Unity is Not Unanimity

Taize-CrossThe current headlines from the recent gathering of the Primates (senior bishops) of the Anglican Communion — that The Episcopal Church (based in the US) is to be excluded from key aspects of the Communion’s life, as a result of its decisions regarding the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, including the sacrament of marriage — raise a question that deserves serious consideration:  What does unity really mean in the life of the church?

Over the centuries, Christian people have often, it seemed, confused unity with unanimity.  They have assumed that in order to be united, people must agree about certain things.  That list that must be agreed to tends to include both matters of doctrine and morality.   The list has shifted over the centuries, but it has never gone away.   When groups of Christians have been unable to sign on to the list du jour, fracture of relationship has been the result — along with the formation of new denominations.

The results of the recent gathering of Anglican Primates appears to be simply another iteration of this history.   The majority of the Primates have a list of doctrines and morals which must be signed onto, in their view, in order to have unity within the Anglican Communion.  And the very top item on the current list seems to be a certain view of marriage and human sexuality.   Since the Primates, and the churches they represent, are not unanimous with respect to their views on these issues, the result is fracture of relationship — a deliberate distancing of The Episcopal Church from the other churches of the Communion, and the very real possibility that other churches will end up being treated the same way as they move toward The Episcopal Church’s position.

This idea of unity as unanimous agreement is, it seems to me, false; and particularly so for Christian people.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Pauls observes, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”   What Paul is pointing us toward, I believe, is that the locus of Christian unity is not based on unanimous consent but rather on the conviction that Jesus is Lord, a conviction that is ultimately enabled by the one Spirit.

While this is not a term I normally use — generally because of the conservative theological connotation it has acquired in the present day — to say that “Jesus is Lord” is simply to say that Jesus is the one on whom we rely to bring us into a salvific (which is to say, a healing) relationship with God.  To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to express our loyalty to his proclamation of the kingdom of God, to say that he is the one whom we follow and whom we trust to bring us to God.   This is the unity of the Christian church:  to claim this central role for Jesus in our lives as we seek to “work out [our] own salvation”.  And Paul is clear that anyone who is able to say this does so “by the Holy Spirit.”

There is no doubt in my mind that this is something that all of us in the Anglican Communion are able to do.   We have each and all entrusted ourselves to  Christ and to his proclamation of the kingdom of God.  This unites us to one another and, indeed, to Christians around the world.

But having entrusted ourselves to Christ, we then embark upon the life-long journey of understanding exactly what this means.  As we continue to contemplate the life of Christ and to listen to his proclamation of the reign of God, we must work out what his life and his proclamation mean for us in the particular time and place in which we find ourselves. Just as we see Christ as the incarnation of God in a human life, so we must figure out how to incarnate the reign of God within and among us.   And while it may sound straight-forward, the actual process of incarnating that reign is far more art than science, and can be quite complicated.  Because for anything to be truly incarnated, it must — by definition — become fully and deeply embedded in its time and place.   The consequence of this incarnational truth is that Christians in different places will enact the Gospel differently, and will reach different conclusions about what it means relative to any given issue or situation.   This is simply because the act of incarnating the reign of God inevitably involves dialogue and interaction with the surrounding culture and its diverse inhabitants.

This, it seems to me, is how Christians who all are seeking to be faithful can arrive at very different points of view.  What we must learn to see is that these different points of view all begin at the same place:  a commitment to following Jesus into the heart of God.

We have tended over the centuries to want to find our unity as Christians by making everyone adopt the same point of view about pretty much everything.  The persistent divisions within the Christian community give us all the evidence we need about how well that has worked.  Nevertheless, we continue to nurture a fantasy of a universal church where everyone will be on the same page.

We need to come to terms with the fact that Christians have really never been on the same page with respect to lots of things, and it is unlikely that we ever will be.  But we can find unity in something we have, in fact, all always agreed on:  that Jesus is decisively the one whom we follow, and we trust him to lead us to God.   Rather than beating each other up about the different ways in which we incarnate that commitment, we would be far better served by rejoicing in the many and diverse ways we incarnate that commitment.

