Unity with Episcopalians

John 17:20-26

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”


Today we are continuing our sermon series on unity in the church as we seek to be one just as Jesus has prayed for his disciples. What exactly that means or looks like, I don’t know. What I do know is that what we are as the church today is surely not what Jesus had in mind when he prayed for unity.

Last week, when I introduced this sermon series, I mentioned something off the cuff. I did not plan to say it, it just came out. And when I listened to the sermon on Monday I thought to myself – in all humility, mind you – “That was very profound!”

That off-the-cuff statement was something like this: As a people commissioned to share Jesus’ message of reconciliation, we sure do a poor job of being reconciled to one another.

It is my belief that many of the disagreements, schisms, and divisions within the church come from a lack of understanding. Perhaps not at first. But once that division begins and there is clearly an “us” and a “them,” we fail to speak to one another and instead we use our uneducated and ill-informed critiques to further the gap between our churches and members. We often mischaracterize someone else’s opinion in order to strengthen our argument and that just makes us a little bit more smug and close minded.

So I am trying to look at different denominations over the next four weeks in order to better understand them. This does not mean that I agree with everything that these other denominations believe. I actually plan to spend some time each week looking at what I believe to be a shortcoming of that Sunday’s denomination of emphasis. What I want to do is understand. A good way to practice epistemic humility is to seek to understand first and critique second.

So today we turn to the Episcopal Church, a tradition from which at least four people in our congregation can trace their roots. The way I want to approach these sermons is to first look at the history of a particular denomination. We will then turn to something that I think we as Anabaptist/Mennonites have as a part of our tradition that our focus denomination can learn from. Finally, we will look at something that I hope we can learn from other denominations.

The Episcopal Church is a part of the Anglican tradition. The name “Anglican” literally means “English,” and as you might expect, the Anglican Church is the official church of England.

The Anglican Church has its beginnings in the early 16th century during the rule of Henry VIII (feel free to sing the song; I do.) As any division is, this one is complicated and involves more than one event. But the situation that is often noted as the reason for the split has to do with Henry’s decision to divorce his wife, who was not able to bear a male heir to the throne. When the Pope refused to grant Henry’s divorce to allow him to marry a younger, more fertile woman, Henry divorced her anyway. When Henry went against the Pope’s decision the Pope excommunicated Henry. So Henry started the Anglican Church.

The Anglican Church began holding services in the United States soon after the first settlers came to this territory. There is evidence of Anglican worship services being held in the lost colony of Roanoke and the first permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia.

However, as America became a country and broke official ties to Great Britain, a unique problem arose. All clergy members in the Anglican Church were required to swear allegiance to the British monarchy. That didn’t go over too well in the newly formed United States of America. So the Episcopal Church began as an extension of the Anglican tradition in this new country.

Today the Episcopal Church reports a membership of about 2,000,000 people, many of whom live close to the east coast, particularly in the first states colonized by Great Britain.

So what can we as Anabaptist/Mennonites offer this rich church tradition? I think we can begin by looking at the word “episcopal.” From Wikipedia we find this:

The word episcopal is derived from the Greek: επίσκοπος, transliterated epískopos, which literally means overseer; the word, however, is used in religious contexts to refer to a bishop.

The Episcopal Church is led by a Presiding Bishop, currently a position filled by Katharine Jefferts Schori. The Presiding Bishop does just what the title suggests. He or she “presides” over House of Bishops, which is made up of the Archbishops of the local districts.

The Presiding Bishop does not have quite the authority that the Pope does in the Catholic Church, but he or she has a great deal of responsibility in matters of church polity, practices, and theology.

I hesitate to use the phrase because it comes with some pre-conceived understandings. But I would say that the leadership structure in the Episcopal Church is of a top-down nature. Those at the top make the decisions that affect those in the various congregations around the country. The power in the Episcopal Church, and many churches for that matter, is with those in high-ranking positions.

Do you know where all power and authority lies in the Mennonite Church? With the people.

In 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel there is a passage that we often go to when there is a need to approach a brother or sister that is living in sin. That passage tells us to go and talk with the sinner face to face. If they do not repent, then you are to take a witness or two. If there is still no change of heart, the offense is to be explained to the church. It is the church that ultimately decides whether or not the person that is being accused of acting outside of the will of God actually did act outside the will of God.

Where does the authority lie? With the church.

But that passage does not stop there. Jesus goes on to say some things that we often skip over because it is a little bit awkward to read. Verses 18-20 read: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Binding and loosing is weird language to us, so we often skip that passage and move right to verse 20 because we like to think that praying together as two or three will cause God to do whatever we ask. Especially because Jesus is there with us in that situation.

But our Bibles present this teaching from Jesus as one continuous lesson. Jesus isn’t jumping all around like a teenager with a short attention span. This binding and loosing, this gathering together as two and three in Jesus’ name is all about communal discernment. This is how we decide what is God’s will and what is outside of God’s will. Binding and loosing is about discerning together what is and is not God’s will. And binding and loosing is always to be done in the context of the church.

