  For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism.”

Although some will argue, today, that schism and heresy are two quite different things — heresy having to do with issues of doctrine and schism having to do with relationships — that distinction is nowhere found in early Christian literature.  Further, I’m not certain how that distinction can be maintained with theological integrity, even today.  In the modern era, we’ve seen the Roman Church try to do so with a certain, um, clunky-ness.  The Vatican II document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, offered a well-intentioned olive branch to the Eastern churches and Anglican Communion, trying to straddle a fine line between welcoming them, even accepting them, but not accepting that they are fully members: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.”  In this painstaking attempt to distinguish between heresy and schism, I have to say I’m even more confused about my standing in their eyes: I suppose I’m one of their brothers, though an imperfect one.  (Once, I flippantly said to a member of the Roman church, “I guess to you all we’re a bunch of heretics,” to which he replied: “No, you’re just schismatics.”  Honestly, I don’t know which one is worse and neither ‘welcome’ is better.)

The irony in this, for some, is that I, an Episcopal priest and, therefore, schismatic, am writing about the sin of schism.  But my own faith journey led me to accept my Protestant heritage and yet seek Communion in apostolic, catholic Christianity.  For me, it was the Episcopal Church which helped me find a voice and a home in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  It could’ve been the Roman Church, I suppose, but in the course of my desire to connect my life to an apostolic, catholic body the real issue I confronted was what issues I wanted to struggle with over the course of my life and ministry.  As a Roman Catholic, I suppose, I would struggle with issues of theological exclusion and doctrinal uniformity.  As an Episcopalian, I would struggle with conflicts caused by being too inclusive and, sometimes, doctrinal sloppy-ness.

It really comes down to which issues one wants to struggle with because there is, simply, no one perfect church.  Again, Dean Dedmon of Peoria’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, said it well: ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners.”  All churches, as all communities of ordinary people, are the places where we work out our relationship with God in Christ by striving for charity and clarity in our relationships with one another and our own self.  Failing to do so and breaking relationships — becoming a schismatic by willful choice — is, then, now and has always been a sad state and, I’d say, a sin.

WHAT IS CHURCH, ANYWAY? WHITE AND SEABURY

On 14 Nov. 1784, Samuel Seabury, an American, was consecrated as a bishop in Aberdeen, Scotland by three other bishops, making him the first American consecrated a (Anglican) bishop in the apostolic succession and historic episcopate and all that important stuff.  It’s a big day for the Episcopal Church, as it was back then, and we mark it on our church calendars and celebrate it, maybe some of us with specially-baked purple cakes.

SAMUEL SEABURY

All component pieces of American culture, obviously, had problems once the continental leadership declared revolution on the Mother Country.  For the American priests and lay persons who worshipped in what was once called the Church of England – or most likely what they called, simply, ‘the church’ – there was not only an identity crisis but a real debate about  the meaning and substance of church.  Not all Americans supported the idea of revolution; most ardent supporters of the Crown left for Canada or across the pond, and many who remained began to reconsider their understanding of human civilization and the call of Jesus, alongside those who spoke with more political impact of the concepts of liberty and justice for all.  But not all Americans were willing to re-consider the whole enterprise, nor were they willing to leave their home country and go elsewhere: Seabury, himself, served as a chaplain to British troops during the conflict, drew maps for His Majesty’s troops of the hill country of New York, and even collected a pension from Great Britain.

Yes, it was marvelous that Seabury was made a bishop and, yes, it’s an important mark of our episcopal heritage that we not only maintain the historic three orders of ministry (bishops, priests, deacons) but we do so according to apostolic tradition and freely take on the weight of catholic Christianity.  But I’m not so sure that bishops make a church.

In the 1780s, as the Episcopal Church was reorganizing itself and, in fact, determining that it would use the name ‘Episcopal’ (coupled with ‘Protestant’) – the former, a term favored by the party in seventeenth-century England which affirmed the role of bishops  – everyone thought that bishops were essential.  Those who didn’t were already something else, and by the end of that decade Wesley and Asbury and the Methodists had broken ties with their own mother church.

