12/19/2007

Not Losing Heart

"And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart." Luke 18:1

A small note on not losing heart.

I find myself oddly at peace in spite of the recent events in Anglican-Land that continue to reveal a mire and pit from which there seems to be little of comfort. Recall:

  • The ordinations in Virginia of new bishops for the effort to rescue and restore Anglicanism in America;
  • the bolt to the South of the Diocese of San Joaquin, complete with untrue assurances by Bishop Schofield and Bishop Lyons that all is well;
  • the murky Advent Letter of the Archbishop of Canterbury;
  • and the meeting this week of the Common Cause Council the outcome of which spells more problems in the year to come.
These are troublesome things, and surely losing heart might be the result. Why isn't it? Why any sense of peace?

Several things:

I am reminded of the saying, "he can't see the forest for the trees." In Anglican-land where so much attention is given to the forest the situation is almost reversed. In Anglican-land we sometimes can't see the trees for the forest. Too much of our seeing is directed to such grand things as Provinces, Bishops, Primates, and the Anglican Communion and too little of our gaze is directed to the life in community that constitutes the local church. When my gaze is directed to life here in place I am hopeful for the church in ways that are almost beyond measure.

For all the imperfections of parish life, and there are many, it is church in the most immediate and meaningful way. We Anglicans have a goodly heritage in our life of worship and action. And in our good moments we are a community that is truly inclusive, not because we are better than we used to be (a progressive mistake) or more orthodox then them (a conservative mistake) but because we have our gaze on something other than ourselves, our fears and prejudices, or even our righteousness. We become inclusive when our gaze turns to God among us in Jesus Christ and reflected in the face of all people. So on some level we stop having our own agendas - the dissenters agenda, the gay agenda, the progressive agenda, the majority agenda - a take on the Gospel agenda.

Life in community, in the parish as community, gives me heart. More precisely life in the community of St. Peter's, Lewes on the edge of big waters, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, gives me heart.

I presume that for any Anglican thinking about the forest, the big picture, it is the same. We draw strength and courage for the days ahead from a community of worshiping folk always highly local.

All Church is local. When we have the children's pageant at St. Peter's it is local. When we gather for Eucharist at 8 and 10 on Sundays for Eucharist, it is local. When the Diocesan Convention has its Eucharist, it is local. When Executive Council meets and prays, it is local. When the Pope gathers with his Cardinals and other potentates it turns out to be local. Local is what there is. All action, including prayer, is local. All the rest is part of that almost impossible task of thinking globally.

I have been particularly moved this Advent by some reflections by Elizabeth Kaeton, Dan Martins, Susan Russell and the Archbishop of Canterbury. (How's that for a grouping?). Elizabeth writes about a funeral, Dan about being snowed in from going to church, Susan about preaching peace, bringing hope, proclaiming love, and the ABC about identifying with those who are shamed or of whom we are ashamed. What got me about each of these is that they were fine words spoken in community, mostly in a parish context, the Archbishop's words being the furtherest from that as a letter to the Communion, but even there from the heart to the heart.

So I take heart in the life the local faith community.

I also take heart in the younger of the young people. One of the blessings of life at St. Peter's is that I get to be with the children fairly regularly for a children's version of the first half of the Eucharist - where the gaze is on the Word and the World in need of the Word. We sit in a circle, say our prayers, listen to the Gospel or one of the other readings, and talk among ourselves. This last Sunday in our prayers various children asked for prayers for all sorts and conditions - for grandmothers who had died; for prisoners, particularly those who had done bad things, because prison was really really awful; for peace in the world; for people in the church who worked with them; and one child chirped up and said, "for woman's rights." Ho, ho, ho....who wouldn't take heart! One child did pray for a particularly upscale bit of electronic game stuff, but why not? Christmas is a'coming and you might as well hedge your bets. Then we all trooped over to the Church at the time of the offertory where one of the children bring their offering forward with that of the congregation. They were a gift to me, and I am younger for it.

