In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Sometimes we spend so much energy on inessentials and ephemera that we forget what really matters. One of the things that really matters is that God is good. God is good: he is good to us, all the time, and we are very, very blessed. This is always true, but sometimes it is easier to see and believe than at other times. When I look back over the two years since our last Provincial Synod, it seems easy to believe. I can think of very little to regret or deplore about the last two years, and I am not an uncritical man. We have had no shocking episcopal deaths or other losses that seem deeply untimely or hurtful. We have suffered no great schism or split. Our ecclesial life has unfolded in harmony, at least on the Provincial level. While here and there we have experienced, as Churches always do, parochial and diocesan fusses and unhappiness, none of these has seriously shaken the Church. Most of our Dioceses have added parishes and people. A new mission society has begun and has funded some remarkable works of charity and faith. We are spreading to new countries. Our bishops are solidly united. Our ecumenical endeavors are producing fruit. In general I would say that in the last two years God has treated us very gently and has reminded us again and again that he is very good: better, always, than we deserve.
While God is always good, his goodness is promised in a special way to his Church, against which the gates of hell cannot prevail and in which he has promised his eternal presence. I hope you will not accuse me of arrogance when I say that a review of the history of the Anglican Catholic Church will show, I believe, that we have been God-preserved. We have suffered incredible setbacks and stunning defections. We have failed ourselves repeatedly. We certainly should be far larger than we are, and we must ourselves share the blame that we are not. Nonetheless, when we look at the threats we have survived, and some of the knaves we have endured, it is truly a miracle that we are here. And through it all I detect a consistent theological position, which I believe represents the purest and most persuasive understanding of Scripture and the Fathers available. We have held to a golden mean, faithful to our past, but we have learned the lessons of the modern Anglican debacle through which we have come.
We were grievously split years ago because, we were told, we were too rigid and too Catholic. Six years later we were again grievously split because, we were told, we were too comprehensivist and too Protestant. There are no more half-Catholics than there are half-virgins; nonetheless, the mutually contradictory charges of our critics cancel each other and suggest to me that we were and are about right. And since in both of these most dangerous passages our critics would have won the day if they had acted more circumspectly and patiently, I say that we have been God-preserved. Here we are, and we would not be if God had not willed our continuation.
In the sociology of religion one of the great bifurcations, at least in the study of Christian bodies, is between sects and Churches. Sects tend to be separatists, who divide from others, who seek to be a pure remnant, and who do not aspire to universal significance or general social influence much less establishment. Churches, in contrast, see themselves at least in principle as universal, as embracing a mixed multitude, as forming the spiritual core of a whole society. Now the ACC shares elements of both sect and Church. Because we began in an act of separation from what at least sociologically was an older, larger body, and because we began with protest against the pernicious influence of the wider culture on that older body, we have an undeniable sectarian bent – remembering, again, that I use the term in a sociological, not theological, sense. This element in our history means that we feel an attraction to the Old Testament remnant theme, which shows God’s faithful people again and again reduced to a loyal core through which God works his will in a wider, more generally corrupt, world.
It is important, however, to remember that the remnant theme is basically an Old Testament theme. It is in Genesis that God shapes a single clan into an instrument to work his will in history. It is in Exodus that God calls a nation out of a great empire and into the purifying desert. It is in I Kings that God says, ‘Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal’ (xix.18). But with the Incarnation and the gospel and Acts, we find the process reversed, as the good news of salvation in Christ flows outward from the still, simple point of Easter and the apostolic witness to ‘Jerusalem, and…all Judea, and…Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.’ (Acts i.8) The remnant, which ultimately is Jesus Christ alone upon the Cross, becomes the Catholic Church formed and empowered by the water and blood flowing from his wounded side into the mighty flood of grace. The Church is called to preach and convert and baptize every creature under heaven.
We are, therefore, in principle, not a sect but a Church, with a universal mission. In fact, as Anglicans we are less sectarian in fundamental impulse than almost any other Christian body: for we firmly assert that while our mission is universal, the particular forms of our own Anglican worship and our own Anglican culture are not exclusive. We deny that we have any unique Anglican Catholic doctrine, but rather we stand for the unique authority of the patristic witness and the Conciliar tradition, and we assert the incompleteness of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches in their more exclusivist claims. We are Catholic, but do not claim to be the only Catholics. We are Orthodox, but do not claim that in principle all others are heretics. We have clarity of doctrine, but a clarity that embraces East and West, Rome and Orthodox, past and present.
It is important, then, even while we find ourselves in tiny congregations or feeling besieged by a hostile secular culture, that we not allow ourselves to become a ghetto. We must not become trapped in a truly sectarian attitude. Our chief duty is not to protest against the world, but to convert the world. Our primary goal is not to preserve a tradition, but to share it, even as we recognize that we will have nothing to share if we do not preserve intact what we have received.
In the delightful Faber Book of Church and Clergy we read of a West Country parson who ‘drove away his congregation, replaced them by wooden and cardboard images in the pews and surrounded his vicarage with a barbed-wire fence behind which savage Alsatians patrolled.’ (London: Faber & Faber, 1992; ed. A.N. Wilson; p. 241) Here is a cautionary picture of more than one ‘Continuing Church’ parochial tendency. The savage Alsatians may have human form, but still may scare away anyone who stumbles upon us. The real people of God may be replaced with simulacrums or simply be entirely absent. Let it not be so.
On the same page of the same book we learn that when Edward King became bishop of Lincoln he was informed that his clergy could be divided comprehensively into three groups: ‘those who had gone out of their minds; those who were about to go out of their minds; and those who had no minds to go out of.’ Here we have another caution. I am myself very fond of clerical eccentrics. Of course I am. I am from the South, which Flannery O’Connor famously observed was the last place in America that cherishes its eccentrics. Still, eccentricity can go too far. If we lose all point of contact with real people and their concerns, then we might as well put a cardboard priest at the altar, to match those in that West Country church’s pews. It is charming to read of the priest who for forty years ‘preached on a variety of themes at his morning Mass, but thought it inappropriate, at… Benediction, to preach on any subject other than the Empress Josephine.’ (Wilson, p. 240) It would be less delightful to listen to forty years’ worth of sermons on the Empress Josephine, and I wonder how many people endured such.
Archbishop Cahoon used to say that within the breast of every layman there beats a heart looking for a reason not to go to church. And the job of the clergy, Archbishop Cahoon would continue, was not to give them that reason. I fear, Fathers, that too often we do give them such reasons. Laymen are perfectly capable of finding irrational and unfair reasons to be scandalized by us. But, Fathers, what about the rational, or even just plausible, reasons? What about the fair, or even just not plainly unfair, reasons? You need to examine your personal conduct more severely than does your bishop or anyone in your parish, and you should alter that which might give offence. If push comes to shove your bishop and Archbishop will tend to support you. That is part of our job. But you need to be very, very careful not to let push come to shove and not to let laymen become so aggrieved that they feel it necessary to call or to write us.
God is good. God has preserved and protected us beyond our understanding and deserving. We in turn need to cooperate with God’s grace. We should remember that our mission is universal and that our perspective should be global. We build our parishes by building the whole Church, even as we build the whole Church by nurturing healthy parishes. Successful parishes have a heart for missions. Churches with missions tend to have successful parishes. And remember that in order to serve God and build the Church, we must open our hearts to his grace through penitence, humility, zeal for souls, love for those whom we offend, and patience under our sufferings.
I call you all to attend this Synod with attention and courtesy, to do the Church’s business, and to enjoy yourselves and your fellow Churchmen. May God, who is good, bless us all this week.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.