All Saints Episcopal Church, Hilton Head Island, SC
January 20, 2005
A member of the parish, the Rev. Chad Minifie, was honored on the occasion of the Annual Tribute Dinner of Episcopal Charities, held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on Nov. 29, 2004. "What I Like About the Episcopal Church" was delivered by Sam Waterston, film and television artist, who happens to be an Episcopalian. His remarks, I believe, are perceptive and revealing.
When the Episcopal Church is being its best self, it seems to me that it sets about to do what needs to be done without claiming to have all the answers. At its best, it applies to itself the extremely simple direction of Christ to love God and one another. At the same time it deliberately, consciously, self-awarely, stays very alive to the extremely complex and difficult problem of figuring out how best to do that in some particular circumstance and time, remembering that we are all prone, as humans, to being a little off the mark. It's this modesty about having the answers and the readiness to pitch in, while continuing to look for them, that sometimes makes people say of it that the Episcopal Church can't agree about anything, has no center, or lacks direction. To me, it's courage.
Sometimes, if the effort is to accommodate the present without losing the past, the result is a Prayer Book with so many choices that often the program of a service has to be printed up, just to give the congregation a little relief. But it's also a way to declare that saying the same thing in different words is clarity about meaning, not confusion of forms.
For example, today we're in this magnificent cathedral where the great words of the service are regularly heard accompanied by a world-class organ, and great musicians, playing the music of great composers. Yesterday, we were in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where the language at church was Spanish and the music was bouncy Latin-flavored versions of Christmas songs like "The Twelve Days of Christmas" played on a boom-box, or the priest in charge playing unfamiliar hymns on his guitar. We celebrated communion reading from the same Prayer Book, though, and stated the same basic beliefs so clearly that even someone without much Spanish could be in no confusion.
Sometimes setting about to do what needs doing without having all the answers has been to bring comfort to anyone with AIDS, just stepping in to help, no questions asked, and learning, without judging, as the church went along.
Sometimes it's been throwing open the doors of a national treasure as a haven for anyone who needed it in the middle of 9/11.
Sometimes it's undertaking to build the largest Gothic cathedral anywhere; sometimes it's the decision to slow to nothing the building of the largest cathedral anywhere; sometimes it's the decision to restore the damage done to the largest cathedral anywhere. It can look like the lack of a plan. I think it's responsiveness.
Sometimes, like now, it's the painful struggle to marry one part of the church's understanding of equality with another part of the church's understanding of sexual morality in a way that will satisfy both, but might satisfy none. Right now, over that question, the church seems barely to hold together. It's tempting to wish someone would lay down the law. But the church seems more to insist only that we all hang in there until the best course is revealed.
Lincoln's plea to the states threatening to rebel was wait, let the collective wisdom of the people work this out, over time, if we just hang in there.
Believing that time and holding together, and the wisdom of the whole, while it's messy, slow and often looks like weakness, is the best we can do to be still before God, and at the same time reply with present help to whatever the prevailing evil of the time seems to be at the time, can seem like passivity, or indecision, but I think it's wisdom.
And sometimes, pitching. in to help without claiming to have every certain answer, looks like Episcopal Charities. Episcopal Charities is by its name and nature situated right in the center of the questions about relations between civil society and religion that so preoccupy us right now. Even its name raises a lot of questions. If Episcopal Charities is help for all, regardless of creed or the absence of any creed, what is the word Episcopal doing in its name? And what are the connotations of the word "charity" in a secular society?
Well, there is concern about all this. Thought is given to that side of the question, as well as to the other: to naming the source of the charitable impulse, and stating that the core of the church is Love, and Charity means Love.
But in the meantime, while thinking about all that, and puzzling over it, and while by no means claiming to be in possession of all the rights and wrongs of the question, Episcopal Charities, at its best, concentrates on the prevailing evil, on the size of the trouble, the urgency of the need and the thirst for help. It concentrates on these things, while it awaits enlightenment about the "big" questions. To me, beside this wisely direct action, the big questions look kind of small.
And that's what I like about the Episcopal Church.
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