Next week we will stay behind following the 10:30 service to elect a new Deputy People’s Warden and at least three Lay Delegates to Synod. Herewith, a crash course in Anglican governance.
It is said of the Anglican Church that we are “episcopally led” and “synodically governed”. What this means is that authority is a balancing act between the church’s ordained leaders—its bishops, priests and deacons—and the lay people they serve. So a bishop, who has oversight (from the Greek epi [over] and skope [sight]) of the church, offers leadership in the form of vision, guidance and doctrinal teaching, but relies upon Synod (a church council comprised of both lay and clerical representatives) to form the actual laws (called canons) that govern of the church.
This is a system of negotiated power. A parish priest, for example, has authority to preach the Gospel, teach the faith, and care for those in his or her care. But it is the parish itself—through general meetings and a governing board called Vestry—that must establish its own priorities, set its budget, and develop its own unique character as a Christian presence in the world.
Electing lay leaders in the church, then, is a vital way that the church remains the working body of the people, and not simply the playground of the clergy. At all levels of the church—the parish, the diocese, and the national office—it is the right and the responsibility of lay people … to govern.
Our new Vestry met for the first time last week. Right out of the gate its members identified some of the areas we may focus on in the coming year: children and young families, parish health and vitality, and neighbourhood outreach.
Happily, St. Stephen’s is enjoying a bit of a baby boom these days. This is evident on Sunday mornings where more and more infants are being cared for in our nursery, even more school-aged children are engaged in our Sunday school program The Excellent Adventure, and an older group is poised to enter their pre-teens. Advance planning will ensure we provide a safe and stimulating place for their spiritual growth through the years to come.
Many Vestry members were originally drawn to St. Stephen’s for its liveliness. Sermons were engaging, people were friendly, the congregation was diverse, and there was a sense of life and vitality. Vestry will likely spend some time in the coming months considering how to nurture this life for people of all ages and stages.
But also, Vestry expressed a concern that we continue to be engaged in our neighbourhood, providing not only an attractive and user-friendly gathering place for community groups, but also a community within a community where people may find a spiritual home … just as we have.
All in all, this is a promising start for our new Vestry. It speaks of a congregation actively seeking to find its place as a faith community reaching out in love to the world.
“Liberal” Christians are those who refuse to park their brains at the door when they go to church. No doubt other Christians say the same thing about themselves (who wants to admit to being brainless?) while at the same time teaching a faith of blind and often witless obedience.
Take this week’s Gospel reading, for instance: Matthew 5:21-37. An extension of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we hear that divorce is a sin and marriage to a divorced person is adultery. Quite apart from the damning consequences for a good number of Christians we know, such teaching chafes at our moral sensibilities and asks us to dig deeper.
Is the God of love really consigning to hellfire those whose marriages have broken up, both those who have been devastated by the desertion of a spouse, and those who have themselves painfully left a failing marriage? Are we to accept as literal, as many churches do, that divorce is inherently evil and that divorcees—and those who marry them—are sinners?
In 1977 the Anglican Church of Canada took a more conciliatory approach, citing God’s grace as prevenient to God’s judgement. While divorce must be seen in the light of broken promises, hence as moral failure, the Church took the stance that where sin abounds grace abounds even more. Since that time we have permitted the remarriage of divorced persons. It’s not rocket science. The good news we preach is not about sin and about its consequences. It’s about God’s grace!
Jesus counselled his followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecuted them (Matthew 5:44). St. Paul advised the early Christians to whom he wrote that they should be subject to the governing authorities as to God (Romans 13:1). So what are we to make of civil disobedience? And how are we to pray for Egypt in its populist uprising?
It is easy, instructed by scripture, to make the case for pacifism. After all, Jesus did not raise up an army against the Romans; nor did he overturn the Jewish Sanhedrin. He submitted to their judgement and died a horrible death, thus setting in motion a far more seditious movement—a spreading community of peace-loving Christians who were prepared to die for their faith rather than pay homage to an earthly emperor.
But there have been other voices as well. Setting aside the biblical passages demanding the brutal conquest of one’s enemies, some have argued for firm but non-violent resistance in the face of oppression. We think in modern terms of the prophetic Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, both Catholic priests and peace activists in the 1960’s who were, for a time, on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for their acts of vandalism against military installations.
It is a complex question worthy of our serious consideration. But this is certain: violence begets violence. So let us pray for the Egyptians in this hour of unrest … that they may forge a peaceful transition into their new future.
The place for the true follower of Christ is in the world, not in the church. The church is a place to return for strength, for consolation, for inspiration … but all in order to equip us for service in the world.
At St. Stephen’s we find many opportunities for such service. Inn From the Cold provides shelter and comfort for those who otherwise would be on the streets. All Roads Lead Home supports people settling into affordable homes of their own. Through our monthly “Pink Envelopes” we support a variety of other outreach programs such as the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, Feed The Hungry, and the Rector’s Discretionary Fund.
But beyond all the outreach opportunities available through the church, there are countless ways to serve the world through our support of international NGO’s (non-government organizations), local charities, cultural groups, and service organizations. In fact, there are so many ways to serve, so many good and worthy causes, we sometimes find ourselves having to consolidate our charitable donations into a few chosen favourites.
The point is, the church may be where we are inspired to give, but it is not the only place to which we give. So follow your heart. What are the causes that speak to you, that engage your interest, that move you to action? Include the church among these, because this is where it all starts. But somewhere out there is a cause with your name on it, awaiting your considered and generous response.