Everyone in the Episcopal Church was working to get American bishops consecrated. The only question, then, was what kind of ‘Anglican’ church would be imagined and planted on American soil:  one which featured old world organizational theory (bishops at the top, clergy deployed from them, and lay people as recipients, hardly participants), or a more representative church which featured republican ideals and was democratically organized – a church which dared to uphold catholic practice and act like Americans, with that messy concept of democracy and collective discernment through representative gatherings. The latter had never before been developed and Seabury opposed it and worked very hard against it.  Even though he and others from New England participated in early organizational conversations, they were inherently skeptical of the 1782 pamphlet produced by William White, a priest in Philadelphia, which seemed to argue, Seabury contended, for nothing more than congregational polity and gave too much power – most of which was reserved to bishops in the Church of England – to the laity.  Once consecrated, Seabury refused to participate in the General Conventions organized by White and others.  Further, he signed his early letters as ‘Bishop of All America’ and even reached into other dioceses’ territory and ordained priests from there.

The organization of the Episcopal Church around something like a representative form of governance has much more to do with William White than Samuel Seabury.  White pleaded with England for the consecration of bishops but – in the clear absence of a man in purple – he and others began to organize the church, anyway.  They imagined a General Convention (initially proposed in 1784 as a unicameral body of clergy and lay) and dioceses that would adhere to state boundaries.  They spoke openly of lay participation, and I think the Prayer Book’s 1979 addition of one more order of ministry – namely, the laity – is in perfect keeping with this early vision of an American Anglicanism.  White and others proposed one bishop for each diocese and dreamed of an Episcopal Church that would be interdependent – one diocese to another, as well as one new American church to its Mother Church in England.

WILLIAM WHITE

Seabury, meanwhile, organized a clergy-led, bishop-centered, non-representative governance in his diocese.  The bishop taught the clergy, the clergy taught the people, and the people did as they were told.  Obviously, I’m biased and I’m sure that shows, so I’ll note, at least, that Seabury was affirming an age-old tradition of episcopal leadership and church organization, albeit (for me) an age-old tradition that had no relevance in the new world, neither the 18th century version nor, let me add, this 21st century edition.

Things were getting heated, and the 1786 General Convention (which Seabury didn’t attend, anyway) passed resolutions denying the authority of Seabury’s consecration and, by implication, any clergy he ordained.  By the middle-half of the 1780’s there were three competing Anglicanisms: one, the churches led by Seabury in New England; another, Wesley’s Methodist Episcopalians (who went their own way when he appointed Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as superintendents in 1784); a third, led by White (PA), Samuel Provoost (NY), James Madison (VA), and Thomas Claggett (MD) in the southern and central states.

Even though he had his own opinions about things it was, again, William White who paved the way for reunification and opened the compromise which led to the Episcopal Church we have today.  In 1789, White – who was, in 1787, consecrated in the English line – led that year’s General Convention to reach out to Seabury: they affirmed the validity of Seabury’s orders, created a bi-cameral General Convention with a separate House of Bishops, and amended the 1786 Constitution to make lay Deputy participation optional. These things met most of Seabury’s objections. The olive branch being offered, Seabury began to conference, then, with the other bishops and the division between the northern and southern versions of the Episcopal Church began to be healed. Before his death in 1796, Seabury participated in one consecration – Claggett’s (MD) in 1792, the first consecration of an American bishop on American soil.

I find myself hoping and praying, today, for someone like William White.  I do this for at least two reasons.  First, I’m drawn to those, like White, who are so comfortable with their traditions and heritage that they see no conflict, no irony in exploring new ways to be who they know themselves to be, already, in Christ.  That’s courageous, to me, and I think the world is desperate to hear not pre-canned voices and opinions but people who love Jesus and follow him through the ministry of His Body, the church, of their own free volition and at the same time are entreprenuerial, adventurous, open to new possibilities, and talk openly of being disciples in new and, perhaps, different ways.

