Feast of Theodore of Tarsus

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
and at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church
Feast of Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, 690
September 19/20, 2007

“No one serving in the army gets entangled in every day affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.” This sentence from the second letter to Timothy caused a mixed reaction in me this week. On the one hand, as we are a nation in the midst of war in Iraq and have enlisted women and men serving in places throughout the world and here at home, I am not particularly fond of military metaphors in religion. Of course, such metaphors occur throughout Scripture. And, our hymnals contain hymns with such references. Perhaps most familiar is “Onward, Christian soldiers.”[1]

I have a strong preference for peaceful negotiations. And, I would prefer that we sing hymns like #572 more often:

“Weary of all trumpeting, weary of all killing,
weary of all songs that sing promise, nonfulfilling,
we would raise, O Christ, one song;
we would join in singing that great music pure and strong,
wherewith heaven is ringing.”[2]
So, I struggle with the implicit violence in the image in 2 Timothy; but, as I said in the beginning, the image causes a mixed reaction within me. So, on the other side of the coin, I appreciate the message behind the image. As our own denomination – and that of so many churches today – seems to be so perilously close to dividing over issues of the proper role of women in the church and human sexuality, I appreciate the image’s clear message of single-mindedness of purpose: “No one serving in the army gets entangled in every day affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.”

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church began meeting today in New Orleans with a number of important agenda items including assisting in the ongoing rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and discussing poverty and hunger relief (the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals). Yet, the agenda item that will most likely receive the most media attention and perhaps the most attention by the House of Bishops is our response to the communiqué issued out of the Primates meeting in Tanzania last February which called our House of Bishops to:

(1) “make an unequivocal common covenant that the Bishops will not authorize any rite of blessing for same-sex unions in their diocese[s] or through General Convention;” and (2) “confirm . . . that a candidate for Episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion.”[3]
The communiqué gave the U.S. House of Bishops until September 30th to respond. The document also goes on to say that if we do not agree to comply with these requests our relationship with the rest of the Anglican Communion will be “damaged at best, and” that this will have “consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion.”[4]
Single-mindedness of purpose: either Albert Schweitzer or Steven Covey, depending on who you ask, once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”[5] And on this first day of the House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans I have to ask myself, “what is the main thing and are we keeping it the main thing?” or are we instead, as the letter writer warns, getting “entangled in everyday affairs”?

This morning, we are celebrating the Feast of Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 7th century. The state of church affairs in England at the time was pretty contentious as there were two strains of Christian tradition at odds with one another – the Celtic Christians from Ireland and the Church of Rome. These tensions, combined with England’s devastation and near destruction by the plague, led to a church in dire need of strong leadership and reform – a unifying force. Enter Theodore of Tarsus, appointed by Rome as the Archbishop of Canterbury on March 26, 668. Through his gifts of grace and wisdom, he brought the struggling church in England back under control. As one historian writes,

“His profound learning, wisdom and experience set the archbishop head and shoulders above everyone else in the country, and his counsel was often sought. . . During his twenty-one years as Archbishop of Canterbury he had done more for the Church in England than any of his predecessors.. . . . His wise leadership gave great strength to the Church and inaugurated what may be regarded as one of the most brilliant centuries in its history.”[6]
According to the early eighth century historian, the Venerable Bede, “Theodore was the first archbishop whom all the English obeyed, and possibly to no other leader does English Christianity owe so much.”[7]

I don’t know a great deal about what Archbishop Theodore did – that is, what strategies he used. But what is clear from the recorded history of the time is that he did not cut off one part of the church in order to save the whole; instead, he found a way to keep both the Celtic Christians and the Roman Christians involved and connected so that the church emerged united and stronger than it had ever been before. I have grave concerns that the Anglican Communion is becoming entangled in everyday affairs and losing sight of the main thing of our faith which is to “please the enlisting officer,” that is Jesus Christ. Our Catechism teaches us that “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”[8] The Catechism also teaches us that one of the ministries of a bishop is “to act in Christ’s name for the reconciliation of the world and the building up of the Church.”[9]

This morning I invite you to join with me in prayer throughout the meeting of the House of Bishops asking that our Archbishop Rowan, our Presiding Bishop Katherine, our Bishop George, and all the members of the House of Bishops be granted the wisdom and grace of God’s servant Theodore of Tarsus to keep the restoration of all people to unity with God and the reconciliation of the world at the forefront of their minds as they conduct their business from today through the 25th of September. And may each of us continue working together “to establish unity where there is division, and order where there has been chaos.”[10]

[1] Sabine Baring-Gould, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” The Hymnal 1982, (Church Publishing: New York, 1982), 562.
[2] Martin H. Franzmann, “Weary of All Trumpeting,” The Hymnal 1982, 572.
[3] “The Communiqué of the Primates’ Meeting in Dar es Salaam 19th February 2007,” (Anglican Communion News Service), p. 10 accessed online on September 19, 2007.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Stephen Lien, “The Main Thing,” Sermon Preached at Brentwood Presbyterian Church on July 25, 2004 accessed online on September 18, 2007 attributes the quote to Albert Schweitzer. Quoteworld.org, on the other hand, attributes these words to Stephen R. Covey.
[6] J. R. H. Moorman, A History of the Church in England, 3rd edition, (Morehouse Publishing: Harrisburg, 1980), 24-5.
[7] Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, translator not clearly indicated (but it seems to be L.C. Jane's 1903 Temple Classics translation), introduction by Vida D. Scudder, (London: J.M. Dent; New York E.P. Dutton, 1910) Book IV, Chapter 2, accessed online at Internet History Sourcebooks Project, editor Paul Halsall (1997), on September 19, 2007.
[8] Book of Common Prayer, p. 855.
[9] Ibid.
[10] “Theodore of Tarsus,” Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006, (Church Publishing: New York), 387.