Ship-wrecking Disputes

Imagine receiving a letter from a past parish priest/pastor in our community. Imagine it saying the following:
“I’ve heard that the church is full of conflict and cliques these days. Rumours about this trouble have made it all the way back to me, and I’m horrified! I hear that some of you are even associating yourselves with different leaders, both present ones and past. And I was absolutely shocked to hear that some of you are suggesting that I come back because you like my way of doing things best.

“Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just not going to happen! And I thank God that I baptized none of you … And it really doesn’t matter who I baptized, or who I prepared for membership, or who I worked with on Vestry or Council, because it’s not about me, or any other particular leaders. It’s about Christ Jesus! I want to say this in no uncertain terms: Do not claim allegiance to me or any leader other than Christ. I just will not allow it!”

In my own words, that’s pretty much the gist of what Paul was telling the Corinthian Christians. Quarrels had been reported to him, with some saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Instead of claiming their unity in Christ and doing their best to work out differences and disagreements, the Corinthians spent way too much time and energy on arguing and dividing; Paul was anything but impressed.

We might think that Christians in the early Church got along so well and were so unified. Acts 4 indeed describes that earliest Christian community as one in which everyone was together in one place and held everything in common. They shared possessions, took care of those in need, and lived, worshiped, and served together in peace and harmony. But that idyllic picture of the church (if it was ever real) didn’t last long. Churches such as Corinth were already experiencing conflict and division, a problem that only increased and intensified over the centuries.

After several little break-ups in the first millenium, around the year 1000, the Church suffered the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches. Then came the Reformation divides of the 16th century, followed by more and more divisions between varieties of Protestant Churches based on different doctrines, different practices, different cultures and experiences. The comedian Emo Philips told a story over twenty years ago, which bears repeating today:
I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”
He said, “Why not? Nobody loves me.”

I said, “Well, God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “I do, too. … Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “I’m a Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! …Protestant; or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! …What branch?”
He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …Northern Baptist; or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region;
or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879;
or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.”
I said, “Oh, darn. Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

And it has ever been thus, including now the outrageous online sparring between Christians on social media. Yes, great strides have been made in the past century in shedding old prejudices and biases. Yes, significant ecumenical dialogue and agreements have been written and published, and even endorsed by the highest ecclesial authorities. But much of these ecumenical milestones are still rarely shared, embraced and acted upon by both clergy and the people in the pews.

Instead, we continue to hang on to divisions as cherished identity markers. A new book was published recently on the subject of transubstantiation, a thorny subject between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Catholics claim transubstantiation as a firm identity marker (without really understanding its history and original meaning/ intent), and Protestants have an allergic reaction at the sound of the term. What is really sad/tragic is that this book’s sincere efforts to explore this thorny term in the service of Christian Unity and its startling conclusion that we are in fact agreeing, agreeing (!) about Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist will likely never reach the minds and hearts of most baptized Christians — bishops, superintendents and clergy included…

Today, we end the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. What began in 1908 in one person’s heart, Fr. Paul Wattson, has become a global event endorsed by all mainline Christian churches, including the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, the Anglican Communion, the World Methodist Alliance and the Lutheran World Federation, and in Canada the Mennonite Church Canada and the Canadian Baptist Alliance.

That development definitely deserves to be noted and celebrated. But even this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity still does not include many churches and faith communities, either by their own choice or through sheer ignorance of the occasion. I wonder why this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, addressing directly the disputes and factions in the church, has only ever been the focus for this Week of Prayer …. once… Could it be because Paul’s words are too sharp a rebuke to us all? Could it be that Paul’s challenge to find our unity in Christ alone, and to let that unity guide how we work through divisions and disagreements, is more than we dare to commit ourselves to? Maybe we would rather say, with a certain smugness:
I belong to the one true church of … Martin Luther;
I believe in the Pope and in transubstantiation;
no, the Book of Common Prayer is all that matters to me.
We only baptize adult believers who mean what they promise;
I believe in the gift of tongues as the hallmark of the Holy Spirit.
And I … believe … in angels and … the universe.

Like Peter, Andrew, James and John we follow the One who has made us “fishers of people.” But it can certainly be said that, rather than setting God’s fire of love ablaze in human hearts, we have instead created institutions with membership cards and rules of conduct. Is it any wonder that our fishing nets, tattered and torn from all the bickering and dividing, are not holding together well in this secular, post-Christian world?

