Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Onward, Christian Soldiers

In January 2007 I called for the formation of a Discernment Committee at Blessed Sacrament parish to consider our place in the Episcopal Church during this time of the Anglican crisis and realignment. After sixteen months, that Committee made a preliminary recommendation to the Vestry. The recommendation was also presented to the parish on Sunday, May 25, in a sermon for our Feast of Title, Corpus Christi. The text of the sermon follows, and the audio of the sermon can be found here. It is 32 minutes long. Since I preach without notes, the sermon as preached will not follow the text very precisely. After the sermon was preached, I took my rough notes and turned them into the following text.


In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

One thing I learned on sabbatical last year is that God has always been present in my life, to guide me when I was uncertain, protect me when I was under attack, forgive and renew me when I had turned away from him, empower me when I was called to lead, and reveal to me what I needed to know in order to be effective in my calling.

He has done the same for this parish for as long as I have been here. His providence has blessed us far beyond what any of us could have guessed even ten years ago, much less thirty years ago when our complete membership, including children, was much less than a third of what it is now.

Today we celebrate Corpus Christi, the festival of the Blessed Sacrament to which this parish is dedicated. We are probably in better shape now than at any other time in our history. We have many people who are committed to the work of the kingdom of God and to spiritual maturity. We have many children, many young families, and an astonishing eight people preparing for ordination. I am constantly grateful to God for calling me to be Rector of such a fantastic parish, populated with an amazing number of dedicated and gifted Christian people.

I will begin this sermon with the report and recommendation of the Discernment Committee, for I know that many are anxious about that—especially those who went through the turmoil of a dividing parish thirty years ago. As I am sure most of you know, the Episcopal Church has been in crisis for three or four decades, and the intensity of the crisis has been rapidly escalating over the past few years and now affects the entire worldwide Anglican Communion. As former Senior Warden Robert Bell said over a year ago at the Annual Meeting, “There is a storm coming, and we cannot ignore it.” At that time I called for the formation of a Discernment Committee to help us see what the best course for our parish might be in this time of the Anglican crisis.

WHAT THE REPORT SAYS

The Discernment Committee has been working for a year and four months, doing very careful and considered work in an extremely complex situation in order to make a recommendation to the Vestry. The Vestry has now received two documents: my personal report on the background of the current situation after more than 35 years of contending for the Faith, and the Discernment Committee’s Preliminary Report and Recommendation. Together these two documents comprise twenty-nine pages. The two documents provide observations on our current crisis in the worldwide Anglican Communion and how that crisis affects us. There is also an Executive Summary in three pages. There is also a summary of everything in nine sentences. In addition, the Discernment Committee has put up a website with extensive documentation.

Here is the recommendation. I’ll put that to you first so you will know what is before the Vestry. The report and recommendation were accepted last Sunday by consensus but are now under prayerful consideration before anticipated final acceptance in June. Yet the Vestry is of one mind sufficiently now to begin to act on the recommendation.

The recommendation has four points:

The first point asks the Vestry to recommit the parish to Catholicity, Education, and Prayer—to make an unqualified and strong public commitment to the Catholic Faith, as received by and practiced within Anglicanism and consistent with the faith and practice of the undivided Church, without compromise of revealed truth or dilution of godly charity regardless of any pressure to conform to the precepts of the Episcopal Church wherever the Church violates that faith.

The Committee further asks the Vestry, on behalf of the people of the parish, publicly and emphatically to disavow the stances and practices the Episcopal Church has taken that violate Anglican consensus and orthodox Christianity, and affirm our commitment to the Anglican way and membership in the Anglican Communion wherever it is faithful to Scriptural and creedal Christianity.

The Committee also recommends that a variety of programs and materials be made available in an effort to educate the parish regarding the issues.

The Committee further recommends that there be a devotional prayer cycle for the parish in which intercession is offered daily that the Holy Spirit will move within the leadership of the Episcopal Church. That prayer cycle will be inaugurated today.

The second point asks the Vestry to request Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO)—that is, a relationship with another bishop whose convictions we recognize as in line with creedal Christian belief and worldwide Anglicanism. We would call upon this bishop in times when we have candidates for confirmation and ordination, for the purpose of conducting teaching missions, and when the time comes that we need to select a new rector. Having a DEPO bishop would strengthen our effort to evangelize to Christ in the Anglican tradition and would help to overcome the reluctance of many parishioners and potential members to be identified with the Episcopal Church.

The third point recommends full support for our vocationers to ordination

It has become clear that it is very difficult for our vocationers to get through the ordination process in the Diocese of Los Angeles for reasons that do not satisfy me or the Discernment Committee. There are other options, however, such as going through a DEPO bishop. The Committee therefore recommends that the Vestry support each vocationer regardless of whichever path that vocationer may choose—that is, if we are convinced that an individual has a call to ordination, the Vestry will do everything it can to ensure that the vocationer will be ordained.

