True Religion

Last week was the anniversary of the first time that I stumbled my way through the liturgy here at St. Mark's. I’ve been thinking recently about my own experience of St. Mark’s, and of the process that led to my becoming the curate. I had not planned to become a parish priest when I was finishing seminary. I was planning on staying at seminary, enjoy living in New York City on a pittance, and working occasionally on an advanced degree, (the seminary equivalent of a surf bum) and then an e-mail arrived from Fr. Mullen asking if I would come and visit St. Mark’s. I knew nothing about this community, except that it was a famous and historic Anglo-Catholic parish. If you have any experience with Anglo-Catholic parishes, you know that they can be rather a mixed bag. Anglo-Catholic parishes have had a difficult time making the transition to this culture and this world, and so I was unjustly skeptical in my e-mail to Fr. Mullen, expressing that I love proper, high worship, but not for its own sake, and I not only like, but advocate for the inclusion of women and gay people in the Church.

Not only was Fr. Mullen’s response to my rather reactionary e-mail positive and interesting, but I e-mailed an old Anglo-Catholic priest I know in Wisconsin, of the radical variety, who responded that he hadn’t been to St. Mark’s in years, but he’d visited here during civil rights and the experience had been for him a formative one.

This was the story he told me:

My friend had gone to the rail to receive communion, and in front of him had been a very properly dressed white woman, and in front of her had been a very properly dressed African-American woman. The priest came down the rail, giving out wafers, and as he handed the consecrated bread to the three of them, the African-American woman, the white woman and the wet-behind-the-ears priest, the white woman said to priest, “I won’t drink for the chalice after that [blank],” and she used a word I won’t say, but was a very derogatory word for an African-American person. The priest had just given my friend the wafer, and returned immediately to the white woman, snatched the bread out of her hands and said to her, “You won’t take communion at all. You won’t take communion until you repent and come to confession. Leave immediately.” My friend left the rail, proud and shocked by the radical priest at this Anglo-Catholic parish that he had visited.

If you have been at all aware of the Episcopal Church in the last few decades, or even if you have ever caught the odd news story about the divisiveness in the Church today, you know that there is a massive and complex debate going on. It is billed as a debate about tradition, about Scripture, about social justice. There are all the racy elements that news organizations love: political struggle, lots and lots of money, discussions about sex, and a large quantity of rhetoric and lawsuits flying around. The debate has to do with women and gay people and their role in the Church.

So much of the rhetoric bills this as THE LAST BATTLE (with capital letters), a dispute for the mind and soul of the Church, and depending on which extreme you are listening to at the time, either the fight is about “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” or about the prejudices which haunt the Church against women and gay people.

And most Anglo-Catholic parishes have moved from being places of radical social witness, to museums prizing a golden past that never existed. Which I hope explains my dubiousness when Fr. Mullen e-mailed me.

That debate in the Church today is exacerbated by a vast rhetorical schism, which says essentially that either you are traditional in faith and worship, sexist and homophobic, or modern in faith and worship, and enlightened, and never the twain should meet, which means that St. Mark's has never been and still maybe isn't in the most comfortable place as churches go, clinging to catholic faith and liturgy, but also welcoming the poor and the oppressed.

And there are such rosy spectacles involved. Depending on who you talk to, thirty years ago was the end of the Church as we know it, before which there was peace, or thirty years ago was the period when the Church began the march into the modern era.

Any historian could tell you, of course, that in each debate or discussion that the Church has undergone since the first disciples, it always seemed to be “the last battle,” and has always been cast in brutally divergent rhetoric, and yet still the Church survives. This is no new phenomenon, but the perpetual discussion about what constitutes “true religion” and right worship.

“Increase in us true religion,” is the phrase from the collect this morning. The implication being that there is a false religion, which has nothing to do with the truth of God, and in the Gospel this morning we are given an indication as to what that “false religion” is: those rough disciples are not living up to the ritual purity laws of the Jewish faith – that complex of laws, set down in the Hebrew Scriptures, the sign and symbol of God's covenant with his people, the “sacrament,” if you like of God's love, inscribed into the daily lives of his people.

