The ABC and “facts on the ground”

By Marshall Scott

This is the peach season at our house. Last year a late ice storm destroyed the peach crop – and the apple crop and the blueberries and other things – from Nebraska to Georgia. The peach tree in my back yard was somewhere in that range, and so last year there were no peaches at all. This year, perhaps in consequence, the tree has borne, and borne abundantly beyond our expectations.

And so now it is the peach season. Just about every evening for the past week has included washing or blanching peaches, to be sliced, dipped, and then sugared for the freezer or spread for the dehydrator. I have been picking peaches, but we have collected as many or more from those that have fallen to the ground. However gently I try (we call it “tickling the peaches”), two or three will be shaken loose for every one I take in hand, to be collected before I move on to the next branch. And, of course, among those that have fallen to the ground there have been some more beneficial to wildlife from ants to squirrels than they have been to us.

Anyway, all of them have been valuable to someone, and many of them to us. That’s not to say that any of the peaches is perfect: none of them is. We seem to have largely beaten the fruit moths this year – only a few worms hunkered around peach pits – but we’ve had a banner year for bacterial spot. It affects the skin of the peach, and sometimes the flesh immediately beneath it. It doesn’t affect the bulk of the peach; it just has to be dealt with. The same is true of the bruises from falling on deck or driveway, and the occasional small nick from bouncing from one branch to another while on the way down. It’s true, too, of the occasional small bite – squirrels are bad about sampling several peaches before choosing one to steal away with. All of those things affect the peaches, but they don’t prevent most of them of serving for our winter storage; and they don’t affect the concerns of the butterflies or the chipmunks at all.

That got me thinking about our efforts at evangelism. We have long talked a good game about evangelism, we Christians (for this concern isn’t specifically Episcopalian or Anglican). We talk about welcome, and we talk about new tools and new technologies, and we talk about reaching the world for Christ. All the same, we fall all too readily into the same rut, and start looking for some group or some person with pretty specific characteristics. At our best we think about how we can get the message out to new communities, new people; but even then it never really rises to the level of really beating the bushes and clearing the streets. And at our worst, we get stuck reaching out to “folks like us.”

Which brings me back to the peaches. I wonder how often we actually study our growth, and whether we pay attention to those who might fall past us, even as we appreciate the new persons in hand. None of them is perfect, of course; but, then, none of us is, either. Some of them may be pretty battered and bruised. They may actually take a good deal of attention before they can live into their spiritual potential; but with care and attention they can be part of the present and future of the Church, bringing flavor and richness and nourishment for us. Some will find more to give and to receive in other communities than ours; but none should be considered beyond value for God’s purposes.

And that brings me now to the recent Second Presidential Address at Lambeth of Archbishop Rowan Williams. In the address, delivered to the bishops gathered on July 29, Archbishop Williams tried to speak, as he said, from the Center:

I don’t mean speaking from the middle point between two extremes — that just creates another sort of political alignment. I mean that we should try to speak from the heart of our identity as Anglicans; and ultimately from that deepest centre which is our awareness of living in and as the Body of Christ….

And, as I suggested in my opening address, speaking from the centre requires habits and practices and disciplines that make some demands upon everyone — not because something alien is being imposed, but because we know we shall only keep ourselves focused on the centre by attention and respect for each other — checking the natural instinct on all sides to cling to one dimension of the truth revealed.

He sought to articulate “what people on different sides of our most painful current debate hope others have heard or are beginning to hear in our time together. I want to imagine what the main messages would be,” and to place those “main message” within the context of the experience of the Anglican Communion over these past few years.

I will admit to mixed feelings about his descriptions of each side; and I am hardly an impartial observer. But what concerned me immediately was his hope for this Lambeth Conference:

Can this Conference now put [this] challenge? To the innovator, can we say, ‘Don’t isolate yourself; don’t create facts on the ground that make the invitation to debate ring a bit hollow’? Can we say to the traditionalist, ‘Don’t invest everything in a church of pure and likeminded souls; try to understand the pastoral and human and theological issues that are urgent for those you are opposing, even if you think them deeply wrong’?

It seems to me that the Archbishop has missed an important point in his challenge to both sides. It seems to me that the most important “facts on the ground” aren’t institutional. They aren’t bishops, however they may be shaped or partnered. They aren’t rites, however and for whomever they may be intended. They aren’t church structures, whether sustaining tradition or “offering refuge” for “pure and likeminded souls.” The most important “facts on the ground” were not created by us, whether “innovators” or “traditionalists,” whether primates or bishops or synodical structures. The most important “facts on the ground” were created by God. They are the men and women whom we might serve, to whom we might reach out, and whom we might invite into our midst. They will, most assuredly, not be “pure,” or even “likeminded.” They will be battered and bruised, all needing some care and attention before they can live into their spiritual potential. We might have to watch as some find their place somewhere else; but none of them should be beneath our attention. And no structural issue, no internal debate, can be more or even as important.

My point is not so much that “my” side has grasped this and “their” side hasn’t. As I said above, I think this is one of the more visible places where “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” On the other hand, it will trouble me if the Archbishop hasn’t grasped it. A challenge to each party in the fight to be generous to the other is nice but no real challenge. A challenge to both parties in the fight to be generous to those around them, and especially to those battered and bruised, those not “pure” or “likeminded” would be a prophetic call from Christ, just in a time and setting when a prophetic call from Christ might meaningfully be heard.

Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” By the same token, the structures of the Church were made for the souls we might serve, and not those souls to fit the Church. Even those fallen and scattered on the ground are among the fruits of Christ; and they are worth our time and attention.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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