At last count, there are over 30,000 different denominations, a number that continues to rise despite all efforts in dialogue. Now, in fairness, some claim that the growth of denominations in fact allows for greater peace and harmony in the Body of Christ. Yet, more often than not, in reality it is perceived as fragmentation that has in fact been breeding contempt, distrust and prejudice towards “those others” in the Body of Christ. While we all claim Jesus as the light in our darkness, as the compass of God to orient our lives towards, we have allowed this Christian light to explode into a million factions, like bright fireworks into a darkened sky, now rapidly losing our shining quality. I often wonder how much our in-house quarrels have contributed to the erosion of credibility in the Gospel of Christ in our contemporary world.

Claiming our unity in Christ does not lead to abandoning our denominational colours. Quite the opposite — claiming our baptismal unity in Christ calls for a deep embracing of all that is good and life-giving in our own tradition without putting down others, and more even. Claiming our unity in Christ enables us to recognize and honour all that is good and holy and life-giving even in other spiritual paths and traditions.

Besides, we cannot share with others what we do not first experience, claim, cherish and love. We claim our particular tradition not as a weapon to hit others, but as the gift we bring to the ecumenical table of the Lord. Secure in who we are in Christ through our denominational belonging, we become free to seek and find unity with sisters and brothers everywhere. I think here of the wise words of Michael Ramsay,
former Archbishop of Canterbury:
Let it be made clear that ecumenism includes every part of the healing of wounds between races and nations… Every breaking down of barriers which divide humanity
—social, racial, economic, cultural—is part of the ecumenical task. The ecclesial aspects of ecumenism
must be seen in this larger context. When they are so seen it is clear that ecumenism is no hobby for church-minded people; it is a task of divine and human reconciliation in which every Christian man, woman and child can have a share. (Also see Nostra Aetate, 1965)

Christian unity for the sake of the world is not easy. The ecumenical quest is not without pain  — there is a lot of hurt and suspicion to overcome, a lot of misunderstandings to clear up still today. It is a good thing that none of this depends on our human efforts alone. It is a good thing, a totally undeserving and merciful thing that, despite ourselves, God hasn’t ditched us yet but remains the ever faithful One. Despite ourselves, despite out tattered fishing nets and online sparring, Jesus keeps calling out to us: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.

It is not too late to be God’s united light in the world. Later this year, the Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Ukrainian bishops of Saskatchewan will invite us into a new and bold initiative called the LAURC Covenant. While not limiting this Covenant, the bishops nevertheless want to begin by committing their own traditions while leaving space in the Covenant for other churches to join. This Covenant will urge a deeper concrete partnership among our varying Christian faith families through mutual learning and sharing, through ongoing joint praying and serving those in need. Some of this partnering is already borne from sheer material need and numerical decline. Yet the bishops wish to transform these negative-sounding reasons into positive witnesses of unity for Christ’s own sake.

So, for the sake of the Gospel of Christ, we are compelled to continue mending our fishing nets and tying them together. Jesus himself prayed for our unity, Jesus himself will be our light, Jesus himself will be our glory, and in Jesus lies the hope for all the churches, and indeed, for all of creation.

Homily preached on January 26, 2020
Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23   

  • Heartfelt thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Amanda Currie, for the initial inspiration for this sermon.        
  • Thanks also to friend and colleague Rev. Scott Sharman for lifting my ecumenical spirit with his reflection.   
  • The blog title is inspired by this year’s theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from Acts 27:18 — 28:10 which features St. Paul’s shipwreck experience on the Island of Malta.
  • A poignant reflection on the numerical decline in our churches in western countries, linking this decline to our continued divisions which undermine the message of Christ Jesus. Much food for thought here.

Two-way Traffic

Last month Anglican Bishop Gavin Ashenden was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Ashenden was well-known in the Anglican world, including in the world of public television and media. His years as Chaplain to the Queen (2008–2017) added to his fame. I am happy for him, truly. I know what it is like to come home to God through the church. It takes courage and spiritual honesty to follow the Lord’s direction, especially when it involves twists and turns that we are unprepared for. But when we arrive in a good place, a deep peace, clarity and joy flood our heart, mind and spirit.

