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On the Seasonality of Vocation

Perhaps the most widely popular of St. John Henry Newman’s writings is the poem that became a hymn text: “Lead, Kindly Light” (composed during his Anglican years). At the end of the first stanza are these words: “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.” With apologies to Cardinal Newman, I would like to borrow that image and expand it a few degrees to include not only distance but scope — to paraphrase my intent: I do not ask to see the broad and universal; the local and particular enough for me.

Roughly between 2003 and 2021, I was deeply enmeshed in “the distant scene,” with the “broad and universal” life of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. I attended six consecutive General Conventions, three as a deputy (from two different dioceses), and three as a bishop. In 2006, I was appointed by the president of the House of Deputies to a General Convention special committee, the remit of which was essentially to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion (we failed). I became an active and highly followed blogger, posting substantive essays on Episcopal and Anglican goings-on, sometimes 20 to 25 times per month, and engaging in long comment threads, acquiring a reputation, I like to think, as an irenic, bridge-building, conservative voice.

I spent a week in Bangkok with bishops and clergy of the Anglican Global South. I was invited to give quiet days, retreats, and preaching missions in far-flung locations. I participated in the consecration of three bishops in Peru. For five years, I chaired the board of one of our historic seminaries. I confirmed scores of young people in Tanzania. I took care of a parish in South Carolina and another in Mississippi under the Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight protocols. On three occasions, I was invited, along with a small group of colleague bishops, to Canterbury for a meeting with the archbishop to discuss emerging ecclesial concerns. One of these meetings was arranged with barely 48 hours’ notice. There was one calendar year when I made 19 separate trips that involved air travel. One of these was likely a personal vacation, but the rest were church-related. In my decade as a diocesan bishop, there were dozens of people (clergy) who were literally under a vow of obedience to me, canonically obligated to pay attention to and heed whatever I wrote or said. In a phrase made popular in my extended family by one of my sisters, I was “cool and important.”

Then I retired. After a solemn Evensong, I ceded my chair to the dean to hold for my successor, laid the crozier used by George Franklin Seymour, first Bishop of Springfield, on the altar of the cathedral church, and left the building. On July 1, 2021, I woke up as the Right Reverend Nothing of Nothing. Not a soul is under any obligation to pay attention to me. My personal crozier is in the basement gathering dust. If I visit Canterbury again, it will likely be as a tourist. I am no longer cool and important. By the generous sufferance of the Bishop of Chicago, and of a handful of rectors there, and only thereby, I am able to preside and preach at the Eucharist several times each year. For 20 years as a vicar and rector, I had an altar and a pulpit that were my own. For a decade as a diocesan bishop, every altar and pulpit in the diocese was mine! Now, like many retired clergy, I am keenly aware that I have no altar or pulpit that is mine by right. I depend on the generosity of others to exercise those ministries that lie at the core of my very being. The “distant scene” is no longer mine to see. I must find “one step” to be “enough for me.”

It’s not like I no longer care. I do. I’m aware that, even as I write, the Church of England’s General Synod is meeting, in the midst of elevated anxiety. I’ll likely be at General Convention in Louisville this summer, at least long enough to vote in the presiding bishop election. But “the issues” no longer dominate my field of view. While continuing to care, I’m much more relaxed about it all. I’ve learned that the intensity of one’s psychic investment in any system is largely determined by the position one occupies within that system. I now occupy a very different position than I once did. As a result, the “broad and universal” have faded for me, while the “local and particular” are burning more brightly.

In one of the parishes that I regularly frequent on Sundays and holy days, the quality of the liturgy and music feels like a double shot of spiritual adrenaline every time I’m there. The organist is fearless, and pulls the stops that are necessary to ensure that every worshiper feels liberated to sing at top volume and not fear standing out. And sing they do. The parish engages the liturgical calendar robustly. Where else could I have found a sung liturgy for the Feast of the Holy Name when it fell on a Monday, or a Solemn High Mass for Epiphany on a Saturday morning? As I get to know parishioners, I am witnessing lives that are conditioned and formed by this corporate fidelity to the work of worship. They are also growing in their witness and outreach to people in the neighborhood who are economically and socially marginalized, activities that are fueled by their knowledge of their identity in Christ.

