On St. Thomas’ Day, December 21, a moment of holiness happened in out little chapel in Rochester. On the one hand, it was as unimportant as the birth of a baby in a backwater Palestinian town some 2,000 years ago. On the other hand, like that birth, I believe the moment has far-reaching importance beyond its meager setting.
Seventeen people gathered that day for the regular noontime Eucharist in St. Simon’s Chapel. Two were priests celebrating their long-term ordination anniversaries. One, an associate of the parish was the scheduled presider, the other, a friend of the parish, was there to celebrate the day. On many of our minds was not only the feast itself and the anniversaries, but the news that several parishes in the Diocese of Virginia had voted to leave that Diocese and the Episcopal Church.
When it came time for the Great Thanksgiving, the presider invited the other celebrating priest to stand at the Altar with him. A stole was quickly found and the Table set. The presider remarked that this was a truly Anglican moment, the two at the Altar coming from widely different traditions—one a “Sydney low church evangelical” and the other a “Long Island Anglo-catholic.”
The observation was grand, but it also in the moment made me rueful. This is how we used to be able to live with one another, I thought. It is an ability that is rapidly fading. And I found it ironic given the recent news from Virginia. It seems like we have lost the capacity to live together across our differences, and that is an extraordinarily sad thing. I have wondered at times over the past few years, if it is not really the death of the Anglican experiment.
“The Episcopal ship is sinking,” one of those rectors from Virginia had said, “and we’re getting off before it goes under.”
My rueful despair, however, gave way to hope at that celebration. The ship is not sinking. Today we are sailing along quite nicely. The old Anglican comprehensiveness was not dead in that room. It was quite alive and lively, incarnated in all who were gathered there. It was not just a theological or liturgical comprehensiveness, either, but a social one. Of the seventeen gathered that day, four were persons of color, three were gay or lesbian, two were over the age of 80, three from “generation X.” We were suburban and urban dwellers, middle class and struggling, all doing together that holy thing we do when we are together to celebrate Christ in our midst.
If something is sad it is that this coming together with Christ in our midst is no longer what holds us together, that matters sexual have trumped the power of Communion. Oh, I know that the matters sexual are really about the much weightier matters of the authority of the Bible and of the Church. But as a student of history, and especially of liturgical and theological history, all our arguments over the years have been about these things. Authority has always been at stake. That is the nature of this body that has at its center one who was remarkable ambiguous about earthly authority, religious, biblical, political, or otherwise.
I am sad about what is going, as all Episcopalians should be. I am also, however, more than ready for it to be over, at least this round of it. Perhaps it is those who are leaving the ship who had been causing it to sink anyway by their inability to practice comprehensiveness. I know perfectly well it is somewhat cheeky for me, a priest who is openly gay and partnered, to say so, since it can easily be argued that I am the problem. But nevertheless, I say it and stand by it.
At this point, it seems to me that the split actually needs to happen so that we can all feel “safe” again (that will be somewhat of an illusion, of course, as safety always is for gospel followers). But from our “safe” places perhaps we will once again develop the capacity to talk to one another, be in authentic communication. If that is the case, I trust we will find our way back to Communion eventually.
As for me, I am holding on to the vision in our chapel on St. Thomas Day. It is still alive and well.