Celebration of our Episcopal Heritage and Mission in Worcester County

Celebration of our Episcopal Heritage and Mission in Worcester County

All Saints, Worcester
November 20, 2010

Can you imagine the chutzpah of somebody coming in here right after the Civil War and saying, “it’s time to ordain women, and oh, by the way, we really should revise the prayer book”? It was hard enough work in the 1970s, let alone the 1870s! William Reed Huntington instigated both. He got the General Convention to restore the ancient order of deaconesses, and he pushed the not-insignificant revisions of the 1892 Book of Common Prayer. He also challenged this congregation to found four more congregations, named after each of the evangelists.

One more striking change began to take shape in this place – something called the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. That guide for reunion with other Christian bodies was adopted by the Episcopal bishops in 1886, and in 1888 by the gathering of Anglican bishops at Lambeth. This church has been challenging the rest of the Communion for a very long time!

It also seems that every time something new has been built in this place, the holy spirit has been brooding over it – or at least that’s how the people here understood those doves nesting in the rafters.


Very significant mission and ministry has emerged from this part of Massachusetts for nearly 200 years. You have been faithful and creative leaders in the work of the gospel. Huntington wasn’t the only one, and he wouldn’t be remembered unless he’d convinced others to join in that creative and paradigm-shattering work.

The eternal question is how we’re going to continue in that faithful tradition, as leaders of transformation, as part of God’s mission. Job invites us to recognize where the real value is – not in things that pass away, like gold nuggets in the river gravel, but in God. Paul reminds us that we have the wisdom to see God’s yearning to gather up all things – as our catechism puts it, “to reconcile the world to God and each other in Christ.” John tells us that Jesus’ work is so that God’s love may be in each and every one. All reminders that we’re not there yet, we haven’t reached the kingdom of God.


The holy spirit continues to brood over the work of gathering and reconciling and building up. It’s only our fear or hesitation that keeps us from letting go of what hasn’t worked and trying again in a new way. Too often we’re terrified that trying something new is going to mean the death of us. Well, those fears are justified – but death is more certain if we don’t try anything new.


We’re about to renew our promises to join in that reconciling work. The sprinkling of water we’re all going to receive is supposed to be a bit shocking – to wake us up. It’s a sacramental reminder of the death and rebirth we know as part of the body of Christ. That body, like all incarnate bodies, is continually in the process of dying and renewal. Our own bodies are made up of millions of cells, very few of which last us our whole lives. The cells of our bones, blood, and skin are dying and new ones are emerging all the time. When that process stops, we die.

The same is true of the body of Christ, at many levels. The great overarching story of Jesus’ death and resurrection also says something about the life of individual congregations and larger parts of the body of Christ. That’s what the communion of saints is all about – it’s why we remember William Reed Huntington, and the first deaconesses; it’s why there are memorials on the walls and the holy tables of most of our churches. The faithful have gone on into larger life, leaving abundant gifts behind them.

That story of dying and renewal is also foundational for our life as the body of Christ called a diocese or The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion. Some of the cells of the body of Christ called the Diocese of Western Massachusetts live longer than others, yet each can give life to those who will follow. One that no longer exists is represented in a chalice we will use today (St. John’s, Worcester). Dioceses may give rise to new ones, and occasionally they merge to form a stronger whole. It happens at the larger level as well. Liberia used to be part of The Episcopal Church, as did the dioceses that now make up the provinces in the Philippines, Mexico, Central America, and Brazil.

New life has emerged from the creative vision of union of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, probably most fruitfully in the last few years. We have entered full communion with the ELCA, we are about to celebrate full communion with the Moravian churches in North America, and we are exploring that possibility with the United Methodist Church, and the historically black Methodist churches. Jesus continues to invite us into one body – with many parts and gifts, but one in mission nonetheless.

The spirit continues to brood over new and creative action. Twenty-five years ago an Anglican Communion commission offered a summary of how we might understand our part in God’s mission to heal this world. Those five marks of mission are another way of setting out what we’re commissioned for in baptism: to proclaim the good news of the kingdom; teach, baptize, and nurture new believers; responding to human need through loving service; transforming the unjust structures in society; and caring for creation. Each of us plays a part – feeding the hungry, tutoring a child, sharing what we know of God with a teenager, challenging our legislators to care about the defenseless. What’s probably most significant is that no one part of the body can do them all – it needs all of us, working together. Healing the world here in Worcester County needs all these communities of faith – and more. The more is the challenge to let new life emerge – even reluctantly.


The church of St. Mary’s in Low Harrogate, England, literally began to fall down. The people decided it made no economic sense to try to rebuild that old stone pile, much loved though it was. They let it die, but in the last six years, that congregation has given birth to several “mission-shaped communities” that meet in homes, pubs, and parks. They come together as a “café-style church” every two weeks for worship, study, and fellowship. That body meets in the old parish hall. This “network” church calls itself Kairos and claims its purpose is to “release communities of followers to live out the mission of Jesus” in their “workplaces, families, and friendships.”

We can learn something from our siblings, something that has to do with letting go of what’s moribund – even falling down around our ears – and having the courage to help give birth to new ways of being the body of Christ. They probably have other things to learn from us.


Our work here is meant to be about letting the love of God be known in the world around us. Are we here for ourselves, or are we here for the folks out there who haven’t heard about that love? All the congregations represented here grew out of a sense that God’s love was and is needed in a hurting world. Somebody before you had the courage and vision to bring something new to life. If Huntington had thought nothing needed changing, he wouldn’t have stirred the pot as vigorously as he did, or challenged one congregation to start four more.


You have a strong history of mission in this part of Massachusetts. What edges are you exploring? Where are you looking for people and communities who haven’t experienced the love of God? How are your communities going to die and renew themselves to meet them?


Years ago a hospice nurse shared an old New Yorker cartoon with me. It shows an elegant old woman sitting up in bed, talking on the phone. There are a couple of dismal relatives sitting around her bed, waiting. She’s telling the person on the phone, “gotta go, I’m dying!”

Can we embrace the next chapter of mission with that much enthusiasm?

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