Praying as we Believe - and Living as we Pray

April 1, 2000

One of the great joys of serving as your Presiding Bishop is being with members of our household in a wide variety of contexts, and to be privy to what is most deeply stirring in their hearts and minds. I cannot tell you what strength and encouragement I derive from such opportunities to speak, preach and above all to draw upon the vast wisdom and graciousness of spirit which is to be found in this church of ours. In spite of declarations of crisis in some quarters, I find the Episcopal Church amazingly whole, hopeful and faithfully engaged in its mission which, according to the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, "is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." The most recent statistics indicate a modest but steady growth in attendance, communicants and a significant increase in giving on the part of dioceses to support the mission we share as a church both at home and abroad.

Not long ago I was asked why the Episcopal Church was so unclear about what it believes, in contrast to other more self-assured churches. "It isn't unclear at all," I replied. "What we pray is what we believe." I then went on to explain that the Book of Common Prayer is a vast repository of doctrine cast in the form of communal prayer which accompanies and sustains us through the seasons and turnings of our lives. As such, the Prayer Book shapes and forms our consciousness over time through its recurring rhythms of praise, petition and penitence grounded in the continual recalling of "God's saving deeds" as proclaimed in scripture and made present in our lives in sign, symbol and the sacraments.

With the emphasis in our present Prayer Book upon baptism and our identity as diverse limbs and members of Christ's risen body, together with the recovery of the Eucharist as the principal act of worship on the Lord's Day, our understanding of what it means to be church has been profoundly affected. Increasingly, we see ourselves as having been bound together in baptism by the one Spirit in our similarities as well as our differences and otherness in order "to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4:15). The weekly Eucharistic celebration then reminds us that we in all our uniqueness and particularity are reconciled and made one in Christ, "for we all partake of the one bread" (I Corinthians 10:17). When Paul says that "all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves" (I Corinthians 11:29), he is speaking about recognizing the presence of Christ in one another as living members of his risen body, the Church.

Baptism is the source of our life in Christ, and therefore the ground of our authentic personhood. The Eucharist then sustains and nurtures that life as we grow in ever deepening communion with Christ, with ourselves in Christ, and with Christ present in the uniqueness and lived faithfulness of the other limbs of Christ's body: a lived faithfulness that may challenge and unsettle us, and oblige us to make room for an enlarged understanding of the mystery of the One whose ways are "not our ways," and whose truth exceeds what we can presently bear (John 16:12). Yet in spite of the tension or strain that such an encounter with otherness may provoke, no member of the body can say to another, "I have no need of you" (I Corinthians 12; 21ff).

All this being so, it is always a cause for sadness and self-examination when members of the body decide to separate themselves from the community of faith. Over the past quarter of a century, a number of small groups have chosen to establish themselves apart from the Episcopal Church, often with an episcopate supplied in part by sympathetic Anglican and other bishops in the historic succession. The ordination of women, revision of the Prayer Book and presently the ministries and relationships of homosexual persons - a matter far from settled - have been some of the presenting causes of division. Singapore is the latest in a series of breakings away which diminish us all; for, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it" (I Cor. 12:26). It is, therefore, important for those of us who are called as bishops to a ministry of oversight and "care for all the churches" to be as sensitive as possible to the diverse perspectives of those who are part of our dioceses, and to seek appropriate ways, consistent with the historic understanding of the bishop's role as chief pastor and minister of unity, to promote "the body's growth in building itself up in love" (Ephesians 4:16). At the same time, love respects the dignity of each member of the body and gives them the freedom to go in peace, just as Jesus did when some of his disciples were unable to accept his teaching about being the bread of life and "no longer went about with him" (John 6:66).

Meanwhile, mindful of the mission and ministry of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us and aware always that "we have this treasure in clay jars" --- the clay jars of our limited and imperfect lives --- we press on for the sake of Christ. We do so with hope, sustained by God's all embracing compassion which is proclaimed in scripture and mediated by the sacraments, and by the love of God poured into our hearts at baptism by the Holy Spirit, a love which "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (I Cor 13:7).

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

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