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Presiding Bishop preaches at historic London church

'I don't see a split' in communion, she tells forum

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[Episcopal News Service, London] From where bishops shop for socks to senseless street violence, the usefulness of the Lambeth Conference and what will happen to mission partnerships if the Anglican Communion splits -- parishioners at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church on July 27 peppered Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori with questions at an open forum after she preached at a Sunday Eucharist.

Jefferts Schori was guest preacher at the 10:00 a.m. service at the landmark Trafalgar Square church where King George I served as the first warden. About 300 worshippers crowded the church whose patron, St. Martin of Tours, is depicted as a soldier halving his cloak to share with a beggar.

Jefferts Schori mentioned a St. Martin's renewal project that aims to replace Victorian burial vaults with increased space for ministry to the homeless. "It will take what is old and what is new -- the good stuff from the past and the surprising possibilities of the present. As your priest told me before the service, the crypt downstairs was condemned for the dead in the 1940s, but it is open to the living now."

"You were the first lending library, you are building down into the earth in order to liberate and build up the people of this city," she told the congregation.  "You claimed the reality that people of different faiths may come together here to pray and seek divine inspiration." 

The full text of Jefferts Schori's sermon is available here

The congregation traces its earliest roots to about 1222 and is engaging a renewal project for its fourth building on the site in the heart of London. Its 1726 Georgian design by architect James Gibbs features near the high altar the royal coat of arms and a "royalty box" reserved for the monarchy.

Yet, the church also: offers services in Cantonese and Mandarin; is the birthplace of Amnesty International; the site of the first religious radio broadcast; manages a renowned "crypt café" and created 'The Connection at St. Martin's', a social service ministry assisting 7,500 homeless people yearly.

Lambeth conference affords 'glimpses of the kingdom', relationship
She cited several other glimpses of the kingdom, at the Lambeth Conference 2008, starting its final week at the University of Kent in Canterbury, "among bishops who agree and disagree about the hot-button issues, bishops who speak different languages, and among bishops who come from vastly different contexts." 

"One bishop in Madagascar has told of a diocese that is devastated every year by cyclones, sometimes several times -- yet he continues his work to rebuild. He holds a vision of a cathedral and churches that will be shelters from the storm, both literally and figuratively, and used for schools during the week.  He says, 'I will build more churches and fill them with the poor'."

A Sudanese bishop, she said, told of  refugees returning to his war-torn country with nothing, and about the presence of Al Qaeda and fears of more warfare. "Yet that bishop, and his brother bishops, continue to speak good news to their people, to tell their stories to others, and to seek our prayers and support, particularly from the more powerful nations of the world who may yet convince Sudan to care for all its people," she said.

Margaret Mills, a parishioner at the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Tallahassee, Florida, said she was thrilled to attend Sunday's service.

"I've been in London for two weeks on vacation and I heard the Presiding Bishop was preaching here, so I absolutely had to come and hear her," she said. "I met her in the crypt and introduced myself to her. She's very regal," she added.

Anglican Communion: 'largest' distribution center on the planet
About 40 people attended the impromptu question-and-answer forum with Jefferts Schori. Crowded into a small meeting room, the group was curious about the Lambeth Conference and the future of the Anglican Communion.

"The sense that we're falling apart is really overblown," Jefferts Schori, standing in the center of the room, told the gathering. "We do disagree pretty vehemently about a couple of things. But what we are doing is meeting each other and hearing stories about … the pains and joys of our different contexts and the great need for the Anglican Communion as a distribution system. We're probably the largest distribution system on the planet.

"There is an Anglican church or a faith community not just at the end of most roads but beyond the end of most roads in most parts of the world. And that's something no other body can say."

That organization allows development of relationships and mission work. "Those are some of the most important things about the Lambeth Conference," she added in response to an inquiry about the usefulness of the decennial conference, which runs from July 16 to August 3.

"Some people are more interested in structural things but the structural things aren't the church. The church is the people gathered doing God's work. The structure is a tool to make that happen or help that happen."

The issue of homosexuality "is certainly present but I don't find it is consuming the conversation," she said in response to a questioner. Rather, most participants would say that issues such as the environment and climate change are "far more significant. If we don't do something now, seriously, about climate change and what it's doing to the poorest people around the world, we won't have anything to talk about."
When asked what would happen to shared mission if the Anglican Communion splits, she said "the work will absolutely go on" even if through other agencies. "I don't see the reality of a split. I just don't think it's going to happen. There is a lot of posturing going on. There is a lot of angry talk in some quarters but the reality is most people haven't left the Anglican Communion. They say they still want to be connected in some way, even if they don't want to pray with me."

Still, she added: "God can work there. We have never been a wholly unified Body of Christ since the beginning. It grieves me. It grieves many people. I know it grieves God to see some people deciding they're not going to be in fellowship or relationship with others, but we can still get on with the mission of the church."

Regarding a question about a spate of fatal knifings among London teens, Jefferts Schori challenged the group. "How do you engage people on this issue?" Such conversations begin with "how we understand ourselves …  as the beloved of God or as miserable sinners. It sounds like a great topic for a Lenten program," she added.

In response to other questions, she said that doubt is an essential part of faith, that she believes Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' job is harder than hers and that she is intrigued by the "tension of being a state church" as is the Church of England.

One observation that the most popular booth at the Lambeth Conference marketplace seemed to be the one selling bishop's robes and vestments, sparked a laugh from everyone, including the Presiding Bishop.

"There are wags who say that Wippell's (a clergy outfitter) is what holds the Anglican Communion together -- ecclesiastical haberdashery. I saw the primate of Tanzania wearing purple socks and I complimented him on them. He said he got them there."

-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the dioceses of Province VIII. She is based in Los Angeles.

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