This is the second of a two-part article. Read part one.
By Donald Schell
Local commemoration is one of many ways our Episcopal church acknowledges and accepts what organizational researcher Clayton Christensen calls ‘divergent innovation,’ which he argues is a necessary force for positive change in ongoing organizations or institutions. Christensen calls the established ways of problem solving and innovation that serve an organization’s known good ‘sustaining innovation.’ Organizational structures that are very good at sustaining change also tend to suppress or prematurely co-opt unexpected or out of the box change that may be very good or even necessary, when it’s beyond established norms and rules. Christensen observes how vibrant organizations that know their own strength and weakness encourage (or at least allow) a certain amount of divergent innovation, irregular change outside existing structures. The vibrant larger organization watches local divergent practice patiently to see the value of the diverging work, and if it truly serves, will draw tested divergent innovation back into in a new, somewhat altered pattern of sustaining innovation.
Christensen description fits some important moments in the church’s history when leaders chose divergent practices, some of which did eventually lead to official or legal acknowledgment of needed change. In fact, among the twenty-five or so Anglicans and English Christians in the St. Gregory’s mural icon The Dancing Saints three are commemorated for mission and pastoral work that drove them to break church law - Charles Wesley (with his brother John, who is not on the wall at St. Gregory’s), John Mason Neale, and Li Tim Oi.
Each of these three official commemorations, the Wesley brothers, John Mason Neale, and Li Tim Oi (with her bishop Ronald Hall) commemorates people who broke church law because, facing a pastoral or mission dilemma, they saw no other good choice. They acted on their best, faithful interpretation of the work they believed the Spirit called them to. Their acts were public (that is, not in secret) but they weren’t aiming to make a public statement or even to change the institution (though they did).
In the late 1700’s John and Charles Wesley’s bishops wouldn’t provide them with the clergy they needed to serve the working poor of England’s industrial revolution, so these two Anglican priests broke church law to ordain the needed clergy themselves, reviving ancient Alexandria’s practice of priests ordaining priests. (And yes, it was John Wesley who initiated the break with church law and order, which deeply troubled his brother Charles. We put Charles’ icon on the church wall because his hymns with their deep patristic scholarship and powerful feeling felt truer to the congregation’s way and spirit than the sterner, more principled writings of his brother John.)
In the first half of the 1800’s, J.M. Neale, working with England’s rural poor and elderly, believed that more beautiful celebration of the liturgy would give them hope and joy, thus building up their faith and serving their lives and their conversion toward community in Christ, so Neale broke church law by introducing colorful fabrics for altar hangings, vestments, hymn-singing, candles, and a cross on the altar into regular Anglican liturgy. We forget that Anglicanism in Neale’s time, whether ‘high and dry,’ broad church, or evangelical, was literally by English legal decree unimaginably more austere than what we expect and love as ‘the beauty of holiness.’ Neale’s bishop brought charges against him in civil court, won the case, and inhibited Neale’s priestly ministry. The only place where the bishop couldn’t stop Neale from functioning as a priest was the old people’s home where he was chaplain, which had exempted from the local episcopal jurisdiction since the Middle Ages.
In 1944 with Japanese army occupying China in World War II, and no possibility of sending English priests in to mainland churches to celebrate the Eucharist, Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong authorized Deacon Li Tim Oi to preside at Eucharist in Macao, where she was serving. Then, when Bishop Hall decided that he’d made a mistake authorizing a deacon to preside at liturgy and say the Eucharistic prayer, he sent word to Li Tim Oi to sneak across the military lines so he could ordain her a priest. Li Tim Oi slipped back into occupied China to serve there until the war’s end, and Bishop Hall sent word by slow boat to Canterbury saying what he’d done. After the war, Archbishop William Temple rebuked Bishop Hall and demanded that Li Tim Oi stop functioning as a priest. Officially she gave up her license to preside, but back in communist China where she knew her ministry was needed, she continued to serve without break, eventually migrating to Toronto to tell her story.
Can we sustain communion if we don’t all obey universally accepted church law and order?
