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Koinonia in Dallas

Adapted from Bishop Sumner’s address to the annual convention of the Diocese of Dallas.

William Safire was a political commentator, but perhaps more famously a commentator on language for The New York Times. He loved where words come from, how idioms got started, and he mined them to find the ore of how we think. If he were your convention speaker, where he’d dig may be simple: the word Communion: at one and the same time, it’s what we do Sunday morning, and what we have with the Lutherans and maybe the Methodists; it describes our state of being together, as close as our parish, as widely as the Anglican world. It’s what we have with the saints in the Creed, and with the Holy Spirit in some translations of the doxology. It comes from the Old English for sharing things, Moin, together, and Con, with (like the Spanish and from the Latin). It is something you do definitive of who you deeply are.

It’s a close cousin to a word in German, Gemeinshaft, being-together-hood, which I might add lies behind the whole contemporary idea of being a “movement” as opposed to an institution (for example the “Jesus movement”). Gemeinshaft describes a deepened sense of the interpersonal and nature. Its definition is a mouthful: “a spontaneously arising organic social relationship characterized by strong reciprocal bonds of sentiment and kinship within a common tradition.” In other words, everything we moderns long for and fear we’ve lost. It’s why a Zulu term like ubuntu was so popular in the ’80s and ’90s coming out of the struggle against apartheid, an almost mystical sense of a deeper connectedness between people. “I am because we are” was its slogan.

Lest we all get lost down this rabbit hole, let’s go back to our word communio. The New Testament was in Greek, and so the parent word to communion is koinonia, like the famous Christian farm in Georgia that contributed to the civil rights movement and gave birth to Habitat for Humanity. The koinon in the Greek is what is held in common, with the implication of sharing, on the one hand, and everydayness, the quotidian, on the other. The first Christians, Acts 2 tells us, had a koinonia of teaching, possessions, praying, the bread and wine, all connected, because they were a koinonia, and all this because they had a koinonia with Jesus, through whom they saw that God himself was one in koinonia. It can be hard in English to see all this, since that one word gets translated as fellowship or community or solidarity or union. You can understand how deep and how wide the etymological dig goes, all the way to the molten core.

What lies at the heart of this is as simple as it is profound. Communion is not something we have but something we are; it is something we receive, not something we achieve; our being actually is social; and the taproot of this is in the one God, Father, Son, and Spirit. Therefore, our believing in, celebrating, and being communion are connected, just as our bodies and souls are connected, just as we, our parents, and our children are connected, just as this struggling life and the kingdom of God are connected. The short form is this: I am because we are because he is. Punto.

Hace cinco meses visitamos un exhibito del arte moderna Mexicana en el museo DMA, donde una sculptura grande en su atrio mostro las caras del todos miembros del pueblo de la roca massiva. Nosotros tenemos un problema verdadamente entenderlo. Nuestro individualism esta profundo y no podermos verlo. El supuesto de nuestra cultura es que eligemos la communion, y tenemos communion en una sociedad voluntaria con el nombre “iglesia,” como una cosa. Se supone que fiar y tener experiencia son nuestras posesiones. Comunion es una lengua que necesitamos aprender, sus leciones dificiles con un companero que no queremos compartir. Es un leccion dificile especialmente en este tiempo national de ira y division.

Let’s go back to our word communion again; sharing, being, holding things in common. Let me offer a different example. I once taught a course on Baffin Island, above the Arctic Circle, for Eskimo or Inuit Anglicans. I learned that every Inuk carries with an ullu, which looks like a small pizza cutter. If someone kills a walrus or seal, they will take the meat to the community hall, where everyone is welcome to share in it. You take out your ullu and cut off a piece of that blubbery communion to eat. Seal meat cannot be sold; it is held and consumed in common. Now the modern Inuk lives in a mixed world. There are grocery stores where he or she buys milk or coffee or bread with dollars. They live in a mixed economy, and so a mixed society. You do too: people are not commodified in marriage, freedom of speech is not commodified in society. We still worry that end of life must not be commodified, at least for now.

In the same way, the bread and wine are things held in common, like the gospel, like the care of the Church. You cannot buy them. This is what that verse in Acts 2 is saying: the praying, the bread and wine, the word of truth, or the costly burden for each other, these are all ruled by an economics of communion, an understanding opened up by the communion of the risen Jesus with his Father. These are not just an old-fashioned way to speak of spiritual resources available to individuals, but rather a deeper and truer account of who we actually are, one which has everything to do with our ultimate hope. The collision of the buying and selling society with the communion society is the source of most of our perplexities in today’s Church and much of our theology.