The parish is by no means perfect but it is real and it is working at being a community of faith. We don't all agree on the big issues, but we seem to have some clarity about the direction of our gaze... we would see Jesus.

I suppose I take heart because the local helps me see the trees for the forest. Our tree, this parish, is pretty good at being the Church, local, feisty, able to celebrate, able to mourn. We are not The Episcopal Church, but we are Episcopalians, we are not the Anglican Communion but we are Anglicans in communion. We have a pretty good Shepard and follow the Good Shepard. It turns out that we followers are gay and straight, young and old, crabby and optimistic, opinionated and forgiving, immensely able to give but still able to be stubborn when the occasion requires. We are in some odd way the body of Christ.

We are in most ways like every local community of faith. We are Church.

I take heart in knowing that the feast of thanksgiving found in this community is everywhere to be found and that even across the seemingly great divides in the Anglican Communion there is a settling into the church as experienced, and that that settling will bring peace.

Sometimes the local church is referred to as the grass roots, sometimes action from the local church is talked about as being "from the bottom up." I think all that is a mistake. The local church is not the "grass roots" it is the full grain; it is not the bottom, but the top. Taking the fullness of the grain is taking the bread; taking in the experience of community as the top is what turns hierarchy into servanthood.

So this Christmas I hope the Lion of Nigeria and the Lamb of New Hampshire stop for a moment and eat a bit of hay together, perhaps by the manger, even if separated by a great ocean of differences, and that all the rest of us can turn our gaze from the forests of Anglican-Land to the Tree of Life.

Then when we look again at the forest, perhaps it will not seem so dense and full of wild obscurity.

Merry Christmas
.

20 comments:

  1. Mark, I think this is one of your better column--especially the last 3 paragraphs!! It warmed my heart!!

    Merry Christmas to you and yours,

    Deacon Aileen--diocese of N. CA.

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  2. Amen, Merry Christmas, Amen

    FWIW
    jimB

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  3. Thanks Mark, and Merry Christmas to you too.

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  4. Mark, now I'm a bit confused - in your previous critique of Chris Sugden's article you seemed to object to his opinion that the basic unit of the church is the local congregation, and then here in this post you emphasize that in our experience and daily practice, this is indeed the case - all church is local. I agree that all church is local, but this does not necessarily lead us to congregationalism. When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, Ephesus or Corinth etc, he wrote to the local church in each place, and it was no less the church because it was local, meeting in a house or a catacomb or wherever. Whether the congregations met individually or at times collectively, whatever group of people were meeting at the time were the visible church. Therefore the New Testament's perspective seems to be that the basic unit of the Church is the local congregation; which is reflected in Art XIX.

    On your point on not losing hope, though, I would want to sharpen the focus of our hope: that it is in the Lord Jesus Christ alone, not in a community life together. I am hopeful for our local church community because Jesus Christ is Lord over us.

    I wonder if you meant to refer to Gene Robinson as the Bride of New Hampshire given his recent remarks. Perhaps the Wolf of New Hampshire would be more appropriate. (oh dear!)

    Merry Christmas to you and all of your readers

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  5. Indeed - local is where we are really church......so why does TEC still bend over backwards to be acceptable to the Primates of the AC???

    There is more honesty and integrity at the local level in TEC ....... I hope we see more of it at the national and international level.

    Happy Christmas!

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  6. christopher+20/12/07 8:56 AM

    Amen, Mark. Merry Christmas, and may God bless us, every one!

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  7. I no longer care about the Anglican Communion and hope, frankly, that it sinks into the sea as Canon Edward Norman predicted.

    The real truth is that membership in the Anglican Communion is impeding evangelism in our own communities and among the people we need to reach. And you know what? We should be growing like crazy; we have a great message and important things to offer, I'd say - but who can hear them over the din of CANA and the Archbishop of Nigeria? We could be default church for literally millions of people; we should be 10 times the size we are, and we could be.

    Why can't we simply let it all go and focus on evangelism, church growth, local communities, and local people? On transcendent and beautiful worship, community outreach to all, and offering a lively spiritual and intellectual life?