The word that we translate as church is the Greek word ekklesia. You may hear the word “ecclesiology” used in the context of a faith community. What we are talking about today can be categorized as ecclesiology. We are studying different ways of being/doing church.

Ekklesia is only used twice in the entire book of Matthew (chpts. 16 and 18), and both times Jesus uses it in the context of binding and loosing. It would seem to me that Jesus believes that these matters of deciding God’s will needs to be done in the church. And when I say church, I don’t mean in the denominational headquarters or even in the delegate sessions. The church that Jesus was speaking of didn’t involve anything close to what we often think of when we say church. What Jesus meant when he said ekklesia was the close group of believers that gather together to break bread, for prayer, study, and mutual accountability. That is where the power to bind and loose lies.

Our denomination, MC USA, does indeed have what we call an executive director. His name is Ervin Stutzman. Ervin is the highest ranking official in our denomination. But he does not have authority over what we believe or practice. He does not make decrees that dictate how we live our lives. Actually, he is preaching just the opposite.

Ervin attended our conference assembly last week where he presented a workshop that I was happy to attend, even though it meant I had to get up a little earlier than I would have liked to. Ervin was presenting on how we as churches and small groups can be communities of discernment.

Ervin had a book released this summer on this very topic titled Discerning God’s Will Together: Biblical Interpretation in the Free Church Tradition. The cynical side of me thought that perhaps this workshop was just a way to sell books. But it really wasn’t that. In fact, Ervin gave away much of the information that one can find in this book (I bought one anyway).

The interesting thing to me is that Ervin never set out to write a book to sell it for a profit. No, this book is actually a rework of his master’s thesis adapted to a book format. Ervin never looked to have it published, but Michael King, who owns Cascadia Publishing, found Ervin’s thesis in the library and after reading it called up Ervin and said that he wanted to publish it.

The thing that struck me the most was this: here is the most powerful person in our denomination. He is the Executive Director of MC USA. And rather than trying to dictate how we worship, what we believe, or how we structure our churches, Ervin was trying to equip individuals to go back to their congregations to be communities of discernment, to be the kinds of churches that Jesus gives authority to bind and loose. We in the Mennonite Church do not practice a top-down style of leadership. Instead, we lead as a community of disciples; as a community of servants.

So what can we learn from our brothers and sisters in the Episcopalian tradition? Something that I have come to appreciate more and more over the last few years is what we often call “liturgy.” The Mennonite Church is traditionally considered to be a “non-liturgical” church, which means that the things that we do in a worship service are usually unscripted. Prayers are often given in an extemporaneous fashion. Our sharing time and congregational prayer time can be very informal and relaxed.

I think that is good and I am not suggesting that we go away from that. But at its roots, the word liturgy literally means “work of the people.” When the worship leader reads something expecting a response from the congregation, that is liturgy, that is the work of the people. This helps prevent a congregation from just sitting there like a bump on a log. The congregation has a role. The congregation participates in the worship service in an Episcopal church.

But the thing that I like the most about liturgical traditions has less to do with what happens on a Sunday morning and more to do with what happens the rest of the week.

In 1549 Thomas Cranmer released a book often simply referred to as The Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer (BoCP) is filled with liturgy that is used in Sunday worship services, especially words used during communion and baptismal services. But more than that, the BoCP also includes Morning Prayers and Evening Prayers.

The Morning Prayers and Evening Prayers include things like and Old and New Testament readings, time of confession, portions of the creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, as well as other words of adoration and thanksgiving. People in the Episcopal tradition as well as other churches coming out of Anglican origins are encourage to pray the Morning and Evening Prayers every day.

The thing that I like about this is that on any given day, Christians around the world can be reading the same scriptures and praying the same words in different languages, at the same time. This is a reminder that this thing that we call Christianity isn’t just about me and Jesus. It is about a kingdom that is yet to come. It is about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And we are all in this together.

I know that many of us from the Mennonite church are a little uneasy with praying these prepared prayers. It has always felt a little strange to me. But when the disciples came to Jesus and asked him how to pray, he gave them some exact words that Christians have been repeating, together, for the last 2,000 years. So while I have never tried praying the Morning and Evening Prayers, I think it would be a good thing to try, if only for a period of time. This should appeal to my frugal Mennonite brothers and sisters: the Book of Common Prayer is available free of charge online at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/sites/default/files/downloads/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

In conclusion I simply want to restate that I believe that the Episcopal Church would do well to give the authority for the church back to communities of discernment, back to the local congregation. And I believe that the Mennonite Church could learn from the Episcopalians what it means to be together in prayer as a world-wide community, studying the same Scriptures, praying the same prayers, and serving the same Lord.

In solidarity with our Episcopalian brothers and sisters, I want to close our sermon time with the Apostle’s Creed, which is number 721 in the Mennonite Hymnal, as our closing prayer.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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