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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Small Boats in Wide Seas

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: boat, emmanuel, anniversary, seas, columba, coracle

June 9, 2023    Saint Columba, Abbot of Iona    The Sesquicentennial of the Parish

Emmanuel Church    Geneva, Switzerland

Text: Ecclesiastes 5:3: “For dreams come with many cares,
and a fool’s voice with many words.”

You may well be wondering, as I am wondering, how a service of Anglican Evensong could possibly be edified by a sermon. I note that the rector has indicated our place in the order of service as a homily, and not a sermon, and from that I receive his gentle hint to keep this short, a suggestion with which I suppose we are all in heated agreement. 

But this is my chance to speak from my heart to you on the happy occasion of Emmanuel’s anniversary, and so I will be mindful of the warning we heard in the first reading about the connection between dreams, and vanities, and a multitude of words, and will try to keep this to the succinctness of concrete realities, in keeping with the ethos of Emmanuel.

Those of us in the clergy were accompanied this week in our retreat by James Koester and Jonathan Maury, two brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. They have come to us from their monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a beautiful building designed by the architect Ralph Adams Cram and filled with the brilliant colors of windows designed by the Charles Connick Studios. 

Both Cram and Connick, in their different fields, sought to restore the clarity of ancient aesthetic traditions to the life of the church—Cram in architecture, Connick by reviving medieval styles and techniques in stained glass.

The clerestory of the monastery is illuminated with lancet windows, each one dedicated to a founder of a religious community. And whenever I can be there, my favorite place to sit when I go to the monastery, if no one else is there, is in a seat on the Epistle side of the aisle, about a third of the way back in the nave; because when I sit there, I am directly across the window dedicated to Saint Columba. 

Like most of us, Columba was a complicated person, and an even more complicated leader. He was a monk, a priest, and a scholar, who once fell into what we might gently call a copyright dispute about a psalter he copied. He lived in violent times, and witnessed the murder of a prince who had come to him seeking sanctuary. Some of the sources even suggest he saw the Loch Ness monster.

He was both revered and reviled,  sometimes by the same people; and finally, he was so misunderstood that he had to leave everything behind and effectively become an exile.

So there are countless ways you could depict Columba. I’m pretty sure my design would have included Nessie.

But Connick chose instead to depict him alone, in his tiny coracle, a boat—if you can call it that—made of wicker and covered with leather, against a vast sea of deep blue glass, making his way seventy-five miles from the northern tip of Ireland to the Isle of Iona. 

And there I sit, thinking about the faith of Columba, leaving behind all he had known and striking out in an outrageously unseaworthy vessel to an unknown place, not entirely sure just what will happen.

It is not too great a reach, I think, to hold up that image next to those who once gathered in Geneva to plant this church. We know that a community of Christians in Geneva first appealed to for help from the Episcopal Church to start a congregation in 1872, and we know that the church, in its surpassing wisdom, turned them down. 

And so that group began to worship together as a Union church, essentially an interdenominational church—until a year later, when William Chauncey Langdon showed up and organized a competing group worshiping as Episcopalians, something he had done twice before, the fruits of which are today Saint Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome and Saint James’s, Florence. 

It may not be unfair to say those first founders could not agree on much. They had a hard start of it, needlessly complicated by an institution that could not figure out how to respond generously and courageously. They didn’t agree to merge their two churches into a single, Episcopal Church until two years later, in 1875—and you have to imagine that even then the way they were first treated wrote into the DNA of the community a healthy suspicion about church hierarchies. 

But they did agree on the most important thing: That being together was better than being estranged, that the great adventure of planting a church in a city and a culture where it had no claims and no part in the history of the place, was an opportunity too exciting, a purpose too noble, to be lost to division and discord.

Like Columba, the women and men who founded this community were far from wherever they called home. We don’t know what successes brought them here, or what scandals drove them here. We know very little about their individual stories.

But we know they were caught up in the excitement of responding to something they felt convinced God was calling them to do; and we know that no matter what, they pressed on. 

We should not imagine that the canton of Geneva was any less complicated, or any more welcoming, to the idea of an Anglican church from America in 1873 than it is today. They faced real challenges. And yet here we are.

Like those founders, it may be that the beloved community of Emmanuel today does not always agree on much. Your Wikipedia entry says that 24 percent of the parish identify as Episcopalians, 20 percent as Roman Catholic, and another 45 percent from other Anglican or Protestant traditions; so the field of potential disagreement is pretty wide. 

But that does not matter as long as we agree on the most important thing: that it is better to hold on to each other in the adventure of faith than it is to luxuriate in our divisions; that it is more joyful to share the soul music of our many cultures, and to broaden our humanity by singing it all together, than it is to insist on our own small ways. 

And it is better to remember the lesson of our own history; that it is more likely that we will find God’s care for us, God’s love for us, God’s delight in us, if we weave ourselves together into a stronger, more seaworthy coracle, to set out on the wild seas of life.

There is a poem that some of us learned because it was written on a plaque that sat on John F. Kennedy’s desk. 

It describes for me the plight and prayer of that man in the tiny coracle, that young congregation set in an unfamiliar place, that beloved community of communities all across Europe trying to hold on to each other and sail toward the certain promise of God’s future:

Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate
Will me befall
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.

Thy winds, O God, so strong,
So slight my sail.
How could I curb and bit them on the long
And saltry trail,
Unless Thy love were mightier than the wrath
Of all the tempests that beset my path?

Thy world, O God, so fierce,
And I so frail.
Yet, though its arrows threaten oft to pierce
My fragile mail,
Cities of refuge rise where dangers cease,
Sweet silences abound, and all is peace.

(—Winfred Ernest Garrison, 1874–1969)

May Emmanuel ever be a place of open paths, and a city of refuge; a worthy vessel for carrying us across our many stormy seas. Amen.