By his death and resurrection Jesus opened up a space where things spiritual are held in common, and this space opens onto the divine life itself. Those things are what Acts 2 describes, but they are also our own lives, now held in common. In the Bible, such a space is what the Temple is, which now to be found wherever faith and worship of him are. This new Temple is different, since the dividing wall of the old Temple is gone, and the space is in common, communal, koinon. And because God created and owns all things, this Temple’s gates open onto all the world, inviting all of whose children we are in solidarity with, indeed all his creatures. You might imagine concentric circles, communion with your fellow Christians in your parish, in this diocese, this Church, this communion, with fellow Christians, by extension with humankind and creation.

This expanse will only be truly clear on the last day, as our verse from Revelation 22 makes clear, when the root of communion beneath us all is finally known, and all creation does what it is for, the praise of God. That is what our eyes will be opened to see, was true all along, when we cross the cold Jordan waters. That vein of ore in the mine, that shaft going all the way to the core, says Revelation, is exposed for us who journey here and now by the word of God through which we are really together with the prophets and the apostles. It stretches to the ends of the earth, all of whom will stand in the choir as one with us in one great harmony on the last day. I have always liked the vision of the fourth-century Church Father Gregory of Nyssa pertaining to the kingdom of God. There we will be finally, individually and perfectly ourselves. But this will also be the perfection of Paul’s vision that we are all organs of one great Body. We will be shown there to be limbs of one great person, the new Adam, worshiping God, the more one the more ourselves, since the tug of war between the two is a sign of our brokenness here below.

But we have to rediscover this deep connectedness in Christ, in whom alone, Colossians tells us, all things cohere. Because we are moderns, because we are independent Americans, indeed Texans (and there is much good, and gospel-inspired in this independence too), we have to rediscover what I am saying. It does not come naturally to us. Hearing about and so being enabled to be a koinonia in Christ is the great calling for Christians in our age. This countercultural belonging to our fellow Christians, including those we oppose, and those who are different, is what is comprised, for example, under the word reconciliation by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I promise to land this plane in the life of the Diocese of Dallas soon, for what I am saying is, believe it or not, eminently practical, but indulge me a few more minutes for one more implication of being-as-communion, as the great Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas called it.

What does this mean for how we live together as Church? A good answer was penned a half-century ago, when Anglicans from across the globe, lay and ordained, gathered in Toronto for the last Anglican Congress. Their final statement was bold, too bold to be lived up to then or now, for that matter, but prophetic nonetheless. Our communion, our life in and with one another, is “mutual responsibility and interdependence in the body of Christ.” MRI, and I don’t mean magnetic resonance. We really are suffering Anglicans in South Sudan, revival churches in southeast Asia, secret churches in Iran. Could it be that, with all our approach-avoidance, the full Anglican vision of communion awaits the time? And this vision of being our brother and sister’s keeper in Christ extends to fellow denominations as well. With good reason the most profound thinking about Church in the last generation has worked with the idea of a “communion of communions.” Because it simply means worldwide, being-as-communion is secondly and unavoidably ecumenical. And we are that too in the Diocese of Dallas, mutually responsible and interdependent, really, in our very being, from struggling mission station to grand downtown Church. All of you, though from different parishes, together this morning in one room, are a sacrament of MRI.

Let’s say the same thing in a less flattering way. There was a meeting of the aptly named Communion Partners, traditional bishops of the Episcopal Church, last April, in the Diocese of Florida. Their retreat center is near the Okefenokee Swamp, which got me to thinking. We trads sure aren’t teenagers, maybe mutant, not so ninja, a bit like turtles. But by mentioning Okefenokee I have in mind that most famous of quotes, from the comic strip Pogo, whose characters dwelt there: “We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us.” No matter what your political opinion, secular or churchly, it is easy to point out the flaws of your opponent. The deeper perception is how like our opponent, how like our secular neighbor, you and I all are. All of us beggars together looking for food, all children of this willful, forgetful, individualized, wired up but lonely generation. All this is what makes our hearts yearn for communion. All this drives us to be evangelists in some manner or other. We are comrades in our creatureliness and our brokenness. Being in communion means not only tradition and ecumenism, but solidarity in our failings as well.

