Last Thursday, Nashotah House seminary held its annual Commencement and celebrated the Feast of its founder, Bishop Jackson Kemper. The speaker was Dr. Colin Podmore, the new director of Forward in Faith UK and until recently the Clerk of the General Synod of the Church of England. In the course of his address, Dr. Podmore suggested that Nashotah House sets a positive example of unity in diversity, both at home and potentially in England.
Podmore harkened back to the days of “comprehension” in which it was possible for people with different traditions and convictions to live together within the Anglican Church. He proposed that at Nashotah, among the staff and student body were people divided over staying in or leaving TEC, or about the ordination of women, and yet able to pray and work daily in common accord. Now that is obviously true. I want to suggest, however, that this is not a contrived policy, or an exercise in what we once termed “comprehension” but something quite other.
At the lunch after Commencement a visibly agitated priest asked to speak to me. He asked whether the address meant that we were now to compromise with error for the sake of a space within the church. I suggested to him that what was meant was something quite different, something I would flesh out in terms other than comprehension. In a sense Nashotah points the way through detachment. It stands pointing towards something far deeper than accommodation, or being nice to one another, or bargaining with conviction in order to survive. Nashotah daily points to the reality of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church through a corporate life of daily prayer, of Word and Sacrament.
Since the Reformation there have been a number of ways to make a claim for Catholicity. The great churches of the East and West, Rome and Constantinople have laid claim to an exclusive catholicity, proposing themselves as exclusive possessors of ecclesial authenticity. There have been times when such a claim has been made with the full and inclusive power of exclusion, the right to unchurch and exclude those without their folds. There have been times lately, when the same claim has been made with charity and compassion, acknowledging the unity of the baptized as individuals within, even if concluding that their corporate presences are defective. On the other hand, classical Protestants have fudged the issue, pointing to some amorphous, invisible body as the Church Catholic, while sitting lightly on visible unity. At best such a view recognizes that the Church Catholic is God’s Church, the Body of Christ, and not some institutional creation of human beings. At worst such a view has promoted a free market in the creation and division of the Christian community and a consumerist evaluation of what is authentic and what is not ‘a true church’. Among Anglicans, at least for a while, a ‘branch theory’ of the church was advanced, suggesting that ecclesial communities possessing certain marks such as sacraments, scripture and historic ministry, are true churches. Such a view identifies certain historic marks of authenticity, but easily leads to an arrogant satisfaction that ‘we are true and they are not’ and to a sectarian delight manifest in much modern Episcopalian denominationalism.
However the vision of the One Church to which Nashotah House points and lives into may be something quite different. In worship, study and work the community relies on an experience of the Church Catholic, an experience entered into by fidelity to “that which has been received”, that is The Tradition, an experience in which at one and the same time the reality of a unity which does not depend on human structural and organizational skills is magnified, and space for the working of the Spirit created. Yet this is no exercise in romanticism. The searing heat of modern apostasy and disunity has scorched away ritualism and fussy, self-absorbed piety. Reaching out towards the Body of Christ involves staff and students and those who gather there on great occasions in a painful encounter with the shattered body of the Church, the suffering frame of Jesus, forever lifting high the Cross in a bemused and lost world. Unity and fraction, holiness and sin, bump familiarly together in the lives of those consecrated and set apart to be the present church’s missionaries and life givers. That which lifts the Nashotah experience apart may be discovered in the chapel, as the Offices are said and sung, the Eucharist offered, by young men and women, teachers from different backgrounds, reflecting contemporary divisions, but caught up, despite themselves in the work of Liturgy. All that is taught in classroom, out in the parishes, in the daily life of work and play, is daily renewed and revived as the broken church interacts with the Church which transcends time and space.
The lesson, the pattern Nashotah offers is of the church which concentrates on Word and Sacrament, of living into the Tradition, (not a tradition of inherited habits, but the Tradition of living experience in communion with that which has been received and is to be passed on); on worship, corporate fellowship, evangelism, and such good works that have been prepared for us to walk in. It is from such fidelity that pentecostal love is absorbed and practiced with consecrated abandon, by those who make no claims for themselves, their rights, their expectations, but who exist to serve the God who has called them.
You shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit comes, and you will be my life-givers to the ends of the world.