Monday, February 15, 2016

I believe in One Church

Jesus said, "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” John 17:20-21

I am grateful that so many of you have gathered today to listen and reflect and pray about this theme of being Christ’s Church, “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”  Lent is a traditional time for returning to the basic teachings of our faith.  Since the early Church, it has been a time of catechesis: instruction and training of candidates preparing for Baptism at the great feast of Easter.  Most of us were baptized long ago, but those statements of faith we professed or that were professed for us at our Baptisms still define the life we live through Jesus Christ.  The Creeds tell the story of the God whom we love, and owning them for ourselves is part of that deep loyalty that we should have for God who has blessed us so richly. 

This Lent we will be focusing on one phrase from the Nicene Creed, that creed we have said so many times, Sunday after Sunday at the Eucharist: “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”  The phrase has been with us for a very long time, since 381, when it was added to the original creed of Nicaea by a major church council at Constantinople.  This phrase is an ancient one, rooted, as we will see, in the even older descriptions from Scripture of the church and its relationship to Jesus. 

It’s very much a modern subject, though.  Ecclesiology, or the study of the doctrine of the Church, has probably been the most important field for theological research and writing in the past several decades.  It has come to the forefront in a time of that has seen both great cooperation and fellowship between different church bodies, and also increasing turmoil within many branches of the Church.  We find ourselves bound together by what we share and also pushed apart by deep disagreements about a number of important issues.  Why is it so important that we remain connected to each other, we ask ourselves?  What is the common mission that Christ has given us?  Can we set limits on who belongs in the Church and who does not?  These are ecclesiological questions, questions about what the Church is and what it is for, and I hope that today’s reflections will help you think through the best ways of answering them.

As Episcopalians and members of the worldwide Anglican Communion, we find ourselves blessed or cursed to stand at the forefront of both the conflict and the work of healing.  I thought it would be helpful to look at those four marks from the Creed—one, holy, catholic and apostolic, particularly as they have been understood and experienced by fellow Anglicans and Episcopalians.  We will look at each of the marks together with one of our own, an Anglican Christian who has lived out God’s purpose for the Church in a particularly notable way.  Hopefully, by learning more about their stories, you can be encouraged to think more carefully about the way God is calling you to “be the Church” to work with others, right here in this community, to become more faithful as the Body of Christ.

We begin with the statement “I believe in One Church.”  Archbishop Rowan Williams has noted that the creed says “I believe in the Church” in just the same way that it says “I believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  The Church is not another reality on the same level as the Father, Son, and Spirit.  But just as we do not see God fully for now, but we trust in Him and grow closer to Him, so we believe in the Church.  The Church is not now completely one, holy, catholic and apostolic.  There are fair reasons for saying that it never was, at any point in its life.  And yet, we trust that God is working through the Church; that his grace comes to us through the things we do as we are drawn together by the Spirit.  We also trust that God’s grace will help us to make the Church what it should be, that he will give us greater wisdom and love to see His purposes come to life.  When Christ returns and makes all things new, the Church too will be remade, and we will see it in its glorious fullness--we will be part of its glorious fullness--just as we see God himself face to face. 

The unity of Christ’s Church stands at the head of the four marks, and with good reason.  Of the four characteristics, it is one to which Christ himself spoke most forcefully, especially in that great prayer for his people the night before He died.  The word church means “assembly,” a body of many parts called together from many places into one.  We can’t talk about church without also speaking of unity.  Unity is the principle that holds the others together.  The Church’s holiness, her catholic vision, her apostolic call, all of them depend on her unity with Christ and the common work and vision of her members. 

The church’s disunity is also the earliest and greatest of her scandals.  Even among the apostles, there was bickering.  Paul writes to several churches that were deeply divided, and as denominations have multiplied since then, so has the injury to God’s purposes through Christ.  We have tens of thousands of church bodies, the existence of so many of them a witness to some unsolvable argument, some moment when one of Christ’s own said to another, “I can serve God better without you.”

