Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful: Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat. George Herbert 1593-1633
In a Far-off Country A Long Time Ago
The poem Love, by George Herbert comes to us from the 17th Century. Herbert, a highly educated man, spent his ministry in the depths of the Wiltshire countryside ministering to the members of his parish. Herbert is acknowledged to be one of the significant articulators of that literary and spiritual flowering we refer to as the period of the Caroline (from the Latin for Charles) Divines. The Caroline period, extending from the end of the reign of James I into the reign of his son Charles I, is a period later recognized as the flowering of Classical Anglican devotion. It is paradoxical that such a period of deep spiritual awakening should emerge within the religious tensions forced underground by the Elizabethan Settlement; tension that contributed to a period of increasing political crisis leading up to the English Civil War.
The Elizabethan Settlement resulted in the use of the law to force the English to attend divine service morning and evening each Sunday, in their parish church. A consequence of this was that people of very different religious and political views found themselves side by side in the same pew, under the same church roof. Over several generations the religious and political differences did not disappear. They finally erupt in the English Civil War. Yet, something amazing happened in this period. Despite their differences, a common Anglican identity emerged from the experience of a community in the process of being molded by the overarching language and deeply devotional liturgy of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer.
This may all sound like events of an era, long ago. Yet, those very tensions that the Elizabethan Settlement sought to contain remain today as the embedded sources of tension between increasingly irreconcilable world-views currently afflicting the fabric of American political life in our own day.
The Episcopal Church comes to life after the Revolutionary War as the heir to the Anglican Tradition in these United States, and consequently is a community of Christians that identifies itself by a notion of right relationship in place of common agreement on belief and world-view. Being in right relationship with one another finds its principle expression in the beauty and dignity of worship.
In the absence of a shared world-view common to all members, which is the usual way Christian Communities organize themselves, Anglican-Episcopalians hold together because we live-out the experience that when two or three gather to pray in Christ’s name, we encounter God in our midst, speaking to us as a community, through the in-spirited conversation between Holy Scripture and present context.
It is not that Episcopalians don’t have a body of belief. The Book of Common Prayer in the section titled Historical Documents identifies what Episcopalians believe. This is nothing more or less than a faith founded upon the orthodox consensus of the Early Christian Church articulated by the first seven Ecumenical Councils, beginning with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and ending with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Episcopalians are Catholic Christians who interpret the catholic faith of the first seven centuries through the lens of Anglican Tradition. Anglican Tradition emerges from 1000 years of the English experience of Christianity.
In this Tradition we speak of the deep formative influences of Augustine’s (Hippo) theology, of Benedict’s spirituality, and the events of the English Reformation that shaped the emergence of a spirituality of the via media, or the middle way.
This is an experience, which while holding firm to the ancient roots of historic Christianity allows a wide room for the tolerance of tension. Our emphasis on the equality between Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, referred to as the three-legged stool, encourages us to stay within the arising tension when Tradition interprets Scripture, and Reason questions Tradition.
This is not only the tension which inevitably results from the differences between individual world-views present in our communities, but in the fundamental tension arising out of each generation’s interpretation of the tradition we receive in the light of the challenges of the age in which we live.
Tradition and Experience
Herbert, and the Anglican devotional spirit he compellingly gives voice to, opens-up for us a way to comprehend what the Evangelist John is seeking to express in the way he constructs Jesus’ farewell conversation with his disciples as they linger round the table following that Passover meal in the upper room. In this conversation Jesus is preparing his disciples for what is to come.
In constructing the farewell conversation between Jesus and his disciples, John is not transcribing a literal recording of events. He is passing-on the tradition, in this case that of the Last Supper, in a way that allows him to speak to the crisis in his own Christian Community at the end of the 1st Century. As with Mark, Matthew, and Luke before him, we can see how the tension between received tradition and current context is in play for John. This is the tension, which Episcopalians because of the accidents of our spiritual history, have come to value so highly.
In the face of the potential fragmentation over internal differences, John calls his community to hold together through the active practice of purposeful love (agape). Not only will the practice of purposeful love (agape) bind the community from within, but it will also commend the community to a hostile, external world. Purposeful Love operates at both community and individual levels:
Love one another; as I have loved you, by this shall the world know, that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 14:15-16)
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat. So I did sit and eat. (closing stanza to Love by George Herbert 1593-1633)
In Love Bade Me Welcome – Part II, I plan to further explore the dynamic of John’s purposeful love (agape) in the face of the challenges to Christian Community in our own time.