Ad Clerum on Change

Letter to the Clergy from Interim Bishop Minns

Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51–52)

became rector of Truro Church, Fairfax, Virginia, in the early 1990’s, and I learned a great deal about its remarkable history stretching back to the founding of this “last great experiment for promoting human happiness.” (George Washington, Truro Parish vestry member) I was told many stories of my illustrious predecessors and anecdotes of some of the more fascinating characters that have been part of the congregation, including this classic tale of Miss Dorothy. (Not her real name, for reasons that will become clear!)

Miss Dorothy was a faithful attendee at the early morning service held in the chapel – a delightful building in the Colonial style. She was a lady of a certain age and always sat on the front right pew. Always! One Sunday morning a new family came to worship and had the temerity to sit in “her” pew. When Miss Dorothy arrived, she made her way to the front and was horrified to find it already occupied. There were simply no words to express her shock and horror, so she loudly rattled her cane in the pew behind them. They turned and smiled sweetly at her, whispered “Good Morning,” and then resumed their prayers. She rattled the cane again – this time more vigorously – but her protest was lost as the organist began to play the opening hymn. Miss Dorothy stomped across the aisle and grimly sat in the front left pew. When the service was concluded, she clomped down the aisle and announced to the rector in a loud voice, “I would rather find a strange man in my bed than in my pew!”

Change is difficult for all of us, but change is at the heart of the Christian story. On that first Easter Day the world was changed. Death was defeated, lives transformed, and a new hope and a new future were born. The lives of the disciples were turned upside down and a global movement was born that now has almost two and half billion followers – more than 30% of the world’s population! And yet we still find change hard to accept.

When our grandchildren come to visit, one of their favorite pastimes is to dig out the family photo albums. They love to see themselves and their parents at earlier ages and they especially like to find photos of their grandparents in their very early years. My teenage pictures are a particular source of entertainment. They find it hard to believe that the rather gaunt, beardless young man is their grandfather. Actually, I find it hard to believe as well! I am amazed by the ways in which I have changed. Some of it is simply by getting older, but I am very much aware that I have been, and continue to be, transformed by the ever-present grace of God. God’s love has changed me!

During the 2000 Episcopal Church General Convention held in Denver, Colorado, we were part of a delegation with the American Anglican Council. Our theme was “God’s Love Changed Me” and we told the story of a number of people who had powerful testimonies of God’s transforming love. It proved to be one of our more effective campaigns. Some of our witnesses had experienced freedom from addiction, others had seen God deliver them from self-hatred after abortion, and one of the most memorable was Tom Tarrants. By the age of 21, Tom was a racist anti-Semite and a terrorist with the White Knights of the KKK! Police shoot outs and prison sentences soon followed. Finally, in the quiet of a death-row cell, he discovered the truth of the Bible and the life-transforming love of God. Miracle followed miracle and his life was completely changed. Today he is the President Emeritus of the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington, D.C. What a change from his earlier life!

While none were quite as dramatic as Tom’s, we saw similar transformations during our time in New York City. When we arrived in 1988, homelessness was a huge crisis and All Angels Church had a feeding program on Sunday evenings in the church basement. At the same time they held a weekly Taize-style service in the upstairs chapel. It was a very elegant candle-lit gathering with simple, meditative music. I stood at the church door to welcome people to both the upstairs and downstairs gatherings but was struck by the thought that if Jesus ever came to visit, he would likely go to the downstairs community.

As a new rector, I had been warned about changing too much too soon and so began to pray for a way forward. My prayer was quickly answered when Gloria, a member of the downstairs community, asked if I would baptize her infant son. I agreed on condition that she join us upstairs for worship so that we could talk further about the meaning of baptism. She came and we talked. After a few weeks I announced that on the coming Sunday evening, everyone would be invited upstairs for the baptism and then we would all go downstairs for supper.

I was rather pleased with my plan, but then disaster struck. There was a terrible thunderstorm that Sunday and most of the regular upstairs people stayed home while the downstairs community was larger than ever and unhappy about being asked to go upstairs before eating. They were hungry, wet, and angry, and they refused to take any part in the service. In desperation I asked Ron, the music director, for help – he began to play “Blessed Assurance” with a gospel beat. A few smiled, but nothing more. Then I noticed a man leave his seat and sit on the music bench next to Ron. I heard later that he asked Ron if he knew the spiritual, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Ron didn’t, but he offered to play if the man would sing. It proved to be a breakthrough. The man sang beautifully and the entire congregation stood and sang and many began to weep. That Sunday night service proved to be the beginning of an amazing adventure of faith. God’s love was present, and in the following weeks many lives were transformed – including my own!

It was one more reminder that change is at the heart of the Christian story.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.(2 Corinthians 5:17)

Your brother in Christ,