Years and years ago, I was at a clergy retreat at the Antiochian Orthodox Church Center in Western PA. It was the annual clergy retreat for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and it was back in the days that Alden Hathaway was the bishop. There was a growing tension in the diocese, especially between the clergy. There were at least three camps within the clergy, probably more depending how you drew boundaries.
I can’t remember if this took place during the time our youngest daughter was still with us, but I think it must have, because the tension of repeated races to the hospital and the stress her illness was having on the rest of us would probably explain why my emotions were so raw. I mention that because Bishop Alden Hathaway preached a sermon during the retreat that has stuck with me all these years. It brought tears to my eyes at the time and set me thinking for months about what my own particular sort of ministry in the Church might look like.
+Alden reprised for us the story of the Christmas Truce at Ypres in 1914. (It wasn’t until much later when I had a chance to tour the battle field, and Verdun, that I understood the enormity of what had happened and the miraculous nature of the moment.) He ended his sermon with a charge to the divided clergy of his diocese; “Folks, this is the mission of the Church today. To sing carols in the midst of the no-man’s land of the Culture Wars.”
The idea that a congregation could be a place of reconciliation and mutual meeting was something I had always imagined, and worked toward, but never been able to place into larger context. For some odd reason, I’ve generally served in congregations that have had periods of significant conflict in their recent history (though not always at the time I was called) and I suspect that I’ve served in such places because I was instinctively drawn to the work of reconciling people within them to the common work of the Gospel. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes not so much. But it’s been of fundamental importance to me all along.
You know, the Prayer Book makes the task of reconciliation within the Church explicit, by saying, in the Catechism, that it is the mission of the Church. (Something like; “What is the Mission of the Church: The Mission of the Church is to reconcile God and Creation.) At our best, using the spiritual practice of Common Prayer, we do exactly this, week in and week out. Sometimes quickly, mostly slowly but, by the grace of God, hopefully and inexorably.
I thought of all this today when I saw this quote in an article about the retirement of Robert Gates as Sec. of Defense:
“Mr. Gates is, along with James A. Baker III, perhaps the greatest non-presidential public servant of the post-war age. One more thing. Perhaps better than anyone alive, he knows how the world works.
These days the world isn’t working all that well, and the same can be said about Washington. It’s the latter that preoccupies Mr. Gates, who is to leave office this week. Last Sunday Chris Wallace asked Mr. Gates what was the big lesson he had learned during all that time in the capital. Here’s his answer on Fox News Sunday:
“That when we have been successful in national security and foreign affairs, it has been because there has been bipartisan support. And agreement between the president and the Congress that the fundamental strategy — maybe not all the tactics, maybe not all the specific decisions — but that the fundamental strategy is the correct one. That’s what [happened] through nine presidencies and the Cold War that led to our success, because no major international problem can be solved on one president’s watch. And so, unless it has bipartisan support, unless it can be extended over a period of time, the risks of failure [are] high.””
Sometimes I think we forget how important the local work of the Church can be to the health of the World. People can’t and won’t be reconciled unless they will talk. They won’t talk unless they build a relationship with one another. That’s what praying together makes happen. That’s a major part of why we do what we do in the Episcopal Church, and I think it’s the reason that diversity and inclusion matters so much to all of us. Without, we can not do the mission we have been given.