Visions, Not Arguments
On June 29, two days before Canada's national holiday, America's northern neighbor invaded Washington. At least, that was the impression a visitor would have received upon entering the dining hall of St. Paul's Episcopal Church on K Street. Red and white flowers adorned the tables, Canadian tee-shirts decorated the windows, and at the end of the room hung a fourteen-foot-high Canadian flag.
Downstairs in the church, Canada was in evidence as well. St. Paul's Church usually holds its communion service in accordance with the traditional rite in the Episcopal Church's 1979 prayer book. Many of the church's members have the rite memorized and do not need to refer to the written text. Today, however, members of the congregation were careful to read their service leaflets. The words were from the 1985 prayer book of the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) and were deceptively familiar, for both churches are descended from the Church of England and maintain close ties through the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Not all of the words in the service were familiar, though – except, perhaps, to the figure at the front of the church who wore a cope (ceremonial cloak) with the ACC's seal upon it. He was in the midst of turning west, north, east, and south, just as Canada's native people do when giving a blessing. "Que Dieu tout-puissant et éternel, le Père, le Fils et le Saint-Esprit, vous bénisse et vous protège, maintenant et pour les siècles des siècles," said Archbishop Michael G. Peers, primate of the ACC.
As head of the ACC, Archbishop Peers has charge over one out of every ten Canadians. His schedule is busy – "I don't have a Sunday free for the next two years," he told an inquiring church member – and Archbishop Peers had given up a meeting with Queen Elizabeth in order to come to Washington. He was lured here, not by any official business, but simply by the desire to visit an old friend, retired Canadian bishop Barry Valentine. Bishop Valentine was assistant bishop of Maryland from 1986 to 1988 and is presently serving at St. Paul's as interim rector (clergyman in charge).
"It's a pleasure to be back in Washington," said Archbishop Peers in his sermon. "To give you some idea how long it has been since I was here, on my last visit I visited the Senate in session when the vice president was presiding – Alben W. Berkley."
The congregation laughed in appreciation. Archbishop Peers's visit was a bright spot in the life of a church that was in much need of cheering. Last year, in an act that received nationwide publicity, the Right Rev. Ronald H. Haines, bishop of Washington, decided to send his suffragan (assistant) bishop to hold services at three area churches. All three churches, including St. Paul's, had traditionally opposed the Episcopal Church's ordination of women; the suffragen bishop's name was the Right Rev. Jane Dixon.
The ensuing controversy scarred St. Paul's; recently, over a year later, church members were still discussing in a religious education class how St. Paul's – and the Anglican Communion as a whole – could find unity when many of its members held opposing views on such issues. Archbishop Peers, it soon became clear, was prepared to address the Anglican churches' problem.
His visit occurred on the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the subject of the archbishop's sermon was that "apostolic odd couple" whom he believed remained lifelong "sparring partners." The New Testament clearly showed that Peter and Paul were opponents at one point, Archbishop Peers said. The two men could not agree on the issue of whether Gentiles (non-Jews) should be included in the early Christian Church. Peter was certain that the "unclean" Gentiles should not be included in the church, just as Paul had once been certain that the Christians were heretics. What changed the minds of both men, Archbishop Peers said, were not arguments, but visions: Peter and Paul both received visions from God which showed them that they had been too narrow in their views of who receives God's salvation.
"The remarkable thing about the visions of Peter and Paul is that the visions came to them at the moment that they were absolutely sure they were right," said Archbishop Peers. "Our assurance and God's plan may not always be on the same track."
The quarrels of Peter and Paul had once threatened the unity of the Christian Church. Because of their visions, Archbishop Peers said, Peter and Paul "are signs to us of the fundamental unity of the church across and beyond and through divisions."
For the archbishop, such episodes provide hope to churches that continue to quarrel over doctrinal issues. Speaking later to Greenbelt Interfaith News, the archbishop said, "There never was a time when there wasn't something on the boil. [Issues] tend not to be settled by argumentation. They tend to be settled because people get a certain vision of things."
Though some issues such as homosexuality have divided Canada's Anglicans, he said, sparring over doctrinal matters is not as widespread in the ACC as it is in the Episcopal Church. "The Canadian equivalent of ‘life, liberty, and happiness' is ‘peace, order, and good government.' We have a different way of going at problems."
In the long run, the issues themselves are likely to prove less important than the arguments lying behind them, he said. "A hundred years from now, people will be saying, ‘What was all the fuss?'"
The story of Peter and Paul conveys a second message to Archbishop Peers: the need to continue expanding the boundaries of the church to include those people who have traditionally been excluded. "I think most of the visions people have press them toward the horizons," he said. "Interfaith horizons are very important. How far can you go beyond the Christian faith? I don't know the answer, but as the world gets smaller through telecommunication, these questions are going to be asked."
Expanding the church's horizons, bringing the previously "unclean" into the church . . . Archbishop Peers's vision of the future is interrupted by two men who have arrived late at the church's coffee hour. Neither of the men knows who the archbishop is, but they are eager to speak with him; the archbishop, it appears, is happy to cooperate. "Your name is Michael too?" he says to one of the men. "That's a good name."
And so, as his visit to St. Paul's draws to a close, Archbishop Peers can be found in the corner of the church's dining hall, smiling and chatting with two street people.
World Brief: English Survey Intensifies Anglican Debate Over Gay Ordinations (July 31, 1997)
U.S. Feature: Summer Conventions '97: Episcopalians (ECUSA). Reports from American denominations that are holding national meetings this summer. (July 31, 1997)
U.S. Feature: Summer Conventions '97: Archbishop of Canterbury Urges Episcopalians to Remain United. Reports from American denominations that are holding national meetings this summer. (July 31, 1997)
U.S. Feature: The Quiet Revolution: How a Heresy Trial Has Rocked the Episcopal Church. Last year, an Episcopal bishop was tried for heresy after he ordained a practicing homosexual. Recent events show that Episcopalians continue to be deeply divided over gay issues. (June 1, 1997)
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson