Back in 2010 I was blessed to marry a committed Christian who is not an Episcopalian; in point of fact, my wife is a seminary professor tasked with interpreting and teaching her tradition, the Church of the Brethren, one of the historic Anabaptist “peace churches.” Denise was recently promoted to the position of associate professor of Brethren studies at Bethany Theological Seminary. She also edits the journal Brethren Life and Thought.
This has in no way limited her involvement in the two Episcopal parishes I’ve served. On the contrary, it has enriched them and my ministry.
It should be no surprise, then, that we are akin to what are known as bridgefolk: she, a sacramentally minded Anabaptist, and I, a peace-minded Anglican, both concerned with community accountability and both believing that the story of Scripture ought to shape us (nod to George Lindbeck et al.).
I write all that as preface to what I learned by watching some of the Church of the Brethren’s Annual Conference. It looked a good deal like the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. There was an enormous hall. A dais raised up a gaggle of very important people. Lines formed for delegates who wanted to speak at microphones.
Save for the absence of clerical collars, it could have been General Convention. The topic under discussion was even the same: human sexuality. And, from what I understand, there was no shortage of anxiety, tension, fear of schism, and the normal politicking that has laced synods since the Council of Jerusalem itself.
But there was something the Brethren did that was different. It was such a small thing, but I believe it has enormous consequences. At every turn, they addressed each other with fraternal language. Even in moments of serious disagreement, they called one another brother and sister.
This is a long-standing tradition in that church (these are the heirs of the Brüdergemeine, after all). But is it too much to claim that this language does not simply express a church culture but creates that culture? Here some might smell the ideas of Wittgenstein, Pierre Bourdieu, and Clifford Geertz; and they wouldn’t be wrong. However, I don’t think we need to delve too deeply into the work of these philosophers to make the basic point: language does not simply reflect reality; rather, language informs reality. In this case, calling someone brother gives shape to how I perceive him and how he perceives me.
Calling a fellow disciple brother or sister does not simply mean we are nicer to one another; in fact it complicates our relationship, making us vulnerable. I genuinely love my brother, but I once hit him with a golf club (thus, one of the standing rules of the high school golf team was that we weren’t allowed to practice together). Brothers have been fighting since Cain and Abel.
But intimacy brings responsibility, something Abel wanted to shirk. Preaching on Matthew 18:15 (“How often shall my brother sin against me?”), Augustine said:
Now there is a great difference between the sin of one who is angry, and the cruelty of one who holds another in hatred. For even with our children are we angry; but who is ever found to hate his children?
That brings us to the related subject of using the language of Father and Mother for our priests. I firmly believe that this is not an honor but a grave responsibility; when I am called Father, it reminds me that my relationship with this person is freighted: I must care for this person as if she were my own child, even if I am decades her junior.
But let’s return to those Brethren who call each other brother and sister. A brother can wound you and love you in a way that a stranger cannot. My brother in blood not only shares in a set of genes; we have a shared story (our upbringing, our parents’ divorce and remarriage, memories of our grandparents). Is this not the same for those baptized into the body of Christ? Do we not share in the blood of Jesus, and is not the story of the Israel of God our story? If we really believe all this, then in the life of the ecclesia, the called out community, we should hasten to use fraternal language — not out of a rosy romanticism, but from a costly vision of what it means to be church.
And Jesus’ mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.”
And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35; cf. Matt. 12 and Luke 8)