Unity and Unicorns | Jan. 15, 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:2
January 15
Paul of Thebes, the First Christian Hermit (d. circa 341)

Dear Family —

So I’d like to talk about something I find endlessly intriguing, and I hope you don’t find it hopelessly dry!

I’ve been thinking about unity and difference this week, for lots of reasons, I suppose. For one, we’re about to enter the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Observed for over 100 years, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is the window of time between the Feasts of the Confession of St. Peter on Jan. 18 and the Conversion of St. Paul on Jan. 25 (to learn more >>>here ). I’ve always wanted us to recognize it more formally at St. B’s — alas, perhaps next year. Also, I just picked up Charles Erlandson’s Orthodox Anglican Identity: The Quest for Unity in a Diverse Religious Tradition (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2020) after reading an interesting review by Paul Treschow for The North American Anglican blog (>>>here). And lastly, ever since my call for us to pray for unity in last week’s Digest, I’ve been thinking about unity among Americans. What are we actually praying for, anyway? How divided are we, really? What to make of what happened on Epiphany in Washington, DC, and how, if at all, is that related to what we’re about at St. Bartholomew’s?

Around the firepit at the Rectory on Tuesday night, one of the guys gathered for “Second Tuesday” (the men’s group that used to meet the second Tuesday of each month at M.L. Rose on 8th has relocated to my backyard during Covidtide) asked about the meaning of the word “ecumenical.” Does it mean unity among Christian denominations or unity among the world’s religions? While the term is sometimes used to describe interreligious dialogues between Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and the like, the word is best applied to unity between Christian denominations. The term “ecumenical” (from the Greekοἰκουμένη (oikoumene), which literally means “the inhabited earth”) refers to the movement among different Christian communions across the world to work together to build closer relationships and encourage cooperation. I’ve been drawn more deeply into this world over the past couple of years at the invitation of our bishop’s Ecumenical Officer for the Diocese of Tennessee. First, I was part of an ecumenical reading group comprising Episcopalians and Methodists, and I continue to be part of an Anglican/Roman Catholic reading group that meets monthly to pray, study, and cultivate conversations that promote understanding and cooperation between our two churches.

So why am I bringing this up at all? I want us to think about unity because we’re Episcopalians, and I find in Anglicanism a peculiar ability to “hold difference.” This peculiar ability is something called “Anglican comprehensiveness,” a concept that’s been lauded and critiqued in turn, but that resonates deeply with me. Ours is a church that strives to hold together different “churchmanships” (please forgive the gender specificity) — evangelical Anglicans, more liberal or “broad church” Anglicans, and Anglican catholics — and people of different theological convictions. Back in the day, unity could be imposed by the British crown and promoted via the Prayer Book and its rituals and formularies. But we’re no longer a national church. Prayer books across the world can differ pretty wildly. So, where’s the core of our unity now?

An axiom (perhaps wrongly) attributed to St. Augustine is helpful here — In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas: “In essentials, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; in all things, charity.” Simply put, there are essentials of our religion (the Creeds, the Sacraments, the importance of Sacred Scripture), and if we can find common ground on those, we can afford those with whom we disagree surprisingly great freedom in the “non-essentials” (like whether or not to use incense at worship, and you know where I stand on that!). Of course, deciding what’s essential and what’s not is easier said than done. J.I. Packer argued Anglicans too often confuse “the virtue of tolerating different views on secondary issues on the basis of clear agreement on essentials” and “the vice of retreating from the light of scripture into an intellectual murk where no outlines are clear, all cats are grey, and syncretism is the prescribed task.” (Quoted in John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity, and Faithfulness, 2d ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003): 101) But somewhere between the land of grey cats and rigid fundamentalism is the Anglican Church. We take seriously Jesus’ call for his followers to be unified (John 17), so we should be keenly aware that, as former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey wrote in one of my favorite little books, The Anglican Spirit:

[O]ur divisions are all the more scandalous because they are divisions within the family. The task then of unity is not the creation of unity, but finding those God-given structures and procedures that will give proper expeession to this basic kinship of the new race, the People of God. (p. 102-03.)