The fourth point calls for restricting or redirecting our Mission Share Fund

The Discernment Committee recommends that the Vestry redirect the bulk of our Mission Share Fund, the money we give to the diocese, toward missionary and outreach programs that can be gladly supported by all of our membership. Recognizing that the diocese does provide us with many benefits, blessings, and support, the Vestry will give a percentage or a fixed amount of our Mission Share Fund to the Diocese.

Please be aware that the recommendations for DEPO and the redirection of our Mission Share Fund are options that Bishop Bruno has already offered to us at a meeting the Vestry had with him in August 2006; he took the initiative in these matters.

Finally, this is a preliminary report because the Discernment Committee will remain in place to monitor emerging developments within the Anglican Communion and keep the Vestry informed.

WHAT THE RECOMMENDATION MEANS

Who are we? That is, what is this parish? What do we stand for? To what are we committed? Our Statement of Vision says that we were founded as an Anglo-Catholic parish and that we intend to stay that way. What Anglo-Catholicism is may have different definitions for different people. It is proper to have a reminder of the genuine definition of who we are and what we stand for.

One of the great claims of the early Anglo-Catholics, now virtually undisputed, is that the Anglican Church is in direct continuity with the pre-Reformation Church in England—that the Catholic faith of the Western Church before the Reformation is the Faith of Anglicanism—at its best. It is the Faith that built the cathedrals of England, with lofty spires that drew the faithful eye to heaven, whose foundations were placed in the heart of the city, and whose parish churches were central to English village life. It is the Faith that the saints depicted in stained glass were the companions of the faithful in the fields and shops and houses of the people. It is the Faith that the land once known as “Mary’s Dowry” is still that land. It is the Faith that its liturgies were closer to the apostolic ideal and the practice of the early Church and the pastoral and monastic life of the Celts and Angles than the established Church governed by Parliament in the post-Reformation era. It is the Faith that this conviction had never been entirely lost in the Anglican Church. It is the Faith that that Church is THE Catholic Church of England, whose heritage went out in the 19th century through the British Empire to cover the world. It is the Faith that the whole Christian Faith can be found and lived in Anglicanism—evangelical and Catholic, Spirit-filled and life-changing.

That is the claim of this parish from its foundation 51 years, seven months, and eighteen days ago, of which I became Rector, and therefore steward, thirty years ago this coming October.

We recognize that there are weaknesses in the Anglican Way. Perhaps the greatest weakness is that there is no machinery within Anglicanism by which binding decisions can be made for the entire Communion. We are in a state similar to the time in the American colonies when independence had been won from England but before the formation of a central government: a bunch of independent states loosely connected by a common heritage and history and a shared hope. There are processes being developed right now within Anglicanism to address that weakness—though, born of crisis, it will probably take a long time for things to settle down.

Some may say, “Well, if I don’t like the way things are going, I’ll just hunker down in my own comfortable church. As long as nothing changes much here, it won’t bother me.” And others may say, “Well, if I don’t like the way things are going, I’ll just change churches.” NO! Such an attitude does not describe the Church which is the Body of Christ, the Church of the New Testament, although it also had its problems. Consider rebellious and immoral Corinth, wavering Galatia, the stern traditionalists of Jerusalem, the backsliding group to whom the letter to Hebrews was addressed, unreliable Sardis, worldly Laodicea, overtolerant Pergamum, slacking Ephesus—in all of these difficulties, nobody quit. They were one family.

Every one of these churches was beleaguered, and most of them by spiritual attackers; where there were human attackers, Paul did not hold back in his condemnation. We cannot do them same that Paul did, or in the same way, but what does cross all cultures and times is the uncompromising adherence to the received faith. A line in the first point of the Discernment Committee’s recommendation says that this parish should live “Without compromise of revealed truth or dilution of godly charity.”

Just ten days ago I hosted a meeting of the local priests of the Society of the Holy Cross, the SSC (for its Latin name Societas Sanctae Crucis). This is a society of Anglo-Catholic priests founded 153 years ago in the slums of London at a time when they were assailed and sometimes even assaulted for their convictions. The SSC was founded 153 years ago in London as a society of priests dedicated to proclaiming and defending the Catholic faith within Anglicanism in a time when they were resisted and persecuted for doing so. Little has changed.