In the midst of the rejoicing, however, it is equally important to recognize that Jesus does give us a standard that must apply to all our efforts to incarnate the gospel, regardless of time and place.   When asked for the bottom line of his teaching, Jesus answers, Love God with your whole heart, body, soul, and spirit, and love your neighbor as yourself.   However the gospel is incarnated, whatever conclusions we draw from our commitment to Christ about how we live in union with God, we must be able to affirm these principles positively.   Our incarnation of the reign of God must reflect a deep and abiding love for God, and it must reflect a deep and abiding love for our neighbor.   When Jesus himself was asked to define that word “neighbor”, he said that the neighbor was the one among us who was in need.

We must always bear this standard in mind, and we must constantly and honestly reflect on our own incarnating of the Gospel and ask ourselves, “Is this expressing a whole-hearted love for God AND a whole-hearted love for my neighbor, the one near me who is in need?”   When we find that it is not, then we have an obligation to re-align our following of Jesus.

Incarnation of the reign of God is far more messy than most of us would like it to be — but it is the task and the truth to which we have been called.

Pushed to the Edge, But Not Out of the Light

2000px-Anglican_rose.svgThis week, the 38 primates (most senior bishops) of the member churches of the Anglican Communion have been meeting in Canterbury, called together by invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to ruminate about the state of our fellowship of churches.  There has been considerable turmoil within the Communion over decisions over the past several years by The Episcopal Church (based in the United States) and the Anglican Church of Canada that have led to the full inclusion of LGBT people into the sacramental life of the church and into its ordained ministry at every level.  Most recently, this past summer, The Episcopal Church’s General Convention voted to make it possible for same-sex couples to be included in the sacrament of marriage.

These decisions have been costly.  The Episcopal Church has lost a number of members over what is often perceived as a “concession to culture” and a departure from “biblical” truth and the historic doctrine and practice of the church.  Of course, we have also gained members as a result of this decision.  It has also damaged our relationship with many of our sister and brother Anglicans around the world, who have felt that we have departed from the true faith in a significant way.

What seems difficult for some of our sister and brother Anglicans to understand is that our movement toward the full inclusion of LBGT people has not been a concession to cultural change in the United States.  Rather, this movement has been one of deep and, it appears, courageous faith.  As we have sought to understand the Gospel of Christ ever more deeply, we have come to see that the life and teaching of Jesus demand the full inclusion of all people into the life of the church.  We have come to see LBGT people not as defective, but as made in the image of God and deserving of all the blessings and graces that the church bestows so that they may enter into the fullness of life.  As Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”   To limit access to the abundance of life in Christ is, we have concluded, the real sin.

It is understandable that many of our sisters and brothers would find this change challenging.  After all, many of the cultures and experiences in which they dwell make the kind of discussion that has led The Episcopal Church to this moment impossible for them — or, at least, very difficult.  And so we have been willing to respect that they are in a different place, even as we have continued to call them to express the deepest compassion toward LGBT people within their own churches and societies.  We have not, for one moment, wished to break relationship with them, even as we have insisted on the integrity of our own position.

Today, however, it was announced that the Anglican Communion primates have voted to suspend The Episcopal Church from most aspects of the Communion’s life for the next three years, as punishment for our decision to move in the way we came to believe our faith demanded.  We have, in other words, been pushed to the margins of the Anglican Communion’s life because, in essence, we are seen as unclean and a potential contaminant to the life of the larger church.

In Jesus’ time, there was tension over how the Law of Moses was to be interpreted.  Most of the Pharisees, the religious party within Judaism with which Jesus most frequently came into conflict, tended to interpret the law according to a principle of purity.  For them, it was important that people — and the Jewish nation as a whole — remain pure, separating themselves from anything that might threaten that ritual purity.  It was because of this way of interpreting the Law that people whose illnesses rendered them unclean were pushed out of their communities.  The Pharisaic response to people who didn’t meet the standard of purity they valued was to marginalize them.  All of this was done in God’s name, believed to be what God required of them if they were to be a holy people.

