Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good….All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. I Corinthians 12:4-7, 11-13
I have just spent time reading blogs, checking in on those places I think interesting. I ended up on Praeludium, the blog of the Rev. Mark Harris. It’s an interesting place to see reflection on events in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. And, yes, I largely agree with his perspective.
Of course, to read that site, or any site where such issues are discussed can leave me, on a given evening, with the feeling that there’s no hope of retaining the Communion as we have known it in the past. The extremists (choose your own favorite heroes and villains) will not allow that to happen. Between the “you can be as autonomous as you like, as long as you do it in a way that we agree with” crowd, and the “of course we need to agree on essentials, as long as we have freedom to interpret those essentials as we need” crowd, things will not be the same. Yes, for purposes of full disclosure, I’m closer to the latter than for former. (I suppose that leaves me feeling that losing the Communion as we have received it may be a loss to grieve but it’s not a ditch to die in.) I think the Episcopal Church in General Convention will work for a “moderate” stand that will not fully abandon justice for GLBT people, but will try to show enough remorse for poor communication to be acceptable to most other Anglicans around the world. We will not satisfy the extremes; and some who already say “communion is broken” will go on to say “and cannot be repaired.”
Which led me to a new, and probably unacceptable, view of Paul’s discussion in Romans 12. We have always looked at Jesus in John, praying that “all may be one as You, Father, and I are one,” and held that to mean, ultimately, an institutional unity. But what if Jesus meant an organic unity? After all, Paul’s image is, again and again, of a body, with many members. Suppose that when Paul talked about “many members” he wasn’t talking about individuals, but about whole churches – congregations, or the city-churches that paralleled the city-states in which they functioned.
We’re clear that all early Christian congregations did not agree in everything. (My professor of Church History noted that the classic Vincentian Canon of high esteem – “what has been believed always, by everyone, everywhere” – was never accurate in concept in the first place, because there was so little about which everyone was agreed, even in that generation.) Paul was pretty clear about what was necessary to be believed, and it was pretty basic: believe in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, and that through his death and resurrection God has saved us from sin. Surely that left a lot of details to be debated and worked out.
So what if Paul understood the members not simply as individuals with discernable vocations, but whole churches with discernable and different vocations? That body image also allows for a lot of diversity. You don’t want the skin on the back of your hand to weep moisture, but you don’t want the membranes in your mouth to be dry. The digestive acids in your stomach will, if forced out of place, painfully damage the tissues of your esophagus. The bacteria that are perfectly safe, and indeed necessary, there in your colon will cause life-threatening disease if let out into your viscera.
Perhaps that would suggest that denominationalism is not the scandal of the Church, but a provision – providential! - for reaching more of us unique, individual, and individualistic human beings. We have long held, we Anglicans, that we did not hold the keys to the kingdom exclusively. We have understood that churches with the historic episcopate were certainly part of the Body, whether they recognized us or not. We have understood that baptism with water in the name of the Trinity cleansed from sin and admitted to the Body of Christ, whether by immersion, pouring, or just a damp touch on the forehead. It has allowed us to talk at the same time with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, the Mar Thoma Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, Lutherans and Methodists. They would not all recognize each other, perhaps; but we recognize all as “within the Body of Christ,” or in that old pastoral image, “different parts of the vineyard.”
What if, then, Pentecostal Churches were those with a special vocation to reach some folks, and formal liturgical churches had a special vocation to reach others? What if each of us was called to reach those whom we could reach with the Gospel, allowing God the latitude to reach others in another style? I have said consistently and in various places that those Anglicans who choose to walk apart from the Episcopal Church – apart from me – would still be siblings for whom Christ died; and whether or not hey would see me within the faith, I would still see them. What if, like different organs, different Christian communities were indeed different in vocation, even to the point of being incompatible on some issues?
Then the scandal of denominationalism wouldn’t be that there were so many, but that we were so contemptuous of each other, so quick to anathematize. Our ability to function within the body would indeed be reflected in the relationships we maintained, and not in the identities we shared. It would be our capacity to interact for the good of the whole Body, of sharing the Gospel, and not our consistency in covenants or catechisms.
Does that mean a return to a church of “people like us?” I would hope not. Yes, some of that would happen; but our call would not be to create folks like us. It would be to proclaim the faith as we have received it to all who would listen. Some would hear the faith most clearly from us, and others somewhere else. We would trust that God continued to care for them, and we would do our best to cooperate with their community to show that we continued to care for them, without requiring that they be some sort of adaptation of “folks like us.” It would call for us to proclaim, without worrying too much who was coming and going. It would call for us to bless those who left, encouraging and even helping them to find a place they could hear the Gospel more clearly. Would some churches grow and others shrink? Probably; I expect there would be an ebb and flow. But that, too, would be consistent with an organic image of the body. In our lives and in our growths things do not stay the same. The teeth we used as children are discarded in favor of other teeth more suited to adulthood. The digestive system changes as we move from milk-feeders to omnivores. We don’t give these changes a second thought, unless they somehow get stifled. It is in fact the failure to change that causes problems.
And in our current crisis? I have read of one commentator who thought that the Episcopal Church had perhaps 30 years before it would fade. If that is God’s will, let it happen. I would hope we would trust God to care for us as long as we continue to proclaim the faith as this church – this Episcopal Church – has received it and as we see opportunities to share it in new ways with new folks. Do we have faith even to die as an institution, committed not to institutional size but to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who calls us to lives that include both discipline and justice, both stability and prophecy? That would not be my prayer; but it wouldn’t be inconsistent with the image of the Church as Christ’s Body, not static but living and flowing and acting in the World.