By The Rev. Dawn M. Frankfurt, St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS
In the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We never have to look very far for examples of tension in our world. Once you know where the tension is, it is the Anglican mindset – known as the middle way – makes tension not only possible to live with, but nearly a joy in itself.
I’ve set us a task this season, to go back and review the basics, to allow us to reflect on what we believe and then time for us to work out how what we believe makes our modern-day lives better.
As I said last week, when faith and reason are allowed to co-exist, our deepest truths become known. In the example I used as we considered the Bible, I said that a more-than-literal understanding of the Bible tells the truth that no matter how it happened, God created everything that is; God approves of and cares for all of creation, and we have responsibility for creation, for each other, and for ourselves.
This week I will share some of the history of the English Church. As we begin, something we need to be aware of is that when we talk about “The English Church,” we are narrowing down the field of religious study significantly. This description assumes our discussion is limited to the English (or Anglican) version of Christianity. Right at the start of our story we face an instance of tension because we can point to several different moments which could be considered the beginning of the English Church.
We know that Christianity started with Jesus, but when did the good news reach England? At its earliest, the Church of England dates to at least the 2nd century of the Common Era, when merchants and other travelers first brought Christianity to England. Many consider it customary to regard St. Augustine of Canterbury’s mission to England in 597 as the formal beginning of the church under papal authority (as it was to be throughout the Middle Ages).
In its modern form, the English church dates from the 16th century Reformation when royal supremacy was established and the authority of the papacy was repudiated. With the advent of British colonization, which we saw later, the Church of England became established on every continent. In time, these very churches gained independence, but retained connections with the Church of England, thereby forming the Anglican Communion.
In Basic A, the adult confirmation classes we offer at St. James, we tend to focus on the history of the Church of England beginning with the reign of Henry VIII of England (1509-47). It all started when Pope Clement VIII refused to approve the annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In response and at Henry’s insistence, Parliament passed a series of acts that separated the English Church from the Roman hierarchy, and, in 1534, made the English monarch the head of the English Church. The monasteries were suppressed, but few other changes were immediately made, since Henry intended that the English Church would remain Catholic, though separated from Rome. The practices of the church at this point did not change.
After Henry’s death, Protestant reforms of the Church were introduced during the six-year reign of his son, Edward VI. However, when he died in 1553, and his half-sister, Mary, a Roman Catholic, succeeded to the throne, she repressed and persecuted Protestants to the extent that sympathy for their cause grew.
Five years later, when Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter, became queen in 1558, an independent Church of England was reestablished. The Book of Common Prayer became the standard for liturgy and doctrine.
We see there was tension between Henry VIII’s personal desire to divorce, and the Pope’s defense of church tradition and doctrine. This original tension began to create for us the via media, which today we call “the middle way.”
The Church of England stood where repair to the between polarized parts of the church could begin to be healed. One example of that regards Holy Scripture. On the one hand, Protestants believe in the supremacy of scripture alone for the ordering of their lives in God. While on the other hand, Roman Catholics believe both in scripture and tradition (tradition is the doctrine, teachings, and practices the church in Rome added to Holy Scripture).
At the time of the Reformation, divisions in the church were over such things as church furnishings and decoration, the role of clergy, and the sacraments. Many of these divisions remain today.
Another way the English Church bridges is the way our church describes saints. We agree with Protestants that everyone who believes in God is a saint. We do not believe in the Roman Catholic tradition of canonizing only the most exemplary people as saints.
By taking the middle way, we say that saints are not models of absolute perfection, but they are men and women whose lives, with all their diversity of gifts and graces, were reshaped by God’s redemptive activity. We take to heart that in spite of their failings and ours, we are all alike redeemed sinners called to be saints. The Anglican way recognizes the important exemplary role individual saints play, and affirms that they are human beings in the same way we are all humans.
We could study for years the divisions between Protestants and Roman Catholics which our method of embracing ‘both/and’ allows us to overcome. There is tension between these two ways of believing. The Church of England offers a third way. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics have a different view of the sacraments than we do.
