7/27/2011 sermon: Unity

Location: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Burke, VA
Text:   John 17:20-26
William Reed Huntington


Today we remember William Reed Huntington, a late 19th century priest in the Episcopal Church. Huntington did not die for his faith; he is not a saint because he was a martyr. However, he DID serve over 40 years as a deputy to General Convention, and he’s credited with helping the Episcopal Church weather a particularly difficult time in its history as it produced and adopted a “new” prayer book 1892.

The issue of Huntington’s day was what “kind” of Episcopalian to be. Should we all be High Church,  with incense, a lot of pageantry and ritual, and a belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist? This was the newest expression of Anglicanism at the time, brought to America from England by the Oxford Movement. OR should we all remain Low Church, emphasizing a personal relationship with God rather than the sacramental aspects of our common worship? As I reflected on the challenges that faced the Episcopal Church in Huntington’s day, I was reminded that we have managed to find something to fight over pretty much throughout the history of the church. (Jew/Gentile; slave/free; left-handed/right-handed; male/female… the list goes on, doesn’t it?)

Huntington’s gift was that he preached and taught reconciliation and unity. He firmly believed that God wanted us to be one, united in and through Christ, so that the whole world might be reconciled to God through us.[1] To this end Huntington wrote what became the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which the whole Anglican Communion adopted. This document gives us a four-point way to define Anglican identity, rather than letting the WAY WE WORSHIP define our identity: First, Huntington said, the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation. Thus the Bible is our “standard of faith.” Second, the creeds, particularly the Apostles and the Nicene Creeds, are a sufficient statement of the Christian faith. Third, there are but two sacraments, baptism and Holy Eucharist (the remaining five held as sacraments by the Roman Catholic Church we call “sacramental acts”). Finally, the historic episcopate, as locally adapted, is central to our understanding of our faith. In these four ideas we find  the basis for our shared ethos as Anglicans—not in our style of worship, but in our shared understanding of these four things.

The reason that this quadrilateral statement was necessary was that the church was being torn apart by what eventually became a schism, led by a few ambitious priests and some retired bishops. The Reformed Episcopal Church broke away from the Episcopal Church due to what it perceived as the “excessive ritualism” being adopted as the High Church movement reached America. It’s sometimes helpful, I find, in the midst of our own church schisms today to look back on those of the past. Somehow, with the perspective of time, the controversies of the past do not look quite so ultimately important as they do when we are in the middle of them.

In Second Corinthians Saint Paul says that God reconciled us to himself through Christ, not counting our trespasses against us, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation, so that we and others can be reconciled to God. Speaking strictly to myself now, albeit out loud and in your presence, I wonder: if I cannot be an ambassador of the message of reconciliation, how can I hope to share it with others who have not yet heard the Good News of God’s saving grace? If I cannot be an ambassador of the message of reconciliation, how can I hope to share it with you? How can I share it with anyone who holds a different view of Truth? How, then, will my efforts (as ambassador) close the gaps between God and me; God and humankind; you and me?

Our Gospel lesson today tells us why unity is important, and it’s not for the sake of numbers. The reason that we are to be reconciled is this: So that we may be one, as God the Father and God the Son are completely one, so that the world may know that God sent Jesus and that he loved us.

Risen Lord, you made yourself known to us in the breaking of the bread. And as your servant William Reed Huntington reminds us, make yourself known to us also in moments of reconciliation.

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