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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

Singing Different Words to the Same Music


Singing Different Words to the Same Music:

A Response to General Convention.



Church of the Redeemer, Morristown, NJ

Sermon by the Rev. Phillip Dana Wilson


June 25, 2006


Readings: Job 38: 1-11, 16-18; “What is the Holy Spirit” by Dr. James Cone;

                   Mark 4:35-41       


            The readings were already picked on Monday with the intent of having us look at the presence of Spirit, yea, the Holy Spirit in all of life. Job imaged God as speaking to humans out of the fierce movement of the whirlwind. Mark’s gospel told of a wind, just as fierce, in the form of a great gale coming across a lake. Images of wind, furious or calm, have been used to name the experience of the sprit since animals walked on two feet and talked in more than grunts or barks.


            I had my sermon all planned at the beginning of the week and then news came in from the Episcopal Convention meeting in Columbus, Ohio. And, everything changed.


General Conventions are supposed to be a place where the Holy Spirit freely does her work. Well, the winds blew fierce and calm, uprooting and soothing during this week of convention. Listening to reports from Columbus was like riding a roller coaster, with a huge, hurtful let down at the end. I and many others were hurt. I and many others were let down at the end.


The roller coaster began its climb as the Convention approved, over the opposition of the conservatives, a resolution opposing a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. For many of the delegates such a federal amendment would be nothing more than writing discrimination of a minority group into the Constitution. The Convention is off to a good start. 


Next, the Convention voted to apologize for the complicity of the Church in the institution of slavery and for its silence over “Jim Crow” laws. This is a good thing. A living example of this needed racial change was seen in the person of the official representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. John Sentamu, who is the Archbishop of York, the second highest prelate in the Church of England.  Archbishop Sentamu is a black man born in Africa. Good! We are on a roll.


Then the Convention surprised the nation and the entire Anglican Communion in the election of a woman, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as the new Presiding Bishop, as our primate, as our “archbishop,” as our official representative to the world.  Comments were heard about how this might anger the rest of the “boys’ club,” i.e. the Anglican primates from all over the world. It was feared that some of these primates, who can not imagine the validity of a woman in ordained ministry, would refuse to sit down next to soon-to-be “Most Rev.” Katharine. Yet, the delegates to the Convention voted for her with great enthusiasm, simply because she was the best candidate. An added bonus is that as bishop she supported both the consecration of Gene Robinson and same-sex blessings in her diocese. My rollercoaster was heading right to the top. Soon convention would be over and everyone would come home.


Then on the very last day, our outgoing Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, put the resolution on the table that had come from the Archbishop of Canterbury: that the Episcopal Church must ”exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to farther strains of communion.” 


“Manner of Life,” what are they talking about polygamists, rapists or thieves? The resolution is all in code. Translated it says: do not consecrate any honest gay or lesbian bishops because the leaders of the Episcopal Church are afraid that the conservative element of the church will break away. This resolution says to the conservatives that we know you are really upset that we elected a female primate, but we will give you our gay and lesbian leaders to keep you in communion with us.


The roller coasted went into a straight nose dive. What just happened to the Church I was so proud of this whole week? The Church that I love had just diminished, dismissed and traded away like a pawn in a chest game the careers and integrity of a whole group of human beings.


The Presiding Bishop-elect sheepishly said that this is the best we can do. I am sorry! This is not the best we can do! Our gospel calls us higher. I and many others are furious. I am ashamed of my Church and its lack of courage. 


Events such as this call us up short and make us look at the most fundamental and powerful questions of our faith. “Who is your God? At what cost are you willing to serve that God?” 


My God is the God who was revealed in the very first pages of our scripture as creating  all people in God’s image and then saying proudly, “And, it was good!” My God led Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, demanded that we welcome the stranger in our midst and insisted that crops be left in the field after the harvest for the poor widows and orphans. My God was revealed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and in his challenge that only those without sin have the right to judge and cast stones. This is the same Jesus who dreamed the possibility of a rule of God in which all people, yes all people, could live our their identity as daughters and sons of God.


My God was the God revealed in the lives of Harriett Tubman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Rosa Park, breaking down the walls of oppression and calling people into health and liberation. My God is a God  that refuses to throw away the lives of any person, be they black people, women, poor folk or gays and lesbians as pawns in power chest games.


My God is a God who reminds me that there is always a cost to our commitments. Jesus, King and Gandhi revealed that the cost may be everything, even our lives. And at the same time, my God gives me the hope that there is no death so strong, so complete that new and abundant life can not grow out of it.