Protestants claim that the bread and wine shared in Holy Communion is just a symbol reminding us of what Jesus Christ accomplished for us. On the other hand, Roman Catholics believe that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are actually the body and blood of Jesus. This is accomplished, according to Roman tradition, only by the action of a male priest who brings the sacrament into being by his actions and saying of prayers.
It was Martin Luther who had asserted God who was holy. It was not the holiness of the priest which brought the sacrament into existence – nor could his un-holiness prevent it.
As long as we are talking about the sacraments, let’s go on to consider that Roman Catholics believe in seven of them: Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Confession, Anointing of the sick, Holy Matrimony, and Ordination into holy orders. They are taught that the seven sacraments were instituted by Jesus. The Protestant form of the church affirmed only in two sacraments Holy Communion and Baptism. They believe that only these two are born out in Holy Scripture.
The Anglican Communion (and the Episcopal Church within it) takes the middle way in this tension by embracing the two sacraments of Communion and Baptism and affirming the five other sacramental actions. This leaves us in something of a middle ground on the view of whether Holy Communion is a memorial meal, or the real presence of Jesus Christ.
Instead of transubstantiation, where the bread and the wine become the flesh and blood of Christ, we believe in consubstantiation, in which the body and blood of Jesus become present with the elements of bread and wine in the Eucharist.
As the details of the Book of Common Prayer were being debated between Catholic-leaning and Protestant-leaning viewpoints, Queen Elizabeth I, famously said: “I will not make windows into men’s souls.” She believed in the ancient form of prayers, and yet she would not require every person saying them to believe the same thing.
We have an example of this in the words settled on by the Book of Common Prayer for use at the administration of Holy Communion. In the early version (1549), the words the priest was to say as communion was given to parishioners were: “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve they body and soul unto everlasting life.”
There was significant Protestant push back to that statement which seemed only the affirm the Real Presence. So, in the next version, the 1552 Book of Common Prayer the words of administration where changed to this: “Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” As you can imagine, to many people this sounded like Holy Communion was a memorial meal.
Finally, the 1559 version of the Book of Common Prayer combined these versions to make room for both. The combination suited those who advocated the Real Presence, as well as those who denied it. In the English Church, each was left to work out their understanding of the Eucharist in their hearts while they all said the same words. These are the same words which we still say today: “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul into everlasting life: and take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thine heart by faith, with thanksgiving.”
We Anglicans understand the sacraments are to be understood as an “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” (see Book of Common Prayer, p. 857). We look at our symbols of faith knowing they are concrete actions to be seen because we can not see the invisible, spiritual action taking place inside us when we participate in the sacraments.
It is our church which gives us a model for overcoming polarization – even these days. Owning a belief on one end of a spectrum leaves no room for other views – and thereby tension between opposites arises. With our theology which authorizes a position between two extremes, we make room for more people and more opinion in the church. We believe that all Christians have fundamentals on which they all agree. It is the via media which provides a place to stand for Christians who have differences – especially as they pertain to societal and cultural issues.
These days it is easy for us to point to tension between two seemingly irreconcilable points of view. The Anglican Church, and its third way, have something profoundly important to say to the world. We believe in a united place to stand. Jesus called people of all kinds and of different beliefs to eat at the same table with him. There, contradictory behavior was allowed, questions were asked, and no one was sent away.
This is where the observation of tension in our lives takes on a special role for us. We know people disagree, and we have agreed to live with tension. This is our strength. We know that God created all people in one creation. Everything, the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong, exists in God, in creation, and in us.
When we learn to make room for everyone in church, we discover that it is only in God that all things can exist. Only in God do all things belong. So tensions, for Anglicans, do not create separations or draw boundaries between groups. Tensions are evidence which reminds us that God has given us a way to live our lives in peace with good will. Living with tension can be thought of as the glue that holds us together.
As I said at the outset of this sermon: that God has given us, through the Anglican mindset – the middle way – which makes tension not only possible to live with, but nearly a joy in itself.
What if the whole world could adopt a version of this adage of the Episcopal Church: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity”?
Living this way, we can get up and go on our way. Our faith has made us well.