Michael Ramsey

But we don’t demand subscription to an exhaustive list of theological statements to stay in communion with each other (the Episcopal Church did tuck the 39 Articles away in the “Historical Documents” section of our prayer book, after all). Ian Markham and C. K. Robertson describe our beloved Anglican Communion as a “fellowship” of self-governing national and regional churches, and “it is the mix of autonomy and relationship that makes the Anglican Communion a unique manifestation of the body of Christ in the world.” (Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers: Exploring Christian Faith (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 2014): 93). 

I wonder — can’t it be part of our vocation, our calling, to model that to the watching world . . . to the American world, the inter-religious world, and the ecumenical world? When we started “Table Talks” back before the pandemic, I had in mind an exercise room of sorts where we developed that muscle of ours, resisting being coopted by the polarization in the world around us, patiently listening to each other, empathizing, figuring out our own deepest opinions, then winsomely articulating them to each other. It’s one reason I’m so excited to work alongside Rev. Serena and Fr. Charlie. We will undoubtedly differ about any number of things theologically, each emphasizing some part of our Anglican heritage that first drew us into this particular church. Still, we three can also model what it looks like to serve Christ and this parish together, coming to the same altar and kneeling to receive the same heavenly food. There are challenges to comprehensiveness, to be sure, but it might just be the best gift St. Bartholomew’s can offer our neighbors in Nashville and the wounded nation beyond. 

So — if you’re still reading (and I hope you are!), what’s captured my imagination of late?

For a fascinating conversation about Christian Nationalism from a distinctively evangelical perspective, check out Christianity Today‘s “Quick to Listen” podcast from Jan. 13 >>>here.

If you aren’t already, you should be watching All Creatures Great and Small (>>>here), the new Masterpiece adaptation of James Herriot’s books chronicling his adventures as a veterinarian in 1930s Yorkshire. In episode one, the baby calf is good for the soul and worth the price of admission (PBS is free, after all).

And apropos of baby calves and other cute things, here’s a menagerie of five unusual animals of the Bible (from T. J. McTavish: A Theological Miscellany (Nashville, Tenn.: W Publishing, 2005):

  • Behemoth (Job 40.15) – The plural of the word for “cattle” seems to designate any large animal that lives in marshes, and some suggest it refers to the hippopotamus, which literally means “river horse” in Greek.
  • Coney (Prov. 30.26) – The “rock badger,” an animal about the size of a rabbit that doesn’t burrow but lives among the rocks. Renee and I saw a bunch of them in our travels to the Holy Land.
  • Leviathan (Job 41.1) – A primeval sea monster defeated by Yahweh (Ps. 74.14), in Job, it seems to mean any large sea creature, like a whale.
  • Ossifrage (Deut. 14.12, KJV) – Translated “vulture,” this Hebrew word means “bone-breaker,” from the bird’s habit of dropping bones or tortoises (!) on rocks to break them so they can be eaten.
  • Unicorn (Num. 23.22, KJV) – Yes, there are unicorns in the Bible! The King James Version uses this term for the wild ox, a species now extinct. The idea of “one horn” comes from the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, where it may have originally referred to the rhinoceros.
  • This week marks the birthday of the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (b. 1907). An inspiring quote of his: “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.” A wise man, old AJH.
  • Lastly, we could be facing some rocky days in the week to come. In the spirit of a Novena like the one we prayed as a parish family before the election last fall, would you join me in praying for peace every day for the next nine days? The form I’ll be praying is found on p. 815 in the BCP.

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all people may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and forever. Amen.

May you find rest and joy this weekend, my friends. And grant, Almighty God, that all who confess your Name may be united in your truth live together in your love and reveal your glory in the world. 

Grace and Peace —

Fr. Sammy

Published by Fr. Sammy Wood

Interim Rector of St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church in Times Square

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