    Let's take "reduced status" in the Anglican Communion, or whatever it takes; we've got to stop being dragged down by right-wingers and fundamentalists.

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  8. John-Julian, OJN20/12/07 1:59 PM

    I'm very interested in brian f's comments - from an historico/theological point of view:

    The earliest awareness of the "presence of Christ" for Christians was the Assembly. ("where two or three..etc"). And the very real danger of being part of that (illegal) Assembly was part of it.

    It was only when Christianity was legalized, the 3-year Catechumentate abandoned, and "the Assembly" grew to huge numbers (containing many who were merely opportunists - one needed to be a Christian to get a civil service job), that the sense of the presence of Christ IN THE ASSEMBLY faded away.

    I think that the re-discovery and recovery of the true nature of Baptism (notably, in the 1979 BCP) has begun to restore that ancient sense that Christ is present "in the Assembly" -- not only in the Sacrament or in the Bible or in the ordained folk, but in the Assembly itself. Even Vatican II restored the idea of the Church as "the assembled people of God", the "plebs sancta Dei".

    And I think that is what Mark is so wonderfully expressing here. Where do we primarily find Him? In the Assembly! Who is it that "makes Eucharist"? It is the Assembly! Who interprets Holy Scripture? It is the Assembly! Who "does mission"? It is the Assembly!

    The assembled parish is where the true Church happens! And no international or organizational tomfoolery can ever take that reality away (no matter how much it wishes to suppress it).

    Now, if we can only get the bishops actually INTO the parishes, we'd have it made!

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  9. brian f--you just can't help yourself, can you? No matter how simpering and holy-rolier-than-thou, the little snarkiness in your comments always manages to make you look like a jerk.

    Well, Merry Christmas to you too.

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  10. Dear Anonymous - well that comment certainly adds to the discussion doesn't it. Maybe that's why you're unwilling to identify yourself.

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  11. brian f...sorry to be so long getting back to your note about local church, etc.

    When I say all church is local, what I mean is not only that the parish church when at prayer or work, etc is local and therefore church, but that when I go to Executive Council or General Convention and we pray together or work together we too are local, and we too are Church. The local has to do with immediate and active.

    I still maintain that Article XIX is not talking about the local congregational as a unit, basic or otherwise, as Canon Sugden suggests. It is talking about the church, as in the Church of Rome or Constantinople, or Geneva, etc - or as you rightly point out in NT terms the Church in Rome, Ephesus etc. Article XIX was not written for the early church, however, but for the Church of England, Rome, etc.

    My initial carp against Sugden was his calling on the Articles of Religion to shore up his argument. It was a long shot and not useful.

    I'm not sure this clears up anything. It's too late at night and a full day coming up.

    Thanks for the challenge.

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  12. Counterlight22/12/07 9:13 AM

    I agree completely. The experience of Church is primarily local, and thank God for that. The Big Picture is cause for anger and despair, but my local parish continues to be a pleasure and an education.
    Merry Christmas to all.

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  13. ...that it is in the Lord Jesus Christ alone, not in a community life together.

    Brian F, that seems so wrong to me. The church community is the visible and palpable Body of Christ here on earth. Why are you a minister, if not to preach and preside in the gathering of the community - the Body of Christ?

    Of course, I am no more than a humble pew-warmer, so what do I know?

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  14. This is a wonderful essay, and an interesting idea of a hope for at least a little while of a peaceable kingdom at a time when there seems to be none. And I'm heartened to read this as it expresses many of the things I've had to remind myself of during this Advent season: that what we are preparing for as Episcopalians and believers in Christ is *not* the "noise" that is in the Anglican Communion, but rather the birth of the one who's truth will set us free. And if we can all agree to shut up and sit still for a moment and take *that* in, we'll find the real joy of the season.
    Thanks and a Merry Christmas to you, too!

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  15. I was so pleased that you spoke of the local congregations as the heart of our wonderful Episcopal life. Amen to your words and Merry Christmas.