Jesus’ great prayer is that we may all be one.  His will for unity within the Church springs from the unity He shares with the Father.  Jesus prayed, “As thou, Father, art in thee and thou in me, so they may also be in us.”  The Father and the Son, Jesus teaches in John’s Gospel, are united in their will.  They share the same glory, and they are bound in love.   What He has received from the Father, the Son passes on to those who have gathered around Him.  Grant, he prayed, that “the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them and I in them.”  In Baptism we are united to Christ and through Him we are joined both to the Father, and to one another.  Unity is the gift that comes from true fellowship with Him.  There is no such thing as private salvation, for to have life in Christ is to become one with all those who also receive life from Him. 

It was this vision of unity with God and one another through Christ that inspired so deeply a young Episcopal priest named Lewis Wattson, who was the rector of Saint John’s Church in Kingston, New York in the late 1890’s.  He was a noted preacher and writer, and was deeply distressed by the many divisions in the Church. Together with a woman named Lurana White, he founded a community of Episcopal priests and nuns that took the model for their life from Saint Francis of Assisi

They called themselves the Brothers and Sisters of the Atonement, taking their inspiration from Romans 5:11, which read in the King James Version, “we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.”  By atonement, Lewis Wattson, who had taken the name “Father Paul” understood, at-one-ment, unity with God and one another.  The order was devoted specifically to prayer and acts of witness that would work toward the unity of the Church, and especially the unity of Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

They set up their monastery and convent on the grounds of an abandoned church at Graymoor, New York, across the Hudson from West Point, and soon many others came to join them.  They published magazines calling for unity, and in 1908, they inaugurated something called the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.  It was to be eight days in January for sermons and prayers for unity in the Church, spanning the time between the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, which represented Roman Catholicism and the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, which represented the Protestant Churches.  Father Wattson also travelled widely to preach about Church unity, though his messages proved to be quite controversial.  More than one Episcopal congregation vacated the building when his topic was announced, and for a time he was easily the most controversial priest in the Episcopal Church. 

Unfortunately, we were eventually to lose him, like a number of our great theologians.  He and his community were received jointly into the Roman Catholic Church in 1909, though unlike most converts, they refused to renounce their Anglican orders.  Father Paul continued warm relationships with many Anglican leaders for the rest of his life.  In 1916, he presented his idea of a Week of Prayer for Unity directly to Pope Pius X, who gave it his blessing.  Its observance was extended throughout the Catholic Church in 1916, and had also continued to spread throughout Anglicanism and in Protestant Churches.  The Franciscan Brothers and Sisters of the Atonement are still a recognized religious order, working out of the same buildings near Garrison, New York.  They continue to have oversight of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an annual time of joint prayer observed in tens of thousands of congregations around the world, including our own. 

Father Paul’s work bore great fruit in the Ecumenical Movement, which made such great strides in uniting Christ’s body in the second half of the twentieth century.  Churches began to gather for shared worship services, and to welcome one another at the Communion table.  They worked together in the mission field, established formal dialogues, wrote joint statements of faith and common liturgies, prepared for the ministry side by side in shared seminaries.  Whole new united denominations were formed, gathering together churches from different strands of the tradition.  The movement changed the hearts of so many Christians, who came to understand that we would know Christ better as we came together with each other, and that our common work was among the most powerful ways we can share Him with the world.

The Ecumenical Movement has borne great fruit, but our divisions still remain.  It’s not that we should hope for absolute uniformity in the life of the Church.  Christ has called people from many different places and backgrounds into his church, and we should expect that we will be able to draw close to him through different kinds of prayer and worship, different emphases in teaching, different methods of outreach.  But mistrust, jealousy, and betrayal are still at work among us, turning us away from Christ and against each other.  We still do not share what Saint Paul called “the mind of Christ” and we hold back from embracing each other with the kind of love that He has for us.  His prayer for us needs to still be our prayer for one another, “that we may be one.”

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