By Russell Levenson
“We pray for your holy Catholic Church… that we all may be one” (BCP, p. 387). In that prayer, we are connecting to Jesus’ final prayer before the Passion. My staff and I pray it regularly. And it arrests me.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, crying tears of blood, what was Jesus’ prayer? That his followers might choose the right liturgy? Be Roman or reformed? Green or industrialists? Pro-life or pro-choice? For or against same-sex marriage? No — his prayer was clear:
“I pray for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21).
This is still a prayer that, evidently, needs to come to the forefront of our much-divided branch of the Anglican Communion. Mercifully, the good Lord has brought to the helm of our Episcopal Church a Presiding Bishop who not only believes, but proclaims, the absolute necessity of the lordship and love of Jesus Christ as ground-zero in our Christian identity. However an honest assessment will show that we are still far more interested in drawing lines and fighting battles than in sharing in Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer.
For years I have claimed the mantle of a conservative evangelical. In the divisions over human sexuality in the 1990s and early 2000s, you would have found me in the “traditional” camp. As a student of the Bible and the tradition of the Church, I could not (and still cannot) affirm the decisions to support same-sex marriage, or to ordain any person who is sexually active outside of traditional marriage, regardless of their orientation. From my more liberal and progressive friends (and they were friends), I got eye-rolls and patronizing patience, indicating that perhaps someday, with age and wisdom, I would “come around.”
Since those days, things have changed. I have gay friends. I have gay friends, some of whom are clergy. There are members of my parish who are gay and married and have brought their children along. While I still do not perform same-sex marriages, when I’m asked by gay members who desire one, I help them to find a priest and a parish who will. After their marriage, the couple are warmly recognized at our parish — for who they are, not for who they are not. I now believe that many of the gay couples I have come to know and love have found a life-partner who brings them companionship and intimacy. For those who seek — and find — the Church’s blessing in that, I can even support their decision as an alternative to my own.
What happened in my ministry when those changes became palpable? A life-long conservative clergy friend and mentor, with whom I agreed about virtually every matter on doctrine and church practice, told me that I had fallen off my rocker. Later, an internationally recognized Anglican bishop and theologian who was scheduled to preach and teach at my Church wrote me to withdraw his acceptance. Though my doctrinal positions hadn’t changed, this was not enough to change minds or encourage conversation. The message was clear. I had “made peace” with the other side. I had “drunk the Kool-aid,” and was to be shunned.
What about my liberal friends?
Before our last General Convention, I was part of a conversation with some of the deans of our Episcopal seminaries, all of whom I knew personally. A few confessed that they were exhausted by gatherings that continued to focus on divisive issues that were making our witness to the world anemic. We agreed on a step in a productive direction: that they write together a statement saying it was time to put an end to squabbles over matters upon which we may never agree, work together to support, full force, the “Jesus Movement,” and, to support this statement, publicly affirm the need to recruit more conservative seminary candidates. Many of our Churches and members are still quite conservative, and this move would allow for putting money where our mouths are. About half of the deans agreed and were ready to do so; the other half pushed back – seeing no issue at stake. I did my best as a rector constantly seeking to bring on more conservative clergy to make the argument that it was getting harder and harder to find such clergy. Those declining to support the effort, just did not see that as a problem.
Where my liberal colleagues do see an issue at stake, I have often seen a divisive mindset as entrenched as any I have found among conservatives.
I was once interviewing a clergy person for my staff. All was going well, but when this person sat down with the canon to the ordinary, the canon made it clear that the diocese had moved on same-sex marriage and ordination of those sexually active outside of traditional marriage. They pressed the point with the candidate who did not align with that position: “You do understand… we are not going back on that.” My candidate understood, but just wanted a chance to maintain personal convictions.
Earlier this year, I was having a very good discussion with a priest of leadership in our national church. She was explaining that she was doing all she could to make inroads with other Christian faith communities — Methodists and Lutherans — as well as with other faiths — Muslim and Jews. I asked her what, if anything, she was doing to reach out to some of the groups that had broken away from the Episcopal Church — AMiA, CANA, ACNA. She looked at me as if I were asking about aliens from Mars. I suggested that our witness would have far more impact if we worked hard to clean up the mess in our own back yard. Again, she had no answer.
We also talked about women in leadership in the church. Her assumption was that this had to go hand-in-hand with a push for greater inclusivity of LGBT agenda issues. What she did not know is this: for every open post on my staff, I made it a point to add women clergy. And yet these women, who should be liberated to be fully themselves in ministry, have felt discriminated against among liberal colleagues because of their more conservative positions on LGBT matters.
So, friends, here we are again. Lambeth is around the corner, and while there is much to celebrate in our Anglican Communion (and I very much believe that) we continue to see divisions brewing. The left and right have hold of the microphones and the vast middle waits for something more, something beyond this insistence on division.
In the London Times recently, there was an article on Bishop Sarah Mullally, the relatively new Bishop of London. The article stated the facts — that London comprises different strands of Anglicanism, from Anglo-Catholic parishes to charismatic and evangelical communities, many of them from Africa or the Caribbean. It went on to note the huge potential for doctrinal disagreements between liberal Anglicans, traditionalists, and evangelicals. When asked about that challenge, Bishop Mullally simply described it as “the joy of diversity.” Is it possible that we could ever get to that place — to really believe that our diversity is not a curse, but a blessing — in fact, a joy?
Let me go back to the Anglican bishop who refused to come to my parish. He knew that I had been mentored by one of the great evangelicals of the last century, the Rev. Dr. John R.W. Stott, who also supported a traditional Biblical understanding of marriage and ordination. And he told me that John — who had been a friend and mentor for over 20 years of my adult life — would not have approved of my new methodologies in ministry. He suggested that John would have been disappointed.
But when he wrote me that email, he was not aware that I visited with John shortly before his death in July 2011, when he was living in a retirement home just outside of London. Before leaving Dr. Stott, I said, “You know John, we’ve got terrible divisions in the American Church. A lot of our friends are leaving for other break-off Anglican groups. Do you have any counsel?” He smiled and looked at me with those wonderful twinkling eyes and said, “Don’t leave… just stay… just stay and preach the Gospel.” We prayed… we hugged… and bid farewell until we meet on that distant shore.
So that’s what I have done — or tried to do; although it would have been easier in many ways to have left — or do have “dug in” and made issues the core of my ministry, over and above the saving power of Jesus. And I pray that my brothers and sisters will work hard to do the same, and that someday these lines in the sand we have drawn — with acronyms too many to list — will be surrendered and we will come together “as one.” It is not a stance on the “issue of the day” that will tell the world we are Jesus’ disciples — it is in being “one.” That is what enables the world to believe in the Lord. Every day we do not work toward this goal is a day we are working against his prayer.
These words come to mind in this moment:
Hated, despised, a thing to flout
They drew a line that left me out.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took them in.
Lord help us.
Russell J. Levenson, Jr. is rector of St. Martin’s Church, Houston.