The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.
She is from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth;
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.
Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed:
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!
There are more stanzas to this glorious hymn by Samuel Wesley, and I’ve left off one other that is my favorite, because we’re not there yet, eschatologically. We’re still at stanza three. My cry goes up with everyone’s, ‘How long, Lord, how long!’
I think back to that very brief time of my life in Christ almost as if I had just reposed and were reviewing it with the Lord, a brief thirty-six years, to God ‘a thousand years are a single day, a yesterday now over, an hour of the night’ (Psalm 90).
My first church, a little Episcopal parish in a working class neighborhood, the pews populated by lots of white heads, smily and bespectacled and welcoming, a gregarious contingent of settled householders with their sprinking of youth, and a tiny gaggle of young twenty-somethings with toddlers in tow. My little family of three was in that gaggle.
Fr Rankin was an old, really past retirement age, vicar, a classic small town America clergyman, and his wife, blondly twenty years younger in look, at his side, to sugar his way through a sometimes cantakerous crowd of coffee hour critics.
Critics, yes, but still lively, jocular, generous and unharmful. Father was a poor man in many respects. He had been brought up in the Salvation Army, became enamored with the theatre in his youth, a forbidden entrée, and escaped into Episcopalianism.
Already past his enthusiastic days, the gospel had for him settled down to the humdrum of keeping an aging congregation happy with small blessings. In his poverty, he bought a set of sermons for the Church year, and he read them, the same ones, year after year, on the appropriate Sundays. It got to where we had them memorised just as we had internalised the responses of the Book of Common Prayer.
A pleasant little church, humbly hospitable with its undercroft coffee hours, its parish house next door full of windows that used to be an old public library, still full of books and comfy chairs to while away the fall afternoons with others getting ready to join the great cloud of witnesses in the sky. A youngster like me could only feel cared for by these gentle folk.
We knew we weren’t perfect, but we tried to follow Jesus, from childhood to young adulthood to middle age and then to venerable elderhood, and we lived together, knowing we were doing what had been always done, in the same place, the same way. This was the simple life of faith that had been handed over in our corner of the wild earth.
Now it seems that my first years as an adult Christian were the last years of the Church as people, the Church as the spirit of the land, the Church as home ‘where everybody knows your name.’ A vanished Christianity, last locale of the Church universal of Constantine, yes, the state Church maybe, but something that went deeper. It was always there, and we probably expected it always would be.
This is America, of course, where there is no state Church and where there has never been one, but from olden times we too, here in the New World, had imitated without knowing it, the patchwork religious quilt of our European forbears. We felt our parish to be our village in the larger world, a vast Christendom surrounding us, of which we were a part.
Denominations were there, yes, but there was something underlying it all, this experience of living in a Christian commonwealth, that unified us in spite of our differences. You might not fraternize or marry into certain groups, but you knew where they stood, and you lived and let live. America knows no establishment of religion, but there was no doubt back then, that ‘in God we trust’ was more than a mere monetary motto.
Whatever you call what it is that we have moved to, morphed into, the Church of today is quite different, in America, in the world. It has left behind its innocence and simplicity for sure, having no place of rest anymore, but anxious to appear approved, to be successful.
Excellence as a human endeavor leads to spiritual paralysis. Only what rains from above on thirsty soil brings forth harvestable wheat. Christianity, the real thing, is most like water that seeks its level, filling in cracks and taking the lowest place. It is not what we do or what we look like doing it that matters.
The Church’s one foundation, yes. We all know Who it is that we have believed in, but do we know why, and what it means, and what has been done to us, and by Whom, and where we must go from here? Are we seeking to make waves, or are we seeking the level?