By Anthony Clavier
I was baptized in St. Thomas’s Church, Worsbough Dale, which rests on the side of a hill, a few feet from the border of the dioceses of Sheffield and Wakefield. (Alas, the Diocese of Wakefield is no more.) The world was gripped in war.
The Anglican Communion had its deep divisions then. True, they weren’t about who should have sexual intercourse with whom, or the doctrine of Holy Matrimony. Rather they were about the nature of the Church. Was it visible or invisible? Was it made up of all the baptized or only the converted?
The Communion was divided on the doctrine of the ministry and sacraments. Did baptism effect an ontological transformation, or was it a symbol, requiring a personal act of faith, a converting moment at a later date? Was a minister a priest who offers sacramentally the Body and Blood of Christ, or was such a person only a minister of the gospel? Were the elements in the Eucharist objectively the body and blood of Christ, or were they emotive symbols requiring individual acts of faith to make effective? Were bishops in Apostolic Succession or superintending pastors?
Of course there were variations on these themes, some less crude or stark than my descriptions above. Yet these divisions, involving differing views about the authority of Scripture and the relevance of the tradition, incited among some the same passion, the same indignant judgment that we experience in the Anglican Communion now some 80 years after my baptism.
Looking back now, the scope of division was much wider than that occasioned by conflict about sexuality.
And of course, undergirding all this conflicted passion is the haunting question, what does Jesus think of all this? He yearned that we would be united in love, not emotional sentimentally, but the bond that emerges when we recognize that we have all been called out of darkness. We are neither male, nor female, slave nor free, this race or that race. We are not to divide into camps, or to claim some form of group virtue. All we can boast is that Christ has given us a new status, having washed away the old. We are citizens of the Kingdom which is and is to come, made so not by virtue but by God’s grace. Perhaps some, disobeying our Lord, think that some are better than others, but such notions evaporate when, kneeling at the altar rail, we recognize that we have no notion about the spiritual health of those kneeling there with us. Of course we are to try to help those whose lives are tangled in odd beliefs or destructive behavior, remembering always that the help offered is from one sinner to another.
So I pray that our bishops, traveling home from Canterbury, have realized that the Church is always in conflict, made up as it is of fallen people, but the Church is also a home, one home, a home we were gifted in our baptism. It’s a huge rambling structure: some believe that they are the only ones there! Our bishops have been called to safeguard the unity of that home, to tell its stories, to settle its squabbles and to feed its inhabitants. Our bishops are to make sure that the “Vacancy” sign is visible, held up by a cross-shaped post. Our bishops are to remind the inhabitants that, when out of the home, they are to offer a place in the home to those they feed, those they heal, those they defend and champion. Our Lord, through the Spirit, will eventually calm our partial conflicts, when he comes to make all things new. Until then we live in hope, in charity and faith.