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ENCOMPASSED ABOUT

I am met by the same question at the hairdressers and the bank, in the grocery store and even at Walmart. “What denomination do you belong to?”  The question is loaded with unasked questions. “What does your church believe?” “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”  “Do you believe in the Bible?’ “Do your priests marry?”

Now don’t get me wrong. I rejoice in the heritage and tradition of the Episcopal Church I serve. Yet I also know that such a “tradition” may be a narrow and delighted enjoyment of that which makes being an Episcopalian “other” or unique. I have experienced the arrogance of particularism all my life. If it makes me shudder: how much more must it do to those outside our magic circle.

Unless the tradition which has formed me is dependent on something wider, it may well become a self-justifying idol. At the altar, as I say the Offices, as I teach and preach I must constantly rely on the witness of the Church in time and space, here and eternally. I must constantly submit myself to the “cloud of witnesses” which encompass me. In the process I must “hear” the voices of those who lived before there was an Episcopal Church, before Anglicanism, before the Reformation, the Great Schism as well as to those whose witness has been in other “churches” up to the present time.

I have mentioned before my deep aversion to the use of the word “denomination” to describe our tradition of theology and spirituality. It narrows our vision and creates an unhealthy reliance on what we do as a Christian group. When nationalism and particularism injects itself into “denominationalism” the result is our putting our trust in a tradition reluctant to permit the voice and witness of the Church to act as conscience and guide.

Israel in Old Testament times was chosen and called to be a light to enlighten the world. Over and over again, uncomfortable with the “moral” – no not merely sexual – burden of such a vocation, it went after other gods. At the same time it drew into itself, as particularism and nationalism led it to believe its own press reports.

“A light to lighten” the Gentiles, the light of Christ, initiated a new chosen people again entrusted with calling the world to the worship of the One True God.

Uneasy with that vocation we seek other gods in a sentimental indifference towards other religions. At the same time we revel in our own nationalism and particularism. We worship Episcopalianism, claim Christ as our possession, have become quite ready to believe that other gods share an equally useful avenue to a vague Divinity and blither about “inclusion” as the goal of true religion.

We find ourselves bewildered in a culture which takes us at our word. What is the relevance of this “tradition” of worship and practice to the lives of those who manage their lives without benefit of religion?  I refer not to those who find a comfortable accommodation to our “progressivism” or “conservatism”, a convivial company with whom to spend our Sunday mornings.

How may we recover our calling and vocation to be a light to the gentiles until we expose our nationalism, particularism and sentimentality to the light of Christ and to the voices and witness of that great cloud of witnesses who have been light in their several generations?  It is high time we offered our clutter of tradition, liberal and conservative to the dying Lord on his Cross. It is because we fear to surrender who we are to death/resurrection, because we instead glory in who we are, that we fail to be a microcosm of the Church where we are. As it was with Israel, so it is with us.

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