Sermon for June 20th 2008.
The Revd. J. Michael Povey, at St. David’s, Englewood, FL.
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Wheat and weeds: Let both of them grow together until the harvest.
This snippet of a verse from Matthew’s Gospel is a slender reed on which to build a sermon. But I believe that it is strong enough to support what I have to say.
If you have any interest in the doing of the Anglican Communion, you will know that most of her Bishops are now gathered for their once every ten year’s Conference in Canterbury, England. It is called the “Lambeth Conference” because the first of such gatherings took place in “Lambeth Palace” the London home of the Archbishops of Canterbury. I say “most”, because some Bishops have chosen to absent themselves. I’ll get back to this later.
Until a few years ago, many American Episcopalians did not know that they were also Anglicans. They did not know that we are united in a fellowship of tradition, love and concern with Christians like us, throughout the world. The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion.
That Communion is in many senses an accident of history. It grew out of the British colonial drive, as a result of which parishes of the Church of England were established wherever there were British colonies. In due course as the colonies with white governments – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa were given self government as “Dominions” within the Empire, so their Church of England Parishes formed national Churches, such as “The Church of England in Canada”, later to be re-named the Anglican Church of Canada.
The big exception was the American Church, which formed itself as the “Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States “and gained its own independence and autonomy as a result of our own War of Independence.
Then when Britain began to de-colonise, starting with India and Pakistan in 1948, and then moving to Africa, the West Indies, and Asia, the Churches in those former colonies became self-governing and autonomous.
Thus the Anglican Communion “happened”. It is a worldwide fellowship of some 42 autonomous Churches, recognized and loved by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the spiritual head of the Communion. He has no legal authority outside of England. We call him “primus inter pares”, that is “first among equals”. He it is who issues the invitations to this Lambeth Conference.
The word “Anglican” is not copyrighted. Sadly it is used all too often by groups which have left the Episcopal Church for one reason or another - the 1976 Prayer Book, the Ordination of Women, the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson, etc., etc. At my last count there were fifty - yes fifty independent denominations, each claiming to be the true Anglican Church.
In many ways, that should not surprise us. For the Anglican Communion has always been very untidy. This is partly because, thank God, we do not have centralized authority. We have no person or institution which is remotely like the Pope or the Vatican. Nor should we long for such, lest we become like the ancient Israelites. They longed for a King, but got a series of despots.
Because of their very untidiness, Anglican Churches have always had their reform movements. This is rooted in our particular history.
We go back, inevitably to King Henry VIII of England. He was a particularly unsavoury character, but he never was a Protestant. Henry wanted an English Catholic Church, answerable not to the Pope, but to him. He allowed but very modest reforms.
When Henry died, his nine year old son Edward became King. He was clearly under the control of Protestant leaning nobles. An English Prayer Book was issued in 1549, and yet another in 1552. The Church was becoming Protestant along Continental lines. But Edward VI died when he was 16.
His half sister Mary Tudor inherited the throne. She undid all the reforms, and placed the Church under the authority of Rome. A somewhat tragic figure, Mary alienated her subjects when she married King Francis of Spain. And she became reviled as “Bloody Mary”, as three hundred Protestants were burned at the stake in her brief reign. It was brief, for Mary died after five years as Queen.
Another half sister. Elizabeth became Monarch. She was to rule for forty years.
The mood of the country had swung to a decidedly Protestant place, and Elizabeth knew that she must allow reform. So she imposed a settlement on the Church, which gave it Protestant theology in a Catholic form.
It did not please everyone, and those who wished to purify the Church yet more were called Puritans. They were to have their heyday in the following century when, after the English Civil War, England became a “Commonwealth” under Oliver Cromwell, and the Church was protestantised.
It was when the Monarchy was restored under Charles II that the Church of England returned to that Elizabethan settlement.
Imperfect as it is, that Elizabethan settlement has been challenged down through the centuries by many reform movements.
I note two.
There was the Evangelical Revival spearheaded by the Wesleys, and nurtured by the godly Charles Simeon of Cambridge, England. This was essential a reform against dry and formal religion.
And there was a 19th Century reform movement from what we know as the Anglo-Catholic movement emerged. This was essentially a reform against the subjugation of the English Church to Parliament.
And the beat goes on. Even now, some two hundred Bishops, mostly from Africa, have declined to go to Lambeth, believing that the American, Canadian and English Churches are unfaithful to the Gospel. Their Churches will probably not leave the Anglican Communion, but will continue as a “Church within the Church”.
In addition, some Bishops were not invited to the Lambeth conference, most notably my good friend the Rt. Revd. Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire.
Anglicans have had their struggles and reform movements for well nigh four centuries. “There is nothing new under the sun”
In the midst of our present struggles, I pray that we shall not forget two important insights of Queen Elizabeth the First.
She famously said “We would not have windows into men’s souls”. We should mistrust any persons or movements who would wish to judge our souls.
Second. Elizabeth said: “As to matters of conscience, we would not molest our subjects, provided they be conformable”.
To be “conformable” meant simply to worship in the Church of England using the Book of Common Prayer.
In inelegant shorthand, that means “we won’t mess around with your conscientious beliefs so long as you agree to worship with us”.
These words of Elizabeth serve us well if we understand that we worship together in a mixed Church.
For we are the saved, the half saved, and the not sure that they want to be saved. We are true believers, half believers and agnostics. We are enthusiastic and jaded. We are high church, low church and bored to death with Church.
But we have covenanted to stay together, to stick in with each other “warts and all”, and to worship together. We do not wish to have windows into each others’ souls. We refuse to be purifiers.
We’ll leave that to the Lord of the Church who said
Wheat and weeds: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest”.