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Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book . Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:
A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Why Do We Have This Special Charism?
here to access an audio version of this sermon
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’d like to begin this morning by saying something about numbers. When it comes to the church, people often talk about numbers. Numbers after all are important.
There are a little more than 300 million people in the United States, of whom almost 68 million are Roman Catholic. Nearly a quarter of our country’s total population self-identify as Roman Catholics. That’s a lot of Catholics!
After the Catholics come the Baptists. If you combine the Southern Baptists with other Baptists, they come out to about 39 million. And that’s a lot of Baptists!
Then come the Pentecostals, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Mormons, the Orthodox, and the Presbyterians as well as a number of other religious denominations--each of whom is in the single-digit category; that is, their numbers do not exceed 10 million.
Where does the Episcopal Church fit in, in terms of relative size? Well, we’re at about 2.4 million. So if you divide 300 million (which is the approximate population of the country) by 2.4 million, you come out with less than 1 percent of the population. Our membership base is really quite small when compared to many of the other Christian bodies. That’s NOT a lot of Episcopalians.
And yet, considering our small size, we’re quite influential and we play a significant role in the religious and civic life of our nation. We always have.
In fact the history of the Episcopal Church is a remarkable story of leadership and influence. We can be proud of the contributions we have made as a church to the progress of the country.
The Los Angeles Times recently published an editorial after our General Convention in Anaheim ended last month. The editorial makes exactly that point:
With a little more than two million members, the Episcopal Church is far from being the country’s largest Christian denomination. But its recent pronouncements indicating support for openly gay bishops and church blessings for same-sex couples will have reverberations beyond that church, beyond Christianity and even beyond religion. For all the theological issues it raises, acceptance of gays and lesbians at the altar reflects--and affects--the struggle for equality in the larger society.
Yes. What we do as a church often reverberates in the larger society, as well as on the local and congregational level. If I asked you whether you were proud of what we do here in this parish and whether what we do here counts in the life of the city of New York you’d unhesitatingly say, “Absolutely!”
This leads to the larger question of why. If indeed we have this leadership ability, this special charism, why do we have it? Where did this capacity to leverage our small numbers into big effects come from?
For me, the answer to this question can be found in two places: in our own history as a church, and also in the early church’s theology of charism.
First, our own history.
The history of the Episcopal Church and the history of the United States are very closely intertwined. Before the American Revolution the church was one of three principal churches for the educated, mostly wealthy, ruling class, but that never meant that the church was completely supportive of the monarchy. In fact, by the 1770s it was deeply divided on that issue. Most, but not all, Anglicans wanted independence from England. Twenty-nine out of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Anglicans. But there were still many members of the church who were deeply loyal to the crown and during and after the Revolutionary War, many of them left the country rather than to support a rebellion against the monarchy. They returned to England or they moved to loyalist Canada.
The nascent church’s support of the democratic ideals of the Revolution cost it dearly. I say “nascent” because the Episcopal Church as such hadn’t yet been born. The church had lost a significant number of members; it had no bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury was not about to ordain any without an oath of allegiance to the king, which no citizen of the new country could take. The church had no Prayer Book of its own. And the biggest problem of all was that it had no self-governing institutions. It had only a burning desire to continue in some way to remain a church with bishops and sacraments and a Book of Common Prayer but at the same time to play an active role in the life of the new Republic.
With the help of some Scottish bishops, it obtained an independent episcopacy; it rewrote the Prayer Book, adapting it to the needs of our own country; and most importantly, it created a truly democratic system of self government that gave voice to the laity as well as to bishops in the governance of the church. No one had ever heard of such a thing! The task of the lay person in the past had been to pay, to pray, and to obey, but not to have much say. Now things were different. The church became a democratic church in a newly democratic land. It was a revolutionary way of remaining a catholic church and at the same time of being an inclusive church. Inclusive of the laity (at least the white male laity) in a whole new way.
So, from the point of view of our earliest history, the steps that the Episcopal Church took in Anaheim a few of weeks ago to more fully include gay people in its life were really nothing new. They were, in a way, just the Episcopal Church being the Episcopal Church. Adapting to changing circumstances by remaining faithful to its origins; another step in bringing to completion a process that had begun at the beginning of its history
At every juncture of its history, at the end of the day, our church has always chosen inclusion over exclusion. It has always harkened back to its revolutionary and democratic ideals. And every time it made that choice there was some cost. But the church has consistently born that cost and has historically come down on the side of greater inclusion and greater democracy.