    MCG

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  16. Dear Grandmere Mimi - I wonder if you might be confusing a metaphor for the church (the Body of Christ) used in the New Testament with a separate reality which exists apart from the church: the physical human body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he took with him when he ascended into heaven.

    The Body of Christ is certainly one of the metaphors used to describe the people of God in the New Testament - other metaphors are: the temple of the Holy Spirit, the flock of God, a Bride, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. These describe various aspects of our functionality in the world. Not all of them (ie body, temple, flock) describe our ontology.

    However, the focus of my hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ alone. Sometimes I see signs of growth through God's grace in the local church which confirm or strengthen my hope in Jesus Christ, but the church is not the reason or source of my hope. Usually those signs of growth are found in the local congregation rather than in the broader institution, since there is usually simply too much division at the diocesan level and above.

    Only Jesus Christ died for me, rose for me, reveals God to me, dwells in me, and reigns over me. The church did not and does not do any of those things for me.

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  17. Dear Mark - I don't think we are that far apart on this one, but I think it is quite reasonable for Sugden to refer to the Articles in making his point. Art XIX firstly refers to the visible church as being "a congregation...". W Griffiths Thomas in his seminal work on the 39 Articles - "The Principles of Theology" makes the point that according to this article, the visible church is a congregation rather than an aggregation. The reference to of faithful men places the emphasis on the unity of faith we share in the one Lord Jesus Christ, with him at the centre of our unity and the source of our union.

    The article then refers to errors in the Church of Rome, Jerusalem etc, and could just as well include reference to the Church of England, or the Anglican Communion, but this would be anachronistic. The Anglican Communion could not possibly be said to be the true visible church of Christ, since there is little consistent discipline in matters of faith, doctrine and Biblical morals, because there is distortion of the pure Word of God within each of the Provinces across the Communion.

    So whether you are celebrating Holy Communion in your local parish, or at Morning Prayer in General Synod; or whether you are in an Anglican or Baptist or Presbyterian congregation, you are in the local visible church if you and your fellow worshippers are truly believers in Jesus Christ.

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  18. Dear Brian, the peace of Christ be with you. If we continue our discussion, I fear we will be talking past each other, and you will surely vanquish me in theology. Take heart in that I, too, believe that Jesus Christ is Our Lord and Savior - I think of him more as ours than mine.

    To continue in my faith, I need to be part of the gathering of the believers in my local community, where Jesus has promised to be in our midst. I don't, by any means, suggest that he's not present with us in our private moments.

    May all of you have a blessed and happy Christmas.

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  19. Yes, brianf the tone of my post is low, but it is you and the other soapbox reasserters that have gotten us here. All that your comments on this blog have ever been are well-dressed snark.

    Your sarcasm, condescension, and arrogance do you and your arguments a great disservice, especially when juxtaposed with the grace of your host at this blog. I mean, I'd actually read some of bb's posts on her blog, even though I disagree with her mightily in so many ways. But seeing a post from you just tells my brain to skip over the thinly-veiled vitriol and contortions to follow. Oh, but like an Obadiah Slope, you *sound* *so* *reasonable,* don't you? Well, I don't think you'll find your Mrs. Proudie here...

    And, frankly, "brianf" is no more of an identifier at this point in the digital age than "anonymous."

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  20. Dear anonymous - wwwooohh!. Now that I've recovered from your tirade smacking me about the head; I notice that your only criticism is of my style and my person; and you have not dealt at all with the content of my posts. So my position rests.

    I have not driven anyone low. The way you choose to respond to my posts is entirely up to you, please take responsibility for your own words and actions. I certainly don't intend to be snarky, condescending or arrogant or whatever; I am only trying to put forward an alternative, more orthodox perspective on things, for the benefit of the readers of this blog. I try not to personnally attack anyone, and if I have, please point this out to me so I can apologise to whomever I have offended. But I will not apologise for speaking the truth as I perceive it; and trying to persuade people to my point of view.

    If you care to click on my monicka, you will be taken to my profile which identifies a certain amount about me.

    May the grace of God be with you.

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