August 15, 2012, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The three priests in their brilliant purple vestments lay face down on the red sanctuary carpet, arms stretched out like a cross, before the tabernacle. The cantor began chanting the litany, facing the altar, and we in the congregation joined him.
This image, an intrinsic part of every consecration (and ordination), haunts and touches me. These men offer their bodies and souls to God. They show this by taking on the shape of the cross, bearing the sacrifice. Yet at the same time they appear like birds in flight. They take on the humility of prostration so that they can carry their flock, their people, with them as they soar to Heaven.
On Wednesday, our Anglican Province of Christ the King consecrated three bishops, adding these men to the line of apostolic succession begun by Christ. As Christ’s chosen apostles formed the earliest church communities in the first century they began the two thousand-year line of bishops, as each of those twelve chose another to replace him, who in turn chose another, down to the present.
The day before we gathered to hear our Archbishop Morse, most senior and most revered, speak about the history of the Province, begun in 1977. In truth the Province was a continuation of the traditional, orthodox American Episcopal Church. Thus, many call us “the Continuing Church,” continuing steadfast in the faith of the ancient creeds, Holy Scripture, and sacraments within the Anglican tradition.
The archbishop, who in a real and true sense founded this continuation, spoke seriously of the historic thirty-five year journey we have made, the angels who helped us, urged us, encouraged us, and those men and women of faith who brought us to where we were this day. The archbishop, in his black clerics, sat behind a table, glancing at his notes, the microphone close. He spoke with a hoarse voice as though slightly short of breath, and one could see his eighty-eight years had imparted a parchment glow, a kind of translucence to his skin. He sometimes appeared sad, then joyful, then fierce and daunting, as he recalled these times. He reflected quietly, his manner full of wisdom and grace and understanding. His eyes burned with love, love for God and love for each one of us. He was a good shepherd, leading his flock to this moment in time. Each of us leaned forward, waiting for the next word, eager not to miss anything, transfixed.
And so, in the morning, my husband and I drove to St. Peter’s, Oakland, out of our sunny valley and into the fog enshrouded San Francisco Bay. In this warm week of August, the cooler temperatures were welcome. We entered the packed nave, walking up the red-carpeted aisle and knelt in the pew as the choir chanted their preludes.
Soon we heard the organ’s first chords of Hymn #220, God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ sons… and we turned to see the beginning of a long procession forming in the wide-open doors to the narthex. The procession began the measured walk up the aisle. The thurifer swung the sweet puffs of incense, preparing the way. Then came the acolytes, the torchbearers with their flaming candles and the crucifer with the crucifix raised high. The clergy followed, solemn with folded hands, and filled the first two rows of pews. The bishops with their attendants were last, stately in their robes and miters, and they continued up the steps and into the sanctuary, passing under the red Sanctus Lamp. They took seats along the sides of the chancel before the altar with its tented tabernacle.
The congregation soon came to the last lines of the stately and moving hymn,
Make them apostles, heralds of thy cross;
Forth may they go to tell all realms thy grace:
Inspire of thee, may they count all but loss,
And stand at last with joy before thy face. (Denis Wortman, 1884)
The next hour was full of hymns, chants, promises, and instruction by the bishop chosen to preach. Soon came the presentation of the new bishops to the archbishop, when each man vowed obedience to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church. Then they lay prostrate before the altar and we sang a litany of supplication, we beseech thee to hear us, good Lord….
We turned our pages to Hymn #217, the Veni Creator, a ninth-century chant, a cry for the Holy Ghost to descend upon these men…
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost thy sev’n-fold gifts impart,
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And so, each new bishop knelt before the two archbishops and two bishops in our Province. Eight hands rested on his each man’s head, bringing into the present two thousand years of Apostolic Succession.
Each new bishop heard the words, Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a bishop in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands… And remember that thou stir up the grace of God, which is given thee by this imposition of our hands; for God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and love, and soberness…
Each new bishop received a ring and a pectoral cross. Each was anointed with holy oils. Each was exhorted to read, study, and preach Holy Scripture:Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, devour them not. Hold up the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring again the outcasts, seek the lost…
We listened to these powerful words and we prayed for these men who would lead us, sail this ark of the Church through the waves of the sea that rolled around us. We rose on the swells, slipped into the hollows, and were touched with the sea spray of angels that flew among us. The choir chanted from the lofty heights of the choir loft, beneath the brilliant stained glass of the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
I knew these men, these men who had been transformed from parish priests to bishops. Each was good, kind, knowledgeable, and devoted to the Church and to God. They were devoted to us. I prayed for them, that they would be protected from the usual temptations of power, for they would, I knew, be terribly tempted. I had seen bishops change over time, as though consumed by themselves, by lies. Even so, the good ones, the holy ones, the ones who survived the temptations, were the stronger for it. They remained true to God, and to us. The good bishops shepherded us and protected us, and led us to the door to Heaven. There are few men who are better and more loved than good bishops.
The Mass was celebrated, and we became one with the Communion of Saints, and we sang our joyful recessional, as the acolytes, clergy, and bishops processed down the red carpeted aisle:
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is the new creation
By water and the word:
From heav’n he came and sought her
To be his holy bride;
With his own blood he bought her,
And for her life he died… (#396, Samuel John Stone, 1866)
We followed the procession through the narthex, and gathered downstairs to share a festive lunch. We greeted old friends and met new ones from all over this great country. We were and are a family, part of the remarkable family of God, and God’s spirit wove among us. We shared our lives since we had last met. We laughed, we cried, we hugged.
It was accomplished, this great moment in our history. Our Apostolic Succession was secured for the span of time given. The Continuing Church continues.