Welcomes You

Theodore of Tarsus - House of Bishops Opening

Nashville, TN
Thursday, September 19, 2013

I promise you that the planning committee did not examine the lectionary before they chose this theme of Transforming Loss into New Possibilities.  But Theodore of Tarsus is a most appropriate witness to that kind of hope and faithfulness.  He was born in Tarsus, what is today southeastern Turkey, in 602, and educated there and in Athens.  He was a speaker of Greek and Latin, and a highly educated monk – a layman.  Strife in the form of Muslim conquests drove him into exile in Rome.  He was living there in 668 when Pope Vitalian started looking for a new Archbishop of Canterbury.

Five others had served in that post since Gregory sent Augustine to care for Anglo-Saxon Christians in 595.  The last Archbishop, Deusdedit, died in 664, in the same year as the Synod of Whitby, and neighboring kings selected Wighard to travel to Rome and seek consecration as his successor.  Wighard and his party made it to Rome, but died there of plague, and Pope Vitalian began to seek a replacement.  He asked Hadrian, abbot of a monastery in Naples, twice, who resisted.  Vitalian offered to let him off the hook, but only if he would find a substitute.  Eventually he settled on Theodore the refugee.  Theodore was ordained subdeacon immediately, but had to wait four months for his hair to grow out enough for a suitable, western tonsure.  He was consecrated at the age of 66, on 26 March 668, and was sent off to England, together with Hadrian and a translator.  Hadrian was something of a custodian, told by Vitalian to guard against eastern innovations that might be introduced by this Greek!  It took them a year before they finally landed in England, having been detained in part by a French bishop who suspected them of political intrigue.

Theodore appointed Hadrian abbot of the monastery of Sts. Peter and Paul in Canterbury, and then the two of them promptly set out for a pastoral tour of the whole of the English-speaking Church.  He taught them the Roman way of calculating the date of Easter (which was part of what Whitby was meant to deal with), he introduced Gregorian chant and Roman liturgical practices, and charged Christian heads of households to say the Lord’s prayer and the creed daily with their families, in their native language.

This elderly refugee from religious persecution embraced new opportunity and a new vocation and learned a new language on his yearlong journey to England.  He was the last foreigner to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Perhaps that’s why Theodore began with visiting and listening to the people in his care.  It is striking to note that Justin is doing something similar in building relationships with the primates of the Communion.

Theodore’s pastoral pilgrimage prompted him to build a significant framework and set of norms as a way of clarifying and building up the church’s missional effectiveness.  He drew boundaries for dioceses and told bishops to stay home and tend to the flock within their borders.  He divided some older territories and consecrated new bishops to serve there.  He deposed disobedient bishops.  In 673 he called a churchwide synod to adopt canons.[1]  The major pieces of that synodical work were about what we’d call canonical residency and monastic stability, and annual synods.  His work underlies the parochial understanding and structure we still see as normative.  He was a pastor of the first order, and his lengthy visitation produced significant coherence and reconciliation in the wake of the Synod of Whitby and continuing struggles between Celtic and Roman customs.  And he kept at it for 22 years.  No canonically required retirement age in those days!  Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History, is clear about his witness, “Theodore was the first archbishop whom the entire church of the English obeyed.”  There are echoes in today’s gospel:  “What sort of man is this, that winds and sea obey him?”[2]

Are there gales and storms anywhere in your pastoral turf?  What are we afraid of – personally and pastorally?  Getting old, retiring, ongoing conflict, becoming irrelevant or powerless – personally or as a church?  What keeps God’s people anxious in the midst of storms and gale force winds?  Those strong winds are often the working of the spirit, mixing things up so that new growth can emerge.  The strong north winds off western England, and off the Pacific coast of this continent, bring cold and nutrient rich water to the surface, which fuels their historically abundant fisheries.  The same thing happens in big lakes, like Galilee.  No disturbance, no harvest.  No chaos, no creation.

The surprising but necessary corollary for abundant harvests and new creation is a boundary – the shores of a lake, the air-water interface that provides something for the wind to act on, the long continental edges and coasts that focus wind and wave; the distinguishing of light from darkness and land from sea.  Theodore set God’s servants to work within particular patches – bishops in dioceses, with resident priests; monks in their monasteries, and householders with the people in their care.  When the responsibility is clear, care and attention improve.  No running off to other pastures to escape the hard work – or the impossible people.  That is part of the challenge of Syria – whose responsibility is the ongoing tragic violence there?  If everybody says, “not my problem,” it may keep your patch peaceful for a while, but not forever, or indeed for very long.  The difficulties in Congress right now have to do with forgetting that each member is responsible to all the people of a territory, not just those who voted for him or her. 

Yet the boundaries of responsibility don’t end with geographic lines.  Like the rhythm of storm and calm, leaders and pastors have to attend to the people within and beyond the boundaries of households, congregations, dioceses, churches, and nations.  The foundational responsibility is to apply oneself to love God and neighbor in a particular field, and to partner and collaborate with others to love the larger world. 

Jesus’ shipmates are afraid – for their lives and safety, but also afraid that they’ve been forgotten by their sleeping rabbi.  He’s obviously not paying attention to their mounting anxiety!  He has been telling them that their families and obligations don’t own them (leave the dead to bury their dead), nor does any particular territory (the son of man has nowhere to lay his head) – and right after this boat trip the Gadarenes try to shoo him out of their neighborhood.  Citizens of the kingdom of God cannot ultimately be bound by any smaller loyalties or definitions.  We must keep exploring the uncomfortable, chaotic edges – that is where creativity is found, it is where the spirit is often most fruitful.  Let go the anxiety and go sailing in a storm.  Go listen to those who are outside the bounds. 

The Bishop of Iowa took me to a bar last week.  We intended to experience some improv (and it was wonderful!), and we arrived in the middle of what was billed as stand-up comedy.  I heard language and images that are not routinely voiced in my presence.  It was the kind of outrageous comedy that comes across as tragic, for it was deeply lonely and alienated, with abundant need for the gospel.  Many of you are exploring those edges, encouraging pastors to be present in the midst of the chaos of life – in bars and pubs and on the streets, in shelters and in jail.  What happens there may not fit the rubrics or the canons, but it can bring deeply holy calm – and balm – in the midst of the storm.  It can also bring new life to the safe and staid and comfortable.

The eternal challenge is to serve particular people in a particular culture and geography, which is the gift of incarnation – AND to serve the larger call of God’s wholeness, the reconciliation of the world, shalom, tikkun olam, the Reign of God.  We are limited creatures with dreams of infinite and eternal liveliness.  Be not anxious – no one can do it all.  But even aged foreigners and resettled refugees have a vital and creative role to play.  Keep exploring those edges.  Go sailing in the storm.  You will find the Spirit at work.


[1] based on the work of Dionysius Exiguus (the calculator of Roman Easter dates) and Chalcedon

[2] Matthew 8:26