The Pharisees and scribes are quick to point this out to Jesus. “How,” they are saying, “can you claim to be Jewish, to be worshiping correctly, if you aren’t keeping the law?”

Jesus answers by quoting that magnificent, tortured prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah: “The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

Isaiah is speaking about God's chosen people, and their inability to have “real” faith. Despite the externals which look religious, despite being “proper" in that religious sense, their hearts are far from true religion and it is for that reason that their worship, the honor rightly and properly due God is “in vain.”

As for the people that Isaiah was preaching to, as for the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus was debating, so to for us: it is not enough simply to believe, say and do what is right. Right belief and action are important, but what is essential is to have hearts close to God’s heart. “In vain do they worship,” those who only espouse what is correct theologically, or liturgically or socially, if their hearts are far from God’s heart of compassion and love.

Which is where the debates in the Church today, that rhetorical divide where you must be either /or, on the right and the left fall so far short. One side is about proper doctrine and worship and one side about proper action, but in themselves they are only those “human precepts” which make our worship vain. Both sides eschew what Jesus is speaking of in the Gospels today.

As I was thinking and praying about this disparity in the Church this week, someone sent me a copy of an address given to the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Congress in England. In our own day, of course, such a conference would have perhaps six septuagenarian priests, and would garner as much interest as a root-canal, but in those days it was a large, well reported conference, which garnered a large number of Anglo-Catholic churchmen, as they used to be: catholic and radical.

The debates of that day were not women or human sexuality, but the reservation of the Sacrament, and the addition or use of Tabernacles in churches. Which seems alien to us here at St. Mark’s where we have long had the Sacrament reserved in our lovely Tabernacle, but there were vast quantities of energy and rhetoric expended on the issue at the time. The address, given by the then bishop of Zanzibar, a large number of whose people lived in abject poverty, is what I want to quote from:

But I say to you, and I say it with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slums.

Now mark that -- this is the Gospel truth. If you are prepared to say that the Anglo-Catholic is at perfect liberty to rake in all the money he can get no matter what the wages are that are paid, no matter what the conditions are under which people work; if you say that the Anglo-Catholic has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the levels of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament.

I am not talking economics, I do not understand them. I am not talking politics, I do not understand them. I am talking the Gospel, and I say to you this: If you are Christians then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly -- it is madness -- to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.

The issues are different for us, but it is essentially the same question: can we worship Jesus without coming face to face with the issues of our world? The answer is a resounding “No.” It is not enough to have right practice, right theology, right worship. We must recognize Jesus in the poor and dispossessed around us. It is not enough to have glorious liturgies and music, to adore Jesus present in bread and wine, if we do not also recognize him in the needy. Nor is it enough simply to have radical outreach to the discriminated, if we do not also long for Christ to be a real presence in peoples’ lives. We must have both.

Just as we cannot receive communion in the state that that poor woman was here during Civil Rights, just as we cannot adore Jesus and ignore his people in the slums, we cannot preach Jesus present on the altar, and ignore the women called to stand there. We cannot preach the radical love of God, the radical love of God for his people Israel, and fail to recognize it in the love and commitment of two people of any sex. We cannot preach God’s justice and ignore the people who are suffering under the yoke of economic disparity, of racial or class prejudice. We cannot preach the peace of God while ignoring the bullets flying in our streets. “It cannot be done!”

We preach the Christ, crucified, risen and present to his people, who commands us to feed the hungry, to cloth the naked, to welcome the outcast and stranger, to pursue injustice wherever it is found.

The divide in our day is about women and gay people. Tomorrow will have a different debate, just as yesterday did, a different discussion, but for today we must echo Isaiah. We cannot preach, as so many on the one side of the debate are saying: right worship, right belief alone, and to hell with the rest of it. Neither can we say that social justice alone is the great good: full inclusion of all God’s people is important, critically important, but not in itself.  Full inclusion is critical because God comes down to be with us in the physical and that physical says to us that it is vitally important how people live. Not just in the next life, but also in this one.

We must have both: right belief and right action, emerging from a heart that is like unto God's heart: brimming with love, longing and compassion.

“Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; and bring forth the fruit of good works.”

Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft

30 August 2009

St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia


Posted on September 1, 2009 .