Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hope for Reconciliation for the Future

I was browsing in Documents of Witness: A History of the Episcopal Church 1782-1985 (Armentrout and Slocum, editors), and ran across an interesting piece. The title was straightforward: “A Sermon Preached in St. Paul’s Chapel, Trinity Parish, New York, October 29, 1865.” (Armentrout and Slocum, pp. 176-180) The preacher was the Rev. Morgan Dix, Rector of Trinity Parish. The sermon is a description of events of the 1865 General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA. It is remarkable for its tone, not just of satisfaction, but of remarkable enthusiasm at the reconciliation demonstrated in that notable convention.

Not that participants had been Pollyannaish about the concerns. “Men looked forward to the assembling of that convention with great anxiety; they accompanied it with prayers that never ceased.” He acknowledged the fear that the events of the war would shape the life of the Convention. “Were the scenes, the sounds, presented in and heard from those completely secularized bodies, to be reproduced among us? Could the North and the South meet together in peace? the North without offensive condescension, the South without the consciousness of humiliation? Could everything be forgotten save this, that we are all one in Christ Jesus?” These were the questions that hung over that Convention.

The questions, according to the Fr. Dix, “began to be answered the first day.”

When the Convention assembled in St. Luke’s Church, for the opening service, one of the southern Bishops was there. He came alone, and took a seat among the congregation: he looked like a stranger. That was a sight which his brethren in the Apostolic Episcopate could not bear. They saw him; they became uneasy. At last they sent a dignified messenger to tell him that he must come to them. Then he hesitated no longer; he arose, and just as he was, with no vestment or robe of office, passed up to the chancel and went to his brethren. I was told there was not a dry eye in that august company at that moment. Men felt that GOD was giving the answer to the question whether this Church could be one again.

He goes on to describe “two of those test questions, which in the mode of their answer, sweep off at once a hundred side-issues and settle a thousand minor difficulties forever.”

The first was the question about the Bishopric of Tennessee. That Diocese had sent a priest to Philadelphia as its Bishop Elect; a godly and learned man, but one who had been most intimately connected with the revolted States, and with their military operations, as a chaplain in their army. How many points would be settled in his acceptance, or his rejection? Rejected he could not be, he was not. Accepted, and welcomed as few have ever been, he was consecrated on the 6th day of the session, in presence of an overwhelming congregation of clergy and laity, and with circumstances designed to show the significance of the act. Then, the next day, when the hearts of men were softened as by the dew of Hermon which upon the hill of Zion, came the second question and the last; that of the reception of the Bishop of Alabama. He was consecrated some two years ago, in the midst of the war, by Southern Bishops, by men who thought the disruption of the Nation a final one, and the rebellion a success. He was consecrated a Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the “Confederate States;” he belonged to us no more than a Bishop of the Church of England, or Scotland. Should he be received? If so, on what terms? Must not this man be required to make some act of abjuration, to sign some pledge of allegiance to the Government, to speak some confession of penitence acknowledging the error of his ways? Must he not, in the popular phrase of the day, “give evidence that he had repented him of his sins”? Not so thought the Council of the Church. Their idea was, “Let Caesar look to the things that are Caesar’s; we legislate only for the Church of God.”... After two days of earnest debate, they knelt in silent prayer; the stillness seemed almost supernatural. Then they arose, and, by their vote, said: “Let the Bishop of Alabama send full evidence that he has been duly into the office which we doubt not he possesses; and let him send, in writing, and properly certified, that promise of conformity to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church, which every Bishop takes among us, and we ask no more.” It seemed as though the Lord had arisen and said, “Peace be to this house and to all that are therein.” If any man had previously doubted concerning the reunion of the Church, he cast, at that moment, every doubt away.

The confirmation of that Bishop of Tennessee, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Charles Quintard, might certainly been the cause of concern. As a priest Dr. Quintard had served in the Confederate Army both as Chaplain and as Surgeon.