I hope and pray that former Bishop Gavin’s euphoria as a new Roman Catholic lasts. I hope and pray that his decision is solidly grounded in feeling called towards Rome for the right reasons. Some of his publicly stated reasons for crossing the Tiber make me wonder just a bit. He seems convinced that the Roman Catholic Church is the one, true Church that can withstand today’s forces of secularism, of identity politics and of political correctness. He claims that all these forces are currently undermining the Anglican Church’s Gospel-witness in the world. In this analysis, he claims Saint John Henry Newman as his support and example.

He might be right, and he might not. I hope for his sake that his religious certainty is going to hold up. While the Holy Father has not changed core doctrines, all of which the Anglican tradition holds in common, Pope Francis is in the process of changing pretty much everything else. If allowed full implementation, the Roman church will look and sound radically different. Last month, on the eve of Ashenden’s reception into the RC Church, in his annual Christmas message, Pope Francis addressed the Curia as follows: What we are experiencing is not simply an epoch of changes, but an epochal change.   We find ourselves living at a time when change is no longer linear, but epochal.  It entails decisions that rapidly transform our ways of living, of relating to one another, of communicating and thinking, of how different generations relate to one another and how we understand and experience faith and science.  Often we approach change as if were a matter of simply putting on new clothes, but remaining exactly as we were before. 

Like Gavin Ashenden, I know well the movement of the heart and its role in discerning the spiritual path that leads to fullness of life. It is a deeply personal and intimate discernment, but in the household of God it is never private. We need to be extra careful how we move and speak in the Christian family, especially as a public figure, lest we contribute to the Church’s failure to witness to Christ. Ashenden claims that the Anglican Church has profoundly compromised its ability to stand firmly on the Gospel of Jesus when it comes to condemning certain cultural and social trends in today’s world. In one of several interviews Gavin Ashenden has given about his move to Rome, he cites as one of the reason the RC ban on women clergy. He considers this ban in keeping with the biblical and apostolic revelation. He also claims that many in the Catholic Church have been corrupted by the spirit of the age.

It is one thing to feel called to change rooms in God’s holy household (John 14:2) for reasons of love and service; it is quite another to trust one’s own criticism of the religious room we leave behind and to voice this publicly. Faced with this temptation, humility and prudence deserve front seats. Who said that we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak? It doesn’t mean that we remain silent in the face of injustice, sin and error. But it does demand of us a gentle spirit, an aching for God’s truth and a rigorous self-examination steeped in God’s love.

I have been around the ecumenical block long enough to know that every Christian family has its skeletons in the closet and its shadows, its shortcomings and failures. In the past several decades Rome has been suffering a beating of its own making, showing off its share of institutional failures in shocking ways, much of it forced by secular media and legal powers. So is Gavin Ashenden jumping from the frying pan into the fire, or have I by moving in the other direction? Not necessarily. Every Christian church family in every age falls short of the Lord’s command. I see plenty of things wrong with the Anglican tradition. However, just as God called me into this church for his greater glory and for the full flourishing of my priestly vocation, God has equally called me to bear this church’s shame, confusion and errors. When carried in and with Christ, the cross of suffering can become light.

While sin abounds wherever humans run the show, every Christian family is equally graced with the presence and guidance of God through Jesus Christ. To change denominational allegiance because the grass might stay greener on the other side is an illusion and a recipe for disappointment. In reality, we merely exchange one set of sins for another, while we might even be surprised at their similarity.

In a previous post, I claimed Saint John Henry Newman as my guide and example, just as Ashenden is doing now. I could make this claim based on Newman’s teaching on the primacy and freedom of conscience, a teaching wholeheartedly embraced by Vatican II. The Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions are akin to identical twins — so similar that the differences are hardly noticeable to outsiders. I have written about the differences in another blog post.

As my own bishop has stated, even in this season of church decline, there’s still a fair bit of traffic between our two traditions, and the traffic flows both ways. In our Anglican diocese there are a fair number of clergy who have their spiritual roots in the Roman tradition, and they are not all women. And if my own pastoral experience in my prairie community is any indication, our ministry still brings God to the people and the people to God through Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. It is a privilege to exercise this priestly charge; not a day goes by that I am not overwhelmed with awe and wonder, with humility and deep gratitude.

