SJF • Proper 18a • Tobias Haller BSG
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.+
Our readings today speak of how the church is to be the church — not only how Christians are to behave towards each other, but also what it means to be a body of Christians, what we call not just a church but the church.
It should be clear to anyone who reads the newspapers that our own Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion of which it is a part, has had more than its share of upset over the last few years. Many wonder whether the church will survive the tension and grow stronger, or split apart into factions and divisions. It is true that Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” But that doesn’t mean every two or three people have to start their own church!
That reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s Church of the Sanctified Brethren: his immediate family, a cousin, and his uncle — the founder of this tiny denomination, which had split and split and split to end up being six people who worshiped in the parlor every Sunday morning, believing themselves to be the only true Church.
I’m reminded of this in part because we’re in the midst of confirmation classes, and the topic of what it means to be an Anglican is much on my mind. So I would like to reflect with you on that question, because our scriptures today are admirably applicable.
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You may have heard of the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker who wrote during the reign of Queen Elizabeth and contributed to the Elizabethan Settlement. This was the elegant compromise that allowed Anglicans — even then split into disagreeing and sometimes disagreeable parties — to keep peace in their household. Anglicans respect three sources of authority — Scripture, Tradition, and Reason — and somehow this trio has gotten attached to the name of Richard Hooker under the title “Hooker’s Three-Legged Stool” even though he never referred to it as such. Hooker did not actually regard Tradition as an equal source of authority, and he placed Reason ahead of Scripture because, as he said, without Reason we would not be able to reap the benefit of Scripture at all — without Reason you wouldn’t even be able to read it! We also use Reason to inform our reading of Scripture, which helps to keep us out of the kind of trouble the Roman Catholic Church had with Galileo, or modern of fundamentalists have with Charles Darwin. So if it is a three-legged stool it is a wobbly one.
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What I want to speak about today is another set of three characteristics of Anglicanism, reflected in our Scripture readings as they address the problems of authority and disagreement in the church. I call these three principles the Anglican Triad: Humility, Locality, and Variety.
The first one, Humility, is the what drew me to the Episcopal Church in the first place. I was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, and in those days questions were not encouraged, and the rule was “do as you are told.” This didn’t sit well with me, and I drifted away from it when I was a teenager, only to discover the Episcopal Church when I went to college.
What attracted me most was the fact that Anglicanism is one of the few Christian traditions that says, right up front, “The church makes mistakes.” One would think, looking at the church history, that this would be obvious — but many people want a religion that will tell them what to believe, give them answers instead of questions. Whether it’s the fundamentalist’s, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” or “The Pope is infallible” — some people want that kind of security, to know that they are Right.
Anglicans, however, accept that just as the people of Israel made mistakes — and boy did they make mistakes — so too the Christian Church is not immune from its own failures and errors. Anglicans accept that since individual people make mistakes — however exalted their position — there is no guarantee that when you get people together in a group, even a church group, that they will somehow miraculously be preserved from making mistakes.
Why this notion of humility is important is that only those who are open to realizing that they might make mistakes will be ready to correct them when they do. Few people are more dangerous to themselves and others than those who think they never make a mistake and are always right.
And when the church makes mistakes, as it surely has, and when some member of the church has the courage to stand up and say, “My friends, this is wrong” — whether it’s about how the church supported and benefitted from slavery, or the second-class status of women, or apartheid, or anything else — the right thing to do, as Ezekiel assured the people, is to “turn back from their evil ways, and live.” That takes humility.
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The second characteristic of Anglicanism is Locality. The Anglican Communion is not just one big centrally governed international church. Rather it is a fellowship of national and provincial churches, independently governed, but sharing a common heritage and tradition. This element of Anglicanism goes right back to the foundation of the Church of England, when it asserted its independence from the Church of Rome, rejecting the idea that the church throughout the world had to be centrally governed by a single leader. In this, the Anglican Communion is like the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy — each of them independently governed nation by nation but recognizing and in fellowship with each other.
This aspect of Anglicanism has come under a lot of pressure lately, as disagreements between the individual national churches have come to the foreground. What should be our strength is becoming an additional challenge. The strength lies in the fact that the Episcopal Church in the US doesn’t have the right to tell the Church in the Sudan what to do in the Sudan, nor does the Church in the Sudan have the right to tell the Episcopal Church what to do here in the US. The problem is, quite a few of the churches outside the Episcopal Church have in fact been trying to tell the Episcopal Church what it ought to do, indeed what it has to do if those other churches are going to continue to have any kind of relationship with it.
Some of the other churches in the Communion are standing with the Episcopal Church in this, and understand that giving orders to others is a dangerous path to follow — we become a communion of busy-bodies interfering in each other’s households. After all, in our Gospel today Jesus only gives the right to confront another member of the church if that member has sinned against you — you personally. He gives no general authority to Christians to judge the behavior of others with whom they disagree about anything — in fact, as you well know, Jesus teaches exactly the opposite: Do not judge; and Do not try to remove the splinter from your neighbor’s eye while you’ve got a two-by-four in your own.
This is also where his language concerning “two or three being gathered together” comes in — the church subsists in every faithful gathering of Christians, and it isn’t for one gathering here to tell another gathering there what it is that they must do. After all, we may be wrong, and they right! So Humility and Locality support each other. After all, things acceptable in the US may not be acceptable in the Sudan — and vice versa. By keeping a clear sense of our own limitations as well as gifts, we can be humble enough not to insist on others following our local customs and decisions.
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This leads to the third characteristic of Anglicanism, Variety. One of the things the Church of England recognized when it became independent from the Church of Rome was that not only could the form of church government differ from place to place, but also the form of prayer and worship. For instance, two changes the Church of England made at that time were to worship in English instead of Latin, and to allow the congregation to drink from the Cup. (And isn’t it interesting that some 400 years later the Church of Rome caught up?)
When the Episcopal Church became independent from the Church of England — back at the American Revolution — we Episcopalians also took advantage of the opportunity to change our liturgy — not just dropping the prayers for the royal family, but adopting a form for the Eucharist based on what was being done in Scotland instead of England. After all, it was Scottish bishops who ordained our first American Bishop!
This kind of variety is also reflected in the teaching of Jesus. He gives the church — the local church of two or three gathered together — the right to bind and loose. When they agree on earth, it is done in heaven. It is not necessary that worship be the same all around the world — for God is praised in many tongues by many peoples.
So it is that these three elements of Anglicanism can nourish the church and foster its growth if we will let them. We can affirm that even though not all agree with us, we need not in all things agree with them. In humility we can remain open to receive criticism — for none of us is perfect. As we worship in our own communities we can also respect that others will worship in ways unlike our own and yet share a heritage in the Anglican tradition. We are many in our ways of worship, but One in the Lord whom we worship.
So let us work to love and appreciate each other with mutual affection; to outdo each other in showing honor to each other. Let us not lag in zeal, but be ardent in spirit, and thus serve the Lord. Let us rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer, each in our own portion of this great fellowship of churches we call the Anglican Communion, and to the glory of God alone.+