Hecker Lecture at St. Paul's College

Hecker Lecture at St. Paul's College

January 19, 2011

A catholic future: shared mission beyond unitary communions
Hecker Lecture
19 January 2011
St. Paul’s College (Paulist fathers), Washington, DC


We are the respective heirs of different strands of western Christianity. I will not begin with the Reformation, but with a much earlier, indigenous Christianity in the British Isles. Roman soldiers appear to have taken the Christian tradition with them when they were posted to the frontiers of the Roman Empire – at least by the second century. That tradition remained when the Roman Empire receded, but the faith continued to grow and develop in its new context.


If we would look for a modern parallel, we might point to the development of the Three Self Movement in China, with roots in the various colonial plantings of Christianity in the 16th to 19th centuries. One of the significant planters of an indigenizing Christianity in China can be found in Roland Allen, an Anglican missionary of the late 1800s. He read Paul very carefully, and firmly believed that the missionary task was to bring the faith, in scripture and sacraments, and then get out of the way. Gregory sent Augustine to 6th century Britain, and challenged him at least in part to bless the best of local tradition in recognition that God had already been at work there. Paul himself sets the example in his great speech on Mars Hill.


The tradition planted in the British Isles did grow and develop in ways that diverged from the Mediterranean tradition – as did the tradition planted in Gaul and other parts of the ancient world. Without entering a lengthy reprise of Christian history, the next major point of difficulty or stress between one indigenizing faith and another comes in the 7th century at the Synod of Whitby. Originally called to fix the date of Easter, it’s the point at which the Roman desire for uniformity began to impact the diversity in Celtic lands. Indeed, it doesn’t make much sense for fellow Christians to celebrate the feast of the Resurrection at different times – yet we continue in similar diversity within the Christian tradition to this day.


Interestingly, there’s a parallel in China, in the Chinese Rites controversy, a more local expression of a wider struggle between Dominican and Jesuit understandings of how much adaption to local tradition was appropriate.


It’s important to spend some time looking at our history, because many people erroneously believe that the big conflict came at the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The differences between Roman and Anglican Christianity have certainly solidified since then, but the roots are much older. The points of difference between our respective communions are, to this day, rooted in different responses to contextual diversity. How shall the faith develop, or be permitted to develop, in the face of differing local conditions, challenges, and gifts?


I certainly recognize that formal statements from the Roman Communion deny the validity of some other Christian responses to this challenge, but we still continue to wrestle with the realities, both in the context of our formal ecumenical dialogues and in the more local missional context. A bright line has been drawn by the Roman magisterium about what sorts of Christian companionship are permissible and which are not, particularly around sacramental fellowship. Yet even in that context there is the possibility of sharing baptismal fellowship, for we both recognize the validity of Trinitarian baptism.


I would like to root our conversation in that baptismal vocation, and extend it in an Orthodox sense of sacramentality toward our participation in the missio dei, the mission for which and into which God has called us.


One of the surprising developments in Anglican theology in recent decades has been a recovery of a theology of vocation and mission rooted in baptism, rather than primarily in sacramental priesthood. It reflects an understanding of the early church that each disciple is called into Christ-like living and transformative participation in the coming reign of God. It’s not revolutionary in that sense, but radical, in returning to our Christian roots.


I’m going to expand on that, but I want to touch on what I said about an Orthodox sense of sacramentality before we move on. One of the charisms of Orthodoxy is the sense that God is active in far more than we recognize, that rather than two or seven sacraments, there are dozens or hundreds and even more than we can count or know. It’s deeply connected to knowing the sacred nature of all that God has created. It’s also connected to a similar sense of sacredness developed in the Celtic lands over many centuries of Christian presence. That sense of the sacral reality of all of creation has been much resisted not only by strands of Western Christianity, but indeed by some strands of preceding Jewish monotheism. There is an obvious and necessary tension between seeing only God as ultimately holy and being willing to look for holy fingerprints on all that God has created. At the same time, once we note that God has shared God’s own being with us in human flesh in the Incarnation, it is perhaps easier to begin to see that God’s presence may be encountered in the hills and forests, or Leviathan, whom God made for sport (Ps 104:26).