I pray for each person who experiences the call to change ecclesial households; I pray for the grace to surrender such spiritual/religious decisions to God’s will, that such moves may be steeped in our desire to increase our discipleship for the greater glory of God in Christ Jesus. I pray for Gavin Ashenden’s continued faithfulness to the Lord’s call to him. And while we each make our journey with God in the universal church, let us together keep in mind some important words from Pope Francis:

We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.” (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 244)

God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways. He renews us: he constantly makes us “new.” A Christian who lives the Gospel is “God’s newness” in the Church and in the world. How much God loves this “newness”! (Pope Francis, homily, October 19, 2014)

  • The following reflection by Rev. Geoffrey Mackey captures similar and more insights than the above. Sharing it here with deep gratitude.

What Star?

Christmas has come and gone for another year. The music that filled shopping malls and radio stations for weeks on end is hushed. Many have already stored away the decorations for another year, unless you’re lucky to party with the Ukrainians tomorrow. *

The world’s moving on, at lightning speed. But in the church we are only just beginning to live the story, the story of Mary and Joseph, of their newborn in a manger, of the angels and the shepherds. As the God of love entered our human existence in Jesus, another story began to flow from this holy birth. The Magi came from the east and began to ask questions: Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We have followed his rising star and we have come to give him honour. (Matthew 2:1–13)

King Herod, shaken by it all, convinced the Magi to help him locate the child. Indeed, the strange foreigners find the child. Overwhelmed, they fall on their knees in worship and praise and adoration. Like the shepherds on the hillside, they begin to realize that something new is happening, that a new world is being born: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, says Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love … (Ephesians 1:3–12)

It is a wonderful story, full of emotion and intrigue. Throughout the centuries it has inspired art and music, poetry and song, discipleship and saintly living. But somehow now, in this modern day and age, this star of the magi, and all that it signified for so long, seems to have lost its lustre. The particular ways we have understood God, the blessings that our Lord Jesus Christ bestowed on us, on the world and on the church, are breaking apart. Change is accelerating at a speed we hum ans have trouble following and processing, integrating and understanding. Political, economic, and climate crises succeed one another faster than dominoes can fall. The sets of meanings and values we have used to make sense of reality , the spiritual fuel that has inspired dreams and visions, are all crumbling like weeks-old, dried up cake. Against this backdrop, what do we make of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy about the light shining in the darkness of the world? Does the birth of Jesus and the peculiar story of the mysterious strangers, the magi coming from nowhere, from the east, still speak to the hunger of today’s seekers and spiritual wanderers? Can Christ Jesus still be God’s blessing on today’s world?

This month’s edition of the Anglican Journal is filled with the news of our diminishing church. What we already know as a reality here in Watrous is now officially verified by extensive sociological studies. The Christian church is fast becoming a mere shadow of its former glory and influence. And every Christian church family, including the RC Church, is affected by this monumental historical shift. As Pope Francis said this Christmas to the Roman Curiawhat we are living through is not simply a time of change but a veritable change of a historical era.” Francis added that we can “live change by limiting ourselves, by putting on new clothes but remaining as we were before.” But, citing a popular Italian novelist, Francis said, “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

Here on earth to live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect. (Saint JHN) This does not mean seeking change for change’s sake, or to follow the latest fashion, but rather, in Pope Francis’ words, “to have the conviction that development and growth are characteristic of earthly and human life, while, in the perspective of the believer, at the centre there remains the stability of God.” And this is hard for us humans, really hard. It’s hard, really hard, to see the divine hand in the decay and disintegration. Because if we humans are good at anything at all, it’s to be comfy in our own nest, curling up in a massive illusion of security. But this security turns out to be false, and risks setting limits on God and on our own freedom.

The Christian life, in reality, is a journey, a pilgrimage, not unlike those magi long ago, who left their comfy nest and security, to follow a bright light, spurring them on into a new discovery. The entire Biblical story is a journey, marked by starts and restarts. So it was for Abraham, for the people of Israel, for the shepherds and magi, and for all since the days 2,000 years ago in Galilee who set out to follow a peculiar itinerant preacher called Jesus. Since then, the people of God—the history of the church—has been marked by departures, moves, changes. The journey, obviously, is not linear or geographical, but above all it is symbolic and spiritual. The journey of the Christian life invites us to discover the movement of the heart that, paradoxically, needs to start afresh again and again in order to remain faithful and true. The mystery of God animating the human heart in every age is a mystery that requires change so as to remain faithful and alive, new and fresh.

