You might wonder why a church in Europe would have anything to say about what has been happening in America these past days.
In part, the answer to that question is simple; we are the European members of a church that has its origins, and its home, in America. We are the Episcopal Church in Europe.
Being that church means a lot of things—many of them not the things you might expect. Our churches were started by American expatriates, yes; but now, people from America are only part of the churches we’ve become.
Our congregations are made up of people who have chosen to be part of a church that really isn’t part of their country’s religious history, and that often worships in a language that isn’t the language they speak at work or at home.
But it also means this: Being an Episcopalian in Europe means being part of a church that has its own history. And today, maybe more than ever, we need to remember that history.
Anyone who cares about democracy, about the idea that governments are made by the consent of the people, and that all people are fundamentally equal when it comes to the rights of citizens, has been worried and distressed by the scenes of civil strife coming from the capitol in Washington.
But as Episcopalians, we remember this: Our church was born from the crucible of civil strife. Because our church is a child of the American Revolution.
During those cataclysmic years, there were people in Anglican churches across America who believed fervently in the cause of independence, lay people and ordained people. And there were people who believed just as fervently that the Revolution was a mistake, and who both preached that message and fought to defend it. And often, they were members of the same community.
The point of that story isn’t about who won or lost. The point is that when it was all over, all of those people, neighbors and friends who had been on different sides of the question but still sat in the same pews, had to figure out how to be a single church.
The same thing happened during the American Civil War. Nine whole dioceses, in states that left the Union, separated from the church and made their own church. And when it was all over, somehow we had to figure out how to be one church again.
You might say we didn’t do it very well. We might have been one church, but we had two very different ideas about the equality and dignity of all people. Most of us know Dr. King’s wisdom that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and most of us know that he wrote that line in 1963, as he sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama.
But few of us were taught that when he wrote those lines, he was writing to eight white members of the clergy in Birmingham who had denigrated him and those around him for being outside agitators—and that two of those eight were bishops of the Episcopal Church.
Our church was born in civil strife. There is no point telling us that the church should not meddle in politics; we are the product of political turmoil. We have always believed that followers of Jesus are called to live by a set of values, and that those values do not somehow stay locked in our homes when we go out into the world.
That is why we have argued intensely about just what the radical equality of all people before God means for us. It’s why we have argued so passionately within our church to change our church, so that it more fully reflected and lived out that idea—for women, for people of color, for gay and lesbian and trans people, even for the systems of structural privilege in our church that have advantaged some and disadvantaged others.
And that is why, even in the midst of those disagreements, we still work to be one church.
We’ve done those things not just because God calls us to do it, but because we have always lived on the tightrope between the love of our church and our inheritance as children of civil strife.
We’ve done them because deep in our DNA is the conviction that our calling as Christians is to change not just our church, but the world, to more fully reflect the image and likeness of God, and to live as though the equal worth and dignity of all people was actually true.
Through all of that, we’ve learned one thing: That none of us, no matter how passionately we hold our beliefs, possesses all the truth. All of us are limited. All of us get it at least a little wrong.
And we’ve also learned this: If we really believe in the equal worth and dignity of all people, then there is no one we can rule out as beneath or beyond our concern.
That is why, above and beneath and through all of it, we know we rely on, and must show to each other, the reconciling love that is what the cross is about. There is no truth or reconciliation built on vindication. It can only be built on the bonds of love between people who realize they cannot escape sharing the same destiny.
Throughout our history, after all those periods of dissension and turmoil, when we have worked to make ourselves one church again, we have practiced the skills and the spiritual disciplines we need to do our work as citizens, to bind up the nation’s wounds. And today, no matter where Episcopalians live—and we live in a lot of places—that work is urgently important.
We will be better at that because we have been taught by our brother Martin Luther King Jr. that we are not lost in a universe fighting for goodness and for justice and for love all by ourselves, not ever—because God, who is, love, is in it with us.
And we will be better at that because we have been taught by our brother Desmond Tutu that true reconciliation is never cheap because it is based on forgiveness, which is costly—and all of us have something we need to be forgiven for.
The tears in our social fabric will not mend themselves. Our hands must do the mending. Our souls must do the repenting. Our hearts must do the forgiving. And our strength must now be turned to making a society that does all it can to honor the worth and dignity of every person, no matter who they are, or what they believe.