There is also a patristic root to this sacramental understanding, particularly in the theologizing of Athanasius and Irenaeus, and the doctrine of theosis or divinization to which it gave rise. Perhaps the best shorthand summary is, “God became human in order that we might become divine.”

All those various threads are significant if we’re going to look at the current state of Anglican and Roman relationships, for the patchwork that is Anglicanism takes all those various threads and at least theoretically encourages them to find life of different colors and textures in the soil of different nations and peoples. It also forms the background on which our two communions can find common cause in joining God’s mission in this day and age and all our varied contexts. It is the ground on which we can share a catholic vocation.

Once we recognize the common ground, perhaps we may be able to move behind singular answers to highly particular challenges, at least in certain spheres. We share a common belief in the reign of God, in the sacramental presence of God in the earthly realm, and in the necessity of human participation in God’s mission.

There are perhaps a handful of significant missional questions or categories we might engage: why we should be interested in working together; who are the ones who should be included in such common labor; how we can best do so, or how we might explore new methods or avenues; and particular contextual issues of immediacy and urgency.

We’ve begun to look at the why question, but if we’re going to root this in a theologically robust way, a little more digging and fertilizing could help. John’s gospel is the likeliest place to start: Jesus’ high priestly prayer, “that they all may be one” (Jn 17:21) is one expression of the divine yearning for a common life. Paul’s body theology is another, that the body has many parts, each with unique gifts, but that all are meant to work together for the building up of the body (1Cor 12; Rom 12).

The why question is more deeply rooted in an eschatological vision of a healed creation, whose healing has been advanced in novel and unique ways in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of God Incarnate. The tension around this question in Christian history has frequently been rooted in the location of that eschatological vision – is it this-worldly or other-worldly? The Gnostic error is to push all of it into the spiritual realm, denigrating God’s good creation, yet even if we don’t go that far, there have been a variety of Christian or quasi-Christian strands that have attempted to insist that this-worldly salvation, healing, or wholeness (same root for all!) is not all that important. Jesus’ own ministry gives the lie to that deferral of healing into an afterlife. His work was profoundly incarnate, feeding the physical hunger of people around him, healing them in body, mind, and soul, as well as teaching about the false lords of this earth and God’s desire for justice and peace in a healed and beloved community. The prophetic vision of shalom is a very good shorthand for where we’re meant to be traveling: abundant food, absence of sickness, peace and justice in human relationships – as well as a proper sense of ourselves as fellow creatures with the non-human parts of God’s making. If we share the elements of that vision, even some of them, we ought to be urgent about seeking out the gifts of others to help it come to fruition. That is at least part of what Irenaeus meant when he said that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’ – co-creating that divine intention.

Let’s move to the question of who should be concerned with this labor, ministry, or co-creative action. Who are the partners in God’s mission? It’s God’s mission, after all, not ours, or the church’s. It’s God’s vision, and even though we see it dimly, it has been shared repeatedly by the prophets throughout our shared history of salvation. I’m going to push a bit here, but it’s an Anglican characteristic – either virtue or failing, depending on your perspective. If God is acknowledged as the creator of all that is, I’m going to insist that God has been at work in contexts and cultures beyond the outwardly Christian ones. God was certainly at work in the history leading to the Incarnation. If we take seriously God’s omnipresence and omnipotence, we have to be willing to see the divine action in unexpected places. Vatican II was able to say that there is salvation beyond the church. We commonly acknowledge the saintly behavior of those who do not know or profess Christ. My point is that when we see a parallel vision of the goal of creation – that great eschatological dream – being enacted by non-Christians, I think it’s our missionary duty to seek out those partners. It might even be acknowledged as that mysterious sin against the Holy Spirit to deny that reality. Seeking out any who share significant chunks of that eschatological vision as missional partners is another aspect of that sacramental understanding of reality. God is going to use whatever means necessary or possible to lure us into partnership toward that healed creation. It is a truly catholic duty – and joy – to discover God’s ongoing creative work in those we haven’t yet recognized as brothers or sisters in Christ.

