Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Parting of Friends

As you look back over the history of the church over the last several hundred years, there have been times of disruption which have been marked by the parting of friends. Having studied church history as both an undergraduate and postgraduate level, I have had the opportunity to read in depth about certain of those agonizing seasons. Back when I was doing this I didn't expect to find myself living through such a time, yet hardly a week goes by these days when I do not find myself saying goodbye to some other soul alongside whom I have worked in gospel ministry, and who for one reason or another cannot continue in the life of the Episcopal Church -- and I have shed many tears.

Separations like these occurred in the 1660s, when the newly restored monarchy callously sought to get its own back on the Puritans and seemed determined to make it impossible for some of the wisest and godliest to stay in the Church of England. Yet while Richard Baxter and others walked, men like William Gurnall stayed, alongside Edward Reynolds who was to become Bishop of Norwich. While I have never read any record of the discomfort of the severing of ties that took place between the Puritans who conformed and those who left at the Great Ejection, I am sure that there were many sacred friendships that died and oceans of tears that were shed.

Another such period was when the Oxford Movement was in his heydey in England in the 19th Century. David Newsome wrote a wonderful book many years ago called The Parting of Friends, which chronicled the journeys of Christians who had once shared ministry together in different directions. This is the experience so many of us are having now.

After he converted to Roman Catholicism, John Henry Newman never returned to Oxford, the scene of his greatest ministry during his Anglican days. Yet in one of his biographies there is a touching episode when as an old man the cardinal was traveling from London to the north, that the train stopped in Oxford. As they slowed to enter the station he could see the places that were once dear to him and his mind for days after was flooded with fond memories that had been cut short and lost following his changed allegiance. I suspect there were dear friendships that he wished had not died when he "poped."

If you read Alan Guelzo's magnificent history of the Reformed Episcopal Church, For The Union Of Evangelical Christendom, there are touching pictures of evangelical Episcopalians whose lives were torn from one another when the REC split from the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA in the 1870s. Some of my most treasured experiences in recent years have been forged in the process of building new relationships with our REC brothers and sisters -- but why did it take 125 years for us to be able to kiss and begin making up?

And now it is happening all over again. As error stalks the Episcopal Church, and a blatantly heterodox agenda is being forced upon it, some faithful Christians are forced to flee, some flee of their own accord, while others of us stay put for a whole variety of reasons, many of which are very good. In a diocese like my own it is at present easier to stay than to flee, but also for me there were solemn vows of canonical obedience to my bishop which I made getting on for forty years ago that are as sacred to me as the marriage vows I made before God to my wife on our wedding day. Besides, I could not live with myself if I were to leave the field in the midst of a conflict that, despite the pundits' brayings, is far from over.

Yet however we read this there is the inevitable pain we experience as men and women we have walked and worked alongside not only say they can no longer be part of what was once a shared mission, but because into these once-fond relationships division have been introduced festering sores. I have every hope that the divisions we experience as others seek refuge in other jurisdictions or under the umbrella of other provinces of the Anglican Communion, will be short-lived, maybe ten to twenty years at the most, but coming together will not be made any easier if we are determined to develop the habit of looking down on one another as if staying or leaving were the more spiritual thing to do.

One of the less attractive sides of the Renewal Movement in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, was a tendency for some who experienced renewal by God in a certin way, to start looking down upon others who had not received that experience of God through the Holy Spirit. There were antagonisms and underlying tensions that took a long time to heal following those circumstances. Once again, friends were parted from one another.

I have tried through these difficult recent years not to cast aspersions on the actions of others that are different from my own believing as Paul urges when he writes to the Corinthians that we be careful of those who have sensitive consciences. I may not agree with the actions others have taken who have gone elsewhere, but I must respect that they may not see things precisely as I do. However, I had hoped that perhaps this time those who parted might find ways of staying in fellowship with one another so that rebuilding can take place together once the demolition begun in 2003 has finished.

Maybe I was naive to think that it could happen this way. But I still have hope.


