Below are excerpts from the sermon delivered by Archbishop of the West Indies, Most Reverend Dr Howard Gregory at the opening of the 150th Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Jamaica & the Cayman Islands held in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, Bishop’s Lodge, St. Andrew, Jamaica on Tuesday, April 6, 2021
The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to deepen our relationship with Him by coming together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray and to give for the spread of the kingdom of God.
How then is our understanding of the church impacted when the members cannot gather as a physical community? Even though its unity is of a spiritual nature, to what extent does it require physical gathering to give expression to its deeper spiritual reality? At the Chrism Mass last Thursday, I explored ways in which the pandemic has also impacted the way in which ministry is being defined and practiced given the existence of restrictions, protocols and lockdowns, and then went on to affirm certain qualities, skills, and attitudes which must characterise the life of the priest, however we seek to define the church. Today, we shall listen to what the chosen text has to say to us as the gathered people of God, priests and laity alike.
In light of these unanticipated consequences when the theme was determined, it is nonetheless, timely and may be providing us with the opportunity to revisit our understanding of what is the church if we are going to have meaningful dialogue regarding the church in this COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. How then can we speak of God’s Church?
In his book, A system of Christian Doctrine, David Cairns poses the question, what is the Church, and he proceeds to offer an answer by indicating what the Church is not, thereby dismissing the misconception of many. He writes:
“According to the New Testament it is something a great deal more than a human fellowship which came together of itself, as it were, to commemorate Christ, to edify itself by its own fellowship and to propagate his teaching. Such associations of disciples or leagues for the destruction of social evils or the creation of better forms of society are normal events in all societies.”
He elaborates on the point by adding the following comment:
“Nowhere is there any trace of its taking its beginning in some joint resolution of the disciples. They simply take for granted that it exists, and also, that all who receive the Word with faith must enter the fellowship as part of their loyalty to him (Jesus)”.
Using as a starting point St. Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, Matthew 16:13-23, and which is subject to varied interpretations within the historic Christian tradition, Cairns states that:
“What emerges … is our Lord’s conception of the Church as following inevitably from the Incarnation, and as its witness to the whole world. It is the visible body of believers which exists for the purpose of witnessing to the human race the full meaning of the transcendent message that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing to them their trespasses”.
The thirty-nine Articles of Faith, one of the historic statements of faith of the Anglican Communion begins at a similar point as Cairn by pointing to the visible nature of the Church in Article 19:
“The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men (persons), in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.”
But while the Church exists as a visible society, like any other, with a form for admission, officers with authority to perform certain functions; and her members are subject to certain obligations and enjoy certain privileges, her nature and existence are based on invisible realities.
The Church is a divine-human fellowship existing in history. By baptism, there is entrance into an eschatological and mystical relationship with God in Jesus Christ in the Spirit in a corporate form of sanctification, through which the believer participates in the Lord’s glory. Given this divine-human nature, the object of its faith is God’s gift, namely, Jesus Christ and His work. The sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, though acts within the visible institutional body, also constitute the means by which the risen Christ continues to act through the Church in the Holy Spirit.
The Church as the Body of Christ, while existing in a historical context, constitutes only a part of the total reality which it embodies. So the Church is spoken of as embracing the Communion of Saints which point to the “militant on earth” as well as the faithful departed. Additionally, the Church cannot be understood without reference to the divine redemptive purpose which will find its fulfillment in the eternal reality of the Kingdom. The Church as she is, with all her imperfections, cannot be separated from what she shall be as the new creation in the promised Kingdom of God.
Crime and violence remain a major concern as we witness the murder rate outpacing the days of the calendar year thus far, and trending toward exceeding last year’s statistics. One would have thought that the presence of the pandemic, its impact in raising awareness of human mortality and vulnerability, as well as the daily disclosures of infections and deaths from the virus, would have contributed to a reduced level of violence and murder. One tragic feature of life in Jamaica which has been magnified in recent months, is neither the coronavirus pandemic, nor the soaring murder statistics, but the repeated level and incidents of violence and murder which has been directed at girls and women in our society, pointing to a serious issue in relation to gender, gender and domestic violence and abuse.
Nevertheless, we cannot with integrity pretend as if the negative impact on the life of persons, especially the socially disadvantaged, are all consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. It only served to highlight the social inequities which exist in our society and which are widening day by day. It has also served to highlight the lack of social cohesion which has haunted this nation and will probably erupt one day if we do not take it seriously and take steps to address it. So, it is that as we try to contain the level of infection within the society, even in the face of a spike in the rate of infection, there has been a widespread manifestation of individualism and indiscipline which would ignore all of the protocols and pleas for corporate responsibility.
We cannot ignore the fact that we are meeting at a time when the trial of the policeman responsible for the death of George Floyd in the United States of America is taking place and the Black Lives Matter Movement has sensitized the world in a new and more far-reaching way to the experience of slavery, white supremacy, and the continuing presence of racial injustice. It is also the context in which the issue of Reparations is very much alive and gaining traction.
Here, we must be informed regarding our history and be prepared to be engaged with the issue of our history as Anglicans in this nation through the period of slavery, Emancipation and beyond. We must know how we came to this country as part of British occupation and as chaplaincy ministry to the British residents, and how, for the most part, ministry to the enslaved was not a priority; how the Church was controlled by the plantocracy and the Governor and under no direct local episcopal leadership; the level of involvement of the Church of England in slavery as several Bishops in England owned slaves, as well as some clergy serving in Jamaica. The call for reparations, therefore, implicates the Anglican Church, more particularly the Church of England. So, be aware that the spotlight will shine on us and that this is not something which we can avoid, even as we have apologized for the role the Anglican Church, as the Church of England, played in this most offensive act of human degradation (Archbishop Rowan Williams and Bishop deSouza).
We who form the Ddiocese today are also victims of this history as the wealth and proceeds of such activity were extracted to England, including our very history, leaving us the legacy of their misconduct and cultural and other baggage which we must shed. There remains the greater task of being agents for the continuing decolonization of our people and their empowering through the various channels of mission and ministry which we have offered and will continue to offer.