Saturday, May 27, 2006

This Hard Work of Communion

Driving back from one of our pre-convention Q&A Sessions in the Diocese of Bethlehem, Fr. Nick Knisely hit upon one of those basic questions that helps clarify matters. We were discussing the fact that in the session in the northern part of our diocese, the more rural, former coal mining areas—whose cities both sit far apart and are more self-defined-- people were more concerned about our continued connection with the wider Anglican Communion. A few laity present voiced the fear that unless we “did something” we’d be “thrown out” of the Anglican Communion.

This contrasted with the dominant themes we heard from the group in the southern, more urban & suburban—and New York/Philadelphia influenced—part of our diocese. There the concern was that we maintain our integrity as Episcopalians.

The observation must have hit Nick mid-presentation, because he has asked out loud to the northern group “How do you see yourselves: as Anglican first and Episcopalian second; or as Episcopalians first and Anglicans second?” The consensus in that room was the former: Anglicans first and Episcopalians second.

I said out loud, I must be too Anglican or something because I see myself as both. But on reflection, I think it's more complicated than that.

Way back in 1977, I did my junior abroad at Wycliffe Hall an Anglican theological college in the evangelical tradition in Oxford. This was a great experience because unlike many of the canned junior-year-abroad programs that American colleges do, where one lives in an American bubble and ventures out into the host culture, the deal was that for the time we were there had to adhere to the regimen and expectations of the college. Chapel was a requirement, field placement was too. Tutorials and classes were taken with people just starting out in their formation towards ordination. I can honestly say that I am a priest today, and the kind of priest I am, because of those five months at Wycliffe Hall.

When we were discussing if we were Anglicans or Episcopalians first, memories came flooding back to me. These are memories and observations that only a naïve twenty year-old who did not know-yet-what-he-did-not-know could make.

First, I recall how naive I was about this Anglican Communion thing. Confirmation class tuaght me that in the Anglican Communion we were tied together by “red thread” that runs through the whole fabric of our communion. As different as we are, we all shared a common worship and a common ethos. Well, I discovered, yes and no.

Only a little bit of what I grew up with—1928 BCP as filtered through (what I now know to be the work of) Associated Parishes, then trial use and the then-current Proposed BCP—prepared me for worship out of the 1662 BCP and a myriad of little pocket sized service books.

Second, I was unprepared for the divisions and differences within the Church of England at that time. As an American Episcopalian—my cohorts from other traditions, Baptist and UCC did not suffer this—I found myself needing more than the daily diet of Morning Prayer and quiet time in my room with the Bible. So eventually I found myself walking down the street to the Anglo-Catholic St. Stephen’s House for their daily Mass after Wycliffe’s Morning Prayer, and then coming back in time for breakfast.

Third, I remember the upset and near-panic in the place over the ordination of women. The American church has just regularized the ordination of women to the priesthood, and about to finalize a new prayer book, and the place was in a panic. I remember clearly the reaction of one of my tutors, a retired Bishop and life-long bachelor, who was in tears (I am not making this up) over the clear destruction of the church this represented.

I knew the red thread was pretty frayed when I was assigned to go the local school—we’d call it a high school—to do a mandatory assembly. This meant doing a worship service in a school auditorium. I refused. Deep in my stars-and-stripes American gut, I knew this was just plain wrong. Churches, I told them, don’t do this. If I had already not grown horns, I had them now. This, I was told, is the Church of England and this is what we do. Fortunately, the vice-principal sent me off on another errand that day.

There were some events that were reserved to members of the Church of England. This was why my field placement at a local hospital was staffed by Canadians, Australians, Americans, a white anti-aparteid activist South African, a Norwegian Lutheran and a Welshman (who I think really wanted to be hospital chaplain!). I got the feeling that this way, we wouldn't upset any parishes.

No matter how alien I felt, I became more solidly Episcopalian in that time than ever before. Any thoughts I had of leaving the Episcopal Church and becoming either a Baptist or Methodist went away for good. I knew I was called to be a priest that year. I knew I shared this ethos and identity called Anglican. The parting gifts and the friendships from that time stay with me today. But I also knew that I was from a different Church than the Church of England, and I was glad to come home.

All of this and more came flooding back to me when I heard some say that they see themselves as Anglican First and Episcopalian Second. Do we really know what we mean by that?

I wonder how much of “being Anglican” has been reduced to the level of slogan. I wonder if for at least some people “being Anglican” is not in fact code for “being Episcopalian before someone else screwed it up.”

The thing I realize now about my experience 29 years ago was that it took a lot of work to live in Communion.

I can only imagine what it is like for the handful of Nigerian Anglicans who come to worship in my congregation today. Or the small, (growing?) group of Latino Christians from various traditions who worship with us. Or the courage it takes for a life long Roman Catholic to become an Episcopalian. I can more easily imagine what it might feel like to the folks in my parish who have been here for decades and know that the parish they love now is not at all the same parish as the parish they knew then.

All these people teach us that living in Communion is about what one does when one lives in Christ.

To decide to live in communion means that we are going to intentionally live under Christ, and that all that we know, all that we’ve lived, all that we’ve been taught, will somehow be mediated through Christ. Which is a good thing, because without Him the gears don't mesh very well at all! To live in Communion requires a mixture of fortitude and humility that only comes in koinonia. Like all Gifts of the Spirit, it is at once a gift and a decision.

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