A place of hope: Standing in the diverse center
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." At the conclusion of a recent meeting of the House of Bishops in Cleveland, Ohio, these haunting words from W. B. Yeats's poem The Second Coming came vividly to mind, not because they were true but because I had just experienced the exact opposite.
On the last evening in Cleveland a group of newly ordained bishops asked me to join their end-of-day conversation. I did so, eager to hear some of their reflections on what we had been about for nearly a week.
"Did you know that all the bishops have been characterized somewhere as 'liberal' or 'conservative'?" one of the bishops asked.
"I am amused that I have been typed a 'liberal'," said another of the bishops. "That may be true about some things, but I can be very conservative about other things. I really would describe myself as standing in the center."
The others nodded in assent. They all agreed that they resented the tendency within the church, which we all so easily fall into, of "labeling" people – particularly bishops – viewed through one or another ideological lens. What then emerged from the conversation was their sense that, no matter what labels they had been given, they were standing "in the center." Further, they agreed that the preponderance of their brother and sister bishops were there as well. Along with me, they were both amused and disconcerted at the reality that most of the attention gravitates to those who stand at the edges. Unsurprisingly, we tend to notice and talk about what is seemingly different, aberrant, and not what we hold in common.
I suspect that what is true for these five bishops is largely true of our church as a whole. In fact, as I have traveled about and met with clergy and laity from north to south and east to west what I experience of the church again and again is what I would like to call "the diverse center."
What creates the diverse center? In part it has to do with the ethos of Anglicanism and how we came into being as an ecclesial community. Anglicanism emerged from the religious struggles of the Reformation, and sought to contain within itself both the perspectives and urgencies of the reformers and the sensibilities of those shaped and formed by Catholicism and their desire to maintain its historic patterns.
I know of no other ecclesial community that was born out of the desire to contain passionately held and divergent theological perspectives within a context of common prayer. This is perhaps why liturgy is so central to our Anglican identity. It is, no matter what views we hold, our true and abiding meeting place.
At a deeper level the diverse center has to do with being shaped and formed by Christ into a many-membered body in which no limb is expendable without seriously compromising the integrity of the whole. Every time we share the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation in a sacramental encounter with the Risen Christ we are enacting this very truth.
Because there is a solid ground upon which to stand, the center can both endure and at the same time draw strength and wisdom from those who stand on the edges. Without the edges there could be no center at all. The center is engaged continuously in the work of making meaning â and being expanded by â the various tugs and pulls that would draw it in one direction or the other.
Standing in the center has nothing to do with some kind of anemic compromise, nor does it mean avoiding difficult and seemingly unanswerable questions. This center embraces many opinions but holds together because of a deep sense that we all truly belong together in Christ. This sense of being bound together creates an atmosphere in which mutual respect and affection are able to displace suspicion and condemnation. Being together in this way makes it possible for us to hear and receive from one another that particular dimension of Christâs truth which we each bear in virtue of our baptism.
The center is not a place of anxiety. It is a place of hope: hope worked in us by the Spirit rather than some form of self-generated optimism. And here I am put in mind of Paul's description of how this hope is formed in us: "Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."
It is out of this hope that we are called to live, and it is in the power of this hope that we are able to cast anxiety aside. Regardless of how we might be inadequately "labeled," regardless of whether we see ourselves as part of the diverse center or as standing on the edge tugging, may we continue in hope and joy on our journey together by which our character as a church is conformed more fully to the image of Christ.
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA