By George M. Clifford, III
The gospel reading on the seventh Sunday of Easter depicts Jesus praying for unity not only among those disciples physically present with him at that moment but also for unity among those who, like us, who became his disciples through the witness of others (John 17:20-21). That prayer expresses a theme prominent in John’s gospel, a theme echoed elsewhere in the New Testament, a theme to which we in the Anglican Communion would do well to listen.
The theme of a unity among Christians that embraces all generations provides one of the major scriptural foundations for our Anglican emphasis on tradition as a source of authority within the Church. At the most basic level, Jesus’ prayer recognizes that none of us alive today knew or can know the historical Jesus. We must rely upon others for our knowledge of Jesus and Christianity.
First and second century Christians wrote the words that comprise the New Testament. Second through fifth century Christians edited those words and selected the twenty-seven specific books as the New Testament canon. Through the efforts of nineteenth and twentieth century Christians, we can read excellent English translations such as the New Revised Standard Version.
More specifically, each of us, perhaps with some thought, can identify those individual disciples who told us about Jesus, who taught us how to read the scriptures as windows through which God’s light shines, and who helped us frame our religious ideas logically and coherently. These people may include your parents or other relatives, Sunday school or other Christian education teachers, priests, and perhaps some college professors.
For whom are you part of a similar lineage? That really is what evangelism, sharing the good news of Jesus, is all about. Tragically, too many Christians consider evangelism as something analogous to scalp counting. According to that approach, evangelists count souls won for Christ just as some Native Americans counted the number of scalps or coup they had collected. I can count no souls won. I can point to lives changed, reshaped, or redirected through my sharing aspects of the Christian tradition with people.
We Anglicans believe that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation. We do not believe that the Scriptures contain all spiritual truth or everything spiritually helpful. From generation to generation, the Church accumulates and passes along spiritual wisdom exactly as we transmit the knowledge of Jesus, anticipating that each generation will further refine and expand spiritual wisdom.
On the one hand, therefore, we should not lightly accept innovations in Church teaching or practice. In the 1950’s, Episcopal priest and ethicist Joseph Fletcher believed that he could summarize Christian ethics in one utilitarian precept: do whatever is most loving. When I first read Fletcher in college, I thought he had captured the essence of the Christian lifestyle. Over the years with more study and reflection, I have come to appreciate why other ethicists lampooned Fletcher’s idea of situational ethics. Without a moral minimum and no helpful guidelines drawn from the Christian Scriptures and tradition, situational ethics quickly deteriorates into what feels good or right or even easy in the moment. One can justify almost anything, including lying, promiscuity, theft, and killing.
On the other hand, we Anglicans embrace a living tradition, a tradition that continues to incorporate new spiritual insights and wisdom while uniting across generations. Although the Christian tradition for nineteen centuries condemned homosexual behavior, we now know that homosexual behavior is generally not a matter of choice but determined by factors beyond an individual’s control. That emerging consensus requires us to reexamine our tradition and to update that tradition, harmonizing this new knowledge with the foundational principle that God intends all of God’s children to have as full and fulfilling a life as possible. Thanks be to God that the Church has already updated its tradition with respect to people of different nationalities, people of color, the physically and mentally handicapped, and women. That living tradition, not a static, unchanging tradition, sustains the Church’s unity across the generations.
Our Christian unity that stretches across the generations is an important reason why we Anglicans pray for the dead. I cannot prove that praying for the dead helps them. Sometimes it helps people grieve. Certainly, praying for the dead does no harm and affirms the Church’s continuity and unity through time.
Finally, the theme of Christian unity underscores the importance of preserving what fragile, tattered unity remains among Christians and within the Anglican Communion. Sadly, the bonds of unity within the Communion are already torn asunder. Two weeks ago, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, installed Bishop Martyn Minns, former rector of Truro parish in the Diocese of Virginia, as Bishop for the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. Archbishop Akinola proceeded with that action over the objections of both our Presiding Bishop and the Archbishop of Canterbury; both protested that the Anglican Communion functions geographically and that the proposed action represented a significant departure from Anglican tradition. Archbishop Akinola regards Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s ministry as invalid. In theory, he does recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury as head of the Anglican Communion. However, his actions speak louder than his words; Archbishop Akinola’s act clearly signifies that he too considers the bonds of the Anglican Communion broken.
Beyond continuing to pray for those who choose to distance themselves from the Episcopal Church, we can do little about the shattered Anglican Communion in the immediate present. Healing that fractured unity at the cost of abandoning our precious heritage of a living tradition would compromise our faithfulness to God and our identity within the mainstream of Anglicanism.
In the interim, we can take steps towards healing multiple other rifts within the Church. Too many Episcopal parishes and missions live in near isolation from neighboring parishes and missions, sending a message – intentional or not – to others of disunity within the Episcopal Church.
The twentieth century ecumenical movement largely failed to achieve organic unity among the various divisions of the body of Christ. Some of those unbridged differences persist because of varied theologies and praxis. Almost a quarter of a century as a Naval chaplain suggests to me that local congregations and judicatories could, if they truly emphasized Christian unity, undertake in cooperation with one another more and larger ministries than on their own. Those who hurt, who thirst, or who hunger rarely care what if any denominational or congregational label we attach to the healing, living water, or bread of life that they seek. Perhaps the path that leads toward Christian unity is the path that the military chaplaincy treads, the path of caring for all in Christ’s holy name. That path is the path of common prayer, the path we Anglicans have traditionally tread, not the path of common belief down which some would mistakenly push us.
The Rev. George M. Clifford, III, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and as the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School.
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