A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Canon Mark Harris
In the still of the night, when all the pronouncements, letters, blog entries, emails, articles, books, opinions, mutterings and other tools of the struggle have been put down, the delight that is the Anglican Communion remains.
In the hours before the Lambeth Commission issues the Windsor Report, before the Church of England Report on Woman in the Episcopate, before the next round of fierce and necessary struggle is undertaken, the Anglican Communion is simply as it is, and we all are part of it.
A great deal is written about just why some of us should be denied membership in it, why others of us are the “real” Anglicans, why progressive action is necessary, why we can’t go on being untidy when all our ecumenical partners want us to be a church with a unified stance on issues, why (in other words) things can not remain as they are.
Still, in the quiet hours, I wonder: who we are is quite something! We are “untidy,” as Archbishop Tutu once remarked. Untidy enough so that justice found its way in even when we were not looking; just enough so that reason, reasonableness, got its foot in the door. Untidy enough that the doors are not locked against the stranger and the fool, the difficult and the lost.
We come by our untidy ways naturally. The Scriptures are a treasure trove of untidy, often puzzling, sometimes troublesome, mostly challenging, “stones” that mark a way in our heart pointing us always towards God. The pointing happens whether or not we like it, are aware of it, or even know it. We know they are the way forward and that is enough.
The Sacraments are outward and visible signs of a grace so great that we only dimly and spiritually know the smallest part of what is given in that grace. And again our words and thoughts and beliefs concerning that inward and spiritual grace are limited and untidy. Still, here we are, servants at a table set to grace the whole world.
The Church, that “wonderful and sacred mystery” is extremely untidy. Nothing about its various forms in this or that actual institutional church does it justice. Its divisions are as edifying to our sense of the mystery as are its moments of unity. That old, and not very satisfactory, image of the Church as a tree with its branches, both whole and cut off, is barren (in the picture I remember) of leaves and any joy. That picture is of the institutional divisions that should grieve us. No one sits in the shade under that tree! Still, here we, happy in the shade of the other Church / tree, the spiritual Church / tree whose leaves bring healing to the nations.
I wonder: The Anglican Communion is a fellowship of real, live, feisty people gathered in thirty-eight or so untidy Provinces in full communion with one another and with a variety of other Churches – the Old Catholics, the Philippine Independent Church, the Churches of North and South India, etc. We are not sure what “full communion” means, but it at least means we are welcome at each other’s table fellowship and to receive the sacrament from those who preside there.
At one time or another various provinces have decided to support and sanction a variety of matters: birth control and family planning, remarriage after divorce, the ordination of women. Provinces have come out against slavery and against capital punishment, allowed polygamous persons to membership in the Church, and in recent days to accept openly Gay and Lesbian persons into leadership and into acknowledged and blessed same sex relationships. All of this has been untidy – not every Province has entered into the spirit of each of these decisions. Still, we have muddled along in fellowship, not unlike the first disciples of Jesus who could get caught up in their own untidy ways at the drop of a hat. We even argue still with one another as to who will get to sit at Our Lord’s right or left hand! Perhaps a smile or even a bit of laughter is in order. Perhaps it is not after all for us to know the seating arrangement at the heavenly banquet. Maybe it is enough to be a fellowship, a koinonia. The mystery of the true ekklesia is perhaps for another day.
In all the calls for discipline, demands for realignment, charges of schismatic or heretical actions, betrayals of trust, duplicity, conspiracy and the like it is too easy to loose sight of the joy we have sometimes had as members of this particular fellowship.
Such joys are there or else the struggle to keep the Communion alive would be of no value whatsoever. We sometimes forget that there are many times when the untidiness of our common life is a source of delight and wonder.
In the moments just before the next round of action, perhaps it is a spiritually useful thing to smile and even perhaps laugh at ourselves, we Anglicans, who with great untidiness none the less know God’s love and share it as best we can.
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