A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By Kim.Byham@nypa.gov>E. Kim Byham
President of the Standing Committee, Diocese of Newark
Between Easter and Pentecost, we read from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, rather than from the Old Testament. It's very helpful to understand the kind of struggles that were addressed by the early church as it spread through the world.
But beware selective reading of the scripture. Did you hear today's first lesson? "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day as they spent time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."
Doesn't that sound wonderful? Christians who don't squabble, even though they own everything jointly. And the converts pour in.
Well, not quite.
Just a few chapters later we learn about Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, who sold some property and kept a portion of the proceeds for themselves, although they did share a substantial part with the community. The penalty both suffered was to be struck dead. Acts says, "And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things."
You bet. That would certainly raise the pledges here, I imagine.
There were lots of other divisions, and a few chapters later the leaders of the church had to face a major controversy. Many in the church said, "Unless you are circumcised … you cannot be saved." Others disagreed.
How to resolve the matter? They held the first council, or synod, or convention of the church, the Council of Jerusalem, in the year 51. That was only 18 years after Christ's resurrection.
After struggling with the issues, they came up with an answer. No, you didn't have to be circumcised to join the church, BUT they did establish some additional rules for the non-Jewish converts.
Gentiles who became Christians were to abstain from blood. For two thousand years the church has struggled to understand what that means. Does it mean no ingesting blood, as in a rare steak? Or does it mean no taking of life, as in spilling blood? Who knows? It appears Christians have answered the question by ignoring it.
Jesus said that he is the truth. (John 14:4-6)
We believe that, as did our ancestors in the early church. But like them, we struggle to understand the truth and that means to understand Jesus.
Jesus didn't give very explicit instructions on how to run a church. He said, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth." (John 15:12-23)
So just how does the Holy Spirit lead us into truth, into a greater understanding of God's will for us through Jesus Christ?
Essentially the church has three choices:
The first is to say that we're way ahead of Jesus. After all, the Holy Spirit has been at work for 2000 years and there is "tradition," or the compilation of laws, the "magesterium". Basically that tells us everything we need to know, but in the unusual circumstance of the existing corpus of knowledge being deficient, then a single man can speak on behalf of God and supplement it. Certainly he listens to advisors, but he alone makes the decision on what is God's will for Christians, what is the truth.
The second is remarkably similar, though its proponents would deny that. That is the approach we effete Anglicans call solo scriptorum, only the Bible. Those who follow this believe that the Holy Spirit retired after the completion of the Book of Revelations, and what Jesus meant was we'd learn everything we needed to know within fifty years or so of his resurrection and it would all be written in a book. Followers of this position think that each believer can answer all of life's questions by going to scripture. Of course, they say Christians also have an obligation to study scripture together, and what this means in practice is that one individual, usually a pastor, often serves to say what God's will is for Christians, what is the truth.
Then there is the third way, the middle way, the via media. Thomas Hooker, usually said to be the greatest Anglican theologian thus far, says we must discern God's will and understand the truth by using scripture, tradition and reason.
That doesn't mean, and here is the heart of what I'm getting at this morning, that I as an individual can use my reason to read scripture or understand tradition and come to a conclusion about issues for the church. Obviously we would reach many different conclusions. So we meet together, in councils of the church, to study and debate, just as the Christians did in Jerusalem in 51.
Our liturgy points to this. The Nicene Creed begins, "we believe," and recites the essentials of our faith which were determined where? At the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople held not within 50 years after the resurrection, but in 325 and 381. respectively.
The council of Nicea defined Christianity in ways that are unchanged today. Who was there? Was it like the College of Cardinals who begin deliberations tomorrow? In a word, no. It was convened and presided over by the Emperor Constantine, who at that time had not even been baptized. His will was enforced by a plentiful supply of troops at the doors. And the delegates included deacons and priests, as well as bishops. The Pope, or Bishop of Rome, was not present.
So what is perhaps the most famous council of the united church included lay and non-episcopal members. But in subsequent councils the bishops successfully worked on excluding those not similarly ordained. For hundreds of years, all the voting members of councils were bishops.
Then, 1400 years later, came America, and the struggle for independence from Great Britain. When the Episcopal Church emerged after the Revolution, we became the first catholic church, and by that I mean a church with bishops ordained in apostolic succession, in the world to introduce synodical government that included the laity and the clergy.
How did that happen? There's a lot of misinformation abroad in the Episcopal Church about our history. I won't recite the false tales. But clearly the principal forces were William White, a priest in Philadelphia, later Bishop of Pennsylvania, who served as chaplain to the Continental Congress. He was priest to Benjamin Franklin. That wouldn't be an easy audience to preach to. The others were men who were deeply involved in the struggle for independence. They included John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a dedicated Anglican. This group called together the first General Convention in 1785, and in 1789 they were joined by bishops. (Samuel Seabury had been consecrated in 1784 but initially refused to attend a convention with lay people. He was blackmailed into attending in 1789.)
Since the emergence of the Episcopal Church, Anglican churches throughout the world have adopted synodical government that includes the clergy and laity, although in many parts of the Anglican Communion, most power remains in the hands of the bishops.
OK, but General Convention doesn't have anything to do with seeking the truth, seeking Jesus? Yes it does. The General Convention establishes how we worship and hence how we believe, lex orandi, lex credenti, by approving how we worship, specifically by what is in the Prayer Book, the Hymnal, and our two other books, the Book of Occasional Services and Lesser Feasts and Fasts.
When we come together as a church in convention, whether it is at the parish, diocesan or national level, we do so in deep prayer and we join in worship, usually the Eucharist. We believe that God the Holy Spirit works through conventions. And sometimes, one can see the Spirit move. Sometimes folks end up doing something they never expected to do. They approve something they hadn't expected to. Not because they weren't paying attention, but because they were truly moved by the Spirit.
Not all parts of the church of God discern what Jesus is now trying to tell us in Episcopal Church. I'm certainly not suggesting we have any monopoly on the truth. I'm not even saying we have necessarily discerned correctly, though I think we have. But I know we can see in each other at conventions and in our annual meetings of our church the other parts of the body of Christ that we have need of, and we listen to them. Hopefully they in turn listen to us. And together we listen to the Holy Spirit.
Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that the people of New Hampshire acted flippantly when they elected their bishop. And certainly General Convention in 2003 took its responsibilities very seriously. But some of our fellow Anglicans from around the world don't agree with how we discerned the Spirit to be leading us. Today we are in the midst of determining what process we might follow together to reach mutual agreement.
Again, we cannot say we have no need of the parts of our body in Africa or anywhere else. But they cannot say they have no need of us, either.
No matter how you feel about the issues, please pray regularly for discernment for the leadership of the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church.
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