The question of how we partner in God’s missional work is deeply related to the contextual challenge, and to our self-understanding as disciples and servants of a kenotic God. Let’s talk about the kenotic aspect first. When we speak of the incarnation as God’s self-giving or even self-limitation in order to share fully in human existence, we don’t just mean giving up the divine gift of ubiquity. We hold that divine vulnerability as central to our theological understanding of salvation, of how the world is healed. If we’re going to be Christ-like partners in God’s mission, it must mean that we don’t arrive with all the answers or solutions to some missional challenge. We have to enter humbly, yet with urgent expectation that God is already at work, even in the valley of the shadow of death. What gifts has already made evident in this context that looks so dire or hopeless to us? If we follow a lord who would even go into hell searching for Judas, as the Orthodox hold, then we have to cultivate a vision that can discover blessing in unlikely places, whether in unusual partners, or the slums of Calcutta, or in the treasure of the poor as saints new and old have shown us.

Entering a missional context with that kind of urgency is expected of us over and over: two were in a field, one was taken and one was left. A man found a pearl in a field, sold all that he had in order to possess it. A woman swept her house repeatedly in order to find a lost coin. It’s an attitude that’s not always easy in wealthier, privileged, or powerful contexts, yet it’s at the root of what it is to know oneself as creature rather than creator.

A kenotic attitude offers an open heart to receive what God is already doing, and then to partner, to commune with the holy spirit in continuing that creative and redemptive work.

So, what does the contextual have to do with how we engage God’s mission as catholics? At the least it insists that a common vision informs the work in which we partner – that dream of a beloved community, that understanding of the reign of God, the city set on a hill, the light to the nations. Something about our work has to engage the universal, whether it’s caring for the least of these in feeding the hungry, delivering prisoners, or building a society where the powerful are not advantaged at the cost of the weak. Better yet, we share ways of working in which we bring a shared sense of baptismal values – all are ministers of God’s reign, each with particular gifts, none more important than another. Pervading all, like the water of life soaking into each and every laborer in the vineyard, is the sense that it is only as the Body that we can engage the whole of the healing work to which we’re called. That Body, in partnership with its divine Head, becomes an instrument of salvation, of holy wholeness, as it attends to that healing and reconciling labor as a unit. That necessarily means that no one part of the Body comes to the endeavor with the how already answered. The how becomes evident in the wisdom present in the gathered body. That’s perhaps the most essential theological reality underlying the necessity of common and catholic mission. We can’t do it alone. We’re not smart enough, we’re not good enough, we’re not capable enough. To think otherwise is fundamentally idolatrous. We need each other, gathered in the presence of the holy one.

To be quite particular, participation in God’s mission is likely going to mean that we look for partners in other faith traditions and Christian communities, as well as groups outside the formal religious world. Healing the scourge of malaria in the tropics happens far more easily when we’re willing to work across denomination lines, when we’re willing to partner with governments and corporations, for the particular purpose of healing God’s children, suffering from a diminution of life. Coca-Cola and Exxon Mobil aren’t going to name their work as building the reign of God, yet both are partners with Episcopal Relief and Development as well as the U.S. and various African governments in providing long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, and training in how to use them.

We’re also going to have to be willing to look at new models, new ways of serving God’s mission. An example: the Episcopal seminary in Port-au-Prince has a particular mission to train and equip priests and lay leaders for service in Haiti. They also have a part in the larger eschatological vision of shalom or the Reign of God. Before last year’s earthquake, one of the ways in which they served both parts of God’s mission involved a well on the seminary’s property. The well produced water at rates far beyond the seminary’s immediate needs. They acquired a purification system, and a machine for packaging water in small plastic bags, with the help of US partners. Those small bags of water were sold on the street for a nominal sum, providing clean water to people who otherwise had little access to it, and at the same time providing a third of the seminary’s operating costs. I dare say that the long tradition of Roman Catholic schools in this country operates in a similar way – asking a small contribution of those who are directly served so that a larger part of God’s world may also be served.

