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With all the saints in every place: Ineluctable ecumenism

Herewith a revised sermon for the Feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Apostles, preached at Chapel of the Good Shepherd, General Theological Seminary. Sincere thanks to the Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle, dean and president, and the GTS community for welcoming the Living Church Foundation for its annual meeting.

Consider again, or for the first time, part of the preface to the Chicago Quadrilateral of the American House of Bishops of 1886, two years before the Lambeth Conference followed the American lead (and a long history of American leadership within Anglicanism, and global affairs, has often borne wonderful fruit). Our bishops wrote:

[W]e do hereby affirm that … Christian unity … can be restored only by the return of all Christian communions to the principles of unity exemplified by the undivided Catholic Church during the first ages of its existence; which principles we believe to be the substantial deposit of Christian Faith and Order committed by Christ and his Apostles to the Church unto the end of the world, and therefore incapable of compromise or surrender by those who have been ordained to be its stewards and trustees for the common and equal benefit of all. (1979 BCP, p. 877)

The Quadrilateral ascends to a proposal concerning “the historic episcopate” in service of ecclesial unity — seeding, in effect, the World Council of Churches’ Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry of a century later. And this prefatory passage likewise presumes a traditional connection between apostolicity and doctrine, construed as the singular priority and “deposit of Christian Faith and Order.” Such old-fashioned ecclesiology may strike us as either refreshing or gothic — or both, on the doorstep of Halloween!

The proposed “principles of unity” remain, in any event, basic to the lex credendi of our common prayer. As the Presiding Bishop explains on “examining” a bishop elect prior to ordination: “A bishop in God’s holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel” (BCP, p. 517). That is, the episcopal office centers on its faithful continuity with the catholic tradition of the Church of Christ, which both is one and called to be one. In the parsing of this pair, the already-not-yet of Christian unity, lies the very mystery of the Church in time and the life of her members who would, by God’s grace, find themselves “knit together … in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body” of the Son of God. May the Lord, indeed, “elect” and sustain many such “blessed saints,” both for “virtuous and godly” life and finally for true love in him, “in glory everlasting. Amen” (“Collect for All Saints,” 1979 BCP, p. 245).

A number of us are just back from Rome — Dean Dunkle and Cathleen; and several on our board, including Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee, who was “commissioned” by Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby to carry on concrete cooperative work with his Roman Catholic counterpart in the U.S., the Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore. Of the 19 pairs of bishops from around the world so commissioned, Bishop Bauerschmidt was the only American Episcopalian. But many Episcopalians were also there to witness the events, including our Presiding Bishop and a handful of his staff, not least our ecumenical officer, the Rev. Margaret Rose, and dozens of other Episcopal priests and pilgrims.

I was pleased to be there with several colleagues and some 15 pilgrims who write for our magazine and blog. At the high point of the events, already described in numerous pieces, we all gathered at San Gregorio monastery, the very site from which Pope Saint Gregory the Great sent out Saint Augustine of Canterbury to continue the evangelization of England in 597: the locus, therefore, and historic, sacramental site of Anglican Catholicism in Rome.

If you haven’t been there, go and pray for the Church.

Some wondered, however — and certainly the question was asked by onlookers back home, like my friend Scott Gunn of Forward Movement, commenting on Facebook: Was what we were doing a good use of our time? Stated more strongly: might it have been at least unfortunate, if not dangerous?

To be blunt, Rome seems retrograde on certain social and moral issues, and when Anglicans meet Roman Catholics on their turf we tend to give the store away. Down this road, liberal leaders worry, is compromise at best, stalled or reversed progress at worst, at least concerning, in Gunn’s examples, the ideals of “full inclusion” of women and LGBT persons in the sacramental life and ordained leadership of the Church. On these counts (and no doubt others), perhaps one man’s division is another’s diversity. That is, traditionalist calls to unity in the Church “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed” might just as well, or better, be described as openings for the gospel, thence for Christian obedience. How else to account for the distinct vocations and insights of individual denominations, and even churches within them, like the Episcopal Church, that we have so often seen bear fruit, notwithstanding our less-than-full communion with other parts of the Body?

The notion of distinct vocations for particular churches is not without precedent, even in ecumenical literature, which starts from a thesis that division — defined as anything less than full, visible unity — is sin. One thinks of the Anglican Covenant’s mooting of ecumenism as the Anglican vocation, albeit on the non-exclusive grounds of the gospel itself, which grasps all Christians. As the authors wrote:

We affirm the ecumenical vocation of Anglicanism to the full visible unity of the Church in accordance with Christ’s prayer that “all may be one.” It is with all the saints in every place and time that we will comprehend the fuller dimensions of Christ’s redemptive and immeasurable love. (Anglican Covenant, 2.1.5; emphasis added)

Perhaps Anglicans have a special contribution to make here, starting at home, as we strive to resolve our own internal conflicts? For who would say that Anglican unity has been won? Not those gathered in Rome, where inter-Anglican meetings also took place between many primates and others apparently striving to mark advances in friendship and affection, on the way to a common faith and order. Ecclesial pluralists, who find fruitful possibilities in our variety of voices, perhaps do not wish to begin here, but they must pass this way on pain of coherence, that is, fidelity to our Lord’s prayer for his Body on earth.

Ecumenical reflection, in fact, goes to the heart of the vision and purpose of today’s feast — tying apostolicity to truth, yes, but taking love as the lingua franca of Christian life together. Ecumenism teaches us to say, for instance, that the Church herself is wounded by division, and that the gospel subsists in a common life of love. Reflection on the Church, therefore, requires concrete focus — not so much a systematic theology as the historical picture presented in Ephesians 2: “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace” (vv. 13-14). How? “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (vv. 14-15).