“Brethren, our Church has never been divided,” said Father Dix. “Our enemies said that it was, but they were wrong.” He spoke of the circumstances that had separated churches North and South, “but the life and the heart were one..”

If it had been GOD’s will that the rebellion has passed into a successful revolution, and that the Confederate States could have kept us apart. We should have been more closely allied with each other than we are with the Church of England: somehow we should have come together. How much more must it be so now? The Confederate States have ceased to exist; the causes of interruption to our intercourse are removed; we are one again. After what has occurred, no one can with truth affirm that the Episcopal Church has known a schism. We trust in the Lord for the future, as we trusted in him in the past. The Church has never been divided. Let those who long for Catholic Unity bear that in mind.

There is indeed much to think about in this sermon. I was particularly struck by the assertion that even had the division of United States and Confederate States been achieved, Episcopalians in those two nations would have been “more closely allied with each other than we are with the Church of England.” This answered his earlier question as to whether the Bishop of Alabama “belonged to us... more than a Bishop of the Church of England, or Scotland.” Clearly he did; and the straightforward expectations for his regularization, which involved no condescension or humiliation, followed in the heritage of James the Just. In these days of dueling primates, of images of communion broken or impaired, of gatherings and counter-gatherings of primates and bishops and congregations, this expression of community and coherence within this Anglican province is striking.

I find that this sermon leaves me hopeful in these difficult times in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. I’m sure it did not seem so easy or straightforward at the time as Fr. Dix described it; but, then, this was a sermon and not an historical report. But, still, I think we can look to this past and imagine some hope in our future.

Granted, the presenting issues are not the same. One could argue they were greater then, when blood had been spilled and the entire nation had been involved. Those who see the current issues as matters of essential doctrine rather than discipline, those who suggest those who disagree with them have left the Christian faith entirely, might even say the issues are greater now, or at least sufficiently different. Each day those committed to leaving The Episcopal Church seem closer to the door, and some committed to staying seem attracted to clarity, even if it also means finality.

But I remain hopeful. I have said often enough that I will trust in God through all of these difficulties. I have cited Gamaliel’s standard: “if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 -->but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38b-39) I believe that after these troubled times the Church, and specifically The Episcopal Church, will continue to proclaim Christ and serve him in all people. It is a happy thought to look at Fr. Dix’s sermon and think toward our future, and to hope for a time when reconciliation can be demonstrated so clearly and concretely as at that General Convention in Philadelphia after that bitter war. I continue to hope for the future of a united and reconciled Episcopal Church and a united and reconciled Anglican Communion. It may well take a long time. But, I will hope for that day; and I will look forward to the preacher and the sermon that will praise God for that reconciliation.


Mmm said...

Personally, I have no interest in going to any unified church that might throw the baby out with the bathwater and embrace anyhting from the World but the central tenets of the traditionl orthodox Christian faith. Can it then even be considered a genuine church if present social opinion becomes more important than anything else? Let's hope I am very much wrong on this account and that God's Spirit does unite us all in Truth. I suspect though that such divisions will only coninuein order to reveal the genuine from the disingenious--that includes any number of church backgrounds. I suspect we will find greater unity throghout many churches, Catholic and Protestant that embrace the centrailty of Christ over a more 'socially friendly', fanciful forms of church that will also unite in unity aghsint such 'narrow' minded thinking! How ironic that would be.

Marshall Scott said...

I think perhaps you underestimate how important to some of us is Christ's call to serve the rejected, even to the point of St. Francis when he embraced the leper. Many of us, too, appreciate natural theology, the belief that God as creator left an imprint on creation that we can percieve - it may not tell us as much about God as Scripture, but it does tell us something. It is on that basis that Anglican tradition has been able to integrate into its theology new discoveries in science. They're discoveries, and not revelations, but we see them as worth our reflection. In light of these thoughts, some things that are alleged to be revolutionary are in fact only evolutionary (in an entirely noncontroversial sense of that word).