Creative solutions to resource challenges might define the experience of the Hebrew people wandering in the desert. We are supposed to think in ways beyond our immediate prejudice about what is possible or even proper. Certainly God’s preferential option for the poor is an expression of that – need is meant to be served first, and God is willing to use younger sons, women, foreigners, and even the evil of this world in the service of salvation.

We’ve been moving toward particular contextual issues, and it would be helpful to explore those in greater depth. I’m going to start more particularly, with The Episcopal Church, and then consider shared Anglican values around mission, but I want you to hear those undergirding principles of catholicity in the midst of all of it. We look for partners of all sorts, and indeed, this work cannot succeed or be truly faithful if it doesn’t.

In the last few years The Episcopal Church has been deeply invested in the Millennium Development Goals as a proximate image of the Reign of God. Those goals seek to heal the worst of the developing world’s poverty, illness, and lack of access to the goods of creation. They don’t set out the fullness of the eschatological vision, yet that vision clearly underlies the trajectory: no more starving people; children with a better chance at surviving infancy; women better prepared for conceiving, bearing, and raising healthy children; girls and boys having access to basic primary education; the gifts of women honored and developed in ways that have thus far often been inaccessible; preventing and treating diseases like AIDS, malaria, and TB; justice in trade and aid; and building sustainable development practices. We’ve made this vision, with its built-in objectives and deadlines, a framework for our overseas development work. It’s been an important way to form Episcopalians in understanding what caring for the least of these looks like, and it’s been a remarkable opportunity to engage individuals, congregations, dioceses, and the entire church in concrete ways that can employ the gifts of all – through learning about neighbors across the world, through sharing financial resources, and through participating in very particular corporal works of mercy.

The particularity of this vision has actually been the creative spark, as congregations discover that a $10 bed net can save three lives, contribute to the education of children, and effect a more hopeful and indeed peaceful community. It’s also provided the impetus for a similar approach to issues of poverty in our domestic context, and that is beginning to see effective outcomes, particularly in Native American communities.

Participation in God’s mission is importantly undergirded by corporal works of mercy, yet God’s mission is obviously broader. One of the Anglican Communion’s lesser known gifts in recent years has been the Five Marks of Mission, developed in the late 1980s. It sets out a framework for a broad understanding of mission thus:
1) proclaim the good news of the reign of God
2) teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
3) compassionately respond to human suffering
4) transform unjust structures of society
5) care for the earth.
It’s been a very helpful teaching tool, as well as an evaluative one, in examining how and where we participate in God’s mission. Even though we may have highly particular understandings of what some aspects of that mission look like – especially around what it means to teach and nurture new believers – if we focus on the broad vision of the reign of God, there is almost none of this that we cannot and should not be doing together.

We’ve already talked about a mutual recognition of Trinitarian baptism in each other’s communions, yet how often does that happen in local experience? I am certainly aware of a couple of diocesan covenants, in the US part of our context, where cathedrals have been profoundly intentional about celebrating baptism together. Yet how often do we invite catechumens to study together, or share in other aspects of God’s mission in a more catholic spirit?

Particularly in our local American context, we live in a society that is decreasingly interested in the formal religious communities of decades recently past. I think it’s fair to say that we live in a post-Christian society, in spite of the platitudes mouthed by many when interviewed by pollsters. Twice as many people report going to church last Sunday as actually turned up in all the houses of worship in this nation. Yet we know increasingly that there are spiritual seekers all around us – young adults, immigrants, the forgotten of native reservations and rural pockets of poverty, the hopeless of the inner city. The work of sharing good news is going to have to be far more creative than either of our communions has known before. We need to go out from our comfortable houses of worship into what is often unexplored territory. The world needs the gifts of all of us if we’re going to begin to help people makes sense of the bad news of their own lives – violence, hopelessness, and meaninglessness. The need for spiritually-gifted community is immense, and it’s far more than either of us can accomplish alone.

