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The Episcopal Church: Not (Necessarily) Liberal but Comprehensive

The Episcopal Church: Not (Necessarily) Liberal but Comprehensive

by Bill Carroll

Lord, you now have set your servant free

To go in peace as you have promised

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior

Whom you have prepared for all the world to see

A Light to enlighten the nations

And the glory of your people Israel

These words come from a story about the Christ child. It comes right after the Christmas Gospel in Luke. Simeon is a poor, old man—a prophet who has been waiting for a long time for the birth of the Messiah, praying night and day. Then, Mary and Joseph arrive for the presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple and various sacrifices and rituals prescribed by the Law. And when Simeon sees Jesus with his own eyes—filled with the Holy Spirit–he greets him with these joyful and prophetic words. At last, he sees the promised Savior, the light and desire of the nations, and he gives thanks that he can now depart in peace.

The song he sings is often called the Song of Simeon, and it plays a key role in our worship. From 1549 onwards, it has been part of Daily Evening Prayer in every edition of the Book of Common Prayer. (The second meditation at our vestry retreat concerned the Magnificat.) Its use in the daily prayers of the monks is far older. Today, I’d like to suggest to us that Simeon’s Song has the potential to provide us with insight into the rich heritage we share as Episcopalians. As baptized members of this branch of Christ’s Body, entrusted with a share in his very own mission, we need to be able to articulate who we are and why we value our community and its distinctive ways of being Christian. We need to lead from shared values—a shared sense of what the Good News of Jesus is, why it matters, and why it matters in our context.

That’s not an easy task, given our incredible diversity. An email from our youth and family minister that first got me interested in discerning a call to serve in my present ministry joked that our parish has everything from Tea Party to Communist, and that’s not far from the truth: our parish includes all political parties, just about every theological persuasion, and almost every conceivable point of view. It’s truly a miracle, given the deep divisions in our country, that we get along so well.

Among the many different ways to be Christian, Anglican Christianity, including the Christianity of the Episcopal Church, has been strongly associated with the idea of Incarnation—that, in Jesus, the Son of God became flesh in order to bless all that is good and holy about human beings—as well as to redeem everything that is flawed, fallen, and broken. It is no accident that our worship, especially the beautiful service of Evening Prayer, highlights this mystery. We believe in the saving power of the Easter event—the dying and rising of Christ, which is reenacted and made present in the Holy Eucharist—but we are also a people whose faith is formed by the Christmas story, where God chooses to be with us in our frail and mortal flesh.

The canticles are brief pieces of Scripture, or in some cases ancient hymns, that are sung or said in response to the readings of the day. Now, in part, they were selected for that role, because they are beautiful poetry, composed to be sung. But they were also chosen for their importance in summing up what we believe. By repetition they become privileged windows into the meaning of the lessons assigned for each day—and, over time, the whole Christian story. Truly, the law of prayer is the law of belief. As we pray, so we come to believe and practice.

So, let’s pause for a minute to hear the Song of Simeon again. Let’s enter into the presence of God with one another and let these words become our prayer.

Lord, you now have set your servant free

To go in peace as you have promised

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior

Whom you have prepared for all the world to see

A Light to enlighten the nations

And the glory of your people Israel

Now, let’s ask ourselves: “What might these beautiful words say to us as a Christian community?”

First, we are not anxious about our salvation. That salvation has already been achieved. With Simeon, we can say, “Lord, you now have set your servant free.” The Anglican way is to invite others into holy mystery, not out of anxiety about their salvation, but because the God who has come among us in Christ is good and generous and desires that we share Christ and other good gifts with our neighbors. Week in and week out, our worship manifests the presence and goodness of God, who has chosen to come among us and set us free. Because God is with us, we have been set free for love. To really love people as they truly are, even as we challenge them to follow Christ and do great things in his Name.

Second, our eyes have seen the Savior. One of the things that strikes many newcomers right away about worship in the Episcopal Church is the physical beauty of our worship—and the places where we worship. Our worship, in the best Anglican tradition, appeals to all the senses. And we tend to worship God with a subtle, peaceful beauty that leads people into prayer. Every detail of the spaces where we gather suggests the presence of Christ among us–especially in the consecrated bread and wine, but also in the gathered community. The Word of God–and the ministry of preaching and teaching it–has a place in our liturgy. But our worship is not centered on a long lecture about the biblical text. Rather, the homily and the liturgy of the Word is consummated in the liturgy of the Table, where the living Lord Jesus comes among us, here and now.

We may be People of the Book, but we are even more people of the Incarnation. For us, the Word of God is not primarily a book. With the Gospel of John, we believe that “the Word became flesh.” The Book is a witness to the Word, who gives himself to us to be seen and touched and tasted. We have been given a deep joy not only in the liturgy and the sacraments, but also in the bodily presence of the brothers and sisters we have from God, who are themselves a sacramental reality.

Third, in Simeon’s Song, the Savior is given as a Light to enlighten the Nations and as the glory of God’s People Israel. The Nations are the Gentiles—those foreigners who were once outside God’s People but have been invited in through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In Luke’s Gospel in particular, as well as its sequel in the Book of Acts, a major theme is the early Church’s mission to the Gentiles. It was not accomplished without struggle. The Book of Acts, in particular, is about the ever expanding circle of God’s hospitality to those who are not yet part of God’s People. William Temple, the great Archbishop of Canterbury, said that the Church exists for the sake of those who don’t yet belong. A central feature of our calling from God is therefore to welcome “all sorts and conditions” of people.

In the Episcopal Church, we do not do this out of any kind of commitment to what some would call “liberal Christianity”—though I think it’s important to acknowledge that, in many communities, the local Episcopal parish is often one of the few congregations where it’s safe to be Christian and openly liberal at the same time. Properly understood, this is a potential competitive advantage for us. But I wouldn’t ever label myself as a “liberal”, and I know that others in our parish would be far less comfortable than I.

I see myself as a moderate Anglo-Catholic, deeply conservative on some issues, more liberal on others, committed to building a healthy Christian community that acknowledges the centrality of Christ as our tradition has received him. As members of the Episcopal Church, our commitment to welcoming all people comes out of a Catholic and Reformed understanding of the Universal Church of Jesus Christ—a Body that won’t be complete unless every kind of human being is welcome within it.

As far as I can tell, what unites us is a deep commitment to a specific form of Christ-centered worship–and to a non-fundamentalist theology. Some of us are profoundly conservative—as I am when it comes to anything in the historic Creeds or the Book of Common Prayer—but we are not anxious (as various forms of fundamentalism would be) about the presence of those who differ with us and question our core convictions. Indeed, we encourage questioning and respectful criticism of our most cherished traditions. This is because our eyes have seen the Savior and we know the presence of the living God-with-us.

We have our boundaries—no community can live without them—but we don’t have to have to police them too tightly. As a whole, I think this is why we are so committed to civility, mutual love and respect, and welcoming all strangers, no exceptions allowed. There are people all over the place who are hungry for a community like ours. They would give anything to belong to a church like ours, where all people are welcome without exception. And this is one of the main reasons we will grow and thrive, with faithful lay and ordained leadership and the active ministry of the whole People of God.

Note: This is a modified form of a retreat talk for my first vestry retreat with the parish I am now serving, Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Shawnee, Oklahoma

The Rev. Bill Carroll serves as rector of Emmanuel Parish, Shawnee in the Diocese of Oklahoma. His new parish blog is Emmanuel Shawnee Blog

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