We are a big-tent diocese

 on September 1, 2016

When I was growing up in small-town Ontario, September was a time of fall fairs – parades, displays of prized local produce, the best of horses and cattle, baking and preserves, student art (and handwriting!), music and dancing, greasy hotdogs with overcooked fried onions, candy floss and candied apples. But the highlight for us kids was the carnival – the Ferris wheel and the rides that left you spinning, the games of skill that could (but rarely did) produce a huge stuffed animal as a prize and, of course, the big tent where everyone came together. For a small-town kid, nothing could beat the weekend of the fair. We even got a half-day off school!

The big tent, a place where the whole community could gather. It is an image that shaped the imagination of the biblical people, from the days of Abraham and Sarah’s journey to an undisclosed land of promise, to the nomadic tribes of Judah tending their sheep, to the Tent of Presence – the place of the Ark of the Covenant, the sign of God’s dwelling in their midst – that travelled with Moses and the people on the Exodus from Egypt through the wilderness to the Holy Land of milk and honey. Almost a millennium later, at the time of the Exile, when all but the weakest and poorest had been deported to Babylon, Isaiah foretold their restoration in such numbers that the pegs of the tent would need to be stretched, the tent made bigger, to accommodate the joyous returnees. (Isaiah 54.)

John’s Gospel and the Revelation of St. John pick up the image with their repeated use of the words “abide” and “dwell.” “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Literally, it says “pitched his tent among us” (John 1). The final vision of Revelation is this: “Behold, the tabernacle [tent] of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people and God himself will be with them” (Rev. 21).

Today, we continue to use the image in Anglicanism of a “big tent,” a space capacious enough to welcome and embrace a large, expansive, diverse community. This has been the explicit history of the Anglican Church, especially since the Elizabethan Settlement in the mid-1500s, and there has been huge resistance through the centuries to define the Anglican Church too closely along ideological lines.

This is the essential ethos of the Diocese of Toronto. The factional parties of the 1870s fought earnestly and vainly for their ideological candidates for bishop in the election of the third Bishop of Toronto. Finally, after five days of balloting (!), a centrist candidate was nominated, Arthur Sweatman, who achieved a majority. This unpromising priest then served as Bishop of Toronto for 30 years, the last two also as Metropolitan of Canada and Primate of All Canada. His episcopacy was marked by de-escalating factional discord by encouraging people to offer their particular gifts to the church, stabilizing a debt-ridden diocese, and opening new mission opportunities for the church as it moved into a new century.

The Diocese of Toronto has maintained that inclusive, big-tent ethos over the years. There is a place within diocesan life for people of differing theological views, spiritual propensities, formative backgrounds, missional focuses, scriptural interpretations and liturgical styles. Each brings gifts that enrich the rest of us. We know by experience that “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12).

It has not always been an easy accommodation. It does not mean there are no fights. But it does mean that we stay at the table in communion and in dialogue. What unites us is so much more profound and central to our faith – to our being – than what divides us. In the words of the old hymn, keep your eyes on Jesus.

I think this is a critical issue when we consider the leadership we need, not only in the upcoming episcopal election but more broadly. Bishops serve the whole church, which is a large, complex, multi-faceted body. They do not represent special interest groups – at least they do not and have not done so in the Diocese of Toronto. (Some dioceses have not been so fortunate.) Individual bishops bring their unique gifts and passions, their theological commitments and personal idiosyncrasies, and their deep faith honed by life experience. But these are placed as a gift in the service of the whole church, not a constituency. These gifts are exercised within the context of a team of bishops, in a dynamic dialogue with senior lay and clergy leaders under the diocesan bishop’s leadership. As gifts of the Spirit, the individual bishop’s gifts are meant to build up the body in love, in witness to the living Christ and in service to the whole people of God.

Christian unity, it seems to me, has not one but two opposites: uniformity and division, the one almost always leading to the other, in my experience. Individual parishes and specific ministries can properly cultivate a specialized style or a particular theological or cultural niche. A diocese should not, especially one as large as ours. A diocese needs to be a big tent.

This diocese has benefited enormously over the years from the diverse voices, cultures and traditions that have flourished here in cooperation, sometimes in competition, but usually in respectful balance and life-giving enrichment for the common good. In a divided and polarizing world, this is indeed a witness that we can make to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his mission to reconcile the world in himself.

For me, a spacious “big tent” is not only desirable but critical for us to flourish faithfully in our time and place. A big tent where conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, activists and contemplatives, people from a multitude of ethnicities and places, seekers and doubters and committed, find a home to meet Christ, learn from and with each other, grow in discipleship and reach out in service and witness to a world beyond even the big tent’s walls.


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