They say that all publicity is good publicity, but I have to admit that I cringe every time the Episcopal Church makes the national or international news, as we did this week. Because almost always it has to do with some knock-down drag out fight. And even more because almost always, these days anyway, it has to do with gay and lesbian people. 30 or 40 years ago the fights were about women. But those disputes are in the past, or at least are buried under the surface. So that now, it’s about who’s welcome, who’s not welcome, and which sacraments are open to which members—notably ordination and marriage. In this case, the issue is marriage.
Which is kind of coincidental, since this morning’s gospel focuses on a wedding. Of course, it is a wedding in which something unusual, unexpected happens, as Jesus miraculously changes jugs of water into wine, so that, thankfully, the partying can continue. Apparently, the couple didn’t buy enough. Only, you may have noticed that it was a lot of water that Jesus transformed into wine—not just a couple 750 ml bottles, but six stone water jars, each holding 20 or 30 gallons. Jesus changed between 120 and 180 gallons of water into wine.
We tend to think of wine in terms of bottles, not gallons. So I did a little calculation. There are about 5 bottles in a gallon. So that’s means Jesus transformed enough water into wine to fill between 600 and 900 bottles. That would make for one heck of a wedding banquet. And, we read that it wasn’t the cheap “Two Buck Chuck” from Trader Joes, either. Rather, it was the good stuff. The really good stuff, maybe equivalent to a $50 bottle. If you figure 600-900 bottles at $50 a bottle, that’s between $30,000 and $45,000 of wine!
Why did Jesus go so far over the top? Well, I think it’s to show that the grace and love of God abound. They overflow even, beyond our wildest imagining. God’s grace and love, Jesus shows us, bring joy and life, not just to a few, maybe not even to just those who have been invited to the wedding banquet, but to the multitudes. After all, with so much wine, so much blessing, you’d have to share it—widely, liberally, abundantly.
Back to the news: this week the Episcopal Church in the United States was punished or sanctioned, given a time out, or sent to stand the naughty corner, whatever you want to call it, for three years, for having made the decision this summer to finally and formally authorize marriage equality for all couples, across the church. This momentous decision, made by the General Convention in July, came just a couple days after the Supreme Court issued their landmark ruling. So, almost immediately after marriage equality became US law, it also became Episcopal Church law. Of course, the two processes were separate. The church could have stated that our understanding of marriage is limited to opposite-sex couples—lots of churches do that; or we could have said that same-sex couples can have their relationships blessed, but they wouldn’t be marriages in the sacramental sense, which was our approach for the past 15 years or so.
But this time the Episcopal Church didn’t do that either. This time we opted for the most inclusive approach, after years and years and years of debate and struggle, after prayer and conversation and conversion. In fact, the debates had been ongoing for such a long time that by the time our representatives finally voted this summer in Salt Lake City, there was very little opposition, even among the bishops. Whatever our grand and glorious history in the halls of money, power, and privilege, today the Episcopal Church is also a church of inclusion. Or at least we strive to be. We undoubtedly fail plenty often. But our goal, I think, is to be a church that manifests the abundant love of God that overflows and blesses all people, just like the miraculously endless supply of wine at the wedding feast in Cana.
As wonderful as that sounds, and as much as it draws many of us to make the Episcopal Church our home, this decision has gotten us into some trouble with our brother and sister Anglicans across the world. Now, they don’t have any authority to prevent us from governing our life here or making our own decisions. The Episcopal Church is autonomous, as are all Anglican or Episcopal churches across the world, 38 of them in 165 countries, with as many as 85 million members. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, we don’t have an Anglican pope who can direct policy in far flung places. There isn’t even any legislative body that can do that. Though there are a number of committees and gatherings that speak on behalf of the Anglican Communion and that work to hold us together in all of our diversity.
