By Leander Harding
I attended the recent General Convention in Baltimore as a deputy from the Diocese of Albany. This is the second time I have been a deputy. The first time was the 2018 General Convention in Austin and my reflection on that experience is here. In that piece I reflected on the relative lack of reference to eternity in the proceedings of the convention and how this contrasted with the poignant sense of mortality and longing for heaven I found in the performers in the Blues club that I visited.
I had a similar experience at this convention. The agenda was relentlessly this-worldly in orientation. There were over 400 resolutions addressing poverty, justice, inclusion, diversity, investment policy and foreign policy issues. There were exhortations to walk with Jesus, the way of love and to build the beloved community and the just society. I was impatient with the resolutions. Many of them seemed to me overtly partisan and political and too certain about things about which sincere Christians can and do disagree. Bishop Curry’s focus on Jesus is to be celebrated, and the goal of a more loving Christian community and a more just society is not to be gainsaid, but I come away with these words of St. Paul’s in my ears, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19, KJV). Eugene Peterson’s brilliant paraphrase of the Bible puts it this way, “If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot.” The horizon of eternity is of course in the liturgy, but the liturgies were often used as didactic opportunities to bring us down to earth just as our hearts were being lifted up to heaven.
I realize that some of my reaction has to do with my time of life. The last things of the church; death, judgment, heaven, and hell seem more pressing issues to me now than they did when I was 30. I come from a long-lived family and may well have decades to go before the Lord has wrung out of me everything he wants me to give, but I do have the sense of the sand running through the glass rapidly. I get impatient with those who do not seem to be able to hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near for any purpose other than to take them to a this-worldly utopian future.
There was however a moment in the convention when the this-worldly spell was broken. It was the reading of the necrology of those deputies who had died since the last convention. I thought it one of the most sober and reverent moments in the convention. People were visibly moved as they came to the microphone to read the names assigned to them. Voices got thick. Readers had to force back tears. On occasion a reader had to stop and regain his or her composure.
I recognized many names of faithful clergy that I had served with over forty years in different dioceses. I recognized the names of laity who had been powers in the Episcopal Church in their day. I recognized the name of a priest from Maine, Fr. Donald Nickerson, who was the rector of an important parish in that diocese when I was first ordained and had been very kind to me as the new kid on the block. He later went on to become Secretary of the General Convention and I always visited him when I was in New York, and he would stop what he was doing and come down bring me up to the higher floors of 815 and put me in the picture of what was happening in the church.
I also recognized the names of Bishop Jack Spong and Louie Crew. Spong was famous for his relentless revision of the Christian Faith. In Why Christianity Must Change or Die he laid out a series of theses which systematically denied fundamental elements of credal Christianity. His first thesis was that belief in a personal God was now impossible. Another thesis was that there is no such thing as original sin but rather just the excess baggage of evolution. My response to his theses can be found here. Louie Crew was the founder of Integrity, the original lobby group in the church promoting same sex marriage and the full inclusion of what he called sexual minorities. He kept extremely useful spread sheets on his website, including one for those not elected to episcopal office. He kept track of me and my dangerous ideas and electoral defeats.
I doubt that many of the younger deputies know these names. I found myself moved to hear of their passing. May God have mercy on them and on me, brothers as we are in the solidarity created by our mortality. What to make of our agitation with each other in the light of eternity?
During the reading of the necrology, I felt a deep peace and felt that we were indeed a community and a community for that moment intensely in touch with our common humanity and with the deepest longings of our hearts. It was a sober moment, a religious moment, an other-worldly moment. The Fathers called Christianity the sober intoxication, perhaps because being intoxicated with the light of the resurrection and the hope for eternity makes it possible to live in this world with sobriety, realism, gratitude, and reverence.