In another parish in which I hang out, the liturgical ethos is a rather more old-fashioned version of Anglo-Catholicism than is my personal sweet spot. Yet, there is a spirit loose there that is entirely sweet. While very traditional theologically, it may be the most ethnically and racially diverse parish in the diocese, and I don’t lower the average age when I walk in, as was the case in many of my congregations as a bishop. Last year, while the rector was dealing with a health issue, I took care of them on most Sundays over a three-month span. During that time, I sat in with an adult study group between services that was usually led by the rector, but during that time various lay persons took turns leading, and did so quite ably. I was blown away by the knowledge and spiritual maturity and desire for growth in discipleship that was manifested by these people. Now, that group (at my suggestion) is working its way through Martin Thornton’s Christian Proficiency, and a women’s group meeting during Lent is reading Evelyn Underhill. Both of these are developments that cannot but yield salubrious results.

Yet another parish on my rota is a small community that is serious about finding in the Eucharist the “source and summit” (language from Vatican II) of its common life. For decades the parishioners have been led in intentionally cultivating a Benedictine ethos. Their manner of worship — which depends heavily on plainsong chant, much of it quite florid (and challenging to a newcomer), and relatively little on familiar metrical hymns — while arguably idiosyncratic, nonetheless rests securely within the scope of the Anglican tradition. Their fidelity to the texts and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer is exemplary. I leave refreshed whenever I attend there.

Not in my regular rotation, because it lies in the far western suburbs of Chicago, but one with which I very much have “bonds of affection,” is a parish that drinks from the more evangelical stream of the Anglican tradition, and where it has been my privilege to preach and preside on a couple of occasions during the past few months. A rector with a nearly 30-year tenure has just retired and they have made a smooth transition to his successor. This is a community of bright, curious, and serious Christian disciples, and it is a joy to be around them. Measured by average Sunday attendance, they are the largest parish in the Diocese of Chicago. I expect great things from them in both the short-term and mid-term future.

Another aspect of my new “one step enough for me” world is that, while I do get to “function” from time to time, for which I am immensely grateful, on any given Sunday or holy day, I am more likely to be in the nave as part of the congregation than I am to be in the sanctuary as part of the altar party. There is, I have discovered, a great blessing in this. There are dimensions of worship that are available to a “mere” member of the congregation that are denied to those who are, in varying degrees, responsible for making it happen for everyone else. As a celebrant, I am a steward of the holy mysteries on behalf of all the others. Fidelity to my position in the system requires me to sublimate my needs to those of the larger community. When I’m in the pews, I’m free of that burden. I am finding that my sense of connection to the eucharistic mystery and the eucharistic action is regularly richer and more intense now than it has ever been in my life.

When John the Baptist languished in Herod’s prison, he grew discouraged, we are told in Matthew’s gospel. The kick-butt-and-take-names Jesus that he had boldly announced was instead graciously and gently healing people and teaching them. Too much “one step” and not enough “distant scene,” by his lights. So John sent his disciples to find Jesus and ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” A poignant question, by any measure, even as those of us in Anglicanism poignantly and anxiously wonder what will become of the ecclesial rock from which we were hewn. Is this the church that will make us holy and fit us for heaven, or shall we look for another? When John’s disciples are finally able to put the question to Jesus, how does he respond? “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:4-6).

What do I, in my no longer cool and important systemic position, see? I see the triune God being worshiped in spirit and truth. I see people reciting the Nicene Creed and meaning what they say. I see Christians learning to pray, excited and serious about their faith, and loving one another in community. I see disciples of Jesus serving the hungry, the ill-clad, and the unhoused in his Name. Will any of this save the Episcopal Church from exponential free fall? I have no clue. Will it mend the fractured state of the Anglican Communion? Above my pay grade. I ask not to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.

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