The marks of the Church

By Derek Olsen

It’s now the week after the tumultuous weekend when three bishops were elected, one of whom—as we all know by now—is a lesbian with a long-time partner. During the day I’ve been like many, going about my work and, on breaks and lunch, checking the Anglican blogs and news sources to see the on-going reaction. According to my analysis we’ve moved through the “News and Reaction” phase and are now well within the “Retort and Counter-Retort” phase. To read the blogs, it appears that Christianity teeters on the brink—they just can’t agree on which direction lies the clear light of truth and which the fires of hell.

It’s now later and I sit once again at my computer. The official day’s work has been put away and I now work at a different project, coding old documents into XML. Before me on the screen is one similar in nature to the ones before my eyes during the day; it’s a sermon from an English priest to his people.

Before my eyes even light upon the words, the difference is clear, though; no 24-hour news cycle ever produced this. In the enhanced jpeg image of the page, I can see the faint trace of where a leatherworker’s knife slipped in scraping the hair from the leather. A faint shadow betrays a spot where more pumice-rubbing was needed. A line of pricked holes on either side of the written column provide guides where, a thousand years before, a scribe dragged a dry-point to line the parchment page. The scribe is now dust, but his marks remain.

The consents must come—no wait—the consents must *not* come or else the faith will be in peril. Christianity must change or die—no wait—Christianity must not change lest it die. And the shrill blog voices recede as I follow the flowing marks of the scribe’s pen. On a Tuesday afternoon in the early summer ten centuries past, an English abbot reminded his gathered congregation (Was it large? Was it small?) of the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer:

And se man ðe gode gecwemð he bið godes bearn. na gecyndelice ac þurh gesceapenysse

And the man who pleases God, he is God’s son—not according to kind but through creation and through good deeds as Christ said in his Gospel: “The one who works the will of my Father in heaven, that one is my brother and my mother and my sister.” Now therefore all Christian men whether high ranking or lowly, nobly-born or not, the lord and the slave: all of them are brothers, and all of them have one Father who is in heaven. The wealthy is not better in this reckoning than the poor. As boldly may the slave call God his Father as the king.

This is a faith I recognize. Is it now in danger of dying away? I think of the many misfortunes this manuscript has seen—viking raids, the Norman conquest, the Black Death, the dissolution of monasteries and dismemberment of books, the Civil War, the Blitz. Each generation may fear the worst. This English preacher himself thought that the viking raids besieging England’s green and pleasant land were the harbingers of the Antichrist. Even then the questions were complicated and not clear cut. Placate the raiders with soft gold, or meet their charge with a sterner metal? Come April 19th we’ll remember an Archbishop of Canterbury—Alphege—who faced the hard questions of this time and wrote an answer for history with his own blood.

Đæt oðer gebed is. Adueniat regnum tuum. þæt is on urum gereorde. cume þin rice; The second prayer is “Adveniat regnum tuum” which is in our tongue “Thy kingdom come.” Ever was God’s kingdom, and ever will be: but it is so to be understood, that his kingdom be over us, and he reign in us, and that we with all obedience be subject to him, and that our kingdom be realized and granted to us, as Christ has promised to us, that he would give us an eternal kingdom.

Thy kingdom come. But God’s kingdom is eternal, reminds the preacher—treading the same well-worn path of Origen, Cyprian and Augustine, the path that Luther would follow in another five hundred years—we pray that it may come in us, to us, and through us. An Advent reminder that our lives and choices are bound in the works and will of God should we so offer them. As this Advent wears on and wends its way towards both the Birth and the Last Judgment we wonder which will have the upper hand.

A small hole in the margin alerts me that sometime in these passing centuries some worm has itself read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested these silently witnessing pages.

The sermon ends where it began. Starting with themes of brotherhood and unity, the sermon makes a final return before burning out in a doxological blaze:

Crist gesette þis gebed. and swa beleac mid feawum wordum. þæt ealle ure neoda…

Christ established this prayer and so enclosed it in a few words, that all of our needs—both spiritual and bodily—are included there. This prayer he established for all Christians in common. He does not say in this prayer, “My Father who is in heaven…” but says, “Our Father…” and so forth; all of the words that follow after are spoken in common by all Christians. This shows how much God loves unity and concord among his people. According to the book of God all Christians should be so gathered together that they be as one Man; woe, then, to the man who breaks that unity.

The unity envisioned in this sermon, though, is no uniformity enforced by covenants but a harmony between the rich and poor. What does the rich man do when his servants no longer serve? Let the rich man be warned and remember that he must render an account of the good things given him. True Christian unity is expressed in how the members of the body act on behalf of one another, with diligence and love.

The shrill shortsightedness of partisan conflicts say one thing; the fading letters on parchment remind me of another. Endurance. Fidelity. Loving-kindness. These are the marks of the Church. They have been for a very long time. They will continue to be so for a very long time to come.

Dr. Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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