The One about Unity

The Rector’s Digest 2022:03
27 July 2022
William Reed Huntington (d. 1909)

This week I’ve been thinking about unity. 

On Tuesday, more than 600 bishops from across the worldwide Anglican Communion gathered in Canterbury, England, for the Lambeth Conference to listen and learn from each other. Lambeth doesn’t legislate; it’s considered an “instrument of communion (unity)” for Anglicans everywhere. Still, as too often happens, the week started off with displays of disunity and bickering. So I started the week praying for our bishops to find unity. When Psalm 133’s Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity! showed up in both the Mass and Morning Prayer readings for the week, I prayed for unity again.

Then Wednesday rolled around. I preached at the daily mass on the life and work of William Reed Huntington, a name that may be familiar – he was rector of Grace Church here in New York City and a giant in the Episcopal Church from the 1870s until he died in 1909. Fr. Huntington moved the General Convention to revive the primitive order of “deaconesses,” and he led the process of prayer book reform that resulted in the 1892 version of the Book of Common Prayer. He composed a beautiful collect for Holy Week that we now use every Friday at Morning Prayer: 

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

But perhaps Huntington’s most lasting contribution was in the cause of Christian unity. When Huntington was rector of All Saints Church in Worcester, MA (Go, WooSox!), he and the priest at the local Roman Catholic church co-founded an ecumenical clergy fellowship, and the story is he first articulated his ideas for Christian unity at meetings of that little group in the 1860s. He went on to pen an essay called The Church Idea (published by Dutton, 1870, and available to read online) to lay out a vision for Christian unity based upon a small set of “essentials.” These essentials found their way into a resolution before the House of Bishops at the 1886 General Convention in Chicago, and with some revision they were adopted by the Lambeth Conference in 1888. They are even in your prayer books today – deep in there, in tiny, tiny letters — in the Historical Documents section on pages 876-877. The statement, which came to be known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, gives voice to an earnest desire that Christians may “all be one,” Jesus’ own prayer in John 17. To that end, Huntington proposed, and the General Convention and Lambeth Conference adopted, four articles that are essential for restoration of unity between separated branches of Christianity:

  1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the revealed Word of God.
  2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
  3. The two “dominical” Sacraments instituted by our Lord (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). 
  4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted.

Obviously, the Church is still divided as I type this. But I was part of similar ecumenical groups of Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and others during my time in Nashville, and I too dream about Christian unity. I dream that the Anglican Communion in general, and St. Mary’s in particular, can be places where other Christians can find community just by believing those four essentials. I dream that the world will look at us and know we are Jesus’ disciples not because we bicker, but because we “have love for one another.” (John 13.35)  

In the meantime, here are some words for us to ponder and pray, words William Reed Huntington himself preached in 1865 in a homily at Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. 

Let us put away all malice, and be very careful how we sneer. Remember it is peace we want. Only by speaking the truth in love, patiently and honestly weighing the arguments of those who differ with us, gently smoothing away prejudice, and gracefully conceding, where it is possible to concede, can we hope for a shadow of success. May the God of Peace send us a new Pentecost that these things may come to pass.

Will you pray that with me this week? Consider it an invitation. 

Now, for what I’m up to —

  • Listening: Two songs this week — The newest song from the Hillbilly Thomists (whom I missed when they were in NYC last week!!), “Good Tree.” And “Golden Embers” by Watchhouse (f.k.a. Mandolin Orange). You’re welcome.
  • Reading: Revisiting old friends this summer — Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, and one of my all-time top 5, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. And my eldest and I started the “Daddy/Daughter Book Club” since she’s home in NYC from university in Memphis for the summer — we’re reading Jamie Smith’s On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts and loving our discussions together. But the most astonishing “read” of the summer so far is actually a poem. If you have 8 minutes and 26 seconds, the best way to experience Nicole Brown’s “Mercy” is to listen to her read it here. Wow.
  • Watching: After Renee and I finished the penultimate series of Masterpiece’s “Endeavour” earlier this summer (my favorite new show from the last five years), I’ve returned to yet another old friend — old seasons of “Inspector Morse” via Amazon Prime. If you’re a fan of either or both, here’s some trivia for you — Barrington Pheloung’s haunting theme (which I hear now every time a truck backs up outside the Rectory window — if you know, you know) begins with the name M.O.R.S.E. in Morse code! Who knew that?! Apparently, Pheloung would occasionally drop the name of the killer in code, or sometimes another character’s name as a red herring, in other songs in some episodes. I think that’s just the coolest thing. Also — the panorama in the YouTube video above was filmed from the tower of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, which makes me smile.
  • Practicing: The past several months have been the richest I think I’ve ever experienced, prayer-wise, and I think it’s just because of the regularity with which I’ve prayed the Daily Office. We pray EP together from the chancel of St. Mary’s here in NYC, and I’ve done much better (with the help of my new confessor) at praying MP from home or wherever I happen to be at the appointed time. Daily mass continues, as well, which are two of the three threads of Martin Thornton’s three-fold regula that forms the bulk of my personal rule of life. Mix in a good Holy Hour once a week (which we started a couple months ago every Wednesday at 11 before daily mass), where I’ve been meditating on St. Aelred’s “Pastoral Prayer,” and I’ve had such a grace-filled few months — thanks be to God.

One last thing — I ended my last post (which was way too long ago) with “Come see us in the City,” and it turns out people do that when you move to Times Square! We’ve loved hosting folks for everything from a layover to a week-long stay, so y’all let us know when you’re in the area, you hear?

Thanks for reading, and have a great summer!

~ S

P.S. Discovered Rockaway Beach last week. Still missing my backyard pool in Nashville, but a subway-accessible beach helps dull the ache a bit!

Published by Fr. Sammy Wood

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

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