Exclusive Universalism

I was chatting the other day with an experienced and engaging priest. He shared with me and some others his sort of vision for the Episcopal Church. I suspect that his convictions were very much shaped in the Sixties and in association with some of the more sociological and political passions of the age.

Just before he expressed himself, I’d been thinking of a particular parish in a declining community, the walls of the parish hall of which were bedecked by fading portraits of mutton-chopped worthies, bankers, mine owners, property developers; the movers and shakers in Victorian days, to whom the Episcopal Church was home, and Morning Prayer their affirmation of status. They had built the building and lovingly adorned it with muddy stained glass, burnished brass and acres of varnished pitch pine in an attempt to look English. Of course they were not the only parishioners, but for the most part they were THE parishioners. They represented the ethos, morals and drive not only of the parish but of the wider community. Yes, there was immigrant Roman Catholics exploited by these very pious Episcopalians in the local mines and factories. Of course there were those who had drifted in from the surrounding countryside, hard shell Baptists, fundamentalists of various stripes, Methodists and the Presbyterians who vied for respectability and influence at city hall.

The Episcopal priest was, in many although not all cases, a safe man. It was said that Episcopal ministers were born with a natural bow, indicating their ability to bow to the wishes of their betters, vestry members all.

The heirs of these leading men and women are a dying breed in days of corporations, national and multinational. They left endowments and now crumbling buildings. As their firms and businesses have given way to Wal Mart, Target, multi-sited law firms and banks, those who once worked for them, or whose lives were often in servitude to them, have gone away, or if they remain, their children seek a new life elsewhere.

In earlier days, people were either “born” into TEC as part of the family heritage, came to TEC by upward mobility, or, in the later 19th Century were attracted to the music and liturgy of post Tractarian worship; a worship which had moved steadily from the verbal to the visual. The more cerebral were also impressed by our odd mixture of fairly precise theological formulation and a freedom to think and explore the mysteries of faith in the context of real and contemporary human experience. And to some the very strange history of this Church, at once Catholic and Reformed, a history available in a number of often mutually exclusive versions, provided romance and community identity. After all, what was good enough to so many of the Founding Fathers must be special?

Who can but note the fertility of such a ground for the sins of arrogance, snobbery, class and elitism? An also for the most profound, self-offering measure of Christian life and experience.

Yet, as I chatted with my friend I found the ground didn’t seem to have shifted much at all. For he/she, propounded a modern vocation for our church as a body for progressive, liberal, sociologically and politically aware people, “the leaven in the lump” in a conservative, right wing, fundamentalist America, but a leaven distinct and apart.

I’d mentioned that sort of thinking in a conversation with a bishop as we drove a fair distance, I’d asked what our mission was to the men and women driving the trucks which passed us at great speed. It was partly a humorous aside, but in it was a deeper question about the nature of the Church and its mission.

Surely our church doesn’t want truck drivers in the pews? It has a justice ministry to the poor, the outcast, the single mother, the girl with an unwanted pregnancy, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, those without medical insurance, HIV/AIDS sufferers; those dying of starvation, malaria, in the midst of Civil War, or our wars abroad. We’ve identified the Millennium Development Project and are setting aside our .7%; we have soup kitchens, champion women’s’ rights, gay, lesbian, transgendered rights, civil rights, human rights, and the list goes on. We gather in commissions, committees, task forces, have an extraordinarily vital relief and development agency, and these opportunities for good works are to be found at almost every level of our structural reality, from 815, the executive council, General Convention, to diocesan, parochial an ad hoc gatherings. The only trouble seems to be that we don’t seem to be able to attract enough people and money to sustain all this anymore.

During the last few decades we’ve reformed the Liturgy, must have destroyed forests in order to print all our alternative services, rites and ceremonies, new hymns and songs –despite the fact that surveys show most parishes to be very conservative in the use of the Prayer Book, the Hymnal and the organ – moved the furniture around, gone ecumenical, well sort of, and asserted ourselves to the rest of the Anglican world as a special, Spirit guided, developer of doctrine and morals.

