Newsprint Epiphany

by Edward L. Lee, Jr.

On May 9 I observed the 60th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate of The Episcopal Church. The same for the priesthood will be observed on November 14. As for the episcopate, it will be my 30th anniversary on October 7. Collectively they represent a full lifetime of ordained ministry and leadership in the church. In memory and experience they are richly indelible.

The Church: “…gathered as a base camp and encircled and embraced by the triangular arms of the Trinity….

However, one other tally is missing in the above years of service. It’s the one that undergirds the others. The Prayer Book’s Catechism on page 855 informs us that the sequence of ministers and ministry in the church, not its hierarchy of clergy, are “lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.” This means my life in ministry in the church began when I was baptized not ordained. So on June 23 I will remember and celebrate the 84th anniversary of my baptism. Truth be told, it’s taken me quite awhile to make that observance as indelible as the others: baptism as the first order of ministry in the church, not bishops nor priests nor deacons.

Over the years this recognition of sequence and not hierarchy of ministers has shaped my understanding of the church as a community of fully graced baptized equals and not a top down organization of spiritual and sacramental unequals.

For me the realization of this pattern of community occurred when I was chairing one of those annual organizational planning meetings that parishes and dioceses, and their vestries and councils, regularly conduct to envision and carry out their common life and mission. It entailed the usual brainstorming and posting of ideas and comments on newsprint.

In this case it was the diocese of my episcopacy and there were pages upon pages of newsprint taped on the walls throughout the meeting room. “How do we see ourselves as the church?” was the question to explore. And the image that was most common to much of the thinking was the triangle, and on the newsprint pages it was always visually vertical. At the peak point of the triangle was, of course, the bishop. Below that ministry came a middle rank of ordained clergy. And below them came the laity. This image of church was invariably three-tiered with me at the top, the other clergy next in line, and the laity at the bottom. Very hierarchical. Very authoritarian. Very Episcopalian. Just the opposite of the Prayer Book’s sequence of ministers.

It was at one such meeting that I had my newsprint epiphany. Rather than looking at the triangle vertically why not view it horizontally. To demonstrate this, I took down one of the newsprint pages and laid it flat on the table in front of us. From that vantage point all of the church’s ministers were now on a common playing field, all baptismally equal, a community of shared authority and accountability, of collaboration and consensus, of mutual responsibility and interdependence. In short, an authentic movement and community as revealed and mandated by Christ.

Here then is another image for ministers and ministry in daily life, gathered as a base camp and encircled and embraced by the triangular arms of the Trinity in “whom we live and move and have our being,” and sent forth to love and serve the world as Christ has loved and served us.

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