And, second, I’m drawn to William White because he also set aside his own thinking and brought in Seabury, intentionally reaching out to a man who, according to many of White’s own friends and colleagues, was making too much noise, acting like a jerk, and was as arrogant as the day is long.  White reached out to Seabury and encouraged others to do so, as well, and they even modified and amended their own belief system, established earlier, so as to make room for the one who was previously a contender, now a partner and brother in Christ.  We have competing Anglicanisms today – just look at what’s going on in the Diocese of South Carolina – and yet I cannot, at the end of the day, establish with certainty that one is necessarily better or more righteous than another.

No, I said that wrong: For those Anglicanisms who express themselves in generous conversations, commitment to a common life, mutual support of the whole through prayer and giving, and are unafraid to affirm their views, even if they may differ from the more vocal majority, I see no reason to part ways, and only great sadness if this should end up in divorce.  But for those who say it’s ‘my way or the highway’ or those who think of democracy and shared discernment as weak or ineffectual, and those who think a church needs to have baseline agreement on issues of discipline and order, I am sad to say this but there isn’t communion there, already, and it would only make sense for us to go our separate way.

Because at the end of the day I am proud to serve in a church that is not perfect – by no means – but one whose imperfections I can clearly love, and seek to live with.  For the imperfections of the Episcopal Church are also our greatest blessing – a commitment to apostolic truth and order; catholic worship and substance; one another and those net yet amongst us; justice and the dignity of all persons; and the ways in which we work this out, in fear and trembling, by being the church, together.  Bishops, then, were never the core of the issue, not historically, not today.  Bishops convene and call forth and lead, through relationships of love and support, this disparate and wildly divergent group of people who follow Jesus in the Episcopal Way – forward in the work of ministry, which requires the participation of all the orders of ministry: bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people.

BOTH RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL

I am a religious Christian.  It’s not so cool, today, to say you’re religious.  It’s much more trendy to call yourself ‘spiritual but not religious’.  But let me make a claim for religion, and I gather it’s not one you’ve often heard.

The root of the word, religion, has to do with binding.  People who are religious, by definition, participate in something that’s not necessarily theirs in a private and personal sense, and it’s hard to pinpoint just who came up with those symbols and those traditions – bread as body, wine as blood, water as new life?  Religion is limiting where spirituality is free.  For those very reasons, religion is  less appealing than spirituality.  And yet, for those same reasons, I am religious and encounter no contradiction between my religion and my spiritual outlook.

You see, the longer I live with Jesus – the longer I live into the Christian story and get shaped by these symbols and stories and words – the more aware I become that I am participating, through Christ, in a small slice of a great mystery: the mystery that I am a part of a creation, not a disordered jumble of stuff, and that this created order is being loved into a greater wholeness and transformation.  Christianity is the home through which I seek to understand and, even when I don’t fully understand, nonetheless follow the God who is at work transforming this new order.  Those who have been married for a long time know what this is like: the longer you’ve been married to your partner, the more at peace you are with all those other people you didn’t marry.  Or the longer you live in your vocation or career, the more at peace you become with all the things you didn’t – and will never – get around to doing.  The longer you live the life you are living, fully and proudly, the less you worry about what other things you should or could or needed to be doing, and the more at peace you are.  Religion binds us to a story and, ironically, at the same time keeps us open to the reality that our narrative is not necessarily the story; rather it’s one lens on the whole.

The more one reads the bible – a pretty religious thing, after all – the clearer this becomes.  The Old Testament book of Ruth is a good case-in-point.  Here’s the story: Naomi is a Jewish woman from the town of Bethlehem who, in a tragic sweeping accident, loses her husband and her two sons while the family is living in Moab.  She prepares to return home and  her two foreign daughters-in-law also prepare to go back with her.  Naomi tells them to turn back and stay with their people, instead, and one of them (Orpah) agrees but the other (Ruth) refuses.