The star … that star … as a guiding light … A light in the dark sky of life … an anchor, a compass … A light in darkness fuels motivation and hope. A light in the dark lightens our path us, revealing obstacles and traps. A guiding light attracts us and gives direction in the stream of life, revealing a goal to reach for. The star guided the magi from afar into a new path. Recall that Matthew tells us they returned via a different road. When we truly find the Divine guiding light that creates and animates, sustains and fuels hope-love-joy-peace-mercy we too continue life via a different road.

Hear again Isaiah’s clarion call:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
(Isaiah 60:1–6)
Can Christ still be this light to the nations? While everything around us is changing at lightning speed, can the Christ-child still comfort and heal us, providing the foundation for love and mercy that stabilizes and accompanies us in the dark? Yes, even as the Christian church loses worldly influence, Christ Jesus himself retains that spiritual power. Christ Jesus is the same, always and everywhere for everyone. Jesus’ teaching and example can still help us discover and face obstacles, lighting the path that leads through the chaos of our times into God’s fullness and life. Christ Jesus can still bring meaning and value to human history, indeed to all creation, especially as we urgently need to face the many crises of our time – climate change, refugees and displaced peoples, economic disparity, illness and epidemics, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and an enormous crisis of meaning and purpose in the young.

Matthew shocked his readers right from the start. He writes women into Jesus’ genealogy, as we noted on the first Sunday of Advent. Now he features the magi, foreigners from faraway. Whoever they were and wherever they were from, Matthew’s point is that they are not from here; these are not our own kind, not the hometown folk, with hometown values, and hometown upbringing. These were odd folk from some foreign land – not our kind. And yet, it was these foreigners, these weird strange magi, who were instrumental in saving Jesus from being killed by the forces of evil, personified in King Herod.

It is thanks to these star-obsessed strangers that the message of universal salvation has come to us. In this stark and shocking way Matthew reminds us that the saving word of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, is not for some, but for all, even still in our crisis-ridden time and place. Not for men only, but also for women, for the old and the young. Not for the apparently perfect only, but for those whose lives bear the scars of unspeakable human pain. Not for the hometown crowd only, but for those on the other side of the tracks. Not for those who believe exactly as we do, but also for those who are struggling to believe anything at all, or those who have lost their faith. Because as the crucified and risen Lord, Christ still goes before us in all things. So even in betrayal, suffering and death, the star, in the shape of the cross, shines brightly in the resurrection, the joy of Easter. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor surmised in this month’s Anglican Journal: the church may shrink but will survive in our secular age, but it will look very different from what we have known. Religion is not disappearing, but it is taking different forms.The young are definitely on a spiritual quest, according to Taylor, yet reluctant to join churches which claim to have all the answers.

In this year’s Christmas message from another church leader, Lutheran Bishop Larry (Alberta Synod) echoes both Pope Francis and Charles Taylor when he wrote: The star comes and rests over the place where the infant Jesus is born. Keep your eyes on it. Gaze at the star. Focus on it. Fix it firmly in your mind. Because in time you will discover that the points of the star will stretch themselves into the form of a cross; it will no longer rest over the place where the child lay, but will come to rest in a new way over our lives and in the world we inhabit. (post on Lutheran Theological Seminary FB page)

Pope Francis concluded his message to the Roman Curia with these words: “Christmas is the feast of the love of God for us. Divine love inspires, guides, and corrects all change, thus defeating the human fear of leaving the false security of the present and instead launching out into God’s eternal mystery of love.”

The real journey of Christmas is only just beginning. In this new decade, 2020, will we let God cast out human fear, will we grow the courage of the magi by leaving all false security, in order to creatively face the crises of our time and grow much-needed spiritual 20/20 vision? Don’t be afraid to follow the star, be open to wherever it might lead in this new year. AMEN

Homily preached on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 5, 2020
Isaiah 60:1—6; Ephesians 1:3—12; Matthew 2:1—12

  • Special thanks to Lutheran Bishop Larry Kochendorfer from the ELCIC Alberta Synod for the initial inspiration to this sermon whose reflection was posted on the FB page of the Lutheran Theological Seminary.