Staten Island is one of the five boroughs that make up New York City. NYC: green and leafy, quiet little country roads, old Victorian houses and some even older ones, a few from the 17th century. Doesn't sound like the Big Apple to you? Well, you should go sometime for a visit.
St. Andrew's on Staten Island was founded in 1708. We were there yesterday for a Cursillo get-together. Besides all the food and singing, there was a visitor: an English priest from the SPG. St. Andrew's was founded by the SPG -- the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, as it was called in those days. We were one of the Foreign Parts.
Fr. Rudick's predecessors rode hard along the muddy paths through the forests of Manhattan, along the rocky beaches of Brooklyn, came across the Arthur Kill on a flat ferry to Staten Island, came back and rode further down into New Jersey. Sometimes there was the twinkle of a candle from the window of a house along the side of the road, and the family that lived there would welcome the weary reverend, share their supper with him, give his horse a drink and some room in the barn, let him wrap himself in his blanket and spend the night on the floor by their fire. Other times, he was not so fortunate, and he and the horse would sleep by the side of the road, waking in the grey chill before dawn to set out again.
This missionary didn't come in on a horse. He came on a plane. He'll visit as many of the old SPG parishes as he can while he is here, connecting them with their beginnings. For they did not have their beginnings here. Most things here in America did not. Almost all of us have come here from somewhere else.
He's not really here on a nostalgic visit from the old country, though. The SPG is not an 18th-century society that has passed out of existence. It's still active. It still sends and receives people all over the world. In the 18th century, it was assumed that the missionary project was a one-way affair: from England to the wild places. That's not so any more. Now every place is a wild place. SPG missionaries come from Africa and Asia, Latin America and New Zealand, as well as from Britain.
Everybody needs a missionary visit. Everybody needs to see what life is like in other parts of the world. The visitor needs to respect the ways in which God has already spoken to those to whom he comes -- God has not been absent from any human society, not ever, not anywhere. The keen-eyed visitor will see the signs of God anywhere. Perhaps the signs of God will be most strikingly evident in the places that differ profoundly from what the visitor has left behind. Perhaps they will be hidden in the very things of which the visitor is most suspicious.
That is why the current strain on the unity of the Anglican Communion is so painful. And so dangerous. If the devil can succeed in dividing Africans from Americans, he's had a good day. If the gulf between them becomes so wide that they will no longer cooperate with one another in the feeding of the hungry and the healing of the sick, because they cannot agree about matters of theology and sexual ethics, the devil can take the rest of the afternoon off.
The young missionaries of the SPG crossed the dangerous sea in small, rat-infested ships to come here. They forded creeks on horseback in the dark. Slept in their clothes out in the open air. Preached long sermons in the tiny, unheated frame churches the people erected in the little towns along the Eastern Seaboard. They were willing to endure just about anything to bridge the gulf between the old world and the new. After all that faithful work, all that long-ago courage, after all these years, do we honor them by widening it?
Better to live together, in our clumsy way, across the oceans of water and the oceans of misunderstanding. Institutional schism is a poor way to achieve spiritual oneness. And it is spiritual oneness to which we are called -- not by our own virtue or our own correctness, but by the love of God who calls us.
Don't know how this can possibly work out? Neither do I. This is one of many good signs that neither of us is God.