WHO DE MAN?
The Anglican Church is not a democracy. All churches, according to their highest ideals, are theocracies—faith-based political organizations following the will of God. But things get slippery when they actually go about trying to interpret God’s will. Whose interpretation is correct, and in any case who gets to decide whose interpretation is correct?
For congregationalist churches—churches that have no denominational overseers—God’s will is interpreted by the members of a congregation who presumably study scripture, pray about it, and have theological debates among themselves. In the catholic and orthodox traditions popes and patriarchs presume to settle theological issues and the people are expected to fall into line.
The Anglican Church is governed through a negotiated relationship between bishops and councils—a via media that is sometimes characterized as “episcopally led; synodically governed”—bishops lead us, but we govern ourselves.
The Anglican Church is hierarchical, but in Canada the highest position is not a territorial or national archbishop, but rather a diocesan bishop. That is because our church was founded by diocesan bishops who did not want to give up any of their local power when they were establishing a national church separate from the Church of England.
While Anglican congregations are bound to obedience to their local diocesan bishop, they exercise their democratic right to govern themselves every time they meet for General Meetings, as we do this week for our AGM. Such meetings remind us that, while our bishop sets the course, we steer the vessel ourselves.
“WELCOMING THE STRANGER”
Every week we are blessed in our worship to have a mix of both long-time members and newcomers. In fact, most weeks our worship includes people who have never been with us before—friends and relatives of church members, spiritual seekers, church shoppers. Some of our visitors have never been to church … or not for a very long time.
All are welcome, and we take pains to make our worship accessible and easy to follow. But it takes a while for us to get to know the ones who decide to stay. And as we do, how assertively do we extend the hand of friendship? Too much and it seems like we’re being pushy. Too little and it appears we don’t care.
Like all relationships, getting to know one another requires sensitivity and deftness. But most of all it requires simply that we pay attention. So first we notice if someone sits nearby who is unfamiliar to us. A smile acknowledges their presence. We notice if they are familiar with our order of service and we offer a hand if they appear lost. We make a point of passing the peace with them and then, at the conclusion of the service, inviting them to stay for coffee where we might introduce them to a few others.
Hospitality is the gift of a few, but it is the ministry of us all. So let us work together to welcome the stranger in our midst—as if it were Christ himself!
NOT OVER YET
At the risk of returning too soon to a painful topic, there have been two recent developments in our quest to offer same-sex blessings at St. Stephen’s.
One of course is the decision last week of the primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion to censure the Episcopal Church of the United States over its endorsement of same-sex marriage. (Every nation or region of the earth is presided over by an archbishop called a primate—pronounced prī-mĕt, to distinguish them from our Neanderthal forebears.)
This decision does not affect the Canadian church directly but without doubt our House of Bishops will have this in mind—as a deterrent—next summer when our General Synod meets to consider changing the marriage canon to allow the marriage of same-gender couples.
Meanwhile, following the failure of the Shared Episcopal Ministry protocol to move us forward on this issue (through the use of an alternative bishop), we have launched a formal appeal to our Canadian Primate, Fred Hiltz, asking for his guidance, or that of the House of Bishops. Specifically, we are asking: How can we follow the deepest dictates of our conscience under a bishop who prevents us from doing so?
There are other paths we can follow, new strategies we can still employ, but each one takes us farther down a road that leads ultimately to the ecclesiastical equivalent of civil disobedience. So our hope is that we will receive a supportive reply from the Primate, despite the recent decision of his colleagues.
Each month we make available a special offering envelope we call the Pink Envelope. This is designated for one of six outreach projects Parish Council has identified for the year. The envelopes are included with the boxed set of envelopes for those who give in this way, or separately for those who give by pre-authorized debit; they are also available to anyone who asks.
This month’s designation is what we call “Outreach—Beyond”. Currently this fund supports three outreach initiatives on the African continent. One is Hilda Shilliday’s work with an AIDS hospital in Uganda and other local projects she has brought to our attention. Hilda is the wife of former rector Errol Shilliday and a long-time friend of St. Stephen’s.
The fund also supports the Reverend Emmanuel Gatera, a Rwandan priest who is currently pursuing his doctorate through St. Stephen’s college in Edmonton to equip him as a counsellor for those traumatized by the genocide of 1994. We have enjoyed an enduring friendship with Emmanuel since his student days. He and his wife will visit us next fall when they come for his graduation.
We have also begun supporting a charitable foundation set up by church member John Ngeth Deng for his village in South Sudan to ensure children there have food and supplies to help keep them in school in the midst of great social and political turmoil.
If you would like to receive Pink Envelopes for the coming year please contact Lynn our Administrator through the office.
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
When something seems too good to be true, sometimes that’s exactly what it is—too good to be true. Such has been the case with our appeal to the senior bishop of our ecclesiastical province for Shared Episcopal Ministry. The appeal was intended to provide us with a bishop who would be willing to oversee our offering of same-sex blessings here at St. Stephen’s even while our own diocesan bishop has denied us that right.
Initially we were delighted by Bishop Phillip’s response, which not only accepted our appeal but also offered himself as the bishop with whom we could work … and all with the agreement of our bishop and archbishop Greg Kerr-Wilson. But it turns out that Bishop Phillip’s letter to us constituted a major miscommunication wherein what he said and what he intended were quite different things.
What he said was that he was contacting us to “to begin the process”, while also agreeing “to serve as the SEM bishop for St. Stephen’s”, to which our bishop had already agreed. What he meant was that, while he would not support us doing anything against the will of our bishop, he would willingly “walk with us” in our quest to do same-sex blessings … someday.
So your rector and wardens regret having to correct the impression they shared with you about our being granted a way forward on this issue. However, they believe that the SEM protocol still has relevance and significance, along with other options being considered.
