Let us play

by Howard Anderson

I took my summer vacation at our cabin on a lake in far northern Minnesota. Because our daughter was doing Clinical Pastoral Education and her husband had long and unpredictable hours as a medical resident, Will, who turned six this summer, spent the entire summer at the lake with my wife, Linda, and for the most of July, with me as well. He learned to water ski, snorkel, swim without his life jacket and became an expert frog catcher. He even caught and released his first “big” fish, a toothy and fierce looking northern pike. The month wasn’t as relaxing as it might have been, but oh how we did play! Each morning, earlier than I would perhaps have chosen, there was a little hand on my arm, and I would look into the very face of God and hear “Papi-what are we going to play today?” The innocence, the wonder at the smallest thing, the lack of judging made the month playful indeed. I think that is one of things God intends for us. And, I contend that we Episcopalians have a special vocation to say to the world, “let us play!”

A friend of mine, a Lutheran pastor, named something about us Episcopalians that I was grateful to claim. He said, “You Episcopalians seem very earnest and dedicated in your worship, but you don’t seem to take yourselves so darn seriously.” But he went on to say, “You guys are the only denomination that can laugh at yourselves often enough to keep conversation going to be able to make decisions. But lately, you have seemed to get all serioused up.”

I think he is right. We are getting “all serioused up” about the latest dust up in a five hundred year family squabble in Anglicanism between the ‘puritan party” who embrace the “sola scriptura” scripture only motto of Martin Luther and the continental reformers, and the via media, middle way of the broad church English Reformers. What I find as I read people on both sides in the “recent unpleasantness,” (with apologies to our southern readers) is a lack of both humor, and the requisite amount of Anglican humility about just what one can know for certain about the great mystery that is God. I love to use a paraphrase of a prayer that a retired Primate of the Church of Ireland used at his farewell dinner over 100 years ago. “Lord, keep me always in the company of those who fearlessly seek the truth. And, my holy God, hide me under the shadow of thy wings from those who think they already have found it.” I use this prayer before preaching on occasions. I can often tell, among those thousand or more (mostly visitors) worshipping here at the National Cathedral at the 11am service, who the Episcopalians are, because they will be the only people chuckling.

Another prayer I use before preaching is “Holy One, May these words be your words. And if they are not, may these clever people hear in them what you need them to hear.” And with all my heart I believe that these two prayers are on target. Any preacher that has been preaching for awhile will know that sermons they think are home runs often seem to fall on deaf ears. Then we give a sermon we are not proud of and a dozen parishioners say, “Wow, that really is what I needed to hear. Thank you!” God uses our words to reach the people and in true Christian preaching the medium through which the preacher and the listener communicate is none other than the Holy Spirit. It is a mystery. One of the things that can be found in the writings and sermons of the early Anglicans was a great humility about what one can know about God. They warned against the dangers of the “puritans” and Reformed traditions coming close to saying that intellectual or even emotional assent to a confessional statement was a prerequisite for God’s Grace to be received. That way lies hubris! And hubris is what I see in Archbishop Akinola’s latest broadside at the American and Canadian churches. His insistence that he, and other Global South Anglicans have the one true understanding of how God’s Word is revealed crosses the line between Anglican humility and the confessional certainty that the Anglican reformers refused to embrace out of their deep and abiding belief that God’s Grace was a free gift to all, and did not depend on human intellect alone.

Sadly, when I read the arguments in the debate about inclusion or, orthodoxy (take your pick and place yourself in the theological spectrum) I find people speaking “ex cathedra.” I am always tempted to interject humor into these heated discussions, and most often, when I am able to get a word in edgewise, it at least loosens up the combatants a bit and allows everyone to catch their breath. Deep in the DNA of Anglicanism is the fact that unlike other Christians, who start their faith story with the cross, we begin with the doctrine of creation. In my Minnesota years, I often would tease the Lutherans, who, in their confession of sin, begin by saying, “I confess that I am by nature, sinful and unclean.” I joke that Episcopalians, of course, actually seem to take the Biblical text seriously. I tease, “Oh yes, in Genesis God says, “We made them, male and female we made them, in our own image, and they are sinful and unclean.” Most often there was a stirring defense by my Lutheran colleagues that the confession did not reflect the ELCA doctrine of creation. More often then not, the pastors would say, “We don’t use that confession any more.” I think our Rite I Book of Common Prayer confession of sin says best what our theology of sin and creation are. “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed.” But we are, as scripture tells us, very good by nature. We are, Jesus tells us, “loved unconditionally.” Nothing God has made is unclean, scripture tells us in Acts 10. But our Puritan brothers” (we hear little if anything from our sisters in places like Nigeria), insist that they know better, and have chosen the latest people to exclude. They seem unable to be embraced by the wonder of God’s liberating love without having a caveat that limits God’s Grace. Maybe God’s Grace just seems too good to be true. It is you know.

But in the light of this almost impossibly good news, how can we help from joyfully embracing that abundant life. God did not need the creation. God was, in our Anglican understanding, already complete, and in the community of the Holy Trinity before “all things were made through the Word.” And we read that God “made the great leviathan just for the sport of it!” And we humans, who are invited to become co-creators with The Holy One, through the power of Jesus the Word made flesh and the Holy Spirit, are allowed the joy of co-creating in a spirit of “just for the sport of it!”

A story is told about the Episcopal priest and Southern Baptist pastor sitting next to one another on the airplane. When the flight attendant asked for drink orders, the pastor ordered ginger ale, and the priest ordered a gin and tonic. The priest soon could feel the beady eyed stare of his seat mate and finally asked, “Does it upset you that I ordered alcohol?” The pastor replied with some vehemence, “It’s disgraceful that a man of the cloth would, with his clerical collar on, order alcohol and be a bad role model for all the other passengers.” The priest replied, “But Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee when he turned water into wine, and fine wine at that.” With a scowl the pastor replied, “Yes, and I think less of Him for it too.” I decided to tease a Methodist friend and suggested that the first miracle of Jesus in the Methodist version was that Jesus turned the wine into water.

I think that our response to God’s largesse, God’s abundant, extravagant, even wasteful love is to embrace life joyfully. Imagine the Lambeth Conference next year with Monty Python style humor. Imagine Rowan Williams teamed with American Episcopalian, Robin Williams doing “the Williams brothers do church humor,” to loosen up the crowd. We know that laughter is one of the very best physiological outlets for tension. And yet we often come to these international, national or diocesan gatherings loaded for bear, eager to tell the “other guys” with whom we disagree, just how wrong they are. What if we started with “let us pray,” and followed it immediately with “let us play.” We need to give it a try. All this seriousness is getting us nowhere.

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.

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