Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Wm. R. Huntington: A Deputy's Deputy


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

There may have been occasional disputes between the disciples, but Jesus never had to deal with schism. Some could argue, of course, that his entire ministry was itself schismatic, but I suspect that the gospel accounts, written long after Jesus lived and died and rose again, portray the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity in clear and certain terms when, in fact, they were largely indistinguishable during his earthly ministry. Jesus never dealt with heretics. He never had a group split off and start their own branch of the Jesus Movement because they didn't like the current pastor. No group that we know of began a rival movement because they didn't like the new prayer book. Naturally, that didn't happen while he was alive. Like kids in a classroom with a substitute teacher or children at home with a babysitter, we waited until his feet disappeared in the clouds before we started fighting with each other.

Jesus didn't have to deal with schism, but his prayer in John 17 shows that he knew how religious disputes could tear a community of believers apart: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one." But this prayer for unity isn't just an appeal against schism. It's also a reminder that what Jesus came to do--to reveal God and God's love to us--is impossible to see and know unless we are one: "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."

I think we too often miss the importance of this revelatory technique. I know I miss it because I get bored with the lengthy prayer Jesus offers in this part of John and begin to flip the pages in my bible without taking them seriously enough. But think about it: Jesus' unity with the Father is what enables him to communicate God's love to the world, and the disciples' unity with Jesus is what enables them to receive that communication, and our unity with the disciples is what enables us to be in unity with Jesus, which is what enables us to receive that same communication of love. It's all about unity. If we are not one, we cannot know Jesus, and, if we cannot know Jesus, we cannot know God and God's love. It starts with the unity of the Father and the Son, and it unfolds through the unity of the faithful. And anything--absolutely anything--that stands in the way of unity diminishes, if not threatens, the our ability to know God and God's love. Does that change the way we think about what it means to be a Christian? Does that change the way we approach our own congregation, our own denomination, our own branch of the Jesus Movement?

Although our current Presiding Bishop is fond of reminding us that Jesus didn't come to start a church but to start a movement, if there's anyone in the history of the Episcopal Church who understood that and lived it and put it into practice, it was William Reed Huntington. Never a bishop, Huntington was a deputy in the House of Deputies for thirteen different General Conventions, stretching from 1871 and 1907. Because of his love for and leadership of the church, he was known affectionately as "the first presbyter of the Church," an honorific if unofficial title modeled after the "protopresbyter" or "archpriest" of the Orthodox tradition. He led the move to revise the prayer book, guiding the revision and contributing liberally to the work that produced the 1892 BCP. His commitment to the unity of the church gave hope and confidence to the Episcopal Church as a new iteration of schism, which became the Reformed Episcopal Church, began to split off in 1873. His greatest and most enduring contribution to the church, however, came in a four-part statement that we still use to summarize the unity of the church.

In his book, The Church Idea, Huntington proposed a distillation of the Christian faith that became the four statements known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. His proposal was adopted by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church and later, with slight modification, by the Lambeth Conference of 1888. It states that there are four basic things that hold us together: 1) the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God; 2) the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed are the statements of our faith; 3) the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper with Jesus' words and elements are the foundation of our worship and sacramental life; 4) the historic episcopate, adapted in each local context, is an expression of our unity. Often people ask me what is it that Episcopalians or Anglicans believe, and, despite all the variation in our tradition--from Anglo-Catholic to Evangelical, from New York City to Legos, Nigeria, from 1662 to 2016--we are held together by the bible, creeds, sacraments, and apostolic ministry.

For a long time, that was enough. It helped us navigate--though not without difficulty--the tension between Catholic and Protestant in our church, revisions to prayer books, acceptance of polygamy in some African churches, and the ordination of women. It reminded us that each part of the church might talk about God in different ways, might worship God in different ways, might structure ourselves in different ways, but we were and are all held together at our core. We've lost sight of that, I think, because we've forgotten the value of unity.

We are still one, I think, deep down. But we've lost touch with how important our oneness is. We've become distracted by our differences. We took our oneness amidst diversity for granted for so long that we've forgotten that our oneness comes first. When the world sees the church, it doesn't see one; it sees broken, fractured, scattered disputes. It sees pigheadedness. It sees mutual anathemas and unequivocal condemnations. But until we are one--until we reclaim our oneness as primary and model that oneness for the world--the world cannot know the love of God because the love of God is not manifest by brokenness. It may enter that brokenness and transform it, but the brokenness itself cannot show it until it has been healed. We are one in Christ Jesus. For the sake of the world, we must recover our unity.

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