Absolam Jones, for example, is remembered in our church as the first black priest. In fact, he was the first black minister to be ordained in any denomination in the United States. He was made a deacon in 1795. Imagine that! 1795! Less than twenty years after the Declaration of Independence. It didn’t take long for the new Episcopal Church to get involved in the struggle for black emancipation and black inclusion. Jones was ordained a priest in 1805. But the struggle was not easy. There were many northern Episcopalians who were indifferent to the issue of race and many southern Episcopalians who were openly hostile to the full inclusion of negroes in the life of the church. When the Civil War broke out, virtually the entire southern half of the Episcopal Church departed, although to their credit those states did return after the war.
It should be noted that this very place, this Church of the Holy Apostles at Ninth Ave. and 29th St. was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The people of this parish gave food and lodging and moral support to fugitive slaves who were seeking to escape to the free states or to Canada.
Let’s move now to the story of the place of women in the life of our church-- another volatile issue right from the start. If the men, both clerical and lay, could take an active role in the councils of the church, why couldn’t the women? The long and arduous struggle for women’s ordination, which wasn’t the only issue that concerned women, began as early as the the mid-1850’s. The quest for ordination lasted almost 125 years. It ended in 1976 when the church changed its canon law to allow female ordination.
In 1970 and in 1973, the House of Deputies of the General Convention (i.e. the priests and lay people who by then included women deputies) said yes to women’s ordination; the all male House of Bishops said no.
Finally, in 1974, 11 women were illegally but validly ordained priests in Philadelphia by three courageous retired bishops.
You could hear the cries of outrage from coast to coast and from Lambeth Palace to the Episcopal Church Headquarters in New York.
Finally, in 1976 those ordinations were regularized by the General Convention and by the end of ‘77 over a hundred women had been ordained. The exodus then began in earnest. A significant number of people left. Whole parishes were affected. A number of conservative bishops dug in their heals and said, “Not in my diocese!” Many wondered whether the Episcopal Church would survive.
Well it did.
In 1977 the first two women priests in the Diocese of New York, including one openly gay woman, Ellen Barrett, were ordained right here in this church--between these four walls--by the late great, and greatly loved, Bishop Paul Moore. And in 1988 Barbara Harris became the first female bishop of the Episcopal Church.
So that same pattern of being in the vanguard, of being a beacon for social change has played itself out in our church over and over again in so many ways. Always the same pattern: first, ferocious hostility, then grudging acceptance, and finally, gratitude.
Now we’re in the midst of the next social revolution. The next battle for inclusion.
Now I’d like to say a little bit about today’s second reading, from the Epistle to the Ephesians. And to apply that to our church and to its apparent vocation as a leading advocate of social change. It may also help us to understand why we are the way we are and why we act the way we do.
Most scholars think that Ephesians was not written by St. Paul, but by a follower of Paul and in his name in order to give the work apostolic authority. It was probably written about the year 90.
There was one really big problem that had begun to manifest itself at that time. The problem was that the original 12 apostles had died and the end of the world hadn’t happened. People were beginning to say, “Hey, what’s going on here? Paul and the other Apostles and even Jesus himself all preached that the end of the world was at hand.” This delay in the return of Christ was causing difficulties. And people were squabbling and beginning to leave the church because of it.
The Book of Ephesians addressed these problems. Its basic argument is this: the timing of Christ’s return to earth and the establishment of the Kingdom of God is a mystery hidden in the mind of God. It’s not ours to know.
In the meantime, each one and each church must do his or her job. In the verses immediately preceding today’s text, we read: “When he ascended on high, he gave gifts to us. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the Body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.” [Eph 4:8-13]
The story of how the church (and by “the church” I mean the whole Christian church); how the churches do their work and carry out God’s plan throughout history is undoubtedly a mystery hidden deep within the mind of God.
But this much can be said, I think. God gives gifts not only to individuals, but also to institutions. Institutional gifts; corporate charisms. So, the churches, too, have been given various gifts at various times “to prepare God’s people for works of service” and for the hastening of the Kingdom of God.
I believe that God has given our church--the Episcopal Church--a special gift, a special charism--the gift of leadership, the gift and the task of going first, the gift of being in the vanguard. Another way of saying that is that the Episcopal Church has been called to speak the Good News of God in Christ to an ever-changing world.
But while we may rejoice in our call to be a progressive church, we should not forget that we are more than mere agents of social change. We’re agents and catalists of social change, yes, but CHRISTIAN agents of change. We are followers of Christ, baptised into his Body, cooperators in his saving work. We take most seriously the words of the Book of Ephesians read to us this morning. We want to be “imitators of God, and to walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offfering and sacrifice to God.”
So when we come together, as we have today, we do so not merely to map out a program of social advocacy, but also to pray, to petition, to give thanks, and to celebrate the Holy Eucharist together. To bear witness to the world that Christian faith and modern life can go together.
I think that this balance of activism and faith in Christ is wonderfully expressed in the Post Communion Prayer we say so often:
“We thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.... And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
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