Untapped power

By Howard Anderson

For years now, the bishops of the Anglican Communion Network and their various allies have avoided celebrating the Eucharist with fellow Episcopalians at our Church’s General Convention and other venues. They are smart! As Christians, they know more than most the power of the sacraments to transform us, to move us beyond our own selfish desires and private agendas, and to shape us to God’s will. So they stay away. They avoid the possibility that in celebrating the Eucharist with those with whom they disagree, their hearts might be softened toward those they deem apostate. They avoid the possibility that in looking into the eyes of the celebrant or chalice bearer, they will see the eyes of the Holy One and be transformed.

I have seen this melting of hearts happen. Before the General Convention in Phoenix in 1991, Bishop Rusty Kimsey and I were dispatched to work with the city and state officials on an agreement that would allow the Convention to be held in Phoenix despite the state of Arizona’s refusal to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The short form of the story is, the city made a special effort to celebrate the King holiday and the General Convention went on. But Rusty, myself and others decided that one way to bridge the separation between Episcopalians of differing viewpoints at the Convention, was to use the “African Bible Study” method that had been used effectively at the Lambeth Conference in 1988.

We decided to mix and match the deputies, so that there would be, around each table, a variety of people—bishops, priests, laity—from presumably conservative dioceses, and from liberal ones as well. I watched a gay deputy and a deputy deeply troubled by the presence of gay and lesbian people in leadership roles in the church eye each other warily at first. Then, as we turned the Gospel loose around the table, they began to speak, to share their stories. At the end of convention, on the last meeting day of the Bible study groups, these two embraced, and tearfully spoke words of true Christian agape to one another. The transforming power of the Gospel, the unifying power of the Eucharist, should never be underestimated.

I have seen it happen! I was sent by then Presiding Bishop Ed Browning to the organizing meeting of the Episcopal Synod of America, a conservative group of a former era. To make a long story short, at the Eucharist I stood in line behind a very large man as we were going to the rail. I encountered him again in the coffee hour, giving a stern, finger shaking lecture to Bishop Browning. I was actually worried that this huge man might push or otherwise harm the Presiding Bishop, so I stepped between them. The large man said with some vehemence to Bishop Browning and me, “I am not in communion with you. You have abandoned the true teachings of scripture and the Church in order to ordain women!” Rather than getting defensive, I simply said, “Oh, we’re not out of communion. I received the Body and Blood of Jesus right next to you at the Eucharist. We are very much in communion.”

The large man paused, then said, as his face broke into a beatific smile, “Why, you are right. We did receive together. Maybe we don’t need to agree on everything to be in communion. What separates us is not as important as how Christ brings us together in the sacrament.” Then he gave me a bear hug I did not soon forget, and shook the Presiding Bishop’s hand.

I like to imagine what would happen if the Archbishops of Canterbury and Nigeria, Bishop Martyn Minns and his company of believers joined with members of the Episcopal Church for a big Eucharist. Maybe we could hold it outdoors, on the lawn at Truro. What would happen? Would the enmity be reduced? Would the schismatic folks turn and leave rather than share Christ’s Body and Blood with those they deem not “orthodox” enough? I would like to see what happens.

What harm could be done? And what a wonder and model it would be to the world. They would know we are Christians by our love, not our fights.

Howard Anderson is Warden and President of the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral. The college’s latest conference, Church for the 21st Century, begins tomorrow at the Cathedral.

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