At a meeting last week of the Church Pension Group, a senior trustee who knows a good bit about the Episcopal Church and her congregations introduced me to somebody by saying, "Thomas is the rector of a parish in Boston, a broad church." It's not a description I hear much--broad church--though it was common throughout much of the 20th century.
Caroline Chartres is a first-rate writer and columnist. Among her works is an edited compilation of essays, Why I Am Still an Anglican (first published in 2006). In the first sentence of Ian Hislop's essay in that work, the British satirist and media darling wrote, "I've tried atheism and I can't stick to it: I keep having doubts."
The church I know and love is full of people who might say the same thing. It's also home to those who find Ian Hislop's honesty insufficient. They would want something more, something explicit about Jesus or salvation, something with doctrinal teeth; I'm often in that camp. Yet the truth is that our beliefs and doubts, our questions and our answers, run the gamut. When we sit in the same pew, work side by side in serving the poor, and work and give so there will be sacred places for others, we are a broad church. And being a broad church is hard work.
We're a home for people who are indifferent, on the one hand, so we need to keep the place alive so they can bring their doubts. And, we're a home to people, on the other hand, who would make the test for belonging so high that the doubtful would be shut out.
Ian Hislop in that same essay also wrote this: "the Anglican Church allows for science, biblical theology, unbiblical scholarship and changes in knowledge, and trusts its members to form their own opinions. And as for our worship, well, it focuses upon Christ, not ourselves. That's its strength."
Being a broad church is hard work because Jesus Christ is truly present in the church, and there's no sense in double-talking about what he wanted from his followers: to lay down our lives and to take up our cross. That's why our distinctive and repeated actions, like listening to the word and sharing in Christ's body and blood, also make it hard work to be a broad church. We are, God willing and our flesh consenting, real disciples. We are not playing at the first-century church; we are living now in the 21st-century church.
To be faithful today requires a breadth that wasn't spelled out by Jesus or by a few who would literally lay down their lives for him. Yet Christ's broad and forgiving spirit, as well as his commitment to unite the diverse personalities of his first disciples--the men and the women and their concomitant foibles and strengths--is our inheritance.
--The Rev. Thomas J. Brown, Rector, Parish of the Epiphany, Winchester. This reflection first appeared in the Feb. 25, 2014, issue of the parish's newsletter, "The Three Crowns"; this version is published with permission.
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