[The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina] 20 Jan 2009--One of the better descriptions of the Church I’ve read over the years comes from a character in J. F. Powers’ novel, Wheat that Springeth Green. Powers, a semi-reclusive Catholic writer known primarily for his short stories, has given us a helpful analogy for understanding the Church—he pictures her as a big old ship. As one character tells another in the story:
“This is a big old ship, Bill. She creaks, she rolls, and at times she makes you want to throw up. But she gets where she’s going. Always has, always will, until the end of time. With or without you.”
I thought of that description of the church some time ago when I read an article in the newspaper of a cruise ship returning to New York from a vacation in the Bahamas. It seems the ship encountered a storm at sea. One disturbed passenger was quoted as saying, “We were going back and forth, up and down. And then, ‘Boom!’” The cruise ship, Norwegian Dawn was hit by a freak 70-foot wave. Reaching as high as deck ten, the wave smashed windows, flooded cabins, and sent furniture flying across rooms. One passenger complained, “Why would you go through a storm? Can’t they see it coming? I’m trying not to be angry.” The captain of the ship wasn’t quoted in the story so there’s no way of knowing whether the storm was foreseen, unavoidable, or underestimated. This much I know as a crewman on the Ship of Faith: there are times you can see a storm approaching, you can even warn others on board it is coming, but there’s no way to avoid the storm if the course charted and the storm’s trajectory are aligned.
I’ve read enough church history to know some ecclesiastical storms are unavoidable because the church carries out her mission in a world of stormy climates and changing seas. Some storms are less disturbing than predicted, while others hit you with a 70-foot wave after the chief petty officer has announced calm seas ahead. The Episcopal Church at its 2003 General Convention chose to head straight into a gathering storm. Some of us at this convention warned that departing from the charted course of Scripture and catholicity was sheer imprudence. Bishop Salmon, Kendall Harmon, John Burwell and others from the South Carolina deputation were among those who warned of impending danger. As a deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of San Joaquin and a member of the Committee on the Consecration of Bishops, I, too, warned in a minority report from the committee of possible irreparable harm from the course charted. Nevertheless, the majority of the crew—bishops, priests and laity—thought we were merely alarmists. So into the storm we headed. At this point no one knows how it will turnout. This old ship of the Anglican Communion is rolling about on rough seas. More than a few passengers have been tossed overboard, some are in sick bay, and still others have gathered in lifeboats. It is an unfortunate situation, and all the more so in that it was avoidable, or at least could have been more adequately prepared for, and perhaps the worst of it even circumnavigated. Where the Anglican Communion and The Episcopal Church go from here frankly no one knows. These are uncharted waters for all of us. I suppose those of us who love Holy Scripture may take solace in the narrative from the 27th Chapter of The Book of Acts where St. Paul warns the captain and crew of the ship that was taking him to Rome not to set sail, but, ignored as he was, they were soon engulfed by a tempestuous wind called a northeaster. Yes, God’s ultimate purposes were accomplished but at great loss to ship and freight.