Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Witness of Love

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."  St. John 13:34-35

It is good to be back with you this morning.  As some of you will know, I have been in central Africa for the last few weeks.  I have spent a little of my time watching magnificent wild animals, and a little of it eating delicious wild animals, and a little of it explaining to bewildered Zambian taxi cab drivers how it can possibly be that Donald Trump is doing so well in the primaries.

But most of my time has been spent attending and writing stories about an important meeting of the worldwide Anglican Communion.  I was sent to Africa as a reporter for The Living Church, a magazine and website that serves the Episcopal Church, to report on the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council that was being held in the Cathedral in Lusaka, Zambia.  If you want to read a few of my articles that summarized what was happening, you find them on The Living Church website. 

The Anglican Consultative Council is an assembly of clergy and laity sent from each of the 39 member churches or provinces, of our Anglican Communion.  The Council meets about every three years in a different place in the world.  The last meeting was in Auckland, New Zealand and the next one will be in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  There were around eighty delegates at the meeting, and three were from our own Episcopal Church.

The Anglican Consultative Council is one of four instruments of unity that hold our Communion together and that work together to coordinate our work and make decisions on matters that affect all of us.  The other three instruments are the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the spiritual head of our Communion, the Lambeth Conference which gathers all of the bishops of our Communion every ten years in London, and meetings of the primates, or chief bishops of each of the member churches.  Those happen about every two years. 

Now there was a great deal of tension hanging over this gathering of the Anglican Consultative Council because of a decision made by those primates, or chief bishops, when they met together in Canterbury back in January.  Many of you will know that at General Convention last summer, the Episcopal Church decided to permit the blessing of same sex marriages.  We are the first member church of the Anglican Communion to do this, and we had been urged repeatedly by the rest of the Communion not to do this, because this decision violates our common received teaching about sexuality and marriage and has the potential to deepen our divisions.

The Anglican primates laid out a series of consequences for the Episcopal Church that would result from this decision, namely that members of our church would not be permitted to serve on committees that represent the entire Communion for three years.  As penalties go, it was a pretty mild one, and some of the more conservative African Anglican churches did not think it strong enough.  Some within our own church believed the penalties to be unfair, and were urging the Anglican Consultative Council to defy the primates in this matter, to create a kind of showdown between these two bodies that are designed to bring us together

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, three different African churches declared that they would boycott the meeting.  One of the Episcopal delegates declared that she would violate the consequences.  About two weeks out, it looked like the whole meeting might just be called off—I even looked to see how much it would cost me to cancel my flight.  A fellow writer for The Living Church joked rather grimly that I needed to go and cover it because it would probably be the very last worldwide Anglican gathering in history. 

But thanks be to God, we will meet again.  As the group’s chair, Bishop James Tengatenga remarked in his closing sermon, “the rumors of the Anglican Communion’s demise are, I am glad to say, greatly exaggerated.”[1]  But what interested me most was the way the tension was dispersed, and the way we came together, in spite of our differences, to find unity in following Christ together.  What I saw happening over the course of the meeting was the Holy Spirit working to bind us together, teaching us to love one another as Jesus commands his disciples in our Gospel lesson.  The Spirit was helping those who were gathered, on behalf of us all, to deepen in our resolve that our common mission as Anglicans depends on continuing in relationship with one another.

As I said, the meeting began under a kind of cloud.  The first day, it was easy to tell which groups were supporting one another.  There was a nod to our common English heritage in lots of tea breaks, and over tea, Africans were whispering to Asians, and Americans to Canadians and Scots.  We seemed to be gathering coalitions for the big fight that seemed inevitable.  At opening prayers, the dean of Lusaka Cathedral told us that people of Zambia had been praying for us, “not just for the conference, but for unity in the church.”  “The world is watching,” he said with deep emotion in his voice, “the world is waiting.”[2]

In the afternoon, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a report on the primates’ meeting.  But he didn’t use it as an opportunity to scold the Episcopal Church.  In fact, I think he said more gracious things about the Episcopal Church over the course of the meeting than any other member church.  His report was about how we need to work together, developing relationships across our differences, for the sake of our common mission.  Among his words were these:

