Seminary theologians join in celebration of Episcopal Church history

San Joaquin gathering puts current tensions in context
July 10, 2007

The diverse and sometimes contentious nature of all Christianity and the Episcopal tradition was the subject of a recent gathering sponsored by Remain Episcopal in the Diocese of San Joaquin.

"Common Prayer, Uncommon People: The Episcopal Church," held June 23 at Holy Family Episcopal Church in Fresno, California, explored the 400-year history of Anglicanism in North America from Jamestown to California. About 90 people attended the second large event Remain Episcopal has offered this year. In February, the group sponsored a day-long gathering with House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson.

Remain Episcopal is a network of Episcopalians from the Diocese of San Joaquin who don't agree with the diocesan leadership, which is disaffected with the Episcopal Church. Episcopalians from the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, and Dallas also attended the gathering, according to a news release from Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP).

Five CDSP faculty members led the event's presentations and discussions.

A celebration of Holy Eucharist used the 1604 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, the edition used at the Jamestown, Virginia settlement. The Eucharist was followed by discussions centered on church history and unity.

The Rev. Dr. Linda Clader, academic dean and professor of homiletics, preached at the Eucharist, quoting from the 16th century Book of Homilies, an authorized collection of officially sanctioned homilies read to congregations by the largely uneducated clergy of the time. Choosing an excerpt from the "Homily Against Strife and Contention" subtitled "A Sermon Against Contention and Brawling," she quoted, "If one member be pulled from another, where is the body? If the body be drawn from the head, where is the life of the body? We cannot be joined to Christ our head, except we be glued with concord and charity one to another."

Clader spoke about contention and disagreement in the early Church. "When there were still people walking the streets who had known Jesus face-to-face, the Christian community was arguing," she said. "They argued over who could share a meal. They argued over whose party represented the 'real' church. They argued over whether you were really a Christian if you didn't exhibit certain spiritual gifts."

Clader said that the "ancient theologians" talked about Jesus' oneness with the Father in terms of movement -- "a kind of dance among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

"It's just possible that this is what Christian unity looks like," she said. "A body, as St. Paul said, with many parts, a dance with many dancers, a song with many voices."

The keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. J. Rebecca Lyman, CDSP emerita professor of church history, put the current tensions of the Anglican Communion into a historical context in her presentation "Beyond Colonialism: The Future of the Anglican Past in the United States." Lyman emphasized, according to the CDSP news release, that the theological plurality of the Anglican tradition had been contained by the political establishment of the Church of England, but the American church in its pluralistic society has always struggled to hold the historical plurality of tradition together in the face of an increasingly fragmented future and society.

"We have to live into a new future of theological diversity and global catholicity which has no model for uniting such a breadth of Christian belief and culture -- a new Reformation," she said.

Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, assistant professor of church history led a discussion about Scripture in the Anglican tradition. "Anglicans have always interpreted Scripture according to the context in which it was written and the context in which the church finds itself," Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said. "There is a primacy of scripture, but that primacy operates within that contextual hermeneutic."

He said that there is "a strong desire for people to remain in [the Episcopal Church] despite all the uncertainty" within the Diocese of San Joaquin, adding that "although there is a sense of loss, grief, and fear, there is also a yearning for connection with other dioceses."

The Rev. Dr. David Gortner, assistant professor of pastoral theology and director of CDSP's Center for Anglican Learning and Leadership, led a discussion about evangelism. He said evangelism is the act of sharing our gratitude toward God for the fact that God is having a love affair with us, and gives us so many good things, according to the news release. This method of evangelism dwells on sharing with others details about our gratitude, rather than preaching the usual theological arguments, he said.

The Rev. Dr. Sylvia Sweeney, CDSP Bogard Teaching Fellow, led participants through the history of the Book of Common Prayer. There has "never been a time in the church where everyone everywhere was praying the same words in the same way at the same time," she said. "We have always had to accommodate the culture, the society, and the world view of the people who are worshipping."

Nancy Key, Remain Episcopal co-founder, found the gathering enlightening, the news release said. "The hands-on historical background and the new perspective on evangelism gave us food for thought," she said. "The laity of the Diocese of San Joaquin received a connection to the Episcopal Church not normally available to us. What we learned fostered a sense of pride in our Church."

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