A word from the edge

By Richard E. Helmer

The rancor in the Anglican blogosphere has reached yet another new height as lawsuits pending in the Episcopal Church took a turn in recent weeks against dissenting parishes, and a flurry of elections overseas have resulted in the naming of over a dozen new bishops for networks in North America – an apparently major step in the establishment of an alternative or even replacement Anglican Province in North America.

It seems that indeed these days everyone has something to be offended about – to justify spitting out a harsh word or two about the situation in the greater Church. For instance, Mark Harris took it in the teeth from comments over at Preludium this week when he wrote about “The Gang of Thirteen, or so.” In a bit of a temper, I delivered a scathing brand of humor over the same situation, and judging by the comments in response, much to the delight of those on this side of the questions at hand in the Communion.

But back at home, I’ve had a particularly exhausting yet spiritually fulfilling week of pastoral extremes as a parish priest: from the beautiful baptism of a child born with a dangerous heart-valve condition, to the dignified death of one of the pillars of our congregation – a truly remarkable Christian and human being.

Most of this would be considered garden-variety stuff by any parochial Christian, were it not that this happens in the context of one of the most so-called liberal dioceses in the Episcopal Church, the Diocese of California. And the church I serve is in Marin County, home of the crème de la crème in the liberal mecca of the San Francisco Bay Area, where the most conservative among us put liberalism in the rest of the country to shame. We are not simply on the edge geographically and politically, we are on the edge theologically as a local church, and (too) often proud of ourselves for this.

We embrace many of the belief and practices that have made the Episcopal Church a pariah in some eyes, and aroused the ire of primates in the Global South and their more vociferous allies in this country. And we’ve indeed thrown our own barbs into the mix of rancor so prominent in the life of the greater Church these days. Certainly I have.

But after a week of pressing pastoral duties, of reflecting about life on the edge, of death and family, of new life and new hope in the name of the Trinity, I find all the rancor in the Anglican Communion right now suddenly strange and petty. Arguments over bishops elected in faraway places seem to bear little or no relevance to Christian life on the edge here, and life with Jesus on the ground where we find ourselves.

At the end of the day, it strikes me that there is merit to each side claiming offense from the other. There are things The Episcopal Church has handled well, others quite poorly. The same goes for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates. The same for all our bishops and leaders. And all of us bloggers have our own limited perspective, our own projections to cope with, and our own motes to see past.

For this reason, I set aside almost all my claims to taking offense. But to my more conservative sisters and brothers (and there are many), there is one accusation I do take exception to. That is the notion, implied or explicitly articulated, that our ecclesiastical and theological position here somehow divorces us from the grace of God, from the hand of God’s blessing. This week in engaging some very liberal and some more conservative members of the parish I serve, I have witnessed the abundance of God’s grace calling us together into community, blessing our individual and corporate life, and empowering all of us together for ministry. I have seen, in human fragility uncovered by vulnerability and death, hearts that are filled to overflowing with the gracious love of God in Christ Jesus, endowed with the awesome fruits of the Spirit, and not at all dependent on divisive points of theology or doctrine.

I dare to claim based on what I see and witness that we are not wayward heretics destined for Hell, but Christians struggling together and lovingly with the tangible questions of life and death in relationship with our faith as disciples of Jesus Christ. Once the dust settles and the skirmishes over jurisdiction, power, provincial autonomy, covenant, property, and the episcopacy settle, many of us will re-open our eyes and find ourselves more truly in this position common to Christians across the ages: called to live in our own gifted ways into the incarnate Word, the foundation of our faith, touching the lives most immediately near us with the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And that simply has little regard for our divisions, and radically less for our erstwhile claims to superiority or special consideration for God’s grace.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

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