Quite recently I had to prepare to give a talk on the Anglo-catholic tradition for the Sunday morning adult formation session at a prominent New York City Parish that has recently placed six candlesticks on the High Altar, where for more than a hundred years there had only been two.
In preparing to talk about this tradition, into which Saint Mark’s was born, I found a study by researchers who looked at seven Anglo-catholic parishes in London that have recently experienced modest growth. But these seven parishes were exceptional among the 413 parishes of the Diocese of London, and particularly among Anglo-catholic parishes. The researches stated at the outset, “we had great difficulty finding many Anglican Catholic parishes which had grown consistently over the last five years.”* The growth in the seven parishes was modest, but it seems to be sustained, for the time being.
I was struck by a phrase early in the report that characterized the parishes, and which sounded mighty familiar to me. The researchers wrote that the parishes they looked at “have not watered down their faith or even engaged in anything particularly revolutionary. Instead they have assumed that the good news is for sharing, engaged with their local communities, been imaginative about children’s work, especially through choirs and music… and stewarded their resources.” Saint Mark’s could wear this description pretty comfortably over the last ten years. And today, on our patronal feast, as we celebrate the life of the parish, it’s good to hear our own experience echoed a bit by our brothers and sisters in London.
Since our patron saint happens to be an evangelist, I am particularly struck by that first clause in the description of the growing Anglo-catholic parishes. The researchers said that those parishes “assumed that the good news is for sharing.” I suppose it has to be said of St. Mark that he assumed the good news was for sharing. If he had not operated from that assumption, we could wonder whether or not any of us would be gathered here, since it was St. Mark who first set down the good news of Jesus in writing. Yes, he assumed the good news was for sharing.
As the ages roll by, I suppose it was to be expected that not only would people forget that the good news is for sharing, a lot of them would forget that it’s good news. Most people I know could put up with Jesus if he would sit quietly and issue bland moral teachings. Jesus as Sunday school teacher looks like palatable religion to a lot of people these days. But the Jesus who refuses to command anything but love, and who teaches that the way of love is the way of the Cross, which is a way of suffering and self-denial, that his power is made perfect in weakness, and whose breath brings the gift of peace, not of power… this Jesus is harder to stomach. The image of the dying, bleeding, crucified Jesus is not obviously and unavoidably chirpy, and so it can be difficult for some to see it as a symbol of good news. And in a society that has been successfully trained be consumers above all else, the call to worship, the need for redemption, and the hope of salvation are not the kind of news that most people are consuming. So, how can they be good news? Unable to decide (even in the church) whether the news we have received is good, the impulse to share it is not as strong as it once was.
Throughout the church in America - whether catholic, or protestant, or something else - it is not so easy to find the assumption that the good news is for sharing. In fact, you’ll find plenty of people who are deeply embarrassed by past generations who thought this way, and thus have decided that it might be better not to share. And so we live in a culture that’s eager to share news of almost every kind, and has made that sharing easier than ever, but which is deeply reluctant to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and not wholly convinced that the news is all that good anyway. Which is why we need St. Mark, why we need evangelists.
Twice in the first fifteen verses of his account of Jesus, Saint Mark uses the term “good news” to describe what he is writing about. As I open my study Bible to the first Chapter of Mark, it tells me that “the gospel (ie the good news) begins with John’s call to repentance.”** Undoubtedly this statement is correct. But you could also reverse the statement and it would be still be true: as Mark presents it, John’s call to repentance begins with the claim that it is good news (ie the gospel). And the verses we read tonight conclude with the words from John the Baptist’s lips, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
These words are much more challenging than at first they appear to be. Honestly, does anyone here assume that the time has come? Whatever that means? Can we really say that we assume that the kingdom of God has come near? Do most of us assume that we have much to repent for? And what can we possibly assume about what it means to believe in the Gospel? Can I assume that you also mean by that whatever I mean by that? None of this is actually obvious.
Toward the end of the report on the seven growing Anglo-catholic parishes in London, the writers report that “most church growth in London is driven by large evangelical churches and there are no corresponding large Anglican Catholic parishes doing the same..” In fact, the report makes it clear that their “research in London found few growing parishes.” And they asked if larger Anglo-catholic parishes could play a greater role in church growth. “There are a number of lively Anglican Catholic parishes,” they wrote, “with regular Sunday attendance of 200 - 400. Our research did not identify significant growth amongst this group nor did it find much evidence of systematic church planting or growth initiatives to benefit other parishes. It raises the question as to whether these larger, better resourced, Anglican Catholic Churches could play a more active role in promoting growth within the tradition.”
Yes, it does raise that question, indeed.
If only such churches assumed that the good news is for sharing!
On this patronal feast, we have this assumption to give thanks for, and to continue to pray for. We have followed our patron’s example, and we have assumed that the good news is for sharing. This assumption, and this sharing have been good for us. And they have led us repeatedly beyond our gates on Locust Street to help and support and expand the church in other places, like Clearfield Street, and like Bainbridge Street, and like Honduras. All because we assume that the good news is for sharing, as our patron did.
And if I am not mistaken, that assumption has repeatedly been proven to be true, for when we act on it, we discover that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, as it has here on Locust Street for 172 years.
Thanks be to God, and let us keep on assuming that the good news is for sharing!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist, 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
* “A Time to Sow: Anglican Catholic Church Growth in London” by Tim Thorlby, Oct 2017 for the Centre for Theology & Community, p. xix
** Oxford Annotated Bible, RSV