I love sailing, if only in a small boat on a Northern woods lake. I have never been on a really big sailing ship, like the ones my ancestors built in Thomaston, Maine. Reading Patrick O’Brian’s naval stories makes me long to sail in a three-masted ship, even though I’d have a difficult time keeping up with all the names for the sails, lines (you don’t call them ropes), various parts of the ship, etc. In my mind, I can imagine the sound of the bow breaking the waves, the salt water flying up and misting or even drenching me, the snap of the canvas, the bell calling out the watches. To think, men for centuries set out on these sailing ships to explore the vast oceans of the world.

As many will know, the main part of a church building is called the nave. Nave derives for the Latin word for ship (navis). Indeed, many times when you look up in the nave, it looks like you are in a capsized boat. Christians from very early on took the ship as symbol for the Church. It is a potent image, recalling the story of Noah and his family saved in the ark. Early Christian art made use of the ship/boat image, if for no other reason than it provided a way to refer to the Cross,  hidden in the ship’s mast and yard arm. It doesn’t hurt the power of the symbol to recall Jesus’ first disciples worked with boats, and the apostle Paul spent a great deal of time in his travels on ships of one kind or another.

So I don’t think I am in deep water (pun intended) when I compare the Episcopal Church to a sailing ship. And certainly here we have a ship of great beauty. She is a fair ship! Her lines suggest elegance and grace. Her design is one that suggests both speed and great space for cargo and passengers. One would certainly be proud to serve in her crew!

But a strange thing about this ship: it seems that her crew has spent much time striking (that is, taking down) her sails. Few sails remain up to catch the wind. And alas, her crew has shrunk in number. In their haste to get moving again, many of the crew have gone below deck and have put out oars (cutting holes in the side where necessary) and are rowing like mad!


In my analogy, the sails represent those things that are designed to empower us, especially the Gospel. We are meant to move forward because of the power of the wind, the Spirit. Perhaps the most important sail on a three-masted ship, the main sail (so called because it is the largest sail on the largest mast) corresponds on our ship to the Atonement. Modern people cringe at the idea that a sacrifice must be made for sin. So rather than understand the richness of Atonement, we simply strike that sail. Jesus becomes “the good example” — but on its own, Jesus as only a good example is only a further call to man the oars.

When we argue over the meaning of Scripture, we are actually letting that “sail” do its work. Wrestling with the Bible is the good work of the sailor putting up the right sail in the right wind. But when we say “people disagree about the Bible” and then do not do the hard work of understanding Scripture, when we judge Scripture, rather than letting it judge us, when we stop paying attention to Scripture, especially when it makes us uncomfortable, then we have taken down a very important sail.

This is no “quietist” vision, for there is plenty of work to be done on a sailing ship — sails to mend, deck to swab, lines to repair. Sails are rigged at the command of the captain, as he discerns the current sea and weather. But this is work designed to keep the ship sailing, for no effort of people could ever accomplish what the wind can do!

Instead of relying on the wind, we have taken to our own effort to make this ship move. Now we are called over and over again to man the oars. This is one reason the crew has diminished in number. I am reminded of the scene in the movie Ben-Hur, where Judah Ben-Hur has just been sentenced to imprisonment on a galley, chained to the oar bench. Quintus Arrius, the captain of the ship addresses the slaves:

Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.

Many in this church have committed themselves to great work. They have made great sacrifice. They row, not out of a feeling of being condemned, but because they believe in the vision — the direction the ship is going. But for many, every sermon and admonition to work harder feels like a blow from a whip. The cry “Man your oars!” is received with dread. They will row for a time, but will escape when they get the chance. Unlike Judah Ben-Hur, they are not chained (except by feelings of guilt), and when they grow weary enough or the pain grows too great, they depart.

What are we to do? We must get the sails up again! It might be that people will need to be taken for a time on smaller boats so they can experience the exhilaration of sailing. They can see just how fast a sail boat can go and feel the thrill as the boat heals over on an upwind tack. In my analogy, this might mean being in a small group where there is the time and space to discover what our Scriptures say, or to give and receive prayer and find that God does answer. Maybe it means discovering in a more intimate setting that this Jesus is “real” in ways they never imagined and does love them so deeply it will make them ache.

When our sailors return to the ship, they will look up at the empty rigging and ask, “Why don’t we raise more sail, and end this useless rowing?”

The PB-elect, Michael Curry, has said, “At a deep level I am suggesting a church-wide spiritual revival of the Christian faith in the Episcopal way of being disciples of Jesus.” I am happy to hear the PB-elect has a desire for revival. But if all we end up saying is “Man your oars,” then there will not be a revival. The people currently manning the oars will only grow more tired and defeated. No one will join them. And the ship will continue to sit stalled. But if we do the work of sailors, work compatible with the ship we have been given, then our newly raised sails will catch the wind, and we shall move again with great speed and power.

The featured image is a replica of the Amsterdam. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

About The Author

When Charlie and his wife arrived in Colorado Springs in the mid to late 1990s, they joined an Episcopal church. Living in the South, with a Baptist church on every corner, Charlie was a Lutheran. Now living in Minnesota, with a Lutheran church on every corner, he is an Episcopalian.

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