This week one of them met—the Primates, they are called—meaning the archbishops and presiding bishops of these 38 Anglican churches. Our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was there, as a full and equal partner, for his first meeting with this group of bishops. Now, as you may know, for some time—at least since 2003 but really much longer than that—there has been deep frustration in other parts of the world over the Episcopal Church’s growing inclusiveness regarding human sexuality. Usually, we are not the only ones singled out. Canada is problematic, too, but they haven’t gone quite as far yet in terms of marriage. They plan to vote on marriage equality this summer. The Scottish Episcopal Church has also begun a process that might lead to the same conclusions: that our church and its sacraments are open to all and there will be no outcasts. But they aren’t there yet either.
So, frustrated by our decisions, these archbishops meeting in England voted to limit the Episcopal Church’s voice in international ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, as well as in decisions related to Anglican doctrine and governance. It’s an open question as to whether or not they actually have the authority to take this action, many disagree, but for the time being we can assume that they do.
What they did not do is throw the Episcopal Church out of the Anglican Communion. Some archbishops would probably like to do that, they even tried to get us and Canada to leave voluntarily, but they don’t actually have the power to make it happen. So instead, they threatened that if some action were not taken they would up and leave, potentially causing a major global schism, with the liberal churches in Canada, the US, the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and maybe South Africa forming one, mainly white and rich Anglican Communion, and the more conservative churches in Africa, Asia, and South America forming another, much poorer in financial wealth, but abundantly rich in membership. We would be a truly broken and divided body if that were to happen, very far from the Body of Christ. So, this week’s punishment of the Episcopal Church, sending us to stand in the naughty corner, was perceived to be the minimum action necessary to prevent a global walk out.
So, that’s where we are. Now, of course, at some point someone could decide to call it quits: the Episcopal Church could say we’ve had enough of this. We’re tired of defending our decisions and our call to welcome all people in our churches. And others could call it quits, as well, after years of dealing with us “heretical” Americans. And it might some day come to that. But so far, we’ve discerned that it’s better to at least try to live together and learn from each other, in the same Anglican family, with a shared and cherished heritage, even as we also try to live in the present moment and meet the spiritual needs in our own contexts. In fact, this has always been one of the chief hallmarks of Anglicanism—that we share a heritage, growing from the rich life of Church of England, but always ministering in our own languages, in our own places, and in ways that make sense and meet the needs of people where we are. That’s really what it means to be Anglican, and so far no one wants to give up on that ideal, nor on the deep and profound relationships with real life human beings across the world that our Anglican identity affords us—people we might not otherwise know. So, like real life families, we love and we fight. Some of us, unfortunately, don’t speak to others. But maybe we have cousins that we all talk to and who hold the family together. And, whatever our disagreements, we undeniably share the same genes, the same DNA, whether we like it or not.
What’s most sad for me in all of this is an increasing belief among some that our unity must come from us all believing the same things or acting in the same ways. That has never really been the Anglican way. Instead, Anglicans have believed that our unity is a gift, from God. We do not create it. It comes from Christ, it comes through Christ, and it comes in Christ. It comes by virtue of the fact that the church, the Body of Christ, in all of its human beauty and diversity and limitation, is nothing less than the extension of the Incarnation in the world. God came among us in Christ, to take our humanity into himself—not just some of us, not just those of us who believe one way or another, or who live one way or another, but all of us. And so our unity is always also in Christ, strengthened, supported, and enlivened by our fellowship, by the sacraments, and by our shared, common prayer. But always rooted in Christ.
I thought I would close by sharing some reflections from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, after the meeting in London. We can hear the pain in his words at the lack of unity among our global family, but also his extraordinary faith. He said:
“Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, where all are truly welcome. Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ."
"This has been a disappointing time, and there will be heartache and pain for many, but it’s important to remember that we are still part of the Anglican Communion. We are the Episcopal Church, and we are part of the Jesus Movement, and that Movement goes on, and our work goes on. And the truth is, it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed, where this is truly a house of prayer for all people. And maybe it’s a part of our vocation to help that to happen. And so we must claim that high calling; claim the high calling of love and faith; love even for those with whom we disagree, and then continue, and that we will do, and we will do it together. We are part of the Jesus Movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world can never stop and will never be defeated.”
May that love, like the wine at the wedding feast, overflow and embrace us and all people, with even more left over.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD