Perspective is the title of a sermon delivered last Sunday at Evensong in St Albans Cathedral by the Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade, formerly Rector of St Alban’s Parish, Washington, DC.
The full text is below the fold.
I am grateful to Dean John for the privilege of his pulpit. This is the second time I have been this fortunate. To be asked to preach in a great church is an honor. To be asked back is astonishing. I am also delighted to share this evening’s service with my Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Frank Griswold and you should be pleased as well. I have been asked to reflect on The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion in light of our recent General Convention. I did not know Bishop Griswold would be present and when I found out I had to take out about half of what I was going to say. So this sermon will not be as juicy but it will be shorter and that is always an occasion for thanksgiving. In order to deliver on that promised brevity, let us turn to the texts for this evening.
Job, the psalmist and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews all participate in a consistent truth about human beings : we are all thumbs and mumbles when required to stand before our God. Job (13:15 ff) switches from despair to an unreasonable confidence in God’s presence, “See he will kill me; I have no hope… I know that I shall be vindicated.” The psalmist (73:21 ff) is all too aware of his inadequacy before life and before the Lord, “When I was pricked in the heart, I was like a brute beast toward you. Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel…” And the writer of Hebrews (2:6) is reminded of the head-shaking question “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them?” This sense of uncertainty and inadequacy was true for our spiritual ancestors and it is true for us today. Our church at every level is being required to stand before God and deal with a difficult question: Is God calling us to a new understanding of human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, or not?
We have had a pretty clear view of these things for a long time but as is often the case such clarity can be maintained by blindness and exclusivity and their constant companions, cruelty and indifference. So the question has been raised. Not by a radical fringe group or those swept along by the hedonism of Hollywood or the ethical relativism of moral pygmies but by none other than the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops. I have never been to a Lambeth Conference but I do not think of them as hot beds of social sedition and theological anarchy. In 1978 they called for a “deep and dispassionate study” of homosexuality. It was largely ignored so in 1988 Lambeth required each province of the communion to reassess its attitude and understanding of homosexual persons. This too was widely overlooked. In 1998 the same body noted that faithful Anglicans are deeply divided on the issue. The Episcopal Church began its study of human sexuality at the General Convention level in 1964 and we are certainly divided in our views. Many individuals are certain about the answer. I am one of those. I think it is quite clear. But I have many brothers and sisters in Christ who are just as certain as I am but our certainties do not mesh. Many of us are individually certain but as a church we are corporately confused.
Why is it so difficult? It is hard to talk about sexuality. It is well within our private spheres and close to our identity. We in The Episcopal Church have discovered the error in the 1978 Lambeth resolution. That which is deep is not dispassionate and that which is dispassionate is not deep. We are also hindered by the uncertain means by which we come to new understandings about God’s intent. God does call us to new ways of being faithful. One does not need to read the whole Bible to see this, it is in the table of contents which is divided between two understandings. The New Testament presents the interplay between law and grace, the role of the messiah and the nature of the people of God in ways quite different from the Old Testament. In addition we have been led to new understandings about divine right monarchy, slavery and our thinking about the role of women seems to be moving into its final phase. God does call us to new understandings. But every new idea, even those deeply and passionately held by faithful people, is not necessarily from God. The heresies of the early church and the recent struggles against apartheid and segregation serve to illustrate this fact. And most of us would agree that the crusades were not God’s idea even though they were the focus of European Christianity for over two hundred years.
How did we get it right in the past? The two words that describe this process are slowly and badly. We are all thumbs and mumbles when required to stand before our God. And we have been arrogant and judgmental when facing each other in such times. That was true in the past and it is the case now. Final resolution has come when the experience of God’s grace overcomes the entrenchments of our humanity. It is experience more than logic that leads us into new truth or away from half truth. Christianity is not a philosophy, not a good idea or good advice, it is good news about a way of living in which we experience God’s grace. When we remember that our salvation depends more on what God believes about us than what we believe about God, when we shift our focus from how we think to how we live, then grace will have its way. That was true before and it will be true this time.
What do we do until grace overcomes us? Consider the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion when the resurrection was just a rumor. They were talking about what they knew, what they had heard, what they feared and what they hoped. As they did this – when and because they did this – the Lord came to them and opened their eyes to a truth they fully realized only in the context of worship – the breaking of the bread. Note what the people did. They talked and worshipped, Jesus did the rest. As – when and because – we do the same things, the Lord will be with us and lead us into all truth.
That is where The Episcopal Church, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion are at this time – on the road to Emmaus. For all of its discomforts it is holy ground and the right place to be.