What, finally, does all this say to the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas as we approach the year of our Lord 2018? If you spend more time than you ought reading diocesan documents, you may remember that our strategic plan seemed to move in just the opposite direction. Like all politics, all Church life, it is said, is local. The parish seems most real, and the wise diocese exists for its support. But this is all the more reason, in our second breath, as the pendulum swings to the other side, why we in this diocese need to lean into the reality of communion. First our faith undergirds our localism, but it also goes against parochialism’s grain. The real significance, for example, of the episcopal visitation lies not, thank heaven, in a bishop’s particular gifts, and it goes beyond the opportunity for a fiesta, good as that is. It is a living symbol of communio, koinonia. Sometimes parishes need to forgive the diocese for whatever they didn’t like one or ten years ago, or to see the diocese as more than a necessary tax collector, a kind of spiritual trip to the dentist. The visitation is a reminder of the countervailing centripetal force derived from the risen Christ. It is a reminder that the great and life-giving things are all held in common, our communion bread like a slab of blubber in an Arctic hall. Bishops are symbols of this, which is the one good reason we even named our branch of the worldwide church after them.

Now we can get down to cases. I want first to relate what I have said about the nature of Christian life as being-in-communion first to our specific calling as the Diocese of Dallas. And then I want to illustrate communion through some of the specific things that are going on at present within our diocese. Remember that the space for communion with God and one another was opened up by Jesus Christ. We know of it, and we dwell in it, through the Word of God. Hearing that Word, being answerable to it, wrestling with it, these are inseparable from our being together in communion. Communio in sacris verbis. Put another way, we are, according to the verse of the Word of God selected for our convention, in real solidarity with the cloud of witnesses; as the late Pope John Paul II said, we stand in one circle with the prophets and apostles as we hear the same word in our fellowship.

We live in a time of great upheaval, challenge, change, and experiment in the life of the Church. We in this diocese have, I believe, a vocation of memory of the teaching we hold in common with those before us, with churches of the communion throughout the world, with the ecumenical family of churches. We, like those first Christians in Acts, share teaching, as well as sharing prayer, possessions, and bread, with the Church throughout the ages and the continents. But we do so as loyal members of our own Church, in full communion with brothers and sisters with whom we may disagree, in our diocese and church and beyond. Inheritance, witness, disagreement, all in charity: all this has to do with being communion too. That’s what family is, after all. So the state of our church in controversy is all not simply a problem to be overcome, whether you are a conservative or a progressive Episcopalian. It is a vocation. We are confronted with our fellow Christian who is not just an opponent but part of us. We are also confronted with our grandparents in the faith, and our grandchildren too, joined with our Sudanese and Karen and Nepali and Salvadoran and Cambodian siblings. This is the calling we have been given by God in the time and place and tradition Christ has placed us.

It is precisely as loyal Episcopalians with a special vocation that we remember and confess the Church’s traditional teaching. It is also a sacrament of koinonia. We share this teaching, one example of which is the traditional teaching on marriage, with our global brothers and sisters, with our ancestors in the faith, in a ministry of remembering, on behalf of the whole body, across difference, across time, across space.

You understand a passage of the Bible when you feel its burr under your saddle. Likewise, if what I have just said has some bite to it, the claim of communion in Christ comes close to you. There is a way of understanding the Scriptures, in the midst of perplexity, and its summons to us: these help us understand what being an Episcopalian really is, to living charitably with Christian conflict, as we treasure the words of prayer of our forebears as our inheritance, as we dwell together in the Word passed on from the apostles, all of it so fallibly symbolized by the bishop, all of it addressing our life together especially with the one with whom we agree least. We need to articulate what this distinct way of being a Christian means today, and frankly a diocese with the likes of Austin, Bergstrom, Hylden, and the other younger scholars of The Living Church gang is in a better position to do so than nearly any other in our whole communion.