Ruth and Naomi, then, go to Bethlehem, and the rest of the drama confirms why this story is so appealing – astonishing in that it not only features as main characters ancient Near Eastern women, but two very determined and plucky and savvy women, at that. Naomi plays the matchmaker between Ruth and a Jewish guy named Boaz, and Ruth does her part to secure her future, and that of Naomi’s family name.  The final, final result is that Naomi via Ruth via Boaz becomes the great-great-grandmother of David, and Ruth becomes, then, the foreigner great-grandmother of Israel’s most laudable kind.  A foreign, plucky, determined woman, the ancestor of Israel’s great Messianic figure.

If religion were pure and of small vision, stories such as Ruth’s would not have been included.  If this were about purity and small-mindedness no right thinking Jewish editor would have tolerated having a savvy foreign woman as the great-grandmother of their great King.  All religions struggle with inclusivity versus exclusion.  This struggle has always been, for religions are very much human-made systems of understanding, but human-made systems of trying to understand a great and profound mystery, let’s not forget.  And, in every religious tradition, there are those personalities and symbols which point beyond human conceptions and towards the expansiveness of God’s emergent, radically inclusive Kingdom.  The story of Ruth and the very fact that it’s a part of this so-called Holy Bible highlights, once again, that the God we follow is profoundly expansive.  If I want some small measure of peace in keeping up with that dynamic God, I’d better find a religious home, a place in which I can find comfort when challenged and challenge when comfortable.

Whereas the world sees religious folks as small-minded, judgmental, and myopic in their viewpoints and opinions, most religious folks I’ve met are quite broad-minded and expansive and at peace with the various stuff of life, its ups and downs, and the ways in which conventional human traditions might give way to new understandings, and how God might very well be in all of that.  Religious people or, I should say, religious people who are also spiritual are the folks who can straddle that line between utter mystery and simple comprehension, between the passing nature of our ideas and the eternal substance of God’s wisdom, between the gift of welcoming an outsider and the need to delineate group norms, between being transformed and being at peace.

And that, in itself, is probably the reason for which I am a religious Christian.  Religion helps give peace and the Christian religion gives me a profound peace, and it’s not the peace which the world gives; not at all.

It’s the peace Jesus modeled and taught.  Summarizing the commandments into two – love God and love your neighbor as yourself – Jesus actually pointed beyond the commandments, the words and pointed us to the heart of the life of faith: love.  In particular, He named three loves: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

If in pursuing peace you want to find it, if in seeking meaning you wish to uncover it, you would do well to re-invert those three loves and start to work at them as a spiritual practice.  First, start by loving yourself.  Look, this isn’t an invitation to vanity, but a call to truly know yourself as God’s beloved: know your goodness and your wickedness; know that you’re sometimes screwed up but altogether redeemable; know how deeply you’re loved, and know in your heart that God thinks of you as His beloved.  And that depth of knowledge — knowing something by heart — is what Jesus calls ‘love’.  Love yourself, that unique and marvelous person whom God has made.  Love yourself and you will be at peace as you love your neighbor and even, as Jesus also commanded, love your enemy and, ultimately, love God.  If, in turn, you cannot love yourself, you’ll never love your neighbor and, in fact, you’ll only blame your neighbor and scapegoat your god and find every fault possible with your enemy.  You’ll always be looking beyond and to others for their faults.  And life, then, will not be life-giving, not to you nor for others.  And you, then, will not ever find peace.

But be at peace with yourself, with your understanding of the world, as limited as it may be, and you will, in turn, know God.  And, even more so, you will find yourself at peace with God while God goes about doing what God does – loving those whom you and I might rather not like; redeeming those whom some of us might see as enemies; bringing into his Kingdom those whom we might rather exclude and keep out.  But if your religion is true and your spirit refreshed, that won’t mean a thing, for you will keep following the God who is changing you, at that very moment, from the inside out.

 

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Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 4 Nov. 2012.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.