Saturday, May 13, 2006

What Witness Will We Make?

Steven Charleston is someone who can preach my socks off when I'm barefoot so I'm used to him hitting the ball out of the park AND the nail on the head -- but this this piece takes me to a whole new level of admiration for his prophetic witness. Read, mark, learn, inwardly digest and then let's move on to Columbus where we will have a chance to witness to the hope that is in us, the faith that sustains us and the love that sets us free.

What Witness Will We Make?
By The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston
President and Dean, Episcopal Divinity School

As the Episcopal Church, the most important question before us is not about schism or sexuality. It is about witness. What witness will we make?

Christian witness is the public affirmation of faith. It is how we let the world see that we practice what we preach. Today those of us in the Episcopal Church are being called on to make our witness. We have the opportunity to be what we say we are. The world is watching. What will we do?

The answer is a matter of faith. We witness to what we believe.

In the Episcopal Church, we believe in Jesus Christ. We believe in the Bible. We believe in the Good News. In fact, we believe so strongly in all of these essential parts of our shared faith that we are not afraid to disagree with one another about what they mean to us.

We welcome difference as the active presence of God’s Holy Spirit moving amongst us. Our witness is not to conformity but to community. As the Episcopal Church we are not concerned that everyone in the pews believes exactly the same thing, in the same way, at the same time. Instead, we are concerned that no one is left out of those pews because of what they believe, who they are, or where they come from.

Our witness is to the unconditional love of God through the grace of Christ Jesus. Therefore, we accept the risk of grace by not setting limits to love with our own judgment of others. There are no border guards at the doors of the Episcopal Church. We respect the dignity of every human being and are never ashamed of who sits next to us in worship. We are all the children of God just as we are all sinners in need of mercy.

There are no walls around the Episcopal Church. We believe that God is at work in the world. We are not concerned that this world sees us as perfect, pure, or powerful. Instead, we are concerned that people see us practicing justice, doing mercy, and walking humbly with the God we believe loves us all equally.

Our witness is to hope, not fear. We believe that men and women, no matter how separated they may think they are by religious conviction, cultural value, or social location are never truly apart unless they choose to be. We have nothing to fear from one another unless we allow fear to be our witness. While the distance between us may seem great and the path to reconciliation impossibly long, we have the guidance and comfort of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we never despair of one another or deny one another for to do so would be to despair and deny the power of that Spirit.

Our witness is to mission. While the Spirit leads us to truth, we carry on with the task God has given us. We do not place pride before discipleship. While we may have many disagreements between us, we have only one mission before us. We never question the faith of the person who seeks to do the work of God. We believe that it is not important to know if that person is “right” or politically correct. It is only important to know if she or he feels welcomed into the servant ministry of Christ. There are no loyalty oaths in the Episcopal Church, but there are many jobs for those who want to help heal a broken world.

Our witness is to the reconciliation of God in a time of fear. In the Episcopal Church, we stand together not even if we disagree, but precisely because we disagree. We practice the radical hope of God. We embody a faith that says there are many rooms in the house of God, but one home for us all if we choose to live together.

It is time to make our witness. In a century already marked by the terror of war, with zealots of all traditions inciting us into the patriotism of fear, what witness will we make? What alternative will we offer? What fresh vision will we share? Will we retreat into yet smaller factions of “true believers,” whether from the Right or the Left, smug in our self righteous assurance that we have the truth? Will we struggle over property and power as though these things had lasting importance for us? Will we vilify one another and become agents of suspicion among the very people we love? Will we worry more about what people think of us than what God expects of us?

It is time to make our witness. It is time to take off our halos, our mitres, and our martyr’s crown to stand up and be counted. What witness will each of us choose to make?

I can not answer for anyone in this Church but myself. I do not ask that you agree with my theology. I do not demand that you read your Bible exactly as I read mine. I know that you and I may disagree on many subjects and find it hard to live together. But I also know that you are as much in need of God’s forgiveness as I am.

You and I need one another now more than ever because there are so many others who need us both in this hurting world. That world, the poor and the hungry, the captives and the prisoners, are depending on us to do more than argue with one another. For them, our witness is not a matter of church politics. It is a matter of life and death. I am counting on the fact that you know that.

