As St. Paul wrote: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the LORD who judges me…” (I Corinthians 4:2-4 NIV)
Happy New Year! And with this new year comes the time to take stock of the year past, look forward to a new season, and take some time for a little self-examination and resolves to change.
For the last two years, I’ve been drawn back to the verse above, from the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth. I have been reminded of a time years ago when the Rev. Dr. John Stott came to the San Francisco Bay area to deliver a series of lectures at New College on Romans, chapter 1-8. I was serving not far away as Rector at St. Columba’s Inverness, and resolved not to miss this extraordinary opportunity to hear one of the greatest Anglican preachers and teachers of the 20th Century. I was not disappointed, and I still return to my notes and tapes of his lectures almost every year.
But what was even more extraordinary was the opportunity he offered to every student in his class to meet with him personally for an hour, to share anything that was on our heart. I signed up immediately, and eagerly awaited my time with Dr. Stott. Again, I was not disappointed. As a very young and inexperienced Rector I poured out my heart to him about my frustrations with ministry, the people in my congregation who rubbed me the wrong way, the fights and the failures - as well as my increasing alarm at the theological drift even then accelerating within the Episcopal Church.
He listened patiently with a quiet smile, and gently prodded me with some thoughtful questions about my own role as a leader, teacher and pastor. As our time ended, I asked him if he had any counsel to offer me, and then he opened his bible and directed me to those verses from I Corinthians 4 about being a faithful steward of that which God has entrusted to us right now, exactly where we find ourselves - including verse 5:
“Therefore, judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the LORD comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.”
We talked a bit about Paul and how to understand these verses in light of all of Paul’s letters, where he certainly judges and corrects the behavior of some members, judges false teachers, and judges where and how the churches were departing from the gospel. What I remember coming out of that conversation with Dr. Stott was his kind but gentle admonition to me to be a faithful steward of what God had entrusted me - the people of St. Columba’s, and the mission field of the Pt. Reyes peninsula where we were located. In addition to the trust I had received as a pastor and teacher of the flock through my ordination vows, he reminded me of the trust I had been give in my marriage to Julie, and now to our young children. How carefully was I “stewarding” the precious gift of my marriage and my children?
He reminded me from Paul’s words that in stewarding what God has given us, we must strive like Paul to have a clear conscience, remembering that, ultimately, we are responsible to God in the way that we steward the trust we have been given. Finally, he encouraged me not to focus on the respect or criticism of others, nor what I judged to be their motives (for better or worse). Whatever judgments I might draw would be premature and incomplete at best - for only at the appointed time, when Christ comes again, and in the holy incandescence of God’s light, will the motives of men’s hearts be finally revealed.
So, I come to this year with the same word from the Lord, recollecting this same conversation, and with the same question I have heard him pose to me now for the last two years:
How are you stewarding the trust that God has already given to you, exactly where you are now?
I wonder if that’s a question for all of us to prayerfully consider as we head into 2018 with new resolutions?
I’m also reminded that our ACNA College of Bishops will be meeting Monday January 8 through Friday January 12 in Florida. They have much on their hearts and minds, and we should be praying for them. They, too, have been given a trust. While they have enormous responsibilities to lead their dioceses, administer program and budget, pastor clergy, and strategically devote resources to church planting and revitalization, they have one “trust” that no one else can execute within our Church: “the chief work of the college of Bishops shall be the propagation and defense of the faith and Order of the Church, and in service as the visible sign and expression of the Unity of the Church.” (ACNA, Constit., Art. X.1) Our canons place this unique responsibility in the context of the chief calling of a Bishop to be an “overseer and shepherd who feeds the flock entrusted to his care.” (ACNA, Can. III.8.1, emphasis added).
The trust our Bishops have been given is unique within the Church, but not at all unusual among Anglicans. In fact, it reflects the very Anglican understanding of how the Church is organized and functions, as reflected in Principle 37 of The Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion (London, Anglican Communion Office, 2008):
- The diocesan bishop has a special responsibility and authority as the chief pastor, minister and teacher of the diocese, a governor and guardian of discipline in the diocese, and exercises ministry in accordance with law…
- The bishop must teach, uphold and safeguard the faith and doctrine of the church…
As former Archbishop Duncan rightly observed, “There may be prophets in the Church, but they will not be bishops.” In North America, there is probably no greater contrast between The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in North America than the principle role of the ACNA bishop as guardian of the faith and order of the Church.
With this in mind, we ought to be praying for our ACNA Bishops as they continue to address the question of women in Holy Orders, and specifically the ordination of women to the presbyterate. How will they address this issue in a way that will preserve the unity of the church, and their role as visible signs and expressions of that unity? Regardless of the decisions they reach this week, is there further theological work that needs to be done on the role of women in leadership and ministry within the church, regardless of holy orders?
But there is more to their trust. We are blessed with bishops who can and ought to exercise their trust - their teaching role - on a host of issues before the church in an increasingly and aggressively secular culture. They have the capacity and flexibility to issue letters to the Church from time to time as specific challenges arise, without having first to go through the lengthier and sometimes cumbersome process of enacting a new canon.
For instance, what further teaching might our bishops issue on how our clergy and congregations ought to hold up the Biblical view of marriage? What about resources for preparing couples for marriage? What about the Biblical view of the family? Of single life? What about some teaching on how local congregations should welcome and show Christ-like compassion to those who are living in places of sexual brokenness and even outright rebellion against God’s creative intent and ordinances? We are aware that the Roman Catholic Church has developed teaching resources on the theology of the human body - what about Anglicans? What can our Bishops teach and commend to all of us? Our bishops have spoken clearly, and our canons are clear that all members and clergy are called to promote and respect the sanctity of every human life from conception to natural death. (ACNA, Can. II.8.3). But what about the increasingly complex questions that arise around “end-of-life” issues?
Our bishops need our prayers. But they, and we, need the Holy Spirit to guide us through God’s word, the Bible, to truth “with up-to-the-minute relevance” (to borrow another phrase from John Stott). This morning, I was praying on how to shape my resolutions for 2018. As I was seeking guidance on how to pray as well for our Bishops, Oswald Chamber’s words from today’s My Utmost for His Highest leapt off the page:
“No matter what changes God has performed in you, never rely on them. Build only on a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the Spirit He gives. All our promises and resolutions end in denial because we have no power to accomplish them. When we come to the end of ourselves, not just mentally but completely, we are able to ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:22)—the idea is that of invasion…”
So, let the invasion begin!
Yours in Christ,
PS: For the next two weeks I’ll be addressing this same question with regards to the clergy and the laity, based on the surveys AAC has conducted on both
 See Ashey, Anglican Conciliarism (Newport Beach CA: Anglican House, 2017), Appendix: “How TEC and ACNA Compare and Contrast in the Principles and Practice of Conciliarism.”