By Huey Gardner
I recall a bus company whose tag line was “leave the driving to us.” Recently, I have begun to wonder, “Who will be the driver for those of us who identify as Christians and who worship as Episcopalians?” My understanding of the gospel became engrained in me as I sat with my parents on the pews of an Episcopal church. We gathered on Sunday around a liturgy related to the practices of early Christians and known to us in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Those early Christians did not have the air conditioning we preferred, and they spoke Greek. They also did not have a prayer book grounded in the worship practices of 16th-century England. My family loved the phrases of worship and continued to worship as the language of the 1928 BCP gave way to the 1979 BCP.
Amidst liturgical dance and liturgical innovations, parish picnics, and various ways to understand Holy Scripture, one recurring drumbeat sounded: redemption comes through the grace of God. I heard about Bishop Spong’s reading of the Bible and I knew about Bishop Ackerman’s beliefs as well. My parents did not hide the conversations about women in leadership, prayer book revision, or free-standing altars from me or my brother. As I heard these varying voices, I was being shaped by the centrality of the Eucharist and the sacrament of baptism which I encountered on Sunday in worship. When I grew older and heard parents and godparents asked if they believe in Jesus, my heart leapt with joy, and I joined with their voices to say, “I do believe, and I will seek and serve Christ.” As I began to discern holy orders, I remember an admonition from my parents: “Don’t fall in love with the institution of the Church, fall in love with Christ.”
The Episcopal Church introduced me to the subtlety of evil, human sin, and God’s redemption. It is this conversation about my sin and God’s grace that continues to pull me deeper into the Christian life. I wouldn’t say that conversations about human sexuality, morality, and various political agendas are unimportant. These conversations have been interesting, challenging, thrilling, and disappointing at times. The weekly act of worship, hearing Holy Scripture, the prayers, a creedal statement, a confession, and celebrating the Eucharist have been more significant in who I have become as a Christian and adult. I am a redeemed human being, fraught with selfishness and seeking to follow the individual I know as Jesus. Even with this reality understood, I have strong opinions about cultural issues and political agendas.
The Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. introduced me to Jesus. That introduction occurred in worship and around a table where Christ was host, priest, and victim. It began at an early age, and it continued as language was revised and the congregation changed. In worship I learned about a living God who was changeless and ever desiring to “bind my wandering heart to thee” (Hymn 686). I am a Christian who lives in a tumultuous sea of human sin that is subtle and often inviting. The weekly act of worship, among God’s broken people, forces me to consider who is at the center of creation.
I have served as a priest in the Episcopal Church 30 years, and am in my 20th year of serving my present congregation of about 1,200 people in Birmingham, Alabama. The parish I serve has individuals from “both sides of the aisle.” I have been told by some members that I have let too many Republicans into the church, and by others that I have allowed too many Democrats into the pews. But on the whole we are a people willing to give the gospel a chance. Despite these differing views, we are people who engage in the gospel acts of confession and worship.
Lately, I have begun to wonder who will drive this grand, historic institution of God’s grace forward. Will it be those who insist on a moral code? Why not let the person who says the church is another non-profit like Rotary, Junior Leagues, or AA, do the driving? I realize these institutions have valid agendas and that a particular moral code may have its positive attributes. But neither a moral code nor a social agenda speak directly to sin and redemption. These valuable institutions cannot offer what I heard in the church. Worship brought me into contact with my need for redemption and release.
The church will be unable to program, or morally live, in such a way that it achieves a solution to human sin. Only Christ offers the medicine we need. The church is broken, and its leaders are sinners. I include myself among the sinful leadership. The church has been broken since its founding. Its brokenness is not related to any cultural norms or preferences. Only the gospel addresses human sin. Only the life of Jesus Christ, his death, and his resurrection speak to this club of sinners in which we all share membership.
I am looking forward to the day when we stop talking about what we are against and begin to talk about what we are for. I have found Episcopalians are good at talking about what they dislike. We hate bad manners, we hate racism, we hate greed (though we tend to be good at it), we are uncertain about human sexuality, fundamentalism is off-putting, and we each have a particular moral code we hold as biblical. Our common denominator of human sin is also biblical, though we rarely choose to linger on this topic.
The church will disappoint, but God’s grace can overcome this reality. I am hopeful the church will engage in a Christ-centered conversation about sin and redemption. We should realize wherever we live on the cultural continuum — with points defined as conservative, progressive, evangelical, or atheist — we are all sinners and have fallen short of the glory of God. Despite how we define ourselves, maybe we can agree on grace, the good news, repentance, and strong Christ-centered worship that drives us toward God.
I continue to ask wonder, “Who is driving the Episcopal Church?” I am not discounting the hearts, the faith, intentions, and hopes of the current leadership. They are good people. I like most of what they offer. What I think we need to consider is, “How is the gospel shared by redeemed sinners to whole world?” This statement is made to all those who define themselves as Christians, not just clergy.
Signing a petition to ban Styrofoam cups from coffee hours is worthy, proclaiming the gospel is life-changing.
The parish, the congregation, the person in the pew, leadership of the diocese, should take their role seriously and raise up lay leaders who can grow and lead the church in its central calling. This intention is embedded in the promises we make at baptism. I would argue the central calling of the church is heard through the discipline of worship. Giving God the glory includes the weekly celebration of the Eucharist and the daily discipline of prayers, which extend beyond a moment of crisis or only the high holy days.
To the best of my knowledge the mission of the Church and its central calling have always been what Peter proclaimed on the first Pentecost centuries ago: to proclaim that Christ was crucified and died for the sins of the world. This proclamation was described by Phillips Brooks in a series of lectures delivered at Yale as “the best news to the world.” It was true in 1877 when he made the claim, and it is true now. It was true in the years following a Civil War which pitted family members against each other, and it is true today as families are once again pitted against one another due to varying experiences. The gospel has not changed!
As the Episcopal Church ponders human sexuality, the right use of God’s creation, and biblical interpretation, I wonder who will drive us toward the very best news in human history. We have been redeemed by the God of Abraham, Moses, Sarah, Jacob, Rachel, and many others who heard the reality of God’s grace over the preoccupations of their generations.
I have sung the words to this great hymn more than I can count:
Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone,
Chosen of the Lord and precious, binding all the Church in one;
Holy Zion’s help forever, and her confidence alone.
When I sing this hymn, I am singing about the “driver.”
I hope and pray Christ is our driver and will be our driver for the ages.
The Rev. H. Huey Gardner serves as the rector of St. Mary’s-on-the-Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama. Huey, his wife, and oldest daughter live in Birmingham. Their youngest daughter lives in Washington, D.C.