The Road Ahead
One often hears that truism that we are at an historical crossroads, or are in a moment of cultural upheaval. People used mistakenly to refer to the Chinese ideogram for crisis that also meant opportunity! That it often seems so does not mean that of some times this is particularly true. So I will begin with the harder news, first for our denomination as a whole, and then for us as a diocese devoted to what the late theologian Hans Frei called ‘generous orthodoxy.’ The Episcopal Church dropped sharply in the past decade, especially in the number of baptisms and marriages. In addition, we have learned recently that, in the period of COVID, it has shrunk by a third in average Sunday attendance. While we have not experienced such a drop, we are not immune to the effects of the larger Church climate. Some weaker dioceses may struggle to survive. (It is in this context that the importance of Dallas paying its full assessment, as an expression of fellowship, can be seen).
In such an environment, and in the face of a good deal of resistance from the bishops, the Church has embarked on a process of Prayer Book revision which is confused at best. It will probably in continue through the next two Conventions, and it will probably result in the new marriage rite, amenable to same sex couples, having an equal status. Meanwhile, and on a more positive note, there are efforts to assure that parishes that wish to do so can continue to use the 1979 Book (for the older of us the idea of the 1979 book as the venerable one is slightly comical). At the same time, we watch with interest the consent process for new bishops in dioceses of the Communion Partners, the fellowship of those who are full members of TEC but maintain a traditional teaching on marriage. The Church as a whole needs to continue to affirm that our voice is ‘indispensable’(General Convention, 2015). All these facts taken together constitute an inflection point.
At a recent Commission on Ministry meeting I played ‘To be a Pilgrim,’ a hymn with words by John Bunyan. I believe that intrepid and persevering spirit is what we are, first of all, called to in this season. Parishes, clergy, dioceses of more traditional mind, will have to make their way, learning along the way. We do not know exactly how things will work out. But we do know the things that need to be in the spiritual knapsack of the intrepid pilgrim. I will offer these as I use three Greek words from the New Testament- I would apologize for the obfuscation, but in fact you know the words! For anamnesis, think ‘amnesiac’- it means ‘remembering.’ For oikoumene, think ‘ecumenical’- it means ‘global.’ For kyriakon, think of hearing the ‘Kyrie’ in Church, ‘Lord (have mercy)- it means ‘the Lord’s thing’ (day, people, place).’ All three are clear (but hard), humbling, challenging, life-giving.
The context in both the New Testament and the liturgical tradition is eucharistic, but we can broaden this out to the whole of the Christian life. We strain to hear the message of the Gospel anew, and are given by grace to recall it. The word conveys a remembering which is powerful and brings the thing remembered into powerful presence in us. As the Church struggles, we are driven back to the basics anew, not with a spirit of superiority, but in humility, as beginners, as ‘babes in the faith,’ anew converted. A traditional witness has to be a vocation on behalf of all of recalling, and with the confidence that the Word itself and alone suffices in power to sustain the Church. We all as sinners are justified by grace, by virtue of Jesus’ saving death. We can learn many things from the world; the ‘sufficiency of Scripture’ doesn’t mean a retreat from thought and engagement. But the authoritative voice in what matters most remains the Word of God. The sacraments likewise are ‘visible words’ (Augustine) calling forth what they say. By contrast, no stratagem or amalgam aimed at Church survival will suffice. In uncertainty (which we in our weakness share) we repair to what is certain, the saving Word of God conveyed in Scripture.
This word is actually related to another word you know: ‘economics, literally the ‘law of the home.’ Likewise the oikoumene is ‘the inhabited place,’ the world as it is given to humans to live together (in contrast in the New Testament to the kosmos, ‘the world’ (in its fallenness). Christians, though a part of a distinct, and often oppressed, group, understood themselves to be members of the one oikoumene (indeed in the Letter to Diognetus imagined themselves its soul).
The more pressed life may be for the Church in post-modernity, and in an era of denominational decline, the more we reach out as fellow-branches-of-the-tree, friends, neighbors, in the oikoumene. The more distanced we may have been, the more we define our very selves in relation to the oikoumene. As I write this reflection, we begin to hear on Sundays the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus deconstructs the very idea of an ‘enemy,’ in utter contrast to our cultural moment, and in direct connection to the saving death toward which He moves.
Think here in terms of concentric circles. The parish is a spiritual place inhabited together, not a collection of individuals consuming a religious product. A diocese likewise is a koinonia, a thing in common. We have to work toward grasping this! The Episcopal Church is likewise our family, to which we are bound, especially when we disagree or feel disregarded. We inhabit the same oikoumene with other denominations of Christians, whom we may rediscover in the time ahead. We have a special vocation here of brother- and sisterhood with largely African American churches, and will need to continue to learn from them. Of the greatest importance is expanding our sense of koinonia with the worldwide family of Anglican Churches. This is a providential gift, a sign to us of the ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,’ and the Gospel content for a more abstract notion of diversity. (And we have new resources in the diocese to make this easier to do). Finally we inhabit the same oikoumene with those who suffer around us, those who misunderstand us, etc,
If the oikoumene is as wide as can be, the kyriakon is a narrow. It is day of the Resurrection, on Christians pray together in the same place, The day, place, bodies all belong to the kyrios, the Lord. (The premier ethicist in Anglicanism in our time, Oliver O’Donovan, has mentioned that Sunday itself was spoken of as a sacrament by some in the early Church). Our practice is the same, a primitive simplicity, an utter throwback. The places of the kyriakon thickly dot the landscape of the whole oikoumene, as we remember ‘until He returns.’ Of course I have in mind the stark contrast this has with that other reality, looming everywhere in our world, technology, the disembodied world system, itself resembling what the New Testament called ‘powers and principalities,’ the latter called in Greek kyriotes, ‘things pretending to be kyrios,’ or ‘hegemons.’ Political acrimony, adolescent distress, moral corruption: these are all bitter fruits of the ‘worldwide web,’ which said it would as one ‘bind us all.’ The idea that it would somehow deliver the Church was doomed, though I grant that it can have a (carefully) limited use. In the future, it is the opposite, the embodied, diverse, ancient reality of meeting to pray on the Lord’s Day, to sing, to hear, to be absolved, to pray, to commune- which will be our greatest spiritual armor.