Bishop John Maury Allin, sixth Bishop of Mississippi and 23rd Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, is reputed to have said on his retirement, “I have spent my life helping people become Episcopalians. Now I want to help people become Christians.”
As I relaxed on the beach at Fort Morgan, Alabama, during our family’s annual Christmas vacation, I had time to reflect on this journey of faith and this peculiar vocation. The silence was a wonderful opportunity for such contemplation.
My thoughts turned toward an aspect of Bishop Allin’s reputed comments. Has my ministry been one of helping people become Christians? Or has it been something else?
There is an important distinction to be made: I am not talking about the factuality of a person being a Christian; that is accomplished, we believe, in the sacrament of Holy Baptism (justification). What I am concerned about is the manifestation of that justification in one’s life, i.e. the progressive sanctification. How does the Christian faith make any difference in a person’s life?
Likewise, I wonder about how our congregations manifest the faith which is embraced in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, the recitation of the Nicene Creed, the renewal of baptismal vows, and the repeating of the Apostles’ Creed. How are our congregations any different from any other community-building organization.
What difference does our embracing of Christianity make?
I’m not even sure that I have been focused on helping people become genuine Episcopalians. And I seriously doubt that I have prompted many people to enter deeply into the Christian life. What I have offered, I think, is a variety of cultural Christianity which has more to do with reflecting the cultural mores of a slice of Middle America. Our self-definition has been according to criteria such not a Baptist or not a Catholic or not a fundamentalist rather than the transformation of a life into a committed Christian.
I pondered what Christianity means in this culture. I want to be clear: The brand of cultural Christianity I’ve been hawking is not the only form of cultural Christianity being pedaled in this society. Many of those I have encountered – I want to be sure to include myself in this – have taken an eye off the ball in terms of authentic Christianity. I have encountered true saints of deep and profound faith, but they are rare. Many others want to be true, deep, and authentic Christians, but they either are unaware of how to live that life, or they are afraid of what it would require (That call by Jesus to “take up your cross and follow me” is pretty daunting).
Will Campbell, the iconic and irenic figure of the 1960s, once spoke of the Eucharist being obscene. His perspective was that the church spends massive amounts of money on providing all the accoutrements of liturgy (silver, fine linens, beautiful vestments) while the world not far from our sacred buildings is characterized by chaos, poverty, crime, abuse, racism, suffering, loneliness, grief, hunger, and other signs of a fallen creation.
In my silence and solitude, I reflected on Christianity and the world around us. My vision turned toward the Mississippi Delta, where poverty, brokenness, illiteracy, illness, broken families, and hopelessness abound. What is the significant impact of the church there? How are our churches – and our individual members – represented there? What difference do we make?
My thoughts turned toward Uganda, the Sudan, and other places of extreme poverty, hunger and suffering throughout the world. The images of starving children came to mind. Bloated bellies were haunting me in my world of plenty. The violence so endemic to those circumstances – brother oppressing brother – came to my consciousness.
It occurred to me: So much of what the church is and does, especially on a local level, is like a waterbug skittering along the surface of a pond. There may be turmoil, turbulence, and chaos beneath that surface, but the waterbug is blissfully unaware. He just skitters along, not concerned what the world beneath is like.
This whole reflection may be seen as a paean to some idealized Christianity. As such, it may not reflect reality (it most certainly does not) and may deny the limits of human nature and ability to respond meaningfully to a significantly broken world.
But I think that is the nature of Christianity. It calls for the transformation of human limitations and the healing of a broken world. And here is the hard part: that expectation is there regardless of the price to be paid.
How will my life and journey change, in light of this reflection? I do not know… yet.