Tell your story
Posted August 4, 2008
"There will be heavy security in and around the Cathedral."
Those were the chilling words of the Rev. Robert Willis, dean of Canterbury Cathedral.
It was the last of his morning announcements at the 11 a.m. sung Eucharist. The dean was explaining how all passageways through the cathedral grounds would be closed Sunday afternoon due to security concerns on this evening's closing service for the Bishops of the Anglican Communion.
Lambeth was about to end … and extra security was called for – not to control an overflow crowd but to make sure the crowd inside and out were safe.
"These are perilous times," a member of the U.S. Episcopal Church clergy told me.
"The threats made to several bishops and priests have to be taken seriously."
Threats all because some of us who make up this communion see things differently than others.
As I sat along the wall of the great cathedral, I watched as some 650 bishops gathered together, side by side. They were part of the packed-in crowd of 2,500. I was amazed by what I sensed. There simply has to be room for unity, even if it's without uniformity.
We gathered and listened as the archbishop of Canterbury gave his closing homily. A brief, yet directed, 13 minutes encouraging each of us gathered in that awe-inspiring and historical sanctuary to tell our stories of what we had learned from the 2008 Lambeth Conference.
Rowan Williams eloquently reminded us we are witnesses – "witnesses unlike those who testify in lawsuits," the Archbishop intoned. "We are not just bystanders. Because OUR lives have been transformed, we are sharers of the truth."
"We learn," he added, "when we share our stories things happen to others as they happened to us. It's the story that makes things happen."
Williams ended the homily and the conference on an upbeat.
He should. "The Times" wrote in a Saturday editorial: "He (Williams) can allow himself a note of joy and quiet pride. The conference has gone far better than he or even the most optimistic Anglicans could have imagined."
That should be part of our story.
Think of it. After all the crozier rattling, there is no formal schism. No one walked out. No angry public speeches.
As the editorial intoned, "Those attending have found in their hearts a way to remain in communion with each other, whatever the divisions on doctrine, biblical literalism and the ordination of gay priests."
I thought of these words on this misty Sunday afternoon in Canterbury. Less than an hour before the service began, the bishops' buses began to arrive. Single-file, then two-by-two, some holding the hand of the wife, some the hand of her husband, here they came.
It's a long walkway from the bus drop to Christ Gate. No red carpet, but shades of purple of the cassocks and the colors of the wives' dresses and hats made the brightest Easter parade on Fifth Avenue pale.
The colors weren't the only bright spot.
There were smiles.
The cynic would say, "Sure they're smiling … it's almost over!"
The sincere of heart saw the opposite of the cynic. These were smiles of joy. Laughter. Jokes. Stopping quickly at the neighboring Starbucks, darting in and out for a caffeine jolt before the service began.
They have reason(s) to smile.
The Rt. Rev. Henry Parsons, bishop of Alabama stopped to say, "This Lambeth is what Lambeth is supposed to be." He beamed, "David, we listened, we shared, and we have a stronger sense of community this afternoon than we did when we got here!"
As he started to walk away, he smiled and said, "This is good."
I heard bits and pieces of similar conversations as the bishops strolled by.
As the processional began, I began to realize what a privilege it was for me to be inside watching and participating. Participating in something so much larger than my often-tiny perspective of the world.
So much diversity. Colors. Accents. Looks. Cadence of strides.
The Celebrant, the President of the Liturgy, brought us a magnificent accent from Melanesia. The Most Reverend Sir Ellison Pogo spoke with clarity and authority throughout the evening. Most significantly, when the names of five Melanesian martyrs were ceremoniously added to the list held by Canterbury Cathedral.
The lessons were read in native Spanish, Arabic and Greek.
Prayers were offered in Chinese and English.
Hymns of native Brazil and South Africa rocked the honey-combed ceiling.
The voices of the Canterbury Cathedral men and boys choir were sterling.
And, of course, the soft and reassuring heavy English accent of Rowan Williams solidified the tone of the evening.
This writer has to think some of complaints I've heard from priests in the past few months will begin to subside. I know, I know. Complaints often have merit. No one can deny church attendance is down. People are turning to other means of spiritual awareness other than traditional church. When some of the priests and deacons complain, they do so mockingly. Sure, this is often a defensive mechanism, but it is sad nonetheless.
As I sat there tonight, I prayed for those priests and deacons. Aching for them to feel what I know to be true.
At that moment, Rowan Williams reminded us (me), tell your story.
Part of that story appears in Williams' last conference address before the closing service.
You can find all of it on our Web site.
Here's what I think is an important excerpt:
"So, is this our message? Our Communion longs to stay together – but not only as an association of polite friends. It is seeking a deeper entry into the place where Christ stands, to find its unity there. To that end, it is struggling with the question of what mutual commitments will preserve faithful, grateful relationship and common witness. But it must remember, too, that the place where Christ stands is also every place where God's image is disfigured by the rebelliousness and injustice of our world – just as he once stood in the place of every rejected and lost human being in his suffering on the cross. To be with him in unity, in prayer and love, in intimacy with the Father, is at the same time, to be with him among the rejected and disfigured."
My heart tells he meant the literal and metaphorical rejected and disfigured.
As we leave Canterbury and Kent, what will we take with and what will we leave behind?
What did we expect? What did we find?
One of the Bible study members answered the expectation question by saying, "I came here looking for Jesus … and you know, he just kept popping up!"
I get that. No question he was there tonight inside the cathedral. He helped us realize that no matter what conflicts we have within the body of Christ, we need to stop trying to manage them. If we manage a conflict, we'll never resolve it. If we realize it's something we're living with … then, maybe we'll find resolution. Or maybe, we'll discover resolution lies within each of us individually more than it does on in a corporate sense.
May we each continue to tell our stories. Renewed. Different? Perhaps. Definitely with more intensity.
I saw Bishop Gregg after the service.
"Bishop," I asked. "Are you ready to tell you story?"
"You better believe I am …"
He paused briefly with that great smile of his, "We're better off tonight than we were when we got here."
What is my story?
Well, I'm not quite sure. My enthusiasm of my story before Lambeth was already intense. (Yes, I've been reminded more than once about intensity). Yet, I know I have entered a new place, a place where sacred places may very well become the place where I am. I am reminded that God creates these spaces and the people that will enter that sacred place with me.
Oh, by the way. There were no problems. The police were kind and attentive, and I am thankful those officers had an easy night. I think they knew we were not living in fear.
Be watching and listening.
I have a great story to tell. You already know it, but I'll tell you anyway.
If God can redeem, transform and empower me…He can AND will do it for anyone.
Tomorrow … a conversation with the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, bishop of New Hampshire.
One more thing…
A moment filled with overwhelming beauty happened when the archbishop called us to the Lord's Prayer stating, "As we pray in each of our native tongues…"
As I am praying in English, I hear so many different languages and dialect. It mattered not. Each of us knew, not only what we were praying but understood what our neighbors were praying as well. At one point, there was just noise. Wonderful noise enveloping prayer from the heart.
The most amazing part of the prayers of 2,500 people speaking in more than a dozen languages…all 2,500 of us finished at exactly the same moment. Amen.