Claiming our Anglican Charism

August 24, 2003

DURING OUR GENERAL Convention in Minneapolis, media observers frequently noted that the Episcopal Church set an example in dealing with highly contentious issues. One newspaper editorial noted our "thoughtfulness and mutual respect for one another." Our "civility" was frequently remarked on, and our ability to articulate and hold very different points of view in a way that respected one another was applauded.

Though it was named "civility," I believe what they actually saw was our Anglican charism at work. They were witnessing our reluctance, because of our deep sense of belonging together as limbs and members of Christ's body, to say to those of a differing point of view: "I have no need of you."

Since then, I have found myself reflecting upon our Anglican charism and how we have come to be the way we are. How has our history as Anglican Christians formed our consciousness and provided us with a way of coming at things that we might be able to see as God's gift to us?

To an extent that sets us apart from many other Christian bodies, our liturgy is the ground of our being. Liturgy, through which we confess our faith and encounter Christ in word and sacrament, is the source of our identity. By examining our liturgy and observing its development, we learn about ourselves as Anglicans.

Not long ago, I opened a volume containing the first two books of Common Prayer. The first, published in 1549, sought to offer worshippers a sense of continuity with their Catholic past while incorporating a number of Reformation emphases. For example, when the priest ministered Communion to the people, he was directed to say words that were a translation of the traditional sentence of administration in the pre-Reformation liturgy: "The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life."

In the next prayer book, published in 1552, the Reformation themes are much more pronounced. The priest ministering Communion was directed to say: "Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving."

In the first prayer book, one can see the continuation of the Catholic understanding of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, whereas in the second prayer book the emphasis is placed on the Protestant notion of commemorating what Christ did.

In the third prayer book, issued in 1559 under Queen Elizabeth I, the two sentences of administration have been joined together with a colon. One is not preferred over the other. Each supports a particular theological perspective and amplifies the other. The solution was to set them side by side, avoiding an either/or solution in favor of a more expansive both/and.

In the tumultuous theological climate of the 16th century, reforming zeal frequently clashed with Catholic continuity, and a person's theology could be considered grounds for treason. The both/and way that characterized the Church of England made it possible for those of various perspectives to recognize one another as true members of Christ's risen body and to make common cause in the service of the gospel.

In our own country, in the wake of the Civil War, the ability of the Episcopal Church to remain united while many other denominations split in two is another example of our graced capacity to contain difference within the context of common prayer.

Over the years, issues have changed and other matters have presented their own challenges and excited people's emotions. During the churchmanship battles, which have now largely passed from our consciousness, the vastly different ways in which the liturgy was celebrated made some wonder if we were all members of the same church. However, once again a both/and consciousness carried the day. The understatement of Protestant simplicity and the fulsomeness of Catholic ritual both were embraced as part of our common life, which expanded our ability to meet Christ in word and sacrament.

I believe that in these examples of both/and consciousness we see the essential character of Anglicanism and that this gift will serve us very well in our own day. Issues change, and divergent points of view continue to address one another, often with a great deal of passion. Certainly this was true at our General Convention. It will continue to be true in the months ahead, as we sort and sift decisions we have made and consider their consequences for our common life and mission.

Over these past days, I have wondered if the media fascination with our way of coming at things doesn't reveal a deep hunger for this Anglican charism. As your presiding bishop, it is my firm belief that what has shaped and formed us in the past is very much needed now. Our gift is needed not only in our church but also in the world around us, where points of view seem so often to be polarized and no common ground can be found.

More than ever, we must now claim our Anglican way of coming at things from a both/and perspective rooted in common prayer. As we are able so to do, we will be witnesses to the world of Christ's power to reconcile all things, including divergent points of view, and we will be able -- evermore -- to see difference as a gift.