In the midst of such difference we face a choice, of being distracted by difference or being intentionally united in discipleship to Jesus Christ. To be united by Christ, as intentional disciples, is the only way we show to the world that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  As Anglicans we are called to be something special, a people of reconciliation, finding authority through relationships, transcending complexity and difference, relishing diversity, loving each other. A monument, a beacon to the hope of Christ.[3]

At the close of the Archbishop’s talk, there was discussion, and then a sort of unclear vote on his report that left many people confused and angry.  There were contrary public statements by leaders on either side. 

But then the next day, the council did something very different.  The delegates sat around intentionally mixed tables, and they talked about the challenges they were facing as they try to follow Christ in their own contexts.  And there was remarkable consensus in what people were saying.  We all have trouble connecting youth to the church and facing the challenges of growing secularism.  Climate change is threatening the Maldives and Antiguia, and Alberta in Canada.  There are serious problems with violence against women in Africa and South America.  Refugees are on the move everywhere.  There is persecution in the Middle East, Pakistan and India.  Gun violence is a big problem in the US and in South Sudan.

What was interesting is that very few people talked about sexuality, the big thing that divides us in those conversations.  Instead they talked about the needs we all have, the areas in which we can learn from each other, the challenges that demand a common voice and new programs for us to work with each other. 

And the rest of the conference was mostly about those big issues.   The Archbishop of Canterbury used his major address to talk about religiously motivated violence and climate change.   Several sessions were devoted to a new common program on discipleship, developing resources to help people deepen their commitment to following Christ and adopting a pattern of devotion to guide them.  The Council reestablished its Youth Network, and talked much about ways that the church should engage with youth culture.

Over the week and a half that followed, I saw friendships developing across those lines that seemed so clearly drawn on the first day.  I saw people listening to each other, learning from each other.  I saw the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Communion’s new Secretary-General emerging as trusted leaders, commanding respect for their clear thinking and wise words.  I saw this group of important church leaders modeling what it should be like for all of us to live together in Communion.  I left the meeting much more confident about our common future than when I arrived.  I left proud to be an Anglican.

When Jesus told his disciples in the Upper Room that their love for each other should be their greatest witness in the world, he was not commanding an easy thing.  The disciples were a notably diverse lot, and they had argued several times while he was still with them.  Jesus had chosen different kinds of disciples purposefully, so that they would be able to go out after his resurrection in all different directions to proclaim the Gospel to many different kinds of people.

We can trace their life together after the resurrection in the Acts of the Apostles, and it was not always a smooth and easy path they walked.  Missionaries have to make judgment calls in new situations, they take risks so that new people can receive the message.  It leads people to cross boundaries, like Peter was doing when he received the Gentiles into the church after the great vision recounted in our first lesson.   Sometimes those new things were received graciously, sometimes they were challenged, sometimes they were rejected.

But the unity that the disciples maintained, despite all these challenges was remarkable.  They remained joined to each other, because above all they were serving the risen Christ, and not their own agendas.  They forgave each other, listened to each other, renewed their love for each other, because it was the Spirit that held them together, not mere human judgment or chains of command. 

The challenge that is set before each of us, as a worldwide Communion, as members of this congregation, in our families and workplaces, is this.  Will we too give place in our hearts to the Spirit of love?   Will we serve first the risen Christ, and work together with our brothers and sisters who will be different, but whose help we need to do it faithfully?  The size of our institutions, the numbers in our churches, the variety of programs we offer, these are all important, but our greatest witness to the world, the way we show who has sent us, is by our love for one another.

[2] qtd. in Michael, Mark.  “Applause for a Notion.”  The Living Churchhttp://www.livingchurch.org/applause-notion 8 Apr. 2016.
[3] Welby, Justin.  “Pearl of the Kingdom.”  The Living Church http://www.livingchurch.org/pearl-kingdom 8 Apr. 2016.

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