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THE IMPORTANT THING IS..

Each morning at Mattins I “cause the bell to be tolled” before the service and then say the Angelus at the Marian Shrine (tut tut) before I begin the Office. Yes, I am usually alone. But am I?

I say the Office for the parish, that is on behalf of the parish. But is there more? Surely the bell announces to the community that heaven and earth, the eternal, the global and the local are intersecting? The prayers of the Church with a capital C are just that. I am as much praying with the Church as I am praying for the Church.

One of the callings of a priest is to stand at that intersecting door between the eternal, the global and the “place”. Our job is to keep that door open as it were.

Then the psalm this morning seemed appropriate. (78 1 – 39) “That which we have heard and known, and what our forefathers have told us, we will not hide from their children. We will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, and the wonderful works he has done….So that they might put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God, but keep his commandments; And not be like their forefathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, and whose spirit was not faithful to God.”

Even the lesson about Gideon this morning, militaristic as it is, tells of an obscure person from an obscure tribe, who is asked by God to reduce his armed strength to 300 men for the battle, gave some meaning to our weakness in the task we face as we seek to witness to Jesus, incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended in our Episcopal Church today.

If all the above is true of the Office, how much more so is it of the Eucharist, ideally celebrated by the bishop, surrounded by other clergy and laity, as the “ordinary” minister of the sacrament, but even so when we “extraordinary” ministers gather with the people of God.

In such a context the local becomes the microcosm of the eternal, global, regional and local. We priests are called to draw aside the veil and expose our little bit of ground to the Glory of God and to his saving grace.

Now our trouble, as I see it, is that we practice a sort of faithful agnosticism in all this. We would rather seek for other signs, synodical action, national strategies, world-wide solutions. Granted these things have their place. But unless, surely, we believe in our essential task and mission, the rest has little power. And when we put all our trust in structure and power, rather than in Word and Sacrament, we fall and deserve to fall.

I have a mind to believe that God probably used the time our bishops in Canterbury, prayed together, celebrated the Eucharist together, studied the Bible together and shared their hearts with each other, than in any other part of their agenda. Perhaps it would be better to say that in doing the real tasks of a Christian perhaps God was able to build the bishops up to tackle the hard, practical decisions and actions before them.

ON BEING THE CHURCH

During the last press conference of the Lambeth meetings, Archbishop Williams was asked whether he viewed the Communion as a church or not. I think it fair to him to say that he hopes and prays that it will grow to be a church or perhaps realize its vocation as a world wide church.

Immediately alarm bells sound. The more “liberal” blogs have been warning that there is a plot to create an international super church out of what they claim to be a federation of autonomous churches. Immediately the vocation to become a church is painted in terms of “papalism”, centralization, a process that strips the provinces and national churches of their autonomy.

All this is passing strange coming as it does usually from those who applaud globalization and would love to strengthen the United Nations. On the other hand those calling for a more centralized Anglican body, with tools to discipline errant member churches tend to be those who are fearful of any measures which strengthen world government and who oppose, for instance, the International Court of Justice. It’s a rum old world.

There was a time when Western Christians were split on the issue of congregational autonomy, with Congregationalists and Baptists affirming the autonomy of the local congregation and the rest for some form of wider church body, whether episcopal or Presbyterian in nature. Many in the Episcopal Church now seem to have settled for something in between the two. They don’t like the idea of congregational or even diocesan autonomy. They do like the idea of “Provincial” autonomy, an autonomy enforced if needs be, by force of secular law and internal Canons.

It may well be that having decided that errant bishops, dioceses and parishes should be disciplined by ecclesiastical and if needs be secular law, the proponents of total Provincial autonomy can envision no wider structure than their own because they fear that a world-wide Communion would wish to use law to bring them to heel. In other words they are projecting their own sins onto a larger Communion.

No doubt if some of those who campaign for a Communion with teeth won the day, the fears of those who champion Provincial autonomy in all things would be correct. Yet, at least to this reader, the evidence is that the driving force behind the movement towards the Anglican Communion embracing the notion that it is indeed a church is biblical, theological and ecclesiological rather than merely practical or structural.

Orthodoxy recognizes itself as being a Church in pretty exclusive terms and yet it has as far from the Roman Catholic Church in the way it practices being the church as is possible to imagine. One might as well say that one doesn’t want the Communion to look like TEC as to fear that it might look like the RCC. Indeed TEC is an international body and occasionally seems to be as much of a rival international body as GAFCON.

The Old Catholic Utrecht Union churches manage to be a global entity without being papal.

Unlike most other groupings within “Catholic” Christendom the Anglican Communion makes no claim to be the whole Church, but rather claims to be authentically “the Church” wherever its faithful gather around their bishop and other clergy in fellowship with other bishops and their flock. That is a good place to start.

The worst form of nationalism is that which breeds xenophobia and “nationalism”. The 20th Century bore witness to that as millions died in its name. The worst form of provincial autonomy is that which exalts the local and even the peculiarity of its mission above all others. Such ecclesiastical nationalism may not actually kill people but it does have the power to divide, alienate and drive people, many of them caught in the middle, away from the church. Our Lord had some pretty harsh things to say about those who cause “little ones” to lose their faith.

I am no fan of bureaucracy, of endless commissions and committees and fully realize that majoritarianism can be as autocratic as dictatorship. The pattern of prayer, Bible Study and Indaba may point us towards an older pattern of church governance, one rooted in faithfulness and consensus, a rediscovery of what is meant by “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

Of course this involves sacrifice, on all our parts. That sacrifice of “ourselves, our souls and bodies” must be freely given, or should I say ideally is freely given. But some find themselves sacrificed not by their own offering, but by that of others, by cruelty or expedience. Such sacrifice is by no means demeaned by its involuntary nature. We call such people martyrs, or witnesses. It is the vocation of us all.