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A PRE-CONVENTION REFLECTION

Next week bishops and clerical and lay deputies from all over the Episcopal Church will descend on Salt Lake City, Utah, for the triennial meeting of its primary legislative body. Each day during nearly two weeks of meetings, Convention will meet as one body to worship God and offer the Eucharist. Each day those assembled will state collectively that they believe the Church to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. Such a profession is at once descriptive and aspirational. It is descriptive because we believe at root, the Church of God is all those things. It is aspirational because the Church in this day and age is divided, sinful, and introverted. I don’t speak only here of the tiny portion of the Church of God we term The Episcopal Church, but of the Church we see and to which we now belong here on earth.

There’s a certain irony about TEC’s meeting in Salt Lake City. For that place is the mother and home of one of those American bodies that emerged in the 19th. Century as America expanded westward and lived into its destiny. Should not an exceptional nation have an exceptional religion, home grown and beholden to no one and nothing but itself? Exceptionalism continues to run deep in the American political, national and religious DNA. Even when expressed in tandem with a conviction that we should appreciate where we came from and embrace the wider world, still there remains an almost visceral awareness that we are not as others are. And so the Creeds, daily recited, sound an uncomfortable and even jarring note, a reminder of something deeper than nostalgia – something much deeper than the way many Americans seem to love the British Royals while swiftly agreeing that the American Way is other. Well that may be well and good as it refers to the form a nation state takes, but it is topsy turvy when applied to what we term ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. One would wish that General Convention would project onto a large screen in both its Houses the words, “We believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

In what manner should General Convention aspire to live into the Credal doctrine?

1. One. Jesus prayed that the Church would be one. While the modern ecumenical movement, for over a century, has striven to recapture that unity, with few exceptions TEC has opted for the easy way out.  While we’ve entered into agreements of intercommunion with Lutherans, Moravians, Old Catholics and may do so with Methodists, we’ve retained our independence and in most communities few signs exist that our agreements have made much difference. Not even the present Pope speaks of unity in terms of uniformity, but unity means walking together, pushing aside stumbling blocks as we walk together, and the realization that the journey forward is together and not as friendly but distinct tribes. The puzzle remains. While we have made significant strides, we’ve also created a number of new and formidable stumbling blocks, yes, in the name of truth and justice, but also with considerable hubris and vocal disdain for those not so guided by our visions. Division ecumenically, within our Communion and internally continues to present to the watching world something other than a pattern for reconciliation, as applicable to the world as to the Church. The Anglican habit of tentative advocacy, admitting that one may be wrong, has been replaced by abrasive certainty, whatever the consequence in lost and disillusioned people

2. Holy.  The root of the word ‘Holy’ is separate, apart, different. As applied to God it means that even in God’s approaching us, he remains distinct, often in a manner which draws us to kneel in awe and to express our unworthiness, as Isaiah did when he was given a vision of Yahweh (Isaiah 6). When applied to the Church, the term Holy refers to its calling, its being set apart as a kingdom of priests unto God. The fact that only the baptized may offer the Eucharist is all about that distinct vocation and nothing at all to do with God’s love for all men and women. The baptized are called into a  priesthood. The function of a priest is to stand for the world to God and to offer God to the world. The central and distinct calling of the Church is expressed in worship.

We’ve become so seduced by therapeutic religion that we can’t embrace our vocation. Submerged in our neediness, a desperate yearning to be fixed and to fix,  we concentrate on what God does for us, and because we are insatiable we assume that the non Christian world is as needy as we are. We urge them to come join us in church. We just can’t understand why there’s little response and our congregations wither.

Holiness means that we embrace our calling and endeavor in thought, word and deed, to mirror the life, deeds and mighty acts of our great High Priest, Jesus. Unless General Convention envisions both the calling of the People of God, and the Christ-like life of the People of God, it won’t be able to see structure as sacramental and evangelism as the living out of Priesthood in God’s world. Jesus’s life is not so much a pattern of morality in its narrow sense as that of self-forgetting outpouring and life-giving.

3. Catholic.  Catholic means something much more profound than worldwide. Yes, TEC has some rather minuscule foreign dependents but that hardly adds up to Catholicity. We are part of the Anglican Communion, but even, at our best, when we acknowledge that in the New Testament the word communion means the deepest form of union, we remain far less than Catholic. Catholicity is much more than ‘valid Orders’, or ‘valid sacraments’, or structural connection. At root it refers to the life giving presence of the Holy Spirit made visible and tangible in ministry, sacraments, teaching and connection. We can’t begin to talk about Catholicity until we learn to gaze at all the components of what we term Church as Spirit-filled gifts of God to us. While we merely gaze at these gifts in terms of what the world terms utility, structure, forms and methods which belong to us, which we may tinker with, alter, amend, even discard at will, instead of approaching them with reverence and awe, we touch the Ark to our own peril and create a parody of the Church in its essential nature and being.

4. Apostolic.  The disciples were titled Apostles because they were charged, at the Ascension, by Jesus, with a few deceptively simple commandments. “Go into all the world.”  “Go baptize”. “Do this in remembrance of me.” “Love one another”. The disciples had no budget, no structure, no power. When that sinks in, we either pine for simple days, or dismiss their impoverishment as something which has no application in a complex modern world. “Apostolic’ means sent out, it means movement out, it means trusting in the Trinity, it means believing that as we so go, God adds to the Church those whom he calls. Yet we continue to see apostolicity as inviting in, staying put, a sort of Pelagian trust in our own smartness to  dream up schemes and plans to turn things around. We don’t seem to believe that the modern world, the city outside church buildings, is a safe place for us. We don’t believe that God is going to do the evangelism if we dare step out of our Upper Rooms. Marks of apostolicity, the Historic Faith, the Ministry, the Sacraments, and the call to loving service to mankind, are just neatly labelled museum pieces if we remain the Episcopal Church in the Upper Room. They easily become nicely framed proposed motions in a virtual Blue Book.

The great call General Convention should hear is a call to be the Church, to aspire to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic as a kingdom of priests for God and for the world. Nothing less honors our calling.

2 Responses

  1. Sad that the one (and only?) mission of the church is not mentioned here or in most church gatherings: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (Prayer Book, Page 855)
    It us unlikely that ecclesiastical diplomats will negotiate the unity of Jesus’ followers.
    Early Christians saw the need for “theosis” and “divinization.” As did later folks like the Wesleys. See Wikipedia on theosis and divinization. Jesus prayed (prays?) that every one of us may be one with the father “as you and I are one.”
    Isn’t all this about mystical union of each of us with the Giver of Life?
    Doesn’t page 855 get it right!

  2. Thank you for this. It’s vital that the delegates realize that they are only one part–though an important part–of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. We must not act as if we’re above all of that, or better than that, or separate from that. We must believe, pray, and act in accord with that. As a teaching theologian at a small college, I’m often disappointed at both sides in church debates. Conservatives demand faithfulness to their brand of scripture and castigate all others. Liberals demand faithfulness to their brand of justice and castigate all others. Listening to their debates reminds me of reading the unsophisticated research papers of my theology freshmen! We have to be a community, and we must learn to value our unity as much as scripture and justice. Without catholicity, without unity, we’re just one more bunch of activists or ideologues.

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