Faithfulness in Adversity

By Howard Anderson

Being up here in the north woods, on a stunningly beautiful lake, I am remembering the faithful leaders of the Episcopal Church in this area. It was a part of the Diocese of Minnesota for most of the time the Church has been in Minnesota. But for a brief time, it was in the Missionary Diocese of Duluth (which is 200 miles east of Bad Medicine Lake.) The Ojibwe clergy whom I knew growing up said that if they hadn’t been good hunters and skilled fishermen, their families would have suffered hunger. “The stipends were pitiful,” but they remained faithful. To this day, the heroes of the faith, and the churches they established serve the Indian community with heart, hope and energy. In Ojibwe country, The White Earth Reservation has four churches, Red Lake two, Leech Lake three. The Dakota people are served by churches in three reservations and there are two urban, intertribal churches. My own reading of church history detects a subtext in which those churches under oppression or hardship tend to produce faithful and faith-filled Christians.

Most of my “church heroes” are people who were faithful in difficult situations. A Turtle Mountain (North Dakota) Ojibwe leader walked 800 miles round trip to secure a priest for the little congregation which, without prayer books, had read Morning Prayer faithfully for over 40 years. He had used all his worldly wealth to buy the lumber to build a church, and the lumber sat in his house for decades before it was built. Faithfulness in adversity.

I think of the “patron saint” of the Diocese of Minnesota, Enmegahbowh. He spent many years preaching the gospel which seemed to him to fall on deaf ears in the Ojibwe communities of northern Minnesota. Finally, he gave up and boarded a boat at Duluth on Lake Superior to return home to Ontario. The boat set out for Canada, only to be blown back into port by unseasonable winds. Twice more he boarded boats to return to Canada, and was blown back to Duluth. He finally got off the boat for good, perhaps shaking his fist at a God who would get Jonah where God wanted Jonah to be, and Enmegahbowh where God wanted Enmegahbowh to be. His wife and several children died because of the adversity of the place, and yet he stayed. He stayed and became true to his name, “The One Who Stands Before his People,” and for decades was a faithful deacon and priest serving as “archdeacon” of this vast and then trackless wilderness with Episcopal missions scattered over 40,000 square miles. Faithful in adversity.

I think of the women who knew they were called by God to be priests, some for decades, who didn’t give up on the Church. I think of the many gay men and lesbians who suffered horrendous discrimination and yet stayed with the Episcopal Church despite being used as the “poster children” in ideological and theological battles over which they had no control, not even a voice. I think of Bishop Gene Robinson, being treated so abysmally by so many, (including the Archbishop of Canterbury) being pilloried, made fun of, and yet, faithful in all things remains sweet of spirit and thoroughly committed to the Episcopal Church. Faithful in adversity.

The present situation in the Episcopal Church has a eerie and familiar pattern. Look at the Churches which are leaving the Episcopal Church are, largely, affluent and overwhelmingly white. When I have a tooth ache, I go to the dentist. Likewise, most laity who read or hear about some controversy in the church, ask their rector. I find it appalling that some bishops and priests would advocate leaving The Episcopal Church imagining themselves to be protectors of orthodoxy. Most of the lay people who are in the schismatic churches have been victims of the anger and fear of clergy and bishops uncomfortable with change, which is inevitable. The claim of Biblical authority many of them use to justify leaving the Episcopal Church ring false, and I grieve that some really fine theologically conservative lay people have been led by short sighted priests and bishops to take a step not only not necessary, but terribly disruptive and hurtful for all involved. We Anglicans have always been able to live in the tension of theological disagreement, because we agree on the essentials.

I think that the model of the faithful and often overlooked, underfunded and even forgotten Indian Episcopalians in this land of the northern lights could not be a greater contrast than those clergy pulling their affluent, white congregations out of the Episcopal Church. Years ago, at the organizing gathering of the Episcopal Synod of American in Ft. Worth, Texas, I was an observer sent by then Presiding Bishop Ed Browning. Sitting in the visitor’s gallery were about a dozen purple clad men with large pectoral crosses. I asked who they were. I was told that they were previously schismatic Episcopal clergy who broke off from other bodies of schismatic to form their own dioceses. Some had diocese with two or there parishes. Some had only a hundred or so communicants in the diocese over which they presided. How clear it became. It wasn’t about orthodoxy, it wasn’t about women’s ordination or sexual orientation and inclusion- it was about power for those who led their flocks out of the Episcopal Church. I wonder how many of them are still “bishops?” The present scramble by African and South American Primates to “colonize” the affluent conservative American parishes under the leadership of hurt and angry priests is a kind of reverse colonialism. This sort of activity perhaps could be expected in a post colonial, fruit basket upset 21st Century Anglicanism. These “poaching” Primates are being challenged at home by Pentacostalism, Islam and consumerism. They have societal problems that stagger the imagination. One can understand their desire to tap into the wealth of these disgruntled American parishes. But whatever happened to faithfulness?

The Rev. Dr. Howard Anderson is Warden and President of the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral. He was a long time General Convention deputy and most importantly, is grandfather to a five year old theologian, Will.

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