Thursday, March 22, 2007
"Only Christ Matters"
James De Koven (tr)
March 20, 2007
The De Koven Center, Racine WI
The Rev. Cynthia J. Hallas
On a Sunday evening last June in Columbus, Ohio I was in attendance when the Very Rev. Gary Hall, Dean and President of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston IL, addressed a dinner gathering of alumni/ae of the seminary and reminded us of the comprehensive nature of our Anglican tradition.
His remarks were offered in the context of two historic and controversial decisions by successive General Conventions: the consent in 2003 to the election of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire; and the election earlier that very Sunday of Katharine Jefferts Schori as the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
In both cases the individuals, Robinson and Schori, became lightning rods for what had long been divisive issues in the Church. Or to put that in a context more in line with Christian theology, God’s children, Gene and Katharine, became ‘incarnations’ of Anglicanism’s struggles over the place of gay men and lesbians, and women generally, in the life of the Church.
We are, of course, the church of the via media, the ‘middle way’; the church that supposedly tolerates ambiguities, that prays in order to believe and not vice versa. If Chicago, in whose environs I live, is the ‘city of the big shoulders’, then I suppose we Anglicans are the ‘church of the big umbrella’. Or perhaps, the ‘big net’.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples and a gathered crowd a series of parables, speaking in that way, he tells them, because they have been chosen to understand what many, many of those who are attracted to Jesus by his miracles and teachings cannot and may never understand: the reality of what it means to live in the kingdom of heaven. He ends the series with the parable about the net and the large, indiscriminate catch of fish.
How we respond to that parable is, I suppose, dependent on one’s perspective on salvation and inclusion. It can be either comforting or disturbing. At the end of this string of parables, Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” I have to tell you that their answer always amuses, and confuses, me a bit. “Yes,” they reply, apparently rather quickly and without too much thought.
“Yeah, Lord, we get it, we get it!”
And every time I hear or read this passage, I end up thinking to myself, No, they didn’t. They couldn’t possibly understand ‘all that’, at least not completely and not right away.
Not that we in our own day, or very many in between for that matter, have truly understood the comprehensiveness of the kingdom of heaven; not completely. We forget, I think that the kingdom is really like that net: more than capable of both catching and holding all those ‘fish’ of some many different kinds. We get hung up on the sorting: the separating of the righteous from the evil, and the resultant weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But that isn’t what Jesus says the kingdom is ‘like’; no, the kingdom is ‘like’ the net: expansive, durable, and open to all. We still struggle to understand what life is truly ‘like’ in the kingdom of heaven; and I’m guessing that for the disciples, even with Jesus in their immediate presence, it would still take some work, and some practice, to really get it.
In the mid-1870s, James De Koven found himself at the center of the controversy over ritualistic practice in the Episcopal Church. De Koven embraced the Anglo-Catholic practices that made such worship meaningful for some and suspect for others. Had he remained a low-profile parish or institutional priest, we would like as not all be somewhere else this morning. But James De Koven was elected bishop, not once, but twice: in Wisconsin in 1874 and Illinois the following year, and both elections were not given consent by the General Convention.
This had nothing to do with De Koven’s credentials or his gifts. Although he was the choice of those in these respective dioceses, many – certainly enough – in the larger Church were threatened by his views regarding ritual practices, including the use of incense, candles, certain devotional postures and most especially the adoration of and Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.
There were accusations that such practices and beliefs encouraged ‘false doctrine’; misunderstanding about who and what was truly being worshipped. Others feared the influence of the Papacy, and the loss of a certain kind of simplicity that many valued as hallmarks of both the American and New Testament churches. This all resulted in the kind of polarization that comes when people fail to understand the comprehensive of the kingdom, the size of the net.
We are no strangers to that today, certainly. Like Gene and Katharine after him, and like so many, many who had gone before, God’s child James De Koven helped to incarnate a central, divisive issue in the Church of his day.
To many living in our time, the idea of a bishop’s election not getting consent because he, or she, was too high church, or too low church, seems ludicrous. Such things are settled, if they even need to be settled, in the diocesan ‘dog and pony shows’ that precede Episcopal elections and not in the arena of the larger church.
Some of us might even wish that the decisions and issues facing our church in the early part of the 21st century were as ‘simple’ (sounding) as those facing it near the end of the 19th. But that way of thinking misses the point of De Koven’s wonderful and holy example, and negates why we’re all here this morning. It wasn’t the specific issue that got De Koven his day on the calendar of American Anglican saints. What got us all to this day was the humble, courageous, and ultimately comprehensive way in which he addressed the conflict surrounding him.
Speaking on behalf of the Anglo-Catholic position to the General Convention of 1874, De Koven said, “If this Church commands us to have no ceremonies, we will obey….How we [adore Christ’s person in the Eucharist], the way we do it, the ceremonies with which we do it, are utterly, utterly indifferent; the thing itself is what we plead for….” “The gestures and practices by which we recognize the presence of Christ do not matter,” he said. “Only Christ matters.”
The kind of comprehensiveness Gary Hall noted is in increasingly short supply these days. More and more, it seems, groups and individuals are choosing to walk on either side of the road, rather than walking together along that middle way. As someone has pointed out, that middle is where the danger is; it’s relatively safe on the sides.
James De Koven understood, in ways his detractors did not, both the comprehensiveness of the kingdom and the strength at its center. He does have his heirs in our time, those who remind us of our heritage and who call us back to the center, who remind us that the kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches fish of every kind. It’s all too easy to forget that the sorting isn’t up to us. We would do well to heed the voice of blessed James De Koven and seek that which matters: only Christ.
© Cynthia Hallas, 2007