It was an imagined Jeopardy question, posed by the Most Rev. Michael Curry in his remarkable sermon on Sunday, when he was installed as the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. “Name two words that begin with E that are never used at the same time”. Answer: Evangelism and Episcopalians.
I remember another sermon by another bishop colleague who said that for Episcopalians evangelism tends to involve bringing a small aquarium filled with water down to the beach and waiting for the fish to jump in. A passive enterprise in this bishop’s example, or an absent one, in Presiding Bishop Curry’s.
Presiding Bishop Curry went on to outline a way of evangelism that is congruent with our rich Anglican tradition, and that is also aligned with the Gospel: “A way of evangelism that is as much about listening and learning from the story of who God is in another person’s life as it is about sharing our own story… A way of evangelism that is really about helping others find their way to a relationship with God without trying to control the outcome.” (Italics mine.) “A way of evangelism that is authentic to us.”
For nearly four hundred years, evangelism in the Western Church has carried the spoken or unspoken inference that Christians are bringing God to places and people where God is not present. We have tried to control the outcome. Presiding Bishop Curry’s evangelism is one that honors our heritage, and at the same time respects the dignity, giftedness and blessing of every human being. His evangelism seeks to lift up the presence of God in the exchange between the one who witnesses and the one who receives the witness – so that both are transformed.
We have work to do, he said repeatedly. Indeed.
I am drawn to Presiding Bishop Curry’s vision of evangelism. As I am drawn to his joy and passion – and eloquence. And I have been drawn more deeply into the genius of the Episcopal Church, having spent a weekend in worship – on Saturday at the “vigil” service at the DC Armory hosted by the Union of Black Episcopalians (and which prominently featured many from the Diocese of Newark, including preacher Sandye Wilson, Rector of St. Andrew’s and Holy Communion in South Orange); and the All Saints Day celebration in the National Cathedral, which passed the symbolic torch of leadership from Katharine Jefferts Schori to Michael Curry. There was pomp and circumstance galore, fielding the full range of our ethnic and ecclesiastical diversity – and all offered to the glory of God.
Liturgy literally means “work of the people.” The work we did in worship this weekend was to be as honest and open as we can be about who and where we are – and then submit to the symbols and substance of the liturgy which have the capacity to take us to a place of hope and freedom. We did a lot of work this weekend. A lot of good work. Those who were there in person – and those who watched live-streaming or video; we all were moved.
The worship grounds and guides us. And then , as Presiding Bishop Curry preached, worship sends us out into the world – as empowered followers of Jesus, to join with God in transforming the world’s nightmare into God’s dream.