We have far more experience of crossing communion boundaries in shared works of mercy – yet even so, rarely at institutional levels. We may find parishioners of both communions serving at the same food kitchen, but how often do we formally partner in building a Habitat House together? What keeps us from seeking out such ways to heal the divisions between us – is it excessive pride in our part of the Body, or fear that we might be changed in the encounter?

I want to celebrate the work we have shared in terms of challenging issues of injustice. I’ve seen highly particular examples in this very city, as Episcopalians and Romans have badgered various administrations and Congress to attend to the poor and to make peace in the wider world. We have an intensely urgent challenge right now in the Middle East, and our administration needs encouragement to keep both Israel and the Palestinians at the table. The need for peace in the land of the Holy One is more urgent today than it has been for a very long time, and this window of opportunity seems to be closing. Christians are leaving Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and other countries in the region that was the very cradle of our faith. We have a vital witness to make about the transformative work that Christians continue to do in that region, in spite of the terrible oppression and violence to which they are increasingly subject. Episcopal schools in the West Bank serve Christian and Muslim children alike, building a society of peace-makers in the souls of its children. Episcopal hospitals in Gaza and the West Bank serve and heal all comers. Christians are a vital part of a peaceful and peace-making responses to the fear and violence from which the region suffers. And both of us here in the US, with our brothers and sisters in other communions and faith traditions, need to keep urging our own government to use the resources in its power to build a just solution to the ongoing war in the holy land.

There are other urgent and significant pressure points where our common advocacy is urgently needed: the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the outcome of Sudan’s referendum, and the need for one in Abyei; and the ongoing economic embargo of Cuba. There’s actually been some good news there in the last week – modestly increased opportunities for religious travel and remittances. Our shared justice-seeking work, particularly when we can partner with other communities and communions of faith, is far more likely to have results.

Perhaps the largest and most significant issue of justice facing us as people of faith has to do with our care of the garden in which God has planted us. The ways in which we use or abuse the gifts of creation are potential occasions either of sin or co-creative redemption. They also have cosmic consequence, for the lives of all human beings and all other creatures on the planet are being affected by the decisions we are making. Those decisions also have implication for the lives of the human beings and other creatures who will follow us. Our tradition has not given us great resources or encouragement for considering the lives of those who follow us, yet they too must be considered as fellow or potential members of the communion of saints. We are connected to those who will follow us, just as we are connected to those who have come before. This is an instance in which our Native American brothers and sisters have something to teach us, where the ethical calculus in those contexts considers the seven generations before and the seven generations yet to come.

We are beginning to understand that our use of fossil fuels, and our consumption-based economies are rapidly depriving the peoples of the South Pacific of their homelands, and rapidly defrosting the homelands of the peoples of the Arctic. The broad ecosystems in both are both being changed in ways beyond the members’ ability to adapt. The people of Kiribati and Tuvalu will likely have to move to higher ground within a few short years, and they’ve begun to negotiate for land in higher countries. The Gwich’in peoples of the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic will lose their food source, culture, and communities as the caribou find it harder to migrate through thawed tundra. Other Arctic peoples are losing their ability to hunt and fish as sea ice recedes. The community of Kivalina is rapidly being eroded by storms, for sea ice no longer protects its shoreline.

Here in the United States we are seeing the water pressures long known in the West exacerbated as more and more is withdrawn by thirsty populations and inappropriate farming techniques upstream. Neither of our religious communities is large enough, gifted enough, or extensive enough to respond to these challenges. We can only begin to do so in communion with other parts of God’s human family, with people of faith of all sorts, who seek a healed and more just world. We will be faithless if we fail to work with all possible partners in seeking a truly catholic response to God’s mission to heal this world, to restore all that is to right relationship with God, and each other, in Christ.


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