There is an old Peanuts cartoon that is one of my favorites. Lucy is writing a report entitled "The History of the Church". We only see the first line of the report which begins, "My pastor was born in.....". Now the Church has existed for a bit longer than that. In fact, by tradition the Church began when God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost. Those followers of Jesus told the story of Jesus to others, and they told the story of how Jesus touched them and on and on. The Church, the gathering of the followers of Jesus, has existed in many forms and many places, in the deserts of North Africa, in the cold of northern Russia, in the heat of Asia. In each of these places, as people heard the story of Jesus it stirred something inside of them and they wanted to know more, wanted to connect with others who sensed the same thing. So began the church and over the first 300 years or so, folks gathered in homes and fields and sometimes even in underground tombs to share the stories of Jesus, celebrate the Eucharist and figure out how to live their lives as followers of Christ.
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Meditations on Church History
The first Anglican service in North America was conducted by a chaplain on Sir Francis Drake's ship in what is now California in 1579. With the founding of Jamestown in 1607 came the founding of Anglican parishes in the New World. By 1700 there were over 100 parishes, but not one Bishop. Most parishes had no full time clergy. The American colonies were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London and dependent on the Bishop of London and the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel to recruit and send clergy to their parishes. For well over a hundred years this system continued, until the American Revolution. As part of their ordination vows Anglican clergy vowed to obey the ruler of England, creating a dilemma for them as the colonies broke from England. Should they stay and break their vows, or abandon their charge and return to England? Most returned to England, leaving the already underserved parishes without clergy and now without hope of priest to serve. In 1783, a group of clergy elected Samuel Seabury to seek consecration as a Bishop from the Bishops in England. Without support from the King, the English Bishops refused, however Seabury had another option. Seabury turned to the Bishops in Scotland who agreed to consecrate him the first Bishop of the Episcopal (from the Greek word for bishop, episcopos) church in America. The only request of the Scottish Bishops was that the newly minted churches use the Scottish Book of Common Prayer instead of the English one.
The relationship between the church in England and the church in Rome has rarely run smooth. Struggles with the balance between local practice and centralized power have been at the heart of disagreements from the Synod of Witby in 664 to the eventual break with Rome in the 1530's. For the next 70 years the Church in England sought to become the Church of England. Unlike many of its Protestant cousins the Church of England sought to create a Via Media, a middle way that would retain the beneficial traditions of the past while embracing the emerging wisdom of the reformers. The first Book of Common Prayer (1549) sought to open up worship to the people. Written in English, this book of prayers and worship, enabled everyone to participate in a new way in the worship of the church, which still retained much of the structure of the Latin mass. The Church of England retained the structure of Bishop, Priest and Deacon, replacing the Pope with the King as the nominal head of the Church. Yet central tenets of the church, as stated in the 39 Articles (see historical documents BCP Pg. ) take their inspiration from the passionate and reasoned understanding of scripture of the Protestant reformers. The Anglican tradition sought to balance Scripture, Tradition, Reason and by extension Experience. These continue to be part of the Anglican and Episcopal character today.
I love stained glass windows, especially ones in churches. In one parish we attended there were a series of windows depicting the Saints, St. John, St. Luke, St. Mark, St. Matthew, Mary and Joseph, but my favorite thing about these windows was the picture of a mouse tucked into the corner of one of the windows. Shining amid the great Saints was a little church mouse. There are many large stained glass saints, the ones we know and admire as the love of God shines through them it us. It's fun to read the stories of their lives, in fact the Episcopal Church has a calendar full of them, and a book (Holy Women, Holy Men, Celebrating the Saints) that will tell you all about them. There are other saints, hidden saints, the little mouse saints, that shine the light of God's love into our lives. On All Saint's day (Nov. 1st) we remember the saints, big and little. There are many ways to do this, create a list of the people in your lives that have made God's love present to you, read the story of a "Big" saint, tell the story of how someone has shown God's love to you, or plan a way to surprise someone in a way that will help them know they are loved by God and by you, or read a book. Here are some to get your started. Some books about the Saints: The Gifts of Christmas Mark Bernthal- Lyrick Publishing (St. Francis) I Sing a Song of the Saints of God Lesbia Scott, Judith Gwyn Brown - Morehouse Publishing (A Hymn, Learn the music and sing it with the book) Cathedral Mouse Kay Chorao E.P. Dutton Publishers Patrick Patron Saint of Ireland Tomie dePaola- Holiday House St. Francis, Brian Wildsmith - Eerdman's Kings and Queen for God Carol Greene- Augsburg Books Explorers for God Nathan Aaseng - Augsburg Books
As the church grew and spread out throughout Asia, Europe and North Africa, it become more and more difficult to keep in touch, more difficult to communicate and to understand which leaders to trust. A system developed to identify those leaders who had the gifts needed by the members of the church to help the communities to follow the teachings of Jesus. Initially every town had one church, and each church one bishop to preach, teach and lead worship, and deacons to care for the poor, widows and orphans. As the church grew a Bishop was responsible for many churches in one town and eventually one region. With that change there was a need for someone in each church community to celebrate Eucharist, and to help the community with questions about how to be a Christian, priests where selected and ordained to fill that position.
Over the next several articles I'll be writing a very short history of Christianity. Just enough for you to get a taste of who we and where we have been. Growing up my family liked to tell stories, most of those stories were about family members. The stories of my great grandfather's journey to America, the story of my grandparents meeting one another, the story of my mother's memories of rationing in WWII, all of these stories told me something about who my family was, and about who I was. The family of the church is no different. Part of who we are, of why we think the way we do, of why we worship comes from those who have prayed and struggled and worshiped before us. Just like any family we may like some members more than others. We may be embarrassed by crazy Uncle Henry, or love Auntie Vee's cookies. We may find wisdom in the words of some long lost cousin and can't begin to comprehend another, yet all of them are part of our family, part of who we are, and part of our journey into Christ. So be patient, and open, you may discover something that will make sense of why the Church is the way it is, and just maybe there will be a gem in the midst of it all.