More than One Way to Witness

by | Jan 19, 2017

Each of us was given grace according the measure of Christ’s gift.  Ephesians 4:7

It had been my intention to write this week about the major themes I will address in greater detail at next weekend at the yearly gathering of clergy and lay delegates from the 88 congregations of the Diocese of Washington. These are the issues I care most about and for which I feel most accountable before God and those I serve as bishop.

But I would be remiss not to address again the concerns raised by many faithful Episcopalians regarding the participation of Washington National Cathedral’s choir in the presidential inauguration and the inaugural prayer service the following day. While some have written to support the decisions Dean Randy Hollerith and I have made on these matters, most who have contacted me are dismayed, disappointed, and angry.

Many have made the distinction between hosting the inaugural prayer service and the choir’s participation at the inauguration itself, supporting one and objecting to the other. Others didn’t object to the prayer service until they heard that there would not be a sermon, which left them feeling as if the church had surrendered its responsibility to preach truth to power.  

I feel the weight of the emotions expressed by those who disagree with my decisions and want to explain certain misperceptions. For example, it has always been the president’s prerogative to choose a preacher for the inaugural prayer service, or, in this case, not to have one. And the readings and prayers offered will themselves carry prophetic weight.

Yet I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind by what I have to say here. In truth, I’m grateful for the sense of outrage at some of the President-elect’s words and actions, because I share it. And I’m grateful for the protests that are unfolding in our nation because I believe that protest is, at times, a civic responsibility and one critical component of faithful Christian discipleship. 

But I do not believe that on the weekend of Mr. Trump’s inauguration, protest is the only way to express civic responsibility informed by Christian faith. Some of us may need to be in the streets. But others of us need to show up at the inauguration and the events that follow, secular though some may be, as people of faith and witnesses to the highest aspirations of our nation. I would argue that we especially need to be present among fellow citizens whose views of the world, and of this inauguration, differ from ours.

While some faithful Christians are called to protest, others are called to extend hospitality, and to accept the hospitality of others, truly listening to those for whom this weekend is a celebration. While there are times for prophetic witness, there are also times for prayers of uplift and encouragement, meditations on shared history, and music that stirs the soul. For those of us leading the prayer service at Washington National Cathedral, this weekend is that sort of time. The fact that others feel called to march at that same hour speaks to the many ways Christians can feel called to act, in faith, for the common good.

I live and lead from the core conviction that God loves diversity, as evidenced in creation and our glorious diversity as a species. I believe that there is more than one way to be a faithful Christian, and that in most situations, there is more than one right answer. Precisely for times such as this, we are called to be a church with breadth in our witness and capacity for real relationships across profound differences. Fostering such relationships requires a far more radical kind of hospitality than we currently know how to offer. It also requires a willingness to put ourselves in places that make us uncomfortable. So that is what some of us will do.