I believe that the archbishops and presiding bishops that called for this resolution to prohibit any future honest gay bishops are worshipping a slightly different God than I do: one whose highest values are unity, collegiality and keeping everyone one happy. I believe that these leaders of our church are risking the genius of the Anglicanism in their efforts to appease a group of bullies who are convinced that they have the truth in their pocket.


The genius of Anglicanism from the days of Queen Elizabeth I is that members of the church are like very different children in the same family who agree and disagree, who grow apart and come together and who fight and make up, all the time convinced that which unites them is stronger than that which divides them, convinced that there are many right answers to any one question and that relationship trumps doctrine. This is the Anglicanism I embrace and allows me to exercise my Christianity with integrity.


The problem today is that a group of conservatives have become emboldened in their belief that there is one right way and they have it. They would destroy the very nature of Anglicanism in which divergent opinions live in tension with each other. 


The consecration of an open and honest gay man as bishop has become the tipping point for these conservatives. Their threat to the rest of the church is to leave if they do not get their way. Their bullying takes the form of impugning the integrity of their opponents and demanding that they repent of their sin. They play upon the unhealed wounds of colonialism from African bishops. They publicly revile those who disagree with them refusing to talk to them across the same table or share the Body of Christ at the same table. 


My response is never to separate myself from them and at the same time not to be intimidated by their threat to leave. Go ahead; leave if this is what you must do. My prayer is that at some point we will reclaim our inherent relationship. People who worship the God of collegiality and “unity at all cost” cave in in the face of such threats. Hence, we have this moratorium from Columbus on the consecrations of gay and lesbian bishops. Hence, we have the trading of people’s lives in appeasement.


So, how are we to respond?


Anger is damn appropriate! But, we can not live there forever. It is tempting to say that if that is how the national church treats us than we are out of here. The temptation is to leave and go our own way. To do so is to allow the bullies to win and give them exactly what they want which is for those who differ to go away.


To leave is to throw aside the huge gains in human rights we have won in this Diocese. In this Diocese, a Church of the Redeemer is celebrated as a full partner and that could not happen everywhere. In this Diocese gays and lesbians occupy every level of leadership, lay and ordained, except for bishop. In this Diocese same-sex blessings are performed both by and with the approval of our bishop. In this Diocese we have bishops who signed a formal Statement of Dissent to the ban on consecrations. We have come a long way. What we enjoy is unimaginable to many people within the larger Church.  


So, how do we respond?


Yes, we must express our anger. But, we must do more. We must resolve to never go away but to continue to be clearly who we are, with the values we hold, worshipping the God that we worship so that all may know our witness. Change is hard won and seldom bloodless. 


So, how do we respond?


Straight folk must rededicate themselves as allies of gay and lesbian members. Straight folk must listen to the anger of gay and lesbian members and the difficulty they will  have in trusting a church leadership that bargains away their integrity. 


So, how do we respond?


We must resist the temptation to vilify and demonize those who think we are a perversion to the word of God. We must never meet hate with hate or bullying with bullying. Hardest of all, we must love them even more. I did not say we are to like them. We must refuse to judge their motives and their personhood. It could be that we worship different Gods.


So, how do we respond?


We must live with the same hope of the slaves in Egypt and the slaves in Mississippi that God is always on the side of the oppressed and rejected.  We must cling tightly to the promise that there is no death, nor setback, nor official rejection out of which new life can not grow.  The unity of the Anglican Communion “at all costs” can not prevail against the power of resurrection, the power of the Dream of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.


What a vivid image of that spirit is held up in the Contemporary Lesson by Dr. James Cone, a leading voice in black liberation theology. He tells about being invited by members of the Korean Church in Japan to help them in their liberation struggle. What he faces immediately is the overwhelming problem of communication. Not understanding each others’ languages, they are reduced to polite smiles. Then Cone hears their singing of the slave song, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” They are singing in Korean and Cone is singing in English. What Cone realizes is that he is experiencing the Holy Spirit at a deep level. The Holy Spirit is that common and shared music to which very different people sing very different words out of their own language and life experiences.


This is the Holy Spirit that I believe can take hold of the Anglican Communion as powerfully as Job’s whirlwind or Jesus’ storm gale. This is the Holy Spirit that will enable traditionalists and liberals, Nigerians and “Newarkians,” gays and straights, women and men to sing very different words to the same music. That common music is that each of us is a full child of God no matter what anyone says and that God will not rest until all recognize this. 


So, how do we respond?


Yes, we must express our anger but we must not stay in that place forever. We must respond by keeping on being who we are and holding up the model in this place of one family made up of very different people: gay, straight, transgendered, rich, poor, female, male, black, white Hispanic, conservative, agnostic, Jewish, Christian, liberal, young, old, in recovery and yes, nuns….  all of whom are singing different words to the same music.



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