An Untidy House (The Episcopal Church)
We live in an untidy house. I do not mean Bonnie’s and my house. Nor do I mean the worship space or meeting halls of our congregations. I mean our branch of Christianity, the Episcopal Church. We run an untidy house. Of course, it has been this way from the beginning.
Long before the first missionary from the Bishop of Rome reached the shores of Britain in 597 AD, an indigenous church had taken deep root on those isles. Many scholars believe that Christianity came to the “western isles” around 37 AD. It is believed that a group of Palestinian refugees sought asylum in Britain after Jesus’ resurrection. These believers were known as “Culdich” by the Celtic inhabitants. Culdich can be translated “certain strangers.” When occasion called for this group to be referred to by a name, they were often called the Culdees.
The church in Britain developed in its own way. It was centered around monastic communities made up of both men and women. The orders included laity, deacon, priest and bishop. The clergy were free to marry and have families. Instead of focusing on a centralized parish life, the ministers went out from their monastery to the people in their villages. The hierarchy was unpretentious. And decisions were made in a collegial fashion. To the eyes of the church that arrived from Europe in the late 6th century, things were very untidy in the Celtic church.
When we look at the life of our church in the United States, it is helpful to remember our background. Once the Anglican Church reclaimed its independence from the Bishop of Rome we reclaimed something of our original egalitarian essence. The worship services were reduced in number to those that could fit into one volume placed in the hands of all the people. The scriptures were published in the language of the people. And in the United States, Bishops were elected by lay and clergy alike, and the church met in counsel to make decisions.
Each congregation of the Episcopal Church shares the governance of its life through the work of its vestry and clergy. The national counsel of the Episcopal Church consists of two houses. The senior house is the House of Deputies. This body is made up of lay people, priests and deacons. The second, or junior house, is the House of Bishops. It should come as no surprise that theological decisions and resolutions about governance follow a circuitous path as they find their way through this labyrinth. We do not have a centralized teaching authority with the power to decide matters for the church. Instead, we rely on the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide our counsels, and over the span of history, to lead us into all wisdom. We hold the audacious belief that God’s Spirit works most fully through the collective voice of the gathered community of believers. You could say we live in a spiritual democracy.
Today’s newspapers testify to how messy this can get for us. Many outside of the Episcopal church do not understand why some authority does not simply “decide” and make things in our house what they consider straight. At the same time, we can take pride in the fact that each of us has a part in shaping our leadership and discerning our unfolding theology. There aren’t too many Episcopalians who would want to give up our collective liberty in Christ for the tidiness of a centralized monarchical authority.
I generally like living in a neat and tidy house. But for church, a messy house is the one I love.