Saturday, March 02, 2013

agreement is overrated

Earlier this week I had the great good fortune to catch up with an old friend of mine, and to meet a more recent friend of his over supper.

Tory Baucum, Rector of Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia, and I have been friends for almost a quarter of a century - since he was a curate in Little Rock Arkansas, and I was about to start training for ordination in Oxford. We met by chance, as happens with the best friendships. Though 'chance' may, of course, have had some divine help; either way, I'll take it.

It was Tory who introduced me to Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, and thereby to many others who have become important to me. The years have had their generosity and taken their toll; I have seen the recent days of Tory's work and felt with him the pain he has had to work through.

Tory, of course, pastors one of those churches that pulled out of The Episcopal Church, the US arm of the Anglican Communion, after the consecration of Gene Robinson a decade ago. It wasn't an act done over a single moment. There was a lot of history. But the issue of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the realm of sexuality remains a key issue for Truro and the other Anglican churches that made the same decision at the same time.

Regular readers will know that whilst I share Tory's absolute evangelical commitment to Biblical truth, I disagree with the outworking of it here. But I have absolutely stood by him through these years. In heart and prayer and emotionally. He is a godly man of peace with a passion for relationship (which is always at the heart of my Christian understanding) and a desire to seek the greater truths of the Biblical witness. He is someone who is not afraid to stand up and speak graciously when all around call upon him to denounce people; and he is my friend.

I visited him and Elizabeth and the family (for the first time in a while) back in October when I was in DC. Though I was working over there, I had some time on a Sunday, and had the great pleasure of worshipping at Truro. Tory told me of his friendship with the Episcopalian bishop of Virginia, Shannon Johnston, and the surprising blessing that had come from meeting with the man at the head of a diocese at war with his own parish.

Tory & Shannon were in Coventry this week, speaking at a conference on Faith in Conflict organised by new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. There's an article in this week's Church Times about them, and here is a link to the audio of their event. If you can spare an hour, stop and listen. It is very much worth it, to hear two men speak of grace in the midst of distress, and how God can change hearts. In the midst of fear, and lawsuits, and enmity, a friendship has been born. Remarkable. And it is a simple truth that leaders set the tone for their people; it may take a long time for full resolution, but the way people pray together across hurt is a witness to God's redeeming love and the reality of forgiveness.

Before he flew over here, Tory called me - could I find time to see him, he'd love me to meet Shannon. Of course, I replied that would love to do so. And we found a time that worked.

I never cease to be amazed at Tory. He gets it in the neck from so many people - he lives in a place where the church is in crisis. Hurting badly. Many people (mostly in other places - his congregation seem remarkably kind) demand he fight the wicked Episcopalians. And he simply loves, disagrees, talks, prays with, engages as the Lord leads him. It's a godly thing and a costly one. Shannon too acts out a prophetic role: not lording it over Tory or taking the role of the power figure (as, in stereotype, one might imagine a bishop to act) but speaking to his own Diocese of their friendship - and how it has changed him. This is humility. This is godliness.

It was a great pleasure to meet Shannon, to discover a shared love of music, a passion for Anglicanism built on the principles of the Elizabethan settlement, and to talk over many other things.

Shannon says in the audio from the Coventry conference: "Agreement is overrated". Unity is not uniformity. We are not all called to be the same. As Christians, sometimes the real delight comes in meeting people in whom we see Christ, but who are quite different to us in all sorts of ways. We disagree - perhaps on how we worship or how we talk about Jesus to others or in what we wear to church. Or in some of the wider and, for now, deeper issues of faith.

But there is a bedrock. Our forefathers were very wise when they gave us the Catholic Creeds. Just the core things. Mostly about Jesus. If we share these things - as Tory says - "these things are not nothing". Indeed, these things are an awful lot. These things bind us together and make us family. In the family, there are cousins and grandparents, and a crazy uncle we'd rather keep on the porch, but who belongs inside with us. That's the Elizabethan Settlement, right there. The Church is a big house, with many rooms and lots of room. And love and kindness matter.

And the water of baptism is at the door, the outward sign that we have all been welcomed in, that we have made promises and received grace. It is an outward and visible sign of the cleansing we receive in our hearts by the blood of Christ which is the seal and reality of our redemption - even when we begin to doubt each other, and the validity of the words and signs we see in each other's lives. The blood is thicker than the water, the reality deeper than the sign.

So when the outward is a bit shaky, when churches and Christians fight and argue and split and spit and tussle, and love seems to have left the building, this does not negate inner truth. For God will find a way to restore his redemptive normality. He will find people like Shannon and Tory, who are not papering over cracks but recovering the essentials for the rest of us.

We must bless people like these two men. And pray for them.

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