One of our members is about 90 years old and suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. As we left the sanctuary to go to the hall for lunch, I helped this priest—Father Don Irish—to come down the steps, grasp his walker, and go through the double doors. He shook and trembled as he came down the steps holding on to my elbow. When he came safely to his walker, I moved ahead and opened the doors and held them for him. It took him at least a minute to move from the center aisle through the doors. As he passed the threshold, he looked at me with a wry smile and said, “Onward Christian soldiers!” Ah, here is a true image of the Church, though not often seen today. You don’t give up!!

We have all but lost the very powerful fact that the Christian faith is a martial faith. The martial images of the New Testament are rife: “Contend for the faith once delivered…” (Jude 3). “We are more than conquerors…” (Romans 8:37). There are many other verses that can be quoted.

The motto of the SSC is, “No desertion, no surrender.” In most ages and places of the Church, the Church has been challenged and opposed. We must recognize or remember that Christian discipleship in this world is a martial enterprise. The term “Church militant” was coined several hundred years ago. The Church is an army.

Now be very clear that the enemy is not other human beings who believe differently from what we believe and who have fallen far from the faith once delivered to the saints; our foes are “not flesh and blood but the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). And they have been conquered. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The Anglican Communion is our home—to be defended, protected, and preserved. The very term “God wins” that I have used many times over the years implies that we are engaged in a battle. More than that, we are engaged in a battle that has already been won.

It is battle that makes saints. “Safety first” is NOT a Christian virtue. Where are the warriors today? There are some, but not many. I am determined that we will be among them. By so doing, we will be more like Jesus. In the Incarnation, like the Real Presence in the elements of Communion, the divine enters into the mortal and the decaying to hallow and redeem. This is our calling. This is a great time for Christian discipleship, not a time for softness. It is time for the faithful of this generation to defend the Faith that they hold.

This is the meaning of Church and community and family. It is not “me first” or “safety first” or “feed me”, but rather, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us? Here am I, send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

In the same passage where Paul teaches that our enemies are not flesh and blood but the powers of this dark world, he commands the followers of Jesus to “Put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6) and commands them to “Stand, stand, stand”, wearing the belt of truth, holding shield of faith, wielding the sword of the Spirit, shod with the shoes of the Gospel of peace, and wearing the helmet of salvation. As has often been pointed out, there is no armor in the back.

Consider those who are called the Greatest Generation—the greatest generation that this country has ever produced. They lived through the Depression, and in huge numbers they signed up for military service after their country was attacked in Pearl Harbor. They showed a mass response to hostility not seen and sustained since those times—not in our country, and not in our Church. Those of that generation are in their eighties now, and some of them are in this church right now. They show us what the response should be when one’s home is attacked.

Consider Samson who lifted the jawbone of an ass when he was attacked by a thousand enemy soldiers. Look at the Church—it is to be an army with flying banners and led by the sound of a trumpet.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Recognize the nature of the Catholic Church—it is a lot more than moving liturgy, great music, good teaching, a sense of history, Word and Sacrament, etc. This is a family, not a cafeteria. You do not get to pick and choose. That’s what “Catholic” means—often translated “universal”, it really means “the whole thing”. Lots of things are universal that aren’t Catholic. “Catholic” means “the whole thing”. When you follow Jesus in the Catholic faith, you do not get to have it your way. You don’t get to pick what you like and leave behind the parts that you don’t like or find hard; you get everything. We are not a cafeteria, we are a banquet, and like many parents of a half century ago, when you sit at table you will be told to clean your plate. You will not be coddled, but you will be loved instead. You will not merely be tolerated, you will be accepted instead. What you see here is not just a parish; you see worldwide Anglicanism and more than that. You see the Catholic faith, the whole faith of all time, lived out in the best of Anglican tradition.

The Blessed Sacrament—Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ—is a form of the Incarnation: Jesus came into a wicked world filled with enemies, just as he makes his Sacramental home in wafers of unleavened bread and wine. He was born in a stable and laid in an animals’ feeding trough. He came in to do battle and win it (Philippians 2:6-11). He came not for his own safety, but for our deliverance. And that means battle.

You don’t leave because you don’t like it; you stay because you don’t like it. You fight when you are attacked. You defend your home. Though there are indeed times to withdraw or separate, they are rare and always to be deplored, like a divorce or an amputation. Even when told to leave Sodom and Gomorra, Lot had to be forced. There are times to withdraw, but there are never times to give up.

In my opinion, many have left over thirty years and more to protect themselves more than to defend the faith. But God will use even that. Look at Gideon: he began with 32,000 soldiers (Judges 7:3), reduced by God to 300—a little less than 1% of what he started with (Judges 7:6). Why? Because God had said, “…lest Israel vaunt itself against me and say, ‘My own power brought me the victory’” (Judges 7:2). God always wins, and we are always called to remember that.

