Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Church is not ours to take away or be taken away

This is part of the introductory essay on this weeks Anglican Online. Could not have said it better myself....

This morning we happened on to a radio programme* about the investiture of the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA. After a minute or so of description and audio snips from the ceremony, the radio cut to a comment by Robert Duncan, Bishop of Pittsburgh, described as 'part of the marginalized and vocal minority'. The first words from Bob Pittsburgh (as he signs himself) were:

'I have this sense and this grief that somehow our church has been taken away from us'.

We had to switch off the radio to leave for Divine Service, so the remainder of his comments were unheard. But +Pittsburgh's startling comment stayed with us for most of the day.

We found ourselves pondering the (to us) strange concept that a church can be 'taken away'. And then 'our church' struck us as even stranger. The church is not ours, but God's. Its Anglican forms throughout the world are a multicoloured mosaic, shaped by local cultures and practises, holding to the framework of Catholic liturgy that has been the genius of the Ecclesia Anglicana for more than 500 years.

What church has been 'taken away' from the Bishop of Pittsburgh? The Episcopal Church of the 1950s, the one in which he spent his young years? The chapel he experienced as a student at Trinity College in Hartford, College in the late 1960s? That church which forbade women deputies to General Convention? Or an earlier Episcopal Church, where divorce was all but forbidden, except in cases of adultery? Where remarriage was impossible, even for the innocent party? Perhaps the church that was taken away was the atmosphere and ethos of the mid-19th-century Church of England, where marriage to a deceased wife's sister was forbidden and punishable by law? Or the mid-19th century American church that turned a blind eye to the practice of slavery?

That abbreviated litany of 'churches that have been taken away' could be extended nearly indefinitely. Every age has brought change to the church, beginning as innovation, often proclaimed as heresy, and eventually becoming tradition. And it is no less true that each change brings unsettlement and pain. Yet 'the Gospel in the Church' cannot be stagnant, for the Holy Spirit has been pledged to lead us into all truth. Were the church to have remained the same in structure, form, and practices as it was in the first centuries of the Christian Church, would there be a church remaining in this year of grace AD 2006? Stasis, in creation, is death. We think it no less so in the church.

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