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A House of Prayer for All People: A reflection on worship as true communion – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey, serving as Chaplain to the House of Bishops, pictured with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Br. Geoffrey, serving as Chaplain to the House of Bishops, pictured with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

The “big top” (as it was called) was filled with people from what seemed every nation upon earth. Everyone was absolutely silent and watching heartbreaking pictures of a terrible disaster. On the screen, we saw the lush and beautiful landscape of Burma or Myanmar and yet its beauty had been shattered by a terrible monsoon.

We saw pictures of homes destroyed, dead men and women and children floating on the swollen waters of the Irrawaddy, and then we heard the wonderful stories of loving service provided by so many.  In particular we saw on the screen the work of the Anglican Church of the Province of Myanmar. It’s not a large church but one whose members sacrifice so much to bring relief to the suffering around them. And then we all sang together a hauntingly beautiful Burmese rendition of the Magnificat.

Br. Geoffrey with Archbishop of  Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Br. Geoffrey with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

This was evening prayer on Tuesday, July 29, at the Lambeth Conference. Many of you will have read reports about the conference, the ten-yearly meeting of the bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion held at Canterbury in England. I was privileged to serve as one of the international chaplains for the conference, and rather than all the words which have been written in the papers about what all did or did not go on during those three weeks, it is the experience of worshiping together in the big tent, a huge canvas tent-of-meeting erected to hold all the bishops. It is the worship like that evening prayer led by the Burmese church that I will most remember.

The Archbishop of Canterbury had reminded us at the beginning of the conference that worship underpins all discipleship. It is the way in which we respond to the gift of life itself.  The daily Eucharists and services of Evening Prayer were led by a different province of the Anglican Communion each day, each responding to the gift of life in an wonderfully exotic panoply of words and music.  The conference was a rich experience, an opportunity to meet, share worship, meals, and conversation with Anglicans from every corner of the world and to rejoice and give thanks to God for the gift of the Anglican Communion.

A highlight came on Thursday, July 24, nearly 2,000 bishops, spouses, and others marched right through the center of London on a walk of witness for the end to world hunger and poverty.  After the walk, we gathered in the grounds of Lambeth Palace and were addressed by the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and we pledged ourselves as a Communion to do all that we can to meet the millennium development goals for the eradication of poverty, hunger and disease by the year 2015. I felt really proud of being part of such a community of Christians.

And then there were the other challenges and tensions facing our church at Lambeth.

Questions of gender, particularly in the Church of England and elsewhere in regard to women bishops and the ever-present questions around human sexuality.  One of the deep sadnesses of this Lambeth Conference which was felt all the time was the absence of bishops who were either not invited or who chose not to attend. It felt terrible that they were not there at this family gathering.

It is immensely hard to live with brothers and sisters who have very different understandings of how to live the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Sometimes our gut response is to wish that those who disagree with us would simply go away. I suspect that each one of you here today can think of someone, maybe it’s someone in your family, someone you work with, someone you worship with, someone without whom life would be a whole lot easier. “If only he or she wasn’t here,” and yet the hard truth of building Christian community is that God calls every kind of person whether we like it or not.

In the Rule of Life of our community one of the chapters puts it like this:   “The first challenge of community life is to accept wholeheartedly the authority of Christ to call whom He will.”  That conviction lies behind something very beautiful which you will see every time you come through the outside door and then into the narthex as you come into this monastery chapel. There on the wall of the narthex are words from today’s Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah.

"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people."

"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people."

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”(Isaiah 56)  As a way of proclaiming that all are welcome it is written and the welcome is written in I think fifteen different languages. It describes something of what I felt in the big tent at Lambeth: worship held in Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Swahili, Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Malagasy, Myanmar Basa, Kirundi, Sango, and Bahasa.

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”

That radical welcome was incarnated in Jesus Christ. Read the gospels and see just how often Jesus’ disciples are trying to stop him from talking to the “wrong” kind of people, with “unimportant” people, with foreigners.  They try to stop him from meeting and talking and inviting those whom they consider undesirable. They try to keep them out—women, children, Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.

Matthew (15:21-28) tells us that Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon. He encounters a woman, a Canaanite woman—not a Jew. She shouts and pleads for Jesus to heal her daughter. “Send her away,” say the disciples. “We don’t want anything to do with her.” Even Jesus mouths the standard Jewish understanding of who is in and who is out—and yet such is her faith that Jesus, enlarges his own vision of the Kingdom, cures her daughter, and welcomes this Gentile into the household of faith.

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”

For me, the greatest benefit of the Lambeth Conference was bringing together bishops and spouses from every part of the world with radically different ways and understandings of how to follow Jesus and then get them to spend three weeks together talking, eating, worshiping, laughing so that they could hear each other’s voices in the flesh not through the harsh and disembodied words of the Internet and the blogosphere, but in the flesh.  That’s what the incarnation is about.

Who is it that you find it difficult to like or accept? About whom do you instinctively still say, “You are in; you are out?” Challenging all our petty divisions and boundaries, stands the Lord of life, with his arms open wide in welcome.  In the Eucharist, we hear those extraordinary words. “He stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself in obedience to your will a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” Can each one of us offer our lives to be used by God to share in that priestly work of bringing all of God’s beloved into God’s embrace that none may be left out?

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”

The Witness of the Lambeth Conference

Whether we are in the developing Global South or a prosperous province in the West, we all have a lot of work to do around evangelism, allowing this a church to emerge among us.  The bishops’ discussions were not around a program to institute but an example we have to set for ourselves and those whom we lead, to go outside the institution to draw people in.

The bishops made a walk around London in order to show our solidarity for the Millennium Development Goals.  We wanted to give a witness to the United Nations, meeting in September, that Anglican bishops around the world support these goals and speak in a united voice for the eradication of poverty.  It is so important for us to make our voices heard in the public sector on these issues as a way we can be transformational in the world.  The Gospel demands that of us.

Tom Shaw SSJE, Bishop of Massachusetts

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