CHRISTMAS: IN WORD AND SONG
This afternoon we gather to hear—in word and in song—a story that has changed the world: the birth of a baby to a young couple who are caught up in dark events that rise up on every side, dwarfing them. Their world had all the upheaval of an earthquake, yet we follow them through their precarious journey—that leads not only to safety, but indeed, to the salvation of the world.
Of course, the Christmas story is a relatively modern invention of our imaginations. It does not exist in the Bible as a single narrative. Rather it picks up narrative strands scattered across four hundred years of religious writing and orders those strands into the story we know today.
But it is the story we need to hear: the humble birth of the one who will prove to be our saviour; the victory of light over darkness; the promise of God’s powerful presence even in our most vulnerable and frightening moments.
It is a story of the heart, not of the head—for the details only serve to confuse us. It is best told, not with a preacher’s fury, but with a storyteller’s grace. And it is best heard accompanied by the sacred music that the story itself has inspired through the ages.
So this year we present once again a Festival of Lessons and Carols, narrated by voice actor Maureen Jones with music presented by music director Jeff Jones. Come and hear the message of the angels.
“SEE HOW THEY LOVE EACH OTHER !”
Today we convene a Special General Meeting to decide if we will appeal for a unique provision of the House of Bishops called Shared Episcopal Ministry. If we agree, and our appeal is granted, this would mean that we would receive the ministry of a bishop in favour of same-sex blessings who would provide guidance and oversight for this one specific ministry.
But what we decide today is perhaps less important than the spirit in which we decide it. Facing the brutality of his own crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that they ought to love one another, because in this way people would know they were his disciples. And in the early church this is how people saw Christians: third century Church Father Tertullian reported that people said, “See how they love each other.”
What Jesus had in mind was not likely that Christians ought to love one another exclusively, and nobody else; rather, that loving one another is the way we learn how to love everybody else! So how we manage conflict within the church becomes crucially important.
Some members of St. Stephen’s have been concerned that this proposed action may lead us into an undignified battle with our archbishop. They are right to be concerned. So it is important that our disagreement about same-sex blessings not become a personal battle between him and ourselves. We seek justice, but we do so with Christian love and respect. May it be said of us, “See how they love each other!”
WELCOMING “ANGELS UNAWARES”
With so much attention these days on the plight of Syrian refugees, it is natural for us as Christians to search our own history and beliefs for wisdom about how to respond.
As we approach the Christmas season we recall that in the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus—one from the gospel of Matthew, one from Luke—Jesus’ own family were, in one instance, “displaced persons” uprooted for the sake of a national census and, in the other, refugees sent by God to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod. In other words, in order to underline their vulnerability and their complete reliance upon God, they were pictured as being without a home of their own.
In the teaching of Jesus we hear again and again of God’s special care for the poor and the marginalized, sometimes called his “preferential option” for the poor. If the stories of his birth bear any resemblance to historical fact, it would be understandable that Jesus was at pains to ensure that his followers would always measure their love for God by the actual care they showed for the poor and dispossessed.
In the early teachings of the church we hear echoes of the Hebrew scriptures where peoples and nations are judged not by their piety but by their treatment of the weakest in their midst—including the sojourner. Perhaps the most alluring teaching comes from the letter to the Hebrews: in showing hospitality to strangers some have actually “welcomed angels unawares”.
EXTENDING A HELPING HAND
This month’s Pink Envelope is designated for the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF). This is an outreach arm of our national office that divides its funds between “relief”—immediate response to both natural and human-caused disasters throughout the world—and “development”—efforts to support sustainable communities in developing countries.
The Primate’s World Relief Fund was established in 1958 in response to the Springhill mining disaster where 75 miners lost their lives and people across the country wanted a way to respond to their stricken families. In 1969 “Development” was added to its mandate to help establish long-term support for communities most vulnerable to disaster around the world. Currently PWRDF is soliciting funds for Syrian refugee relief, the Canadian government matching its donations through to the end of 2015.
PWRDF operates entirely on the direct freewill offerings of individuals and churches across the country. The fund receives no financial support from our national church, and none of the apportionment payments our parish pays to our diocese are rerouted there. So our donations through our Pink Envelope program or directly, either online or through regular ongoing subscriptions, provide PWRDF with all its funding. To learn more, or to donate directly, please visit their website at www.pwrdf.org.
This is also an opportunity to inform you that, starting in the New Year, Pink Envelopes will be available to all church members, whether or not they give by way of envelopes. This is a vital part of our outreach ministry at St. Stephen’s.
This week we take our next steps toward offering same-sex blessings at St. Stephen’s. Recognizing the impasse we have reached with our archbishop on this issue, we are calling a Special General Meeting of the congregation to decide whether to apply for Shared Episcopal Ministry, an arrangement that would provide us with another bishop to oversee this one aspect of our parish life.
Shared Episcopal Ministry was conceived by the House of Bishops back in … as a means of breaking a deadlock between the bishop and several parishes of the Diocese of New Westminster (being Vancouver and the Lower Mainland). In that instance, the diocese had voted to authorize same-sex blessings. But some congregations were threatening to leave the diocese over the issue. So provision was made to invite a like-minded bishop to provide spiritual oversight for those congregations choosing not to offer same-sex blessings.
Our situation in Calgary, of course, is the reverse. Despite almost half the Anglican dioceses across the country authorising same-sex blessings, and despite the persistent pleas of three congregations in our diocese, our bishop is refusing to permit such blessings here. So we need to decide if we wish to exercise our right to ask for a different bishop to provide oversight in this one aspect of our ministry.
Please plan to attend one of our information sessions on Sunday, December 6, to learn more; and then to attend and participate in our Special General Meeting on Sunday, December 13, following the 10:30 service.