By W. Nicholas Knisely
A few months ago one of the staff here at the Cathedral forwarded an email to me with a request that I answer the question it posed as he had no idea what he should say. The email was very simple. It was from a person in the community who was looking for a new church home. But, before he would consider a congregation, it was very important for him to know where we stood on the question of blessing same-sex couples.
There wasn’t any hint in the email about whether or not the sender wanted us to say we were for blessing same-sex couples or opposed. Just that it was critically important to him that we give the right answer so that he wouldn’t waste his time unnecessarily.
I get letters or questions like this quite commonly. I think most Episcopal clergy do these days. It’s the BIG question that seems to be used as a way to sort through congregations and dioceses so that we can determine which ones are right-thinking and therefore worthy of support and which ones are wrong and worthy of nothing. What was different about this letter though was that I simply couldn’t figure out what the person wanted me to say.
So rather than trying to be pastoral and sensitive in trying to respond to the question behind the question (as is my wont), I decided to be bluntly honest.
“There are people in this congregation who are fully supportive of the Church’s blessing of same-gender unions. There are people in this congregation who are opposed to the Church’s blessing of same-gender unions. While the Episcopal Church as a denomination is on record as calling for equal protection under the law for all citizens, if you’re looking for a congregation that is of one mind on this issue, you’re going to be disappointed with this one. We don’t have agreement internally on this particular – or many – issues. Instead, we just agree to pray and worship together”
We don’t agree with each other. We pray together.
Friends of mine who are involved in the church growth movement offer me their sympathy every three years or so following our denomination’s General Convention. “It must be really hard to grow a church that spends so much time fighting” they say. In the past I’ve agreed with them. But I think I’ve decided that it’s time we as Episcopalians tell the truth about who we are though in a way that tries to explain to others why our struggles are not a “bug” – they’re a “feature”!
The Elizabethan Settlement, which for me is modeled at every Eucharist when I present the host to a communicant with the paradoxical words (to a person of Tudor England) “the body of Christ, the bread of Heaven”, is fundamental to our identity as Anglicans. We are willing to be in relationship with people who will gather with us around Jesus; whether they by free or slave, man or women, Jew or Greek. We are the anti-puritans caring less about clarity of theological categories than we do about loving relationship. “If you will pray to Jesus with me, I will pray to Jesus with you.”
At least we try to when we’re at our best. Which isn’t always that often admittedly.
In my mind, as an Episcopalian of catholic leanings and ecumenical enthusiasm, if there’s one thing that argues for the continued existence of an Anglican witness in the Universal Church – it’s our charism of holding firm to praying with those with whom we disagree no matter how hard that is to do.
Eusebius writes that in the latter days of his life, St. John the Evangelist would respond to repeated requests of visitors to “tell of us of Jesus” by only repeating again and again “Little children, love one another.” When asked by those caring for him why he would only say that he is supposed to have responded “Because if they do only that, it is enough.”
Episcopalians don’t agree to agree. We pray with each other. Because if we can manage to just do that, it seems to me, that we will have done enough.
What happened when I responded to my inquirer wanting to know where the Cathedral I serve stood on the question of same-gender blessings? I sent my short note off fully expecting to never hear from him again.
I got a note back a day later; “That’s so awesome. I’ll be there this Sunday.”
The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He served as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication, is active in ecumenical works and was originally trained as an astronomer before he was ordained. His blog is Entangled States.