Showing items filed under “The Rt. Rev. George Sumner”

Ten Modern Christians

Our politics and culture churn with conflict at numerous levels. The ecclesial demographic arrows are downward, not only by aging but also by ‘dechurching.’ The definition of Anglicanism is ‘in play.’ Even what it means to be human seem to wobble. How did we get here? I want to answer this question by succinctly introducing ten modern Christians (with one exception), with a lesson affixed to each. I hope you’ll take them together. 

John Locke - 

This 18th Century British philosopher, an Anglican, was a major influence on the American Revolution. But he also wrote a treatise called ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity. He boiled everything down to the existence of God, eternal life, and the Golden Rule. These are true, but leave out too much! This minimalism is still afoot in the Church.

But I offer him for a different reason. Why did he feel such a least common denominator was needed? Because Christians had been busy killing one another over doctrinal differences for several hundred years. The religious wars left Europe exhausted. I have in mind not just the Inquisition, but mayhem over finer distinctions between Lutheran and Calvinist.

It is hard for us to realize that virtually no one before the modern era thought that a pluralistic state could avoid civil war. Their motto was ‘whatever king’s region, his religion.’ But Europe had learned that political control and the Gospel should not be consolidated. Locke sought a minimally Christian basis for a broad society. The framers of the Constitution bore the same conclusion in mind. And of course their reticence may be found long before, if cryptically, in Jesus’ comment about ‘rendering to Caesar what is Caesar, but…’

One example in our own time may be offered. Take the expression ‘Christian nationalism.’ It could simply (and justifiably) mean being patriotic, honoring our constitutional order, and hoping the Gospel will influence our society. But it might mean Christians aspiring once more to established political power, which they would do to our peril.

The One Thing Needful

At the beginning of every service of baptism or confirmation we recite the words from chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus: ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.’ We begin thus on an ecumenical note; our identity as Christians is front and center, not the subset thereof called ‘Anglicanism’ (of which we Episcopalians are a member). Still it is valuable to know the lore of our particular family, as well as our tradition, for they help us be better witnesses for Jesus Christ in our corner of the vineyard.

There are a variety of ways scholars have defined what makes us most ourselves. ‘The religion of the incarnation’, or ‘the law of praying’ guiding ‘the law of believing,’ or the three streams of catholic, evangelical, and liberal, etc.: each definition leaves us wondering what it ultimately means and how it sets us apart. And so I think the best definition is the simplest, that Anglicans are Christians whose praying and believing are guided by the Book of Common Prayer. (Wait a minute, which version? Put that aside and focus on the big picture!) The other definitions can be folded in under the shelter of the BCP, entailing as it does Nicene doctrine, a Reformation doctrine of grace, and a traditional sacramental practice.

I recently benefitted spiritually from three sermons by the Rev. Tish Warren at our clergy conference, all on the story of Martha and Mary, where Jesus says that the latter sister has grasped ‘the one thing needful.’ That’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not this or that book or tradition! Still, for us, the BCP is a trustworthy means of guarding and presenting that one thing!

I have in view, in all of this, the upcoming General Convention, ever a source of hope and anxiety. There is much we cannot foretell about its outcome. But it would seem likely that the availability of the 1979 BCP for any and all congregations going forward will be reinforced. This is something for which we will be able to give thanks, the simplest means of insuring the ongoing life of more theologically parishes in our Church. (By the way, for this initiative we are grateful, among others, to Bishops Doyle of Texas and Bauerschmidt of Tennessee, and our own Matthew Olver and Jordan Hylden).

But of course the book’s not thing, the human conscience to bring to Christ, but the praying, absolving, celebrating, hearing, teaching, and serving, in actual parishes of Christians together. And these will continue on, after yet another Convention, and not by our resolutions, by God’s sovereign grace.



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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.