Some who have been here in this parish for a long time, many decades, may be too complacent, with a vision that needs bolstering. You remember the griefs of thirty years ago, when the voice of discouragement won the day and this parish split. Things now are much worse than that time, but you do not hear the voice of discouragement from me. This is the time when saints are made—it is a time for strength, not softness. The Christian faith is always a thing of joy, regardless of circumstances. Do not take your faith and your place for granted. They are now besieged. This is a time to work, learn, give, pray, and be mentors.

Others of you are new—new to this parish and new to Anglicanism. You come from other traditions with inadequate theologies of what it means to be “church”. Again, the Church is not a cafeteria, but a family. As today’s lesson says, “We, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” We want you to be part of us. We see your faces week by week but we don’t know your names. Some of you have waited a long time to let us know who you are. God will tell you when, but I suspect that many of you have been on the edges too long. I have pursued some of you maybe even to the point of rudeness, but it is because it is important to me and to this parish that you know that you are wanted and loved in this family. Decide where you are going to make your home. Give us your contact information—we are your family, not your waiters. Do not think of this parish as “them”. If you have been coming here for some time and if you like what you find and if you are nourished in Christ, then this parish is “us”.

The dedication of our committed college students and other young people has transformed this parish, transformed me, and brought encouragement and deep gratification to those who are older. Over the past eight years probably well over 300 college students have passed through our doors. Many of them have chosen to stay after graduation and raise families—they chose to stay here mostly because of this church. We are filled with young people, and we are blessed with an astonishing number of people seeking to be ordained. It is a time when God is not only blessing us, but preparing a new generation of believers, many of whom will be leaders. This is a time of encouragement, not anxiety.

To be specific, for all

Rededicate to the fullness of faith and this parish—because the first thing to do when one is called to battle is to dedicate yourself to holiness.

Become educated—read our website and our reports, attend the programs and classes that will be offered. The Discernment Committee’s work has been carefully done, without rancor or complaint, calmly and faithfully. Avoid the many websites, blogs, and similar venues out there who complain, call names, pander to innuendo, spread rumors, and fan the flames, but they do not serve God. Avoid them.

Participate in the prayer vigil—this is designed to be the work of the entire parish. On Sundays we will pray together, but on each weekday we want at least one person in the parish to pray about these things—pray in any way that you wish, but pray.

Realize that we are not alone, and therefore do not have to act alone. Join Forward in Faith. Recognize that we are not alone. God is raising up leaders. There is much that is happening and much that is in flux, and there is a lot going on that I don’t know about or need to know. But do know that God is working, and so are many others.

Our time at Nashotah House last week showed the Episcopal Church at its best. The fourteen of us who went to Wisconsin for Micah Snell’s graduation from seminary and the awarding of Sandy Fryling’s honorary doctorate came back heartened and encouraged. We saw many faithful—and joyful—bishops and priests. Nashotah House is a thriving seminary that has to set up chairs in the aisles to accommodate the students, most of them young, all of them traditional, while other seminaries are troubled and one has already closed for lack of students and lack of sufficient funding.

A few years ago one of our college students, new to the Anglican tradition and seeing how we lived and that we are the product of a great heritage, said, “Wow, church history is going on right now!” And so it is. This is a sad time in many ways, but in other ways it is a grand time. In an age such as this there is the opportunity to come to know and serve God better than ever.

I now dedicate myself to this and call everyone in this parish to do the same. Onward, Christian soldiers!

In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

5 comments:

John said...

father david,
I came across your blog and i truly believe that God is calling me to preach - i have put it off but i keep getting signs on a daily basis - i dont know where to start - could you provide me any guidance ?
Thank you
John (jesomerville@vodamail.co.za)

The Archer of the Forest said...

Thank you for sharing that sermon. I have no idea how you preached all of that without notes.

For those of us Anglo-catholics in the trenches who find ourselves at parishes that do not necessarily agree with the faith once delivered, it is good to hear that your are standing your ground and not being washed away by the ongoing theological turmoil in the Episcopal Church.

Blessings...

Joi said...

I found a great quote for you today, Father David, and it seemed to be right in line with your sermon.

"Stop trying to save the Church. The Church is here to save you."

Joi

Anonymous said...

Steady as she goes, Father. God wins.

Bob Maxwell+
. . . still ridin' for the brand

Auriel Ragmon said...

I think I was on the COM when you were a postulant for ordination.
I left ECUSA in 1987 for the Eastern Orthodox Church, (long story here...) but I still remember you and some others who came under the BACAM conferences at that time. I remember you in my prayers, as I hope you remember me in yours!

Keep the Faith, Father!

James Morgan
Olympia, WA

PS I also remember Fr. Scully, the founder of your parish. May his memory be eternal! He would be (and I'm sure) is proud of you all. He served for a while at my home parish of St. Mary of the Angels.