In short we have become elite. We champion all these people, but the problem with most of the people who need justice, is that they are poor, under-educated and tend to be conservative or right wing. They send their children to fight the war and support George Bush. Damn! So we are for them, but don’t want them in our pews, and have marginalized those Episcopalians who look rather like them. Not that that “conservative” Episcopalians are any less exclusive in their own way. I’ll get to them later. For the moment though, I’d single out one of areas in which their reaction to liberals and perhaps to our new Presiding Bishop, is also deeply sectarian. Liberals seem indifferent because they often say that as everyone is loved by God, there’s no need to offer them Christ, let alone the Church. And liberals, who don’t want to be crass about it, waffle about Christ being our savior for us and that other religions contain the same fundamental truths and perhaps are just as viable.

In reaction our neo-evangelical Anglicans thunder texts about Jesus being the way, the truth and the life, and that in him alone is salvation. By this they seem to mean that only a set of formulae, mostly 16th or 18th Century in precise terminology, although biblical of course, applied precisely to an unbeliever as a challenge and a question, is used by God to determine whether Joe or Mary, a Moslem or a Buddhist are in the Book of Life. So now a confession.

I believe that all people and people come to know God in Jesus. I believe that the Cross is universal in application, and not merely the property of Christianity. I believe that the Cross changed everything.

I believe that the coming, living, dying, rising, ascending Christ is the Lord of all things. I believe that the Trinity creates community, all community, however much we sully the vision and the reality.

I believe that Jesus is all truth, religious, scientific, social, political, communal.

I believe that it is God’s eternal purpose to return his world, this world, to “pre Fall Eden”.

I believe that God has called together a kingdom of priests to be the present sign, and the continued imperfect agency of that restored Eden.

I believe that it is in Baptism that this Royal Priesthood, Holy Nation is peopled, sanctified, set aside and called in power.

I believe that the mission of this people is holistic. It embraces most, but not all of the “liberal” goals, but perhaps marvels at the liberal naiveté in leaving out the manifest capacity of people to be evil, grasping, self-serving and plain bad. (I was reading the new PB website and thought perhaps its mission statement should be “A Post-Millenialist Gospel for a Post Modern World.”

BUT I believe that this distinct calling and mission is the oppos
ite of elitism. For the power of Jesus is not in his advancing his own authority, power, prestige or even in a sense uniqueness. The power of Jesus is in weakness, self-sacrifice, slavery-that IS what servant means – and death, the abandonment of all. It is in this manner alone that all things are made new.

The Church’s mission is to approach all people, everywhere, telling them the Good News, witnessing the Good News, offering the Good News, in humility, as St. Paul himself did in Athens. We are to offer Baptism as God calls to himself his priestly body, who are to serve the rest of the world, and mediate God to the rest of the world We are to do this as offering Jesus in his humility to all religions and ideals, sharing and recognizing their visions of truth, as we apprehend the path, the truth, the life in their words and lives. Indeed it is Christ in his Church which offers this, humbly whether to people of other faiths, or to people of no faith, or occasional faith. Who God embraces in his saving love is known only to God. It’s none of our business. That’s what Jesus said.

No Christianity is not just a cultural, Western religion. It didn’t start that way. We were in India and Iraq a thousand years before we were in America. There isn’t always a common thread in all religions, or all philosophies or ideas. Some religions and this has been true of Christianity, have had and practiced monstrous evil and not always without textual encouragement. Mrs. Besant call home. Jesus is the Word made flesh. But we don’t own Jesus and certainly our own collective or personal “take” on Christianity doesn’t own Jesus.

Does such a belief lead to indifferentism? I believe it gives us freedom to explore the more deeply our faith in all its aspects, to become more passionately who we are and whom we serve. It gives us something extraordinary to offer.

Are we the heirs of those mutton chopped bankers and their, often more holy, crinolined wives? Certainly not. We are educated, progressive, right minded, justice seekers and not as others are, oppressors, bigots, narrow-minded moralists. And so we stand in the Temple.

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