From Canterbury: Glimpses of the Eternal Design

September 1, 1998

Having just returned from the Lambeth Conference, I am still in a time of sorting and sifting the events of those weeks in Canterbury with my brother and sister bishops. I have written a first letter to the church about one aspect of the conference, and will have more to share in the autumn about various learnings and impressions.

Now, I might simply say that during those weeks at the conference I felt that a metaphor for our common life in Christ is to be found in Canterbury Cathedral itself, the great cathedral church which was in constant sight by day and by night during the conference. Looking down from the hillside above the town it appeared as a serene and unified structure. But once you drew close, once you entered the church, you found that the unity is made-up of an incredible diversity of architectural styles representing a multiplicity of historical moments. Norman gives way to early gothic and naïve architectural experiments are artfully worked into later more confident and assured developments of pillars and arches. One portion has been added to another, and the ever- expanding whole is bonded and knit together through a dynamic of stress and counterstress, by one stone pressing against another and thereby producing an overall state of equilibrium and concord.

That which is true of Canterbury Cathedral is also true of that spiritual temple not made with hands of which God in Christ, through ceaseless working of the Spirit, is the architect and builder, namely the Church. Through baptism we become, each one of us, "living stones," incorporated by God's grace and desire, into a spiritual house of which God alone knows the ultimate design.

How we all fit together, how our singularities are made sense of, how our divergent views and different understandings of God's intent are reconciled passes all understanding. All that we can do is to travel on in faith and trust, knowing that all contradictions and paradoxes and seemingly irreconcilable truths - which seem both consistent and inconsistent with Scripture -- are brought together in the larger and all embracing truth of Christ, which, by Christ's own words, has yet to be fully drawn forth and known.

Meanwhile, in our desire for certitude, for answers to deliver us from the pain and uncertainty of living the questions, we declare that we have arrived at our destination - the answer - only to find that what we considered resolved and settled continues to present itself and refuses to go away until the Spirit of Truth, who draws all things from the mind and heart of the risen Christ, leads us "into all the truth," and we find that all the contradictions and divergent perspectives are reconciled in Christ who is the truth.

Patience, mutual affection, the willingness to bear one another's burdens and to make room for one another's truths, are all part of our being built up into the spiritual house of God's design. These qualities are all integral to our growing up into Christ and coming to full maturity in the Spirit.

Saxon and Norman. Gothic early and late, decorated and undecorated, stress and counter-stress are all caught up into one soaring structure at unity with itself. So it will be with the Church and with our Anglican Communion if we are faithful and allow ourselves to be built up in love.

This is one moment
But know that another
Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy
When the figure of God's purpose is made complete.

So observes Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, which was performed during the conference in the Cathedral undercroft. They are words I am called to reflect upon over these next weeks, along with some other words spoken by one of Thomas' priests: Even now in sordid particulars the eternal design may appear.

Each one of us has his or her part to play, and together we support and challenge one another as God's design, revealed in Christ, becomes -- through the driving motion the Spirit -- the desire and joy of our hearts. My brothers and sisters, may we be faithful to this process, this journey of grace and truth.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA

Tagged in: Lambeth Conference