By Greg Jones
"Conceited, stubborn, over-sensitive, argumentative, infantile, pushy." This is how bible scholar Jerome Murphy-O'Connor describes the Church in Corinth to which Paul wrote the two letters now in our bibles. They were a frustrating and exasperating people, who seemed to misunderstand Paul's teaching at every turn. Murphy-O'Connor writes that "virtually every statement he made took root in their minds in a slightly distorted form." Yikes.
Lucky for us that Paul faced this crowd. Because he had to teach, and teach, and teach them, now we have the benefit of First and Second Corinthians. The basic situation in Corinth was a mixed body of folks, divided by ethnicity, idea and practice. They were highly partisan, and apparently loved to dissent and divide.
Well, it sounds likes Christians everywhere, at least from time to time. It seems like Christians are always struggling with a "Corinthian" tendency toward division and disunity. To be sure, in our denomination, and global Anglicanism, we've seen lots of it in the past six years, and certainly will see more. It is worth remembering that the Church of England broke ties with Rome in the middle 16th century over questions of authority and power. Over the next couple of centuries - a host of groups left the Church of England, whether Presbyterian, Quaker, Methodist, Baptist and so forth. In the 19th century, a small group of evangelical Episcopalians broke away and formed the Reformed Episcopal Church. (They believed that 'Romanizing germs' had infected the Episcopal Church and it was corrupt beyond repair -- opposing things like altar candles, priestly robes, and high sacramental doctrine.) In the late 20th century, several groups split away from the Episcopal Church - first over integration, then over the new prayer book and women's ordination. And now, of course, we see the chasm forming between those who seek to include glbt people into the full life of the Church, inclusive of marriage equality and ordination, and those who do not.
I believe that there is a way forward that preserves a maximum of unity and diversity, with integrity. I think that the Church will always be reforming its understandings of how God wants us to be - but I believe it can be done in such a way as to comprehend both a faithful respect for what has been received, and a faithful openness to "new wine." As I understand Paul, what is required of Corinthians as well as Episcopalians is that we die to self, pick up the cross, and follow the Son of God. In my view, the community which does this, will also be able to maintain a glorious degree of both differentiation and unity within itself. Even when faced with questions which are very difficult to come to an accord about.
The way through the dilemma of Us vs. Them, and We're Right and They're Wrong is to remember the mark on our heads. For we who have been marked as Christ's own forever, are not permitted to ask any more, "How do I get what I want?' We instead get to ask, "How do We obey our Lord?" We instead get to ask, "How do we discern together what God wants, and how do we get there?"
Frankly, I'm afraid Episopalians simply do not remember that we are called to be a people submitted to each other as to Christ. I believe we very often identify ourselves in individualistic, then congregational, then diocesan terms, then General Convention terms; and then very little in terms of the wider Communion, let alone our ecumenical and interfaith partners.
As we approach General Convention, I simply pray that we be mindful of our primary identity as a people of God in Christ, called to submit to another as to Christ. I don't know what the way forward will look like - vis a vis the inclusion of glbt persons in matters of marriage equality or holy orders - or vis a vis the Anglican Communion and beyond. I would take great joy, however, if we could indeed find that forward route while maintaining the maximum degree of unity in the love of Christ. It would be so refreshing to pull off what so many are calling impossible. It would be so exciting to manage to get through this with the bonds of affection not only unbroken, but strengthened.
There, I said it.
The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.