It is now nearly two months since I returned from my sabbatical. I have spent some time ( but not too much!!) reading English Bishops reflections on the Lambeth conference. What surprises me most is the latent anti Americanism that come from their pens. Here is my tribute to the episcopal Church in America!!
Listening to the experience of a sabbatical can be rather like looking at a neighbour’s holiday photographs – hard to share the interest unless you were there. I have just returned from time at Virginia Theological Seminary, Washington and The University of Chicago, enriched and enlarged by three months with the Episcopal Church. I now don’t share a parishioners ambivalence about America who surprised me with the comment, “I am delighted that you are having a break but sorry you are going to that dreadful country and church!” I have been surprised by similar negative attitudes that surround the people and communities that make up the Anglican Church in the United States.
We have much to learn from them. This is a church in good heart. My excitement about the groups and congregations that I encountered focus on the intelligence, humanity and openness of this province. Let me explain.
After the morning Eucharist in the shadows of the White House, Washington (good music, superb liturgy, brilliant sermon friendly welcome), I was hoping for a coffee and advice about a lunch venue. Instead, I was drawn into a corporate sandwich making exercise. A diverse group of folks across class and age “rolled up their sleeves” and made 1,000 sandwiches for homeless people in the city. I got to know my fellow worshippers whilst cutting slices of tomatoes and was astonished by their commitment to the poor in this practical way. This Church gave away over 15% of their income to a range of good causes – social justice was at the heart of their understanding of discipleship. This scene was replicated in a University Chaplaincy as students gave up food for Burma, money was raised for Darfur and ordinands volunteered their time to work in Africa. I detected no self satisfaction but a moving sense of belonging to a wider world where social action was part of the identity of being Church.
I join the University of Chicago Episcopal Chaplaincy in Brent House for their Sunday evening Eucharist presided over by a talented and humane woman, an encouraging and joyful presence alongside a group of “peer ministers” who work as a team to share an open, inquisitive, integrated faith. These Anglicans are people of the book – their Prayer book is much loved and most students know the liturgy off by heart. Each Sunday, a student preacher – and this evening, a first year reflects on faith in the light of the challenge of the Gospel. Articulate, searching, honest – it is an impressive homily. Students respond and there is a shared enthusiasm to know and live the Gospel. The worship overflows into supper where strangers and searchers are welcomed and listened to. The student preacher practices what I found in all ECUSA churches: a quality of teaching in and outside the liturgy.
Back in Virginia Theological Seminary, I live alongside a diverse group of students from a range of theological traditions. There is respect and desire to listen and include. The college mark Martin Luther King Day with lectures and seminars. There is regret (and repentance) at the way the Church discriminated against and excluded blacks. We listen to black Bishops and theologians struggle with the Bible challenging ministry to dialogue and change. I have never seen the Bible taken so seriously as it is broken open to reveal God’s desire for renewal and hope. The intelligence of this Church is grounded on its theological education and an enthusiasm (especially amongst lay people) to learn more about faith. There is realism too. These Americans are aware of the fragility of the Anglican Communion – they pray and work for its unity. They are also concerned for the Church’s mission – sessions on the St. Andrew’s Covenant are as important as lectures on the environment and climate change. Students and teachers are keen to engage with my English experience.
Back in Chicago, I battle through the wind and rain to St. James’ Cathedral for the celebration of Pentecost. The people express their solidarity with those South African children and women living with HIV disease. The liturgy has colour, movement, texture, beauty and the power to move me to tears. A stunning sermon involves the spirit to blow through our stable and secure habits so that we might transform our homes, workplaces and communities. There is vision and energy and love.
As I share my hopes and fears with Christians here, there is encouragement and realism. These are places where congregations sustain the ministry by paying for it entirely from stewardship. There is a mutual accountability and a shared ownership of an Anglican vision of service and outreach. There is a lightness of touch from Bishops and “the Diocese” whose attention is to support parishes and chaplaincies in their work. I constantly hear the Bishops talk of their responsibility to enable, support, energise and care for parishes and priests. This is a province where clergy well-being is a priority and is resourced to enable clergy to remain humane and realistic about work, life and expectations.
Of course, there are challenges and difficulties. Any reflective American is aware of the contradictions of its society – I never met one who was “comfortable” with Iraq or the widening gap between rich and poor. But – this sojourn with American Anglicans has refreshed my confidence and renewed my hope. Change – we all need to change in different ways – and my change will have been enabled, in part, by the Episcopal Church in its depth of humanity, its quality of intelligence and in its joyful evangelical fervour in mission. God bless America.