Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, Alberta
May 29, 2020, the Seventh Sunday of Easter
When the Rector asked me to cover services this Sunday, I said “Sure”, and than looked at my calendar and realized it was the 7th Sunday of Easter, only two days before May 31. 35 years ago, the 7th Sunday of Easter fell on May 31, when I was ordained a Deacon. (It was also the night that the Edmonton Oilers won their 3rd Stanley Cup, so I can take no credit for the street party outside afterwards.) When I realized what the day was, I told the Rector that I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my time in ordained ministry, and she quickly agreed.
Then I looked at the readings and came up against the closing portion of Jesus’ “high-priestly prayer” from John’s Gospel. As John tells it, these are the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples before his death, praying for those who will come after “that they may be one.” That’s us!
When I was involved in campus ministry as an undergraduate (U. of Alberta, B.Sc. ’69), the big thing was the Ecumenical Movement, after Rome had started to open its doors through Vatican II. I recall starry-eyed students – yours truly included – running around proclaiming unity, singing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” and expecting organic unity among the churches – soon! By the time I was ordained, I knew that organic unity was a pipe dream, but I still had some hope for all Christians to be one. I still hold that hope after 35 years, but the history of these years has been very mixed in this respect, even within the Anglican Church.
There’s been a lot of change. For some people, the best change is no change at all. Others say we have not changed nearly enough. What I do know is that change is inevitable. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus held that “impermanence is the characteristic feature of the world,” which certainly rings true for me. It has certainly been true in the Anglican world in recent years.
It’s hard to proclaim unity among Christians when our own church has seen divisions, mostly arising from changes in the church which some people reject. One predates my ordination, the ordination of women to the priesthood and later to the episcopacy. The Anglican Church of Canada first ordained female priests in 1979, and some clergy and laity responded by moving to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy. It was an issue for some of my classmates during my time at seminary. It remains an issue for some today, even at Holy Trinity. For me, it has been one of the most positive changes in our church in the past half-century, bringing a new wholeness to our understanding of Christian ministry.
Another change which I regard as positive, but which has led to division in our ranks, is in gender and sexuality issues. As we have moved toward fuller inclusiveness in welcome, ordination, and marriage, some people who disagreed have gone elsewhere, including establishing a parallel Anglican Church. Some others stay, but reluctantly.
A big positive: the development of a closer relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Again, some saw this as negative, but for me, it was long overdue. When our two churches sat down to talk, we quickly discovered that we agreed on almost everything and had done for centuries. We used different theological languages, and came at church order from different directions, but these proved easy to deal with. I was privileged to be a delegate to General Synod 2001, and to take part in the great celebration of the signing of the Full Communion agreement. I doubt that I’ll ever forget seeing our Primate and the Lutheran National Bishop dancing together around the arena in Waterloo. Our two churches have been enriched by this relationship, a visible sign of being one as Christ prayed for us.
Shortly after my ordination, we began to be aware of the issues around Residential Schools, a subject about which I had been woefully ignorant. As lawsuits began to pile up, there was some real fear that our whole institutional structure would collapse if we didn’t properly address the matter. Our Primate gave an apology to the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples’ Sacred Circle in 1993, opening the door to the work of healing and reconciliation. Since that time, we have become more aware of our colonial history and its effects on indigenous people. Healing and reconciliation will take years – well beyond my lifetime! – but we are on the road towards being one with our indigenous brothers and sisters.
One place where change has been at best mixed is our response to sexual abuse and harassment within the church. In times past everything was left up to Bishops’ discretion, but it became clear that this was inadequate, at times leading to greater harm. (The pattern of moving offending clergy to other parishes is not solely the province of the Roman Catholic Church. It has happened in the ACC. Most dioceses now have policies and procedures in place, but they lack consistency across the church, and a tendency to protect the institution before the victims persists. The “#ACCToo” issue is the most recent and visible example, dealing with how our national office handled a draft story intended for the Anglican Journal, potentially identifying victims when confidentiality had been assured. An open letter circulated around the national church, gathering hundreds of signatures, calling for accountability and for care for the complainants. The Primate responded in an interview on CBC News. I found her words less than helpful, but I do understand that the situation is still unfolding. Assurances that steps are being taken to ensure that it won’t happen again are not enough when people have been hurt. We have made some positive changes here, but much remains to be done.
That’s a bit of a downer, but now let’s look at one of the most positive areas of change – the growing understanding of the church as “missional.”
I served in three parishes before retiring. Two of those had long histories, and their understanding of the church had been deeply shaped by history. One was characterized by the “chaplaincy model,” seeing their role as ministering to people like them – mostly of British heritage. The other had played a big role in local history, and people looked back to the glorious past when the church was full and there were 200 children in Sunday School. I’m not criticizing them, rather observing that their sense of mission had been formed through many years of ministry practises that seemed to me to no longer fit the societal situation.
What I have experienced in other places and very much at Holy Trinity is a growing sense of the church as missional – existing for the benefit of others, not just those who are “on the list.” There will always be echoes of our history, but I don’t find it driving our agenda. The agenda continues to evolve. In some ways, the pandemic has been a blessing, forcing us to find new ways to be the Church, but God’s mission is still the same, as Jesus handed it to his disciples on the night before his death.
The church of 2022 is facing some huge challenges. With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we may move forward contributing our share of God’s mission in this world. Things won’t ever again be the same – but that’s always been true.
It has been a joy and a privilege – and at times a great challenge – to be part of the changes of the past 35 years. I do not expect to see the next 35 to their completion. But I am certain they will happen, and I believe that God will be glorified in God’s people.
May we all be one.