Now is the time for us to extend our hands to one another. We will not walk away from the Body of Christ.

Now is the time for us to use our hands. We will not place pride over mission.

Now is the time for us to raise our hands. We will not forget that to God alone goes the glory.

Are you a witness? Will you join me in this affirmation of faith?

In my life I have known many seasons in the Episcopal Church. This is the season for our witness. This is the time for us to do something totally unexpected and wonderful, to confound those who say we have lost our vision. This is our moment to show the world that we can practice what we preach and be who we say we are. Our finest hour will not be when we think we have won something from one another, but when we know we have nothing to lose by loving one another.

I am a witness. I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in God’s gospel of justice, compassion, and reconciliation. I believe in the community of God and I will work faithfully with every person to bring peace and healing to the world. I open my hands. I open my heart. I want the world to see that I am not afraid. I step gratefully into the unconditional love of God. I stand up to be counted not for what I think is right, but for what I believe to be possible. How about you? Will you stand with me?

Are you a witness?

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bishop Charleston is a member of the Choctaw Nation, has served as the Episcopal Bishop of Alaska, and as the executive director of the National Committee on Indian Work at the Episcopal Church Center. Over his career, Bishop Charleston has been deeply involved in exploring different models of theological training to meet the needs of a changing church. He is an advocate for theological education that is culturally sensitive and meets the needs and concerns of local faith communities.


Anonymous said...

Powerfully eloquent.

Catherine + said...

Beautiful in its simplicity and clarity. What needs doing is so clearly evident...

Bruno said...

AMEN, Preach it brother!

All Along the Watchtower said...

I'm trying to find the section about affirming the Windsor Report, about responding to the direction of the four instruments of Anglican unity (Lambeth, the Primates, the ABC, and the ACC), about saying we're sorry for what we did at General Convention 2003 that caused the Communion deep distress, about promising we won't do it again until the Anglican Communion is in consensus? I seem to have missed that part.


Eve said...

" Instead, we are concerned that no one is left out of those pews because of what they believe, who they are, or where they come from."

As a reasserter, I absolutely agree. NO ONE should be left out of any pews....EVER.
However, I do feel that those mired in unrepentant sin (of which extra-marital sex is one of MANY strains) should not be elevated to positions of leadership within the church.

Jeff Martinhauk said...

I love that this reaffirms the core tenets of our faith.

It echoes what Jesus did.

Jesus worked and healed among the outcast, the marginalized, and the "least of these."

His most pronounced judgements were against the ones who judged him.

So here we are. As a gay man, I am part of a community that has been outcast, marginalized, and continues to have even legistlated discrimination passed against us. I don't pronounce judgement against any, but certainly there are those who sit in judgement of me.

God of love and light, heal the wounds of your lost sheep that their own fears may be banished, that they may look not for finite answers in an infinite world, but instead to your boundless love which cures and heals all.


revsusan said...

for eve ... then what about the "Catch 22" of folks who are excluded from marriage because of their orientation and then excluded from ministry because of their marital status?

The crux of the debate seems to be there are those who see our relationships as "unrepentant sin" and those who see them as "fruits of the Spirit."

I'm presiding next Monday at a renewal of vows for a lesbian couple who are celebrating their 30th anniversary. They've raised two boys -- one serving in the Coast Guard as we speak -- taught school, arranged flowers, sung in the choir and volunteered on more commissions and committees here at church than you can shake a stick at.

The very IDEA that there are those who would judge their holy union as "unrepentant sin" makes me wonder [a] why on earth they would even WANT to sit in the same pews with such narrow judmentalism and [b] why the "reappraisers" are working so hard to keep ya'll at the table.

Chip said...

"Our witness is not to conformity but to community. As the Episcopal Church we are not concerned that everyone in the pews believes exactly the same thing, in the same way, at the same time. Instead, we are concerned that no one is left out of those pews because of what they believe, who they are, or where they come from."

