Christopher Wells and the Communion of Saints

Christopher Wells, editor of The Living Church, will be our guest speaker in the 9:15 rector's forum on Sunday, November 1, All Saints'.

Your childhood religious influences were the Christian Reformed Church, Episcopalianism and Lutheranism; you received your Ph.D. at the Catholic University of Notre Dame. Why has the Episcopal Church become home for you?

I've been blessed by a great cloud of witnesses in my life, who are faithful folks - from my family, to teachers, to friends; and the Christian schools I have attended: primary and secondary, then college, seminary and graduate school. I have never prayed apart from other Christians, and when that happens, you learn to love and long for unity between all of us sisters and brothers who follow Jesus. I suppose that has a lot to do with why I ended up embracing the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism as an adult: because of the long history of our tradition's work in the ecumenical vineyard, and the sense we have had that the one Church is larger than us. There is a humility in the DNA of Anglicanism that I think has made us quite supple for the Holy Spirit, when we are at our best: that points away from us to Jesus and, again, the wider Church. Anglicanism also has a missionary spirit in its DNA, from its earliest spread beyond Britain to N. America, thence the wider Commonwealth. And we have curated that spirit in the Episcopal Church, the legal name of which is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. The Episcopal Church is, technically, part of a great missionary movement.

You write about the connections between social justice and studying and teaching theology. I would guess that you find a similar connection between social justice and journalism. Could you talk about your work from that perspective?

Again, I think first of the Anglican Communion, which stretches throughout the world and includes millions and millions of faithful from some of the poorest countries in the world. This aspect of our church family fires my imagination and presents Anglicans with a great opportunity to be more than local, in service of a wider, "catholic" whole. We have placed the ministry of the Living Church Foundation, and The Living Church magazine, right at the center of all of this, as a servant of global communion. We have done this in many ways, and there's much more to do. We added this past year for the first time an editor for international news; we internationalized our governing foundation; we created two annual "world mission" issues; and we pursue international writers and stories, in order to articulate what solidarity and authentic love for one another looks and feels like, and also what it demands. The vocation of church magazines is "populist," meaning for the whole Church, bringing together teachers and lay people, theology and practical stories of parish and diocesan ministry. We seek to show the faces of everybody, especially the poor of the world, whom Jesus loves so dearly. We know that a living Church will always depend upon the revolutionary gospel, which turns the world upside down.

You’ll be joining us for All Saints’ Sunday - what is your experience of and perspective on All Saints’ as a part of the liturgical year?

It's a feast that Anglicans and Episcopalians celebrate very well; so many of our parishes are named "All Saints," and this goes back again to our zeal for the whole tradition and our sense of the breadth of God's Church. All Saints' Day is a "principal feast" of the Church year (BCP, p. 15), which makes it one of the small handful of high points, when our whole faith comes together, as it were, and is apprehensible. All Saints, we might say, sort of lands the plane of the whole preceding year from a human perspective, the point of view of the Church as the redeemed people of God. As we know, the Church year starts with Advent, which looks to the end of time but also the very beginning of God's coming to us in the flesh of his Son. Then the pattern of redemption is unfolded through Lent, Easter, Pentecost; and after Ascension we come to the season of the Church, at the end of which we sort of take stock, look around, and marvel at the way God transforms certain ones of us, and all of us as pilgrims and disciples, into his saints. In this way, All Saints' Day is, in a sense, the greatest of God's miracles; it's a bit like graduation day, the day when we can exhale in satisfaction, smile, and say "thank you, Lord, for accompanying me and making all of this possible." And, because life is not over yet for those of us still making our pilgrim way, it also serves as a chance to encourage one another, and to be encouraged, for the next steps in the journey; to glimpse that we can and will get there, by God's grace.

You’ll be talking about the communion of saints, those words from our Creed. What sets apart that communion from the other communities in our lives, and who do you think of when you think of your own saints?

Great question. When we say "I believe in the communion of saints," we are saying, I think, that we believe in the Body of the redeemed; that, in the end, after our lives, we anticipate (and we don't talk much about this) spending eternal life with God, with all of the angels and saints. We Episcopalians can be shy about this because, as St. Paul says, we really don't know much about what it will look like, and also because life in this world has generally been pretty comfortable for Episcopalians! But all Christians need to ask: What will it mean to be resurrected, and for there to be a new heaven and a new earth? Because God is good, we know that it will be good; and we look to the communion of saints as a sure promise that God is in the business of redeeming human beings. He loves us that much; and a loving, reconciled community is finally the end and the purpose of history.

As for my own saints (or "souls," thinking of Nov. 2, All Souls' Day, called the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed in our prayer book), I would have to say my family first of all; and, again, teachers and friends. The New Testament does refer to all Christians as "saints," and this is kept alive in the Black church, among other places. In this sense, I often find myself looking at an amazingly faithful, sacrificial person and thinking "that right there is a saint" and then this inspires me to imitate them, which I guess is the point of saints. Again, God is in the sanctification business, which means holiness; and, frankly, some of us are doing better than others. Part of the light and life, and good news, of the Christian faith is our being able and willing to say, "Hey, let's look over there at so and so; he or she is faithful and courageous. We should listen and do likewise." I have a sort of top 10 of my own life who have shaped me in deep ways, about whom I am always thinking "what would so and so do in this situation?" or whose voice and wisdom are always echoing in my head. At the top of the list would be my Mom.

Posted by Cara Modisett at 8:00 AM
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