In 1981 when St. Gregory’s began explicitly inviting all to receive communion, we were putting words of invitation to common, though usually accidental church practice. No matter what a parish’s bulletin or other invitation to communion may say, unbaptized strangers and sometimes friends do receive communion. Many clergy have stories of conversions and baptisms that result from their not turning someone away from communion. As John Wesley reportedly said, the Eucharist can be a ‘converting sacrament.’ At St. Gregory’s when we made a public change in practice, announcing that Jesus welcomes all to his table, we didn’t attempt to change the church law. For the early and formative years of St. Gregory’s when Rick Fabian and I were founding rectors, William Swing was our bishop. Before he was a bishop, as a mission-minded rector at St. Columba’s, Washington, D.C., Bill Swing developed his own rationale for what we were doing which he shared with us, “Unless you have a valid missionary reason, you must obey the rubrics and canons. If you have a valid missionary reason, you must disobey the rules.” As our bishop he added, “Please do let me know what you’re doing.”
“Where do the canons or church law give a bishop the right to offer such a mandate?”
Or course the questioner already knows the answer to this one. NOTHING in the canons gives the bishop this power. Canons aren’t there to give a bishop authority to bless or guide our divergent innovation beyond canonical limitations. Divergent innovation doesn’t fit established norms. Beyond Christen’s organizational research, I’d argue that Bill Swing was speaking within the venerable English (and American) tradition of common law. Think of common law marriage, which, until recently, typically began with a couple breaking a law against co-habitation, or think of public right-of-way over private land, the public’s lasting claim to use a path that began as a trespass. Common law is messy. The law itself can eventually acknowledge that persistent, meaningful exception (even transgression) changes an act’s legal standing.
St. Gregory’s does NOT commemorate Elizabeth I because her ‘rule of law’ and prayer book conformity bind our church together. During Elizabeth’s reign law and conformity made us one, but English law hasn’t held us together in communion since Scotland broke off from the Church of England in the late 1600’s and America in the late 1700’s. We’ve had different church law and different Prayer Books for a long time. What’s held the Church of England, Scottish Episcopal, and American Episcopal churches together since the Elizabethan settlement has been our acknowledgment of one another’s ministries, and our readiness to share Eucharist together.
St. Gregory’s commemorates Elizabeth because she saw that a church that sustained common prayer in Christ could have room to disagree about what she called the ‘trifles’ of doctrinal points. Even beyond the good she imagined, Elizabeth made our church’s life and communion a process of learning. Elizabeth’s peace-making gesture created a space for discovery that has been our Anglican genius for four centuries. Queen Elizabeth’s vision contained something bolder, truer, and more lasting than her legal power to enforce a peace. Two ancient principles came together in what she offered us in finding our unity in common prayer ‘the rule of prayer is the rule of faith” (Prosper of Aquitaine, 5th Century) and “the voice of the people is the voice of God” (probably Alcuin, 8th century).
But don’t local congregations sometimes make mistakes? Isn’t there such a thing as bad practice? Aren’t some new practices shortsighted or just plain wrong?
Of course there’s such a thing as bad practice and bad practices. But anyone who loves learning and that knows creativity is a part of how our humanity images God, must delight in Genesis 2, the second creation story. The first story tells us we’re made in the Creator’s image, but the second story tells a very recognizable story of real creation, the trial and error work of any artist or innovator. Whether our church acknowledges it or not, testing, discernment, conflict, confusion, and revelation as we struggle to keep praying together has always been the church’s way. Mistakes, partial successes, and even downright failures are essential to learning. Elizabeth I didn’t invent the process.
I suspect (actually I hope and pray) that our wider Anglican Church’s present anxious effort to define unity by law and instruments of union will prove a failure our whole Anglican communion can learn from, because I believe and hope that Gene Robinson’s ordination as Bishop of New Hampshire will finally be remembered and commemorated as a moment of divergent innovation.
We’ve got certainties but the promise of God’s love and our best efforts to be faithful and serve as we hear and see ourselves called. Ultimately, through the mess, we’re walking a path that no one authorized, but one day, from all our trespass (at least as others seem to see it), it will become a public right of way. As perplexing and risky as it may feel, St. Paul lays the responsibility of faithfulness on us and gives us our best hope, “We have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:16)
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.