Finally let me connect this Anglican spirituality of koinonia with events and features of our contemporary diocesan life. Each might seem peripheral to the week in and week out efforts of our parishes and missions. But they matter to us all, not least because they are emblematic of the holding all things sacred in common in Christ that constitutes the Christian life. Through the remarkable efforts of Carrie Headington and her mission team, we are step by step trying to link our parishes to fellow congregations, be they Baptist or Pentecostal, in South Dallas, as well as to the efforts on behalf of the people of their neighborhoods. As communities of Jesus, and especially as communities dwelling in him in this time and locale, we are by our very nature in solidarity with them as fellow Christians and their challenges. Likewise, I am happy to see a new generation of deacons beginning to rise up, each of whom will show us, by working with the incarcerated or those from broken homes, or the traumatized, how we are in a deep solidarity with them as children of the crucified. In a similar vein, parishes in our diocese have begun to yoke themselves with smaller fellow Episcopal congregations to help them survive: our Savior, Dallas, and Good Shepherd, Holy Trinity, Bonham, and St. Stephen’s, Sherman, and Holy Cross Paris; All Saints, Atlanta, and St. James, Texarkana. Each effort is a living parable to us all of life being in fact held in common because it is hidden with the one risen Christ in the one God. Or if we turn to new church plants, all of which are supported financially by all of you, we see Christians with a pioneering spirit who have to make the case for the gospel in our contemporary and individualized culture.

I am grateful for the invitation to take part in the planning for the next Lambeth Conference for bishops throughout the communion, a task with no little complexity as we try to balance life in and as communion with speaking the truth in love. We look forward in May of 2018 to inviting young theologians from throughout the Global South of the Communion to Dallas to have conversations about their work with our own theologians, an act of hospitality on behalf of another initiative of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Trips to visit and be visited by the Church in Honduras are not discreet acts of philanthropy but expressions at a fundamental level of who we are. Ditto for those connected to the Church in Uganda through Kellerman, or in the Middle East. And of course the global is no longer far away, as our Sudanese, Cambodian, Karen, East Asian, Nepali, and Nigerian fellowships are who we are as the Diocese of Dallas. The presence of the LeMarquands and the chance to hear about their demanding and remarkable ministry is yet another sacrament of life together as a Church catholic. A theology of koinonia is also the foundation for what I want to say about our life as a part of the Episcopal Church. Our diocese has lent its expertise, in people like Carrie and Mike Michie, to the larger church’s effort to rediscover evangelism. I have challenged us all to increase more quickly our giving to the national church so that ours might be comparable to other Communion Partner dioceses at least. This too is an act of solidarity and good will, though we have done so in a way that continues to honor the consensus compromise agreement we wisely crafted as a diocese a few years ago to protect conscience. Our alternate giving to Honduras and North Dakota is also a “collection for the saints,” which is a sign of koinonia. The most welcome ministry of Michael Smith, Bishop of North Dakota, an expert source of counsel for rural churches, is another such living sign, and I am delighted that he will be involved in our ministry again in the coming year. Throughout all of this, the key thing is that we have a loyal, charitable, but distinct calling in and for the one common body of the Episcopal Church. A diocese, strategically gifted with theological capacity, a stream of young clergy, and a commitment to evangelism, offers exactly what our tradition, at this historical juncture, needs. Isn’t this Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, that distinctive calling and gift cohere with a deep sense of life in the one body? In this regard I am grateful for the friendship, support, and patience of Dallas Episcopalians who may strongly disagree with some of my theological judgments. You too have a vocation — in patience, in speech, in finding common cause, in speaking your word of truth in love, to help build in us the indwelling the koinonia that is deeper than disagreement.

By the time we next meet as a diocese, the General Convention will have met, in July in Austin (so that many of you will be able to attend all or part of the gathering). This is an occasion of excitement for some and foreboding for others. No one knows what will come out of it. I can assure you that, regardless of the specific outcomes, we will remain a loyal diocese with a spirit of common mission and charity within our church and the wider communion. I will continue to teach the doctrine of the Church we have heard in the Word of God and as we have inherited it from the fellowship of our forebears in the faith, as I am sworn to do, come what may. And you may rest assured that in the years to come we will continue to pray in the Book of Common Prayer tradition as we have inherited it, which is so much our gift to the wider communion of Christians worldwide.

Let us not end with a reflection on what we are doing or hope to do, or not, no matter how valid the efforts seem to be. The first word and here the last was aptly summed up by the Anglican theologian of the last century, Lionel Thornton: “the koinonia [of which we speak] is not simply a new type of human fellowship. Its distinctive character is wholly derived from the fact that it is a fellowship not only of one [person with another] but of [human beings] with God. It is an expression of the fact that God has tabernacle among [humans] in a new way inaugurated by the Incarnation” (Elements of the Common Life, p.16). Let us end this address where all our preaching and teaching must begin, because all our life is found there, with God’s sheer grace, so that, amidst all our struggles together, a spirit of gratitude may prevail in this our common life. Amen.


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