James the Thickheaded said...

Excellent post. Though not an ex-senior warden, one feels having had an oar in the water, and to have rowed a common boat in the grand commission. Yet now, there is much sadness...and surprise as well, if indeed a bit of feeling having been played the fool as well. I have a greater understanding from the outside of what it is folks seem to come to these places for and to do...and the Body is an amazing incarnation. Yet though I feel as though cleaved from friends made over many, many years, I have no hard feelings and see my own journey from the low church expression I have known for nearly 50 years and into the Anglo-Catholic continuum as less of leaving an errancy of others than of seeking a fuller expression, and a more (reformed) catholic faith.

I think you are right that this is indeed one of those times it seems when we are ultimately forced to choose between our families, our friends, a seductive view of our faith that includes it all....and a view of our faith that promises to divide us from all our desires short of God. Somehow, John Paul II's death focused my attention and my heart on his courage and I have awaken and walked...or perhaps as any sinner, I can only say that I have turned and begun a new journey but there is a far, far way to go. It is my hope one day to bring the rest along with me, but St. Augustine made it clear long, long ago how very hard it is to turn one's own heart...let alone another's. If I didn't believe there was truth on the other side, I couldn't walk that way. It was so much easier, more comfortable, and fine as a pew sitter; and it is hard to converse with those behind for fear of saying something one would wish to not have said....the sort of thing that only hardens hearts rather than saves them.

This is certainly one of those circumstances where neither Emily Post, nor the Church Fathers are much help. Almost any way you start...something is lost.

Anonymous said...

Fortunately for me, my staying or leaving won’t strain any relationships.

In any case, I’ve decided to stay. I got about halfway through RCIA at the local RC parish before deciding, along with my wife, that it just wasn’t for us. So much of what we must be believe to be the leading of the Holy Spirit can look like chance or contingent circumstance. Maybe if they’d had consistent childcare and a better RCIA team we would be well on the path to Rome. Or maybe we would have left even earlier. (Not to cast aspersions: they were very welcoming and did the best they could with limited resources. And I leave with the greatest respect for the Roman Catholic church.)

Last Sunday we went back to the PECUSA church we’d been attending and it was a great relief. The Magisterium attracted me to the RC Church, but there’s no point in joining if I’m not prepared to accept it. It’s like getting married; you’d better be certain you can live with your spouse before you walk down the aisle. Marrying someone with the expectation of changing your spouse to fit your expectations is a big mistake. In my view, this is one of the big problems with the PECUSA. Namely, too many converts who joined with the idea of changing the church instead of having the church change them. I hasten to add, however, that the church should welcome all sincere seekers.

My deeply theological reason for staying is: What the heck? The corollary is: Where else would I go? I’m a cradle Episcopalian and I just don’t feel comfortable anywhere else. I wish I could come up with something more earnest and prayerful, but that’s the best I can do.

At any rate, it’s good to be back in the dear old dirty PECUSA. My humble hope is that those who remain act as a witness and possibly even a leaven in this kooky church. (If I can stick it out, that is. If I’m going to try to stay, I have to make a point not to read or listen to anything Gene Robinson says. It just makes my blood boil.) I can only offer my orthodoxy and fidelity as a witness because I’m not enough of a saint to offer my conduct.

-- WTB

Richard Kew said...

Some years ago I was talking to one of the clergy leaders of a diocese in the western USA. He told me how he had in previous weeks been preparing a priest to return to the Episcopal Church from Orthodoxy. When the canon asked the priest why he was coming back, the man replied, "Well, my church might be a whore, but at least she's my church!" I am not sure that is a very flattering way of describing what you called the dear dirty old PECUSA, but as uncomfortable as it is in this place, it is where God has put us to be his servants and his witnesses. Part of me wishes that I could go somewhere else, but there are times, too, when I wish I had a different wife, different children, a different brother, and I had had a different mother and father!

C. Wingate said...

A couple more comments like that and I'll have to style myself "Hosea".