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Anglicans and the echo of history

This sermon was preached on May 11, 2007, at the Commencement service and awarding of degrees to the Class of 2007 of the School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. I was awarded an honorary degree at this same service, and preached the sermon, in the early days of my episcopate.

It’s a pleasure and honor to be here, to receive this degree and to preach at this Eucharist. It is unusual, in my experience so far, to be preaching to a congregation with such a high proportion of ordained persons present. So looking out upon our company today, and to set things in perspective, I’m reminded of Dr. Johnson’s comment, that if a man is good enough to go to heaven, he is good enough to be a clergyman. You’ll have to think about that one for a while to get the full import for ordained persons. Remember, Johnson was a layman, with a lot of opinions about the clerical office, and lots of exposure to prayers and preaching and even to bishops. So, “good enough” it is, and I hope we all get to heaven.

Heaven is not my subject this morning, however, but history. The study of history was my pedagogue in leading me to the gospel, and I’m grateful to the discipline, and intend to pay tribute to it today. Students at Anglican theological seminaries typically spend quite a bit of time with the history of the Church, and here they run true to type; for Anglican divinity has given high value to the revelation of God in history (a story told in Scripture in various ways, not all of them having much to do with modern ideas of what is “historical”), and also given high value to the historical experience of the Church, especially in the first centuries of its life. Anglicans value history when they value continuity, one of the hallmarks of the English Reformation, which in the midst of reform in the life of the Church also stressed the identity of the Church before and after the reform. When Episcopalians look at the history of the Church, we aren’t allowed to see them followed by us but only ourselves.

Anglicans have valorized history, but not without distinction. When Scripture is read, in Morning and Evening Prayer and at the Eucharist, it is read through the lens of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy: the right belief, the right understanding, the right profession of faith. Not all interpretations of Scripture are of equal value.

When the history of the Church is valued and appreciated, as a guide to faith, it is through that same lens of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is revealed through time, in time (and the double meaning is intentional here: God’s truth is revealed in history, at the time God chooses). The theological writers and councils that defined Nicaean and Chalcedonian orthodoxy in the first centuries are the benchmark standard for Anglicans as they interpret the theological legacy of the Church through time. So we look back at the past, but through a particular orthodox lens.

The past is important to the present. Polish poet Czesław Miłosz wrote in his memoir, Native Realm, “One should appreciate the advantage of one’s origins. Its worth lies in the power it gives one to detach oneself from the present moment.” Milosz knew about history; as an Eastern European, he lived through some of its most horrifying bits in a part of the world that sometimes sees itself as plagued by history. Yet he’s very generous here, in seeing the value of our past, our origin. There’s a close connection between past and present; the past anchors the present, giving us perspective on the present and also allowing us to evaluate it.

Again, Milosz, in a poem “Throughout our Lands”: “Between the moment and the moment I lived through much/ in my sleep/ so distinctly that I felt time dissolve/ and knew that what was past still is, not was.” One wonders if Milosz knew Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun). What was pessimism in Faulkner is a source of hope for the Church. Positively put, it takes imagination to connect with the past, to make that stretch of recognition and identification.

Christians might well rejoice in the resource that their past offers to their own present. We look into the past to make possible a critique of our present practice, as a means of reform and change that can lift us beyond the tyranny of the contemporary. Remember that catechesis is rooted in the word for echo. There is a repeat after me quality to our faith tradition that values imitation of what has been as a strategy for the renewal of the Church in the here and now.

I freely admit that this delving into the past is a mediocre, middling sort of way to proceed as a church. Anglicanism is roundly criticized for its moderation, for its commitment to “golden mediocrity,” a painstaking and skillful attention to historical and theological detail and a resolute avoidance of all flashiness in theology. There’s no grand theological stroke being prepared in Anglican divinity. This is nothing to be ashamed of, however; instead, it’s part of a commitment to theological stability, a virtue we learned from our Benedictine forbears who were well known preservers of the past. This way of faith, with its commitment to orthodoxy and history, is content (in the words of Dr. Johnson) with being “good enough.”

There are some attractive substitutes for our traditional theological method out there, revolutionary competitors that bid us abandon the moderation of the past for something more bracing. “Justice” is a big idea; “love” another one; “truth” yet another. These are big ideas, and worthwhile, so don’t mistake me: it’s not all flash. But our theological method, with its niggling attention to detail and its moderate spirit, requires that we filter these ideas through the gritty, messy “grab bag” of history, where orthodoxy is revealed. The Christian tradition is more complex than the commitment to a word or phrase as the interpretive tool for understanding our faith would indicate. Tossing the big ideas around as if any one of them might trump all others runs the risk of descending into mere rhetoric, where discourse is no longer possible. When discourse is impossible, ideas can no longer be expressed or discussed, and the only course left is to get out the machineguns and to start shooting.

This is precisely the danger today, not only in society (where the machine guns are hardly metaphorical) but in the Church as well. Thomas Browne, that most mediocre of Anglicans, wrote in the 17th century about the moderate commitment of “wiser believers, who know that a good cause needs not to be patroned by a passion, but can sustain itself upon a temperate dispute” (Religio Medici). Temperate dispute is nurtured by Anglicanism’s moderate spirit and its commitment to orthodoxy and history. Where this commitment withers, so too does our Anglican way of believing.

There are impulses at work in the Church, on both the right and the left, a desire to sweep away the tired old past and to start over again. This desire is founded on an illusory hope. The demands of “justice,” “love,” or “truth” will not sustain the weight pressed upon them as the single interpretive tool to order the Church’s life. These demands cannot trump orthodoxy, or the rich experience of the Church in the past, which is the context of orthodoxy. History is where God works and reveals his will. Those who want to sweep away the mistakes of the past by escape from it are more likely to perpetuate those same mistakes, in the very process of wielding their own theological and pastoral “broom.” The history of the Church is littered with examples; of course, you have to have a commitment to history to notice.So here we are, with some members of the congregation beginning to wonder if they are hearing the last lecture of their career at the University of the South (and inwardly groaning!), and others now convinced that their loved ones have been enduring the unendurable with good grace for the past few years. Well, never mind. Our graduates today are in fact the inheritors of a rich tradition of faith, and are charged with the gospel mission. If catechesis is rooted in the word for echo, and there is a repeat after me quality to our faith tradition, then the Church is a vast echo chamber, in which the Easter proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection first made centuries ago continues to rebound and to be amplified over time. Our graduates are called to add their own voices to the repetition of this faith. Let the faith sound out! On this day of joy for our graduates, we are trusting that they will let it resound and echo within them.


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