New Causes -- Not So New

     When I first arrived at Wycliffe College, I received an invitation from the head of the Niagara Mothers’ Union. The phone invitation went like this: “It is our anniversary and we would like a Sumner to speak, and you were all we could find!” With that ringing endorsement, I said ‘OK.’ You see, Mothers’ Union was founded in the mid -19th Century by the wife of an English bishop named Mary Sumner. I was no stranger to its ministry. It is of course central to the life of the African Church where I was ordained, though she was known in Swahili as ‘Mama Samna.’  My assignment to preach required that I research what one might expect to be a dowdy and archaic figure.

       What I found was very different. The Victorian Church loved to form societies, special groups for specific needs. And in the case of Mary Sumner, one of those needs was that of girls who found their way to places like London, and in great poverty, also found their way into prostitution. Those Victorian Anglican women were, in turns out, some of the first advocates for women in the face of sex trafficking and slavery. They ruffled not a few political feathers by making leaders of the time look at the more brutal aspects of their economy and social life.

       Now most of the association of the Mothers’ Union is with the evangelical branch of the Anglican tradition, and in particular the Church Missionary Society. Their great growth was in the CMS areas of Africa, and the Union was one of the great instruments of that growth. But this was inseparable from interest in the status of women. In east Africa by the mid-20th century the Revival, whose roots are similar to the Union, challenged and transformed relations between husbands and wives. Even the opposition to drinking was rooted in part in the degradation of women in the customs around pombe, the brewing of homemade beer.

     My points are simple ones: sometimes new causes aren’t so new after all. And movements we thought we understood, such as evangelicalism, were more multi-dimensional than we gave them credit. And, in the missionary movement’s history at least, the most powerful changes and contributions were often made by women who were obviously, at that time, lay people. Though her husband was a bishop, it was Mama Samna, rightly, who had a more lasting legacy.    

   What resulted was a ministry of the Church, but not one in the usual ‘matrix’ of the diocese, parish, and clergy. It was a voluntary society, lay-operated, with a specific mission. We have around us many fruits of such efforts - Daughters of the King, Brotherhood of St. Andrew, Cursillo, etc. They are the woof to the warp of Church structure. They are often the catalyst to renewal in Church history. They make up, together, what we call ‘Church.’ They need and deserve our attention and effort, adapted to our own time and circumstance.



Open Communion

A psalm for the fifth day at Morning Prayer is the 26th, which includes these lines:

“Give judgment for me, O Lord, for in have lived with integrity;/ I have trusted in the Lord and never faltered….

I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord,/ that I may go in procession round your altar.* (vv.1,6)

I admire the Psalmist’s self-confidence, but I do not share it! My spiritual life has lots of faltering, and if innocence is the basis on which I approach the altar, my Sunday mornings will be freer than they now are. Who then is the ‘I’ who can say these words?

The answer is the ‘George’ who lives based on the forgiveness Christ has won for us, the one clothed in His righteousness. The only one who hasn’t faltered is Christ. So when we read psalms with these stringent requirements of holiness we are at once daunted and emboldened. There is after all a reason that in his parables Jesus had such an emphasis on decisiveness and chutzpah.

Somewhat lost amidst other matters at General Convention was a call for a renewed debate about ‘open communion.’ This phrase refers to offering communion to the unbaptized. The argument on its behalf is a serious one: isn’t our faith based on sheer grace, unmerited gift? What claim do we have over our unchurched neighbor? Aren’t we all equally creatures of God, made in His image? Yes, indeed.

But we should at this point listen once more to those verses of the psalm. As we listen, we need to be honest with ourselves. We are indeed equal, equally unable to approach the throne of unalloyed holiness, truth, and love on our own. After the seraphim sing the words ‘holy, holy, holy’ we sing in the Eucharist, Isaiah says “woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell amidst a people of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6). We all need to be brought to this altar; we need what St. Athanasius imagined as an asbestos vest before the fire of God’s love. If we are to go there, we need to be Christ’s own, which means we need baptism and then the Christian life of grace. What is open is Christ’s offer to every human being of that grace.

The debate about open communion is valuable because it clarifies the most basic matters in our faith. It also, implicitly, gives us our marching orders. The unbaptized and the baptized seem alike to us in part because we as a church have not always assumed the latter needed earnestly to be taught and formed on the basis of who they now really are in Jesus Christ. The answer is not lowering the bar of receiving communion, but rather raising the bar of catechism and spiritual formation.

Peace, GRS+