Certainly it would be impossible for everyone to "[believe] exactly the same thing, in the same way, at the same time." Nonetheless, there is such a thing as the Christian faith that is distinguished from other faiths. There are essential doctrines, even though there are many places at which Christians can disagree.

And while the Christian church is always to be open to anyone who walks through the parish doors, that does not mean that such people are automatically members of the body of Christ. Charleston's comments invite universalism.

To stand for Christian distinctives is not to be unloving, nor is it to be fearful. It is, rather, a question of love and obedience to our lord Jesus Christ.

Peace of Christ,

Jeff Martinhauk said...

Chip -

Christ stood not for "distinctiveness" but for the common-ness of humanity.

He showed us time and time again that the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, those who we think are least like "us" are in fact most like "us."

I don't think that devalues Christianity. I think it enhances it.

rmf said...

It seems that some are using Biblical literalism and the notion of inerrancy to arrive at the conclusion that same sex affections and relationships are sin. I am not persuaded that two people promising to love, honor, cherish and be faithful are committing sin. Please explain how two consenting adults exchanging such vows and expressing them physically, are in mortal sin?

Keep in mind that it is not sufficient to state, "Bible line such and such says so." Episcopal/Anglican tradition holds that Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation. Note that it does not hold, "all Scripture is necessary to salvation."

Episcopal/Anglican interpretation is not sola scriptura and never has been. It is mediated by reason and tradition. Reason includes experience and new knowledge. Reason is God given and therefore is not a priori contrary to God's work or purpose. Reason can illuminate tradition and even expose error in it.

I must also conclude that when one party says they are treating another party with "love" and "Christian kindness" the party supposedly getting this is quite within his rights to determine whether this is in fact what he is getting.

Jeff Martinhauk said...

"I must also conclude that when one party says they are treating another party with "love" and "Christian kindness" the party supposedly getting this is quite within his rights to determine whether this is in fact what he is getting."



Chip said...


"Christ stood not for 'distinctiveness' but for the common-ness of humanity."

I'll have to disagree with you here, or at least take the discussion down a side, but related, road. Christ stood as the "new Adam," serving as the representative of what God intended humanity to be before the Fall. Christ is, in essence, the first member of a redeemed humanity, a humanity that now, through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, is able to grow into becoming what God intended for humanity. As C.S. Lewis said, it is doubtful that the universe was created by God for any other purpose than to be populated with "little Christs" -- not that we are divinity, but that the Holy Spirit's job is to conform us to the image of Christ.

In other words, Christ didn't come to show humanity its commonness, but to redeem a people from sin. Now it's true that all people are equal underneath the cross; we all are equally guilty of sin and equally in need of a savior. It's also true that the rich, the accepted, and the mainstream are no better than the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized. We don't disagree there.

But I think you missed my point: I was not thinking of the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized in my previous post, but Charleston's assertions that we have no common beliefs, or, at least, no common understandings of our beliefs. If we don't have any common understandings of doctrine, then we're not a Christian church, but something more akin to a unitarian universalist church. The ecumenical councils set boundaries for Christian belief, as do the Scriptures and our BCP. The BCP is shot through and through with common theology throughout our common prayers, even if it does not outline a systematic theology.

When I said, "that does not mean that such people are automatically members of the body of Christ," then, I was not thinking about or casting judgment upon any particular group. Rather, I was responding to Charleston's arguments concerning our beliefs. If a person comes to our parishes and does not believe in God or does not believe in Christ as lord and savior, he or she is not a Christian. That's not a judgment against a person, but just a statement of where he or she is at the time. As the body of Christ, we love that individual and welcome him or her to our parish, but we don't eliminate or downplay the contours of Christian belief to be more inclusive. He or she is welcome to come to our parish and, yes, to be accepted where he or she is at. But as Christians, we still preach, teach, and believe in Christ and Christ crucified for the sins of the world. We still tell people of our sinfulness, the love of God that has provided us a way out of our bondage to sin, and the need for repentance and faith in Christ. In other words, we don't compromise on Christian distinctives, even as we are called to love everyone who comes to our parishes. Charleston's comments, on the other hand, seem to invite a loosening of those distinctives.

Peace of Christ,