I take it that no word in these sentences is a metaphor: Now, in Christ, by his blood and in his body, divisions and hostilities are destroyed, and peace installed in its place. This is a description of the historical Church, both past and present: the Church that is the ark of salvation, the communion and fellowship of all the saints.

Listen again to the American House of Bishops in 1886, in another stretch from that remarkable preamble to the Quadrilateral:

We, Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, in Council assembled as Bishops in the Church of God, do hereby solemnly declare to all whom it may concern, and especially to our fellow Christians of the different Communions in this land, who, in their several spheres, have contended for the religion of Christ:

  1. Our earnest desire that the Saviour’s prayer, “That we all may be one,” may, in its deepest and truest sense, be speedily fulfilled; …
  1. That in all things of human ordering or human choice, relating to modes of worship and discipline, or to traditional customs, this Church is ready in the spirit of love and humility to forego all preferences of her own;
  2. That this Church does not seek to absorb other Communions, but rather, co-operating with them on the basis of a common Faith and Order, to discountenance schism, to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ, and to promote the charity which is the chief of Christian graces and the visible manifestation of Christ to the world. (1979 BCP, pp. 876-77)

Love. Charity. Do we understand what these are? And how may they be had?

The mainstream Western theological tradition, Augustine of Hippo reading off from St. Paul, has said that faith, hope, and love are theological virtues. That is, they are gifts from God, that may only be had by divine grace, and they encapsulate all of the virtues. If you have these three, says Paul himself, you’ve gotten the heart of the Christian faith and life because you have God’s heart; you are living in God and you are like God. And, of course, love is the greatest and highest calling. “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).

Grace enables all of this — mysteriously, with God going before, doing more than we could ever ask or imagine. “That we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command” (“Collect for Proper 25,” 1979 BCP, p. 235). Make us.

O Lord, act powerfully in me. Turn my stubborn, prideful heart. Lord, Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.

And there is more, because love implies and includes knowledge. God wants to save us with our minds. This is true because, as Augustine taught, we can’t love what we don’t know.

Think about it. We say that we love coffee or movies, or … you name it. Why? What do we love in these cases? We love the beauty of the created world, each thing that is made, which bears a trace of divinity. In this way, love of the world (uti) is ordered toward love of God (frui) by the habit of attention. Love, that is, starts from wonder and watching, listening, and our proportional response: looking for the good, and drawing it out patiently. In the process, amazingly, we are transformed and healed ourselves.

This is how love leads to freedom, and is itself freedom and truth. This is perhaps the most basic, practical result of the Christian gospel, once we comprehend and apply it. We see that the world is not about us, and that even our own lives, in a deep sense, are not our own. They are meant to be given away. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me,” says Paul (Gal. 2:20), having surrendered his life in a most-personal, transformative way, making his own future God’s business. Lord, use me as you will. Here I am, send me.

In terms of the Church (and our families and relationships are really the same), the point is that we give and receive as we resist simple economies of exchange that seek control, or that feed back to our own desires and appetites, or our own self-conception. These are the false, corrupting loves of bought favors, of the lobbyists and dirty money coursing through our politics and our churches, as powerful interests press their causes; as even well-intentioned Americans, so often generous and self-sacrificing, giving of their lives and treasure at great cost, also demand to be heard, and more than that, obeyed. This describes currents in our Communion on both the left and the right.

I can’t help but ruefully note the perfection of Donald Trump’s having chosen as the theme for The Apprentice (which I did not watch and don’t recommend) that funky O’Jays classic that prophesied our American apocalypse: “For the love of money / People will steal from their mother / For the love of money / People will rob their own brother / … For that lean, mean green / Almighty dollar.”

For better and worse, the world of 2016 centers on American leadership and power and the various dependencies thereon, set alongside resentments, the realities of which the churches, around the world, largely remain disinclined and/or unable to confront. For our part, influence is of course enjoyable as well as susceptible of providentialist theorizing, and leaders are needed. We therefore hope that what we are doing also seems good to the Holy Spirit.

But we have a simple test ready to hand for our ecclesial programs, and it is rightly ordered love, based in interpersonal knowledge, out of which grows the mutuality of service and truthful recognition. From the soil of the virtue of love grows the communion for which we were made: communion with God and with one another, and with one another on the way to God and back again, the theological transforming all that comes before and after. In this way, as St. Paul explains, all our labors and our loves “become visible” — as the Church ineluctably is — and the divinely disclosing “Day” forms and refines the “sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:13-15).

This is the heart of apostolic doctrine and faith, the same doctrine and faith that lifts up for us the saints and apostles Simon and Jude, and all the saints, because we are concerned with apostolic life. We are interested in baptism as the beginning of our life in Christ, rising out of which waters he makes our ministry his own. His body becomes our body, his salvific blood outpoured mingles with our own. His bonds of love — showing us the way together, calling us friends, washing our feet — tie us to him and to each other.

Who, therefore, were Saints Simons and Jude? They were who they are: members of “the glorious company of the apostles, … faithful and zealous in their mission, … with ardent devotion mak[ing] known the love and mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (“Collect for Saint Simon and Saint Jude,” 1979 BCP, p. 245). And so do we hope, and pray, to be as well.

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. … You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:17, 27). May all God’s saints love and speak faithfully in his name, and be given the grace to persevere to the end. And may God bless, and continue to use, the Anglican family of churches, making us fit for his perfect purposes in Christ, who is our life and our salvation (Col. 3:4).



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