Ad Clerum on Church Culture and Honor

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:10)

I had been invited to the Washington Navy Yard to attend the retirement ceremonies for a member of Truro Church who had served in the US Navy and retired with the rank of admiral. It was an amazing experience. There was a huge crowd with most of those present in full dress uniform, flags flying and the band playing. The ceremony itself was highly liturgical, with formal processions, hymns, Bible lessons, prayers, and a sermon, and all of it conducted with precision and respect. I was most impressed, and as I returned home, I reflected on how important it is to show honor to those who have served. It not only expresses appreciation to the individual and his or her family but also emphasizes the cultural values of the community in which they have served.

At Truro Church we were about to say farewell to Joe Kitts, a longtime member of the clergy staff who had served the congregation for many years – first as an assistant with John Howe, my predecessor, then during the interim with Geoff Chapman, and finally as my assistant. He was greatly loved and had provided invaluable pastoral care to the members of the church and the wider community. We had planned a fairly modest retirement party after the morning services, but my experience at the Navy Yard changed all that. We decided to have a glorious festive Sunday morning service with a grand procession – including flags. Joe was born in England, so we carried the Union Jack alongside the Stars ‘n Stripes. Joe protested that it was all “too much,” but he knew that he was loved and that we were determined to honor him. The congregation participated in the festivities with great enthusiasm, and I believe that God was glorified.

Angela’s mother, Hilda, came from England to live with us during our time in Northern Virginia. She had been married for over 48 years to her husband Ralph, who had recently died, and she was finding living alone an increasing challenge. The logistics of her transatlantic move were complex but Angela’s greatest concern was to help her mother make new friends. So Angela began a seniors ministry to which she invited all members of the congregation over 55 – initially this was somewhat controversial because several parishioners felt insulted by their inclusion on the invitation list. They didn’t consider themselves old enough for such a ministry! Their first activity was a weekly luncheon, then the ministry quickly expanded into occasional day trips and eventually annual week-long trips to Bermuda! They also carried out various service projects.

Angela quickly discovered that among this group of seniors were some very remarkable men and women. Their life histories were fascinating – some had served in high level positions in the government and the military, including the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor to the CIA. They had amazing stories to tell. All of them felt honored to share their many life experiences. It all started because Angela wanted to honor her mother with a new circle of friends, but it quickly became something much bigger. The ministry continues to grow to this day, more than 25 years later, and is a reminder of that ancient promise: “Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)

During our time at All Angels Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I learned a great deal about the power of liturgy to show honor... those simple acts that are built into our Anglican culture can speak with enormous weight. On Maundy Thursday we embraced the traditional ritual of foot washing but I changed it slightly. The received tradition had been for the rector and other clergy to wash the feet of all of the parishioners brave enough to come forward. I changed it so that each person who came forward not only had their feet washed but then knelt and washed the feet of the person who followed them. And that pattern was then repeated throughout the congregation. Children washed their parents’ feet, and the other way around, and privileged parishioners washed the feet of the homeless, and vice versa. It was a powerful time of ministry and many tears were shed and every person was honored.

I visited St. John’s Church in Franklin, Tennessee, recently and, at the rector’s request, honored three of the children with a Bishop’s Award – first established by Archbishop Bob Duncan during the time that he was Bishop of Pittsburgh. I gave the Bishop’s Award for Exemplary Service to Annie – a 9-year-old girl who delights in coming early to church each week so that she can help with the set-up crew. I also gave the Bishop’s Award for Excellence in Scripture to 10-year-old Micah and 11-year-old Natalie, two children who have demonstrated love for the Bible and the ability to memorize key verses. When I called each of them forward to receive their awards, they, and their families, looked delighted, and the congregation applauded them all enthusiastically. It was an unforgettable moment, and I am sure that those three children will always know that they were honored by their church.

Paul talks about all of this in his letter to the Corinthians:

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:24-26)

The Church, your church, is called to be a community deliberate about honoring one another – especially those less visible – and when we do so, everyone is blessed and God is glorified.

Your brother in Christ,