Before Abraham Lincoln and license plates throughout SEC country made it famous, Jesus said that a house divided against itself will not be able to stand. He reiterates that point in the context of the Church that will grow out of his ministry in the High Priestly Prayer at the end of John’s Gospel, but this Sunday, we will hear it in the context of Mark’s third chapter, as Jesus is being denounced as “out of his mind” and “Beelzebul.” As Episcopalians, we will hear this text two weeks out from the opening of the 78th General Convention, which is always a time of great contention and consternation, and on the heels of a report (albeit one with an obvious agenda behind it) that The Episcopal Church is set to rack up more than $42 million in legal fees on litigation against former members.
A house divided against itself, indeed.
And yet, as I begin to research and write my thesis for a Doctor of Ministry degree at Sewanee, I came upon a short book, written by the Rev. Dr. William Reed Huntington in 1891 called Popular Misconceptions of the Episcopal Church. In that text, he devotes a whole chapter to the argument, prevalent even in 1891 it seems, that The Episcopal Church was a house divided. In Dr. Huntington’s day and age, the issue was the ongoing debates between the High, Low, and Broad Church parties, but you could easily bring the conversation forward 120 years and exchange it for debates over human sexuality or church structure or whatever. He argues, rather convincingly, I think, that it is precisely because of the place of warring groups within The Episcopal Church that we are not divided, but rather models of what it means to be in relationship despite disagreement.
“It is because of its having gradually acquired, during a long history, this inclusive character, that the Episcopal Church is able without immodesty to volunteer its good offices in that effort to come to a better understanding which so many souls in all the communions are earnestly desirous of seeing set on foot. Such overture would be impertinent indeed if this Church were really ‘a house divided against itself;’ – but is it that? Come and see.” (Popular Misconceptions, p. 87)
$42 million on lawsuits to the contrary, the hallmark of Anglicanism has been our ability to carry on alongside those with whom we disagree. One of the great gifts of our Church has, at least historically, been that despite some strong theological disagreements, we can all come to the altar and share in the bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord. As we enter the usual period of anxiety around General Convention, my prayer is that we remember that we need not be a house divided, but rather we are a Church built on the foundation of unity, even in disagreement, that our Savior prayed and ultimately died for.