Below is the sermon I had prepared for this past Sunday. However, since most of my parishioners were still shoveling themselves out of their homes, I never got to preach it. Here it is in its written form.
A little over a week ago, the primates of the Anglican Communion made a big decision. The primates suspended the Episcopal Church from full participation in the life and work of the Anglican Communion. For those of you wondering what exactly the Anglican Communion is, the Anglican Communion consists of 38 autonomous national and regional Churches plus six Extra Provincial Churches and dioceses, of which the Episcopal Church is a member. All of those bodies are in Communion – in a reciprocal relationship – with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the Communion’s spiritual head. Each Church makes its own decisions in its own ways, guided by recommendations from specific Anglican entities. Back in 2003, the Episcopal Church elected the first openly gay bishop, and since that time, the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church have experienced a great deal of tension. Many churches in the Global South are morally opposed to homosexuality and have suggested that the Episcopal Church voluntarily withdraw from the Communion. Meanwhile, many Episcopal Churches split from the church, causing lawsuits around the use of church buildings, as well as deep divisions and sadness.
This past summer at General Convention, the Episcopal Church voted to authorize liturgies for same-sex marriages. That decision is what led to the primates’ decision last week to suspend the Episcopal Church from full participation in the life and work of the Anglican Communion for the next three years. Though the Episcopal Church will have voice in meetings of pan-Anglican institutions and assemblies, the Episcopal Church will not have a vote on those bodies. Our own Presiding Bishop has talked about how painful this action is, but confesses that the wideness of God’s love has made it impossible for the Episcopal Church to change course. No one knows what the future holds. Many in the Anglican Communion hope the Episcopal Church will change course. Many in the Episcopal Church believe that our mission is to love all God’s children and to provide a witness of that love despite opposition. For many of us Episcopalians, we may not feel an everyday impact from this decision, but one way or another, through this recent decision of the primates, the Anglican Communion will experience some sort of change in the way the Communion operates.
For all the drama and complexity of the Anglican Church, we are not the first in the church to experience this kind of conflict. Thousands of years ago, the church in Corinth was struggling too. You see, the “Church in Corinth ‘was a very mixed group, with several differing views and practices which put considerable strains on their common life.’” Into that strain, Paul writes them to “encourage a sense of cooperation and unity amongst a group of people that were struggling with their differences.”[i] He uses the familiar metaphor of a body to help the Corinthians see how they are to relate to one another: not as a hierarchical body, with one part superior to the others, but as a body of mutuality, diversity, and interdependence, in which all the parts (or points of view) are needed.[ii] Paul’s letter is both affirming and challenging. He wants the Corinthians to know that each of them are valued and significant. But he also wants of each of them to know that they are not to let their significance get “blown up into self-importance.”[iii] Their significance comes from being a part of the body. In other words, Paul wants the Corinthians to know that they are each valuable, they are each needed, and they each need to appreciate the contributions of the others.
One of the things that was most hurtful in the early 2000s, when the Episcopal Church first started openly talking about the issue of sexual orientation was that people started to leave the table. I remember when I first became an Episcopalian, I loved how no matter what differences we all have, we could still come and feast at the Eucharistic table, side-by-side. And in most Episcopal churches, that still happens. But when those who opposed same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters left the Episcopal Church, we lost a part of our body. We lost the part of our body that would challenge us, question our theology, and make us aware that although we are one body, we are not of one mind. I fear that the same thing will happen in the Anglican Communion should the Anglican Communion decide that the Episcopal Church can no longer be fully a part of the body.
The challenges that Paul presents to Corinth and the Anglican Communion presents to the Episcopal Church are just as important to us at St. Margaret’s. Having been with our parish for over four years, I have seen a fair amount of conflict. Whether we were discerning whether or not to take on an expensive capital project, to start a new outreach ministry, or to reach out to our neighbors and invite them to church, we have rarely been unanimous in our conversations. But Paul is not inviting the church to experience unity as uniformity or as some sort of superficial harmony. In fact, Paul might argue that conflict is good because conflict highlights the ways in which we are of a diverse mind. Diversity within the body means that we are quite naturally going to have a variety of perspectives – and that variety is a blessing. Paul argues that “diversity within the church community is not something to be tolerated, or regretted, or manipulated for one’s own advantage, but something to be received as the gift that it is. Paul’s argument implies that not only diversity, but unity in that diversity, is a reality without which the church cannot live.”[iv]
That being said, unity of the body – unity in diversity – is not easy. I am the first to admit that I grew up in an environment that was conflict avoidant. My initial inner reaction to conflict is to step back in the face of conflict. But St. Margaret’s has been a wonderful teacher about how to love and respect in the midst of conflict. This community has taught me that without conflict, we do not get anywhere real or authentic. With conflict, we respectfully hear the breadth of our differences, and then we move gently through those, comforting those who mourn decisions, and encouraging those who rejoice in those same decisions. As Paul teaches us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it”[v]
I do not know how the Anglican Communion will fare in the next three years. My hope is that the Episcopal Church might continue to witness the power of unity through diversity within the body as opposed to unity for the sake of uniformity. The path forward will be hard. We will need to rejoice with those who were long treated as second class citizens and are now able to be married and ordained just like their heterosexual brothers and sisters. We will need to mourn with those who see that change as a violation of God’s will. We will need to honor those who have consensus around suspending our church, and comfort those in our church who feel rejected by that decision. But mostly, we will need to keep reminding the Communion that we are one body, whose parts cannot be cut off without a weakening of the body.
The same is true for our parish and our own families. If we see the Communion weakened by cutting off parts of the body, we will have learned some hard lessons about when our behaviors are similar in our own church and families. If we see the Communion strengthened as the Communion honors its unity through diversity, we too will see the value of renewal through honoring diversity. Being a body is not easy. The good news is that we do not have to work to become the body of Christ. “That is not Paul’s notion. He considers that believers as believers are already the body of Christ, and he exhorts [us] to relate to one another in a manner appropriate to what [we] already are.”[vi] Amen.
[i] Carol Troupe, “One Body, Many Parts: A Reading of 1 Corinthians 12:12-27” Black Theology, vol. 6, no. 1, January 2008, 33.
[ii] Lee C. Barrett, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 278, 280.
[iii] 1 Corinthians 12.19. Language from Eugene Patterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message.
[iv] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a,” January 24, 2016 as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2733 on January 21, 2016.
[v] 1 Cor. 12.2
[vi] Leander E. Keck, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 948.