Jesus, however, interpreted the Law using a principle of mercy, and saw in the Law a demand for compassion above all else.  There was no room in Jesus’ teaching to marginalize those perceived as unclean.  And, consequently, much of his ministry was devoted to reversing the marginalization — healing diseases that brought condemnation, restoring people to their families and communities, and assuring them that they were loved by God.   There is an important ethic that informs all of Jesus’ teaching and ministry:   that if one wants to know what is the right thing to do, one goes to the margins and edges of society and listens to those who have been cast out.  For Jesus, it was this deep compassion and transforming inclusion that made for a holy people.

It is, in some ways, hard to think of The Episcopal Church as marginalized — while many of our churches struggle financially, on the whole we are blessed with significant resources, and we are free to live our religious life as we see fit.   But the Anglican Communion has seen fit to marginalize us ecclesiastically.   We could be angry.  But I think we should be honored.  After all, the margins is where Jesus spent his life and ministry — and he assured those who were pushed to the margins that they were, indeed, also being pushed into the Light of God’s love.

Since this original publication of this blog, the complete statement from the gathering of Anglican Primates has been released.  The word “suspension” is not used, and in a news conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury did not use this language, though it was used in many press articles prior to the release of the full statement.  It seems to me, however, that whatever language one chooses to use, the effect is the same:  that of pushing The Episcopal Church out of those parts of the Communion’s life where, in the estimation of a majority of the Primates, we could potentially cause the most damage.  

Returning by Another Road

The Epiphany is depicted in a mural titled "Adoration of the Magi" in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo. Painted by Benedictine monks in the late 1800s, the artwork is the first appearance of the German Beuronese style in a U.S. church. Christians celebrate the incarnation of the divine word -- the birth of Christ -- Dec. 25. The feast of the Epiphany is Jan. 2. (CNS photo courtesy Conception Abbey) (Nov. 8, 2004)

Yesterday — January 6 — began the season of Epiphany, whose heart is the story from Matthew’s Gospel about the three wise men who come from the  East, following a star, looking for the “king” whose birth they believe the star to announce.  They pay a visit to King Herod, believing that he would want to help them locate this newly-born king.  They are not at first aware of how threatening this news is to Herod, who asks that they let him know where they find Jesus, so that Herod can pay his respects, too (something, of course, which Herod has no intention of doing).  The wise men do, indeed, find the baby Jesus and give him their famous gifts.  At the conclusion of their visit, however, they “return home by another road”, having been warned that Herod’s intentions are anything but honorable.

This sweet story is usually interpreted as pointing symbolically to the significance of Jesus’ birth for people outside the Jewish community — for the wise men come “from the East”, meaning they are not Jews.  And much has been made of the symbolism of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.   Particularly of the myrrh, which was traditionally used in the anointing of bodies after death — and therefore is taken to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death.

This year, I have found myself wondering about the symbolism of the rest of the story.  For me, the wise men strike me as pilgrims, as spiritual seekers who are wise enough to perceive that in Christ, God has come into the world in a new way.  And they recognize that this particular coming of God is something they need.  It is like a light — or a star — that draws them to Christ.  And so they make their pilgrimage, leaving their home and the land that is familiar to them to go to a strange place.  Part of their wisdom is that they are wise enough to know that they can’t stay home, they can’t simply remain in their comfort zone.

When they encounter Christ, they have the courage to open their treasure chests — to open their hearts to him.  Indeed, the story suggests that it is in encountering the Christ that they are drawn to open their treasures to him, to share with him that which is most precious in their lives.  It requires courage, because the moment they open their hearts they are opening themselves to transformation, to change.  They are letting the light of Christ in, and they will never be the same.

And so their encounter with Christ sets them on a new path.  They do return home, they go back to the familiar and comfortable, but they do so “by another road”.  The return home different than when they left.  They are not quite the same people.  They have allowed Christ into themselves, and they have begun to be recreated from within.

Some people, like Herod, cannot make this journey, because it is too scary.  Rather than seeing the beauty of allowing Christ to remake them, they see only the cost of that remaking.  They cannot let go of what must be surrendered in order to embrace the light.

As we make our way into Epiphany this year, may we see the invitation to open our hearts to Christ and allow ourselves to be remade not as threatening, but as reassuring.  May we see it as God’s movement toward us in love, as an opportunity to become the light we see in Jesus, and thereby to bring light to the world.