Collective Dissimilarity, Common Path

The following article was written by college alumnus Rev. Robert Warren (’84), current rector of Christ Church in Clermont-Ferrand. It is the result of an exchange between the Rev. Warren and second-year student Tyson Rosberg, who met the Rev. Warren when he was visiting France last year. In the Fall, Tyson will be starting a one-year internship at the American Cathedral in Paris.

It’s been thirty-three years since my ordination to the Diaconate and thirty-eight years since I first walked through the front door of Diocesan College. I had been enrolled in a general Arts program at McGill University in September of 1979 after a year at Laval studying French, and I took the opportunity to ask Dean Shepherd at the end of the Eucharist at the Cathedral on my very first Sunday in Montreal how it was that one could study Theology, which was what I really wanted to do. He suggested that I wander up the road to Dio in the afternoon and knock on Tony Capon’s door. As I remember he even went outside with me and pointed out the way. I was enrolled in the B.Th. by the following Tuesday. One thing led to another and, while I did not sense a vocation to ordination for the better part of a year, I did then progress onto an ordination track connected to my home Diocese in British Columbia. Tyson Rosberg [a current MDiv. student at the college whose contact with alumnus Robert Warren resulted in this article!] and I share the same home town, the same college and now, it would appear, he’s moving to France without having to go through all the intervening steps. How did he do that? Young people are so clever these days.

The Rev. Robert Warren and his granddaughter Olivia

Every year, in my small church in the Auvergne region of France (the hilly middle bit west of Lyon), we celebrate American Thanksgiving in late November (on a Sunday rather than a Thursday as they do in the U.S.). We host a community meal at the local English-language school following our regular service. My parishioners are mostly American expatriates from South Carolina working for the Michelin Tire Company. The cardinal feast of the American year is Thanksgiving dinner. Whole turkeys are quite difficult to find in France so they must be located and ordered ahead of time. The gravy must be proper Anglo-Saxon gravy with flour shoogled about in the turkey drippings over the hob. The canonical feast would be incomplete if it did not include a green bean casserole prepared with cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup brought back in anticipation of Thanksgiving in suitcases at the end of the summer holidays. Did I mention pumpkin pie?

Pumpkin pie.

I have been rector or priest-in-charge of a succession of churches in three ecclesiastical Provinces – Canada first and then Scotland and now the Convocation of Episcopal Churches which is a part of Province II in the Episcopal Church in America. Under various guises and in sundry situations, Christian ministry has represented the gifting of an entire world to somebody born on the western edge of Canada and who might well have remained in situ there for the duration of his natural life.

It’s no surprise. The Church has always been one of the original great international organizations and one where one need not only experience the world as a tourist or a visitor but where one can, in fact, belong to that world.

At a pizza dinner in my Anglican rectory in Chibougamau in northern Quebec a youth group of young Cree people undertook the project of translating contemporary English praise choruses into intelligible local Cree for use on Sunday morning. In one of my Montreal parishes the arrival of several West and Central African and South American parishioners necessitated the redaction of a liturgy booklet with three columns – in English, French and Spanish. A community meal there might include southern fried chicken provided by the family of a visiting scholar from the American south alongside a pot of fiery spiced octopus curry made by a Seychellois family. At one of our meals, a young Anglophone teenager mentioned to me that, during the week at his exclusive English language academy in Westmount, he found himself planted in an orderly row with those of his own cultural and economic bracket. Sunday morning at church, on the other hand, was the place where he met the world.

M.Div. student Tyson Rosberg

Another feast comes to mind: It was Fathers’ Day in 1990 in a plywood shack at a camp on the outskirts of Chibougamau. A cooked bear’s head graced the centre of the table and the fathers of the small Cree encampment were gathered around it. Bally Husky, the oldest man present, was asked to say the blessing which he did at enormous length in Cree – the only language he spoke.

These are some of the voices of the Anglican Communion and of the Universal Church. They need to be recognized as a part of our fellowship and remembered in the context of the Mass in the prayers of God’s people. The partnerships which exist between our various dioceses and (from our vantage point) more far-flung regions of the Church should not merely be nourished from the Synod office but by our congregations, our choirs and our Sunday Schools – connecting with those of similar age and interest who live in places we may never visit and who speak a language we may not have the privilege and opportunity to learn. Our two linked congregations in the Diocese of Edinburgh embraced the formal partnership between the Diocese of Edinburgh and the Diocese of Cape Coast by instituting their own link with the parish of SS Peter and Paul in the village of Saltpond – with a particular emphasis on its Sunday School. Visits occurred in both directions and the names of many of the key parishioners in that congregation began to ring a bell with our members in Scotland. They had become a known quantity.

Perhaps most importantly the presence of the multiple within our own cities, towns and villages is something which can be discovered in our particular geographical communities and fêted in our congregations. It is a natural inclination of clubs and associations to rejoice in consensus and to provide a haven for the like-minded. Such a concentration of agreed opinion and approach may even make good strategic sense. Many of our “gathered congregations” in larger cities find their outreach to be sharper when there is such homogeneity. It may not, however, satisfy our holy curiosity about God’s presence in that part of the world which is not us and not ours.

It was pretty much the standard fare of every missionary who ever visited one of the churches of my youth or who came to speak to us at Diocesan College in Montreal that one didn’t need to leave home to engage in outreach to or acquire experience of the “other”. Here in Clermont-Ferrand, Christ Church is the only English language congregation between Lyon and the Aquitaine. We are the only show in the Auvergne. As such, we bring into one service, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians and Southern Baptists. Difference is thrust upon us by the nature of our particular gathering of people. We pick our way through our collective dissimilarity to discover the common path which allows us to minister pastorally to each other and prophetically to the world beyond.

The spirit of God is abroad in the world. This is a theological and not a geographical statement.

Our own places of work and residence – the civic communities within which our congregations are set – contain the same breadth of human experience and need as we might encounter by moving abroad. The resistance we might feel to packing up and leaving our particular corner of the world and the resistance we feel in engaging in spiritual or evangelical discourse with those who look at things differently is one and the same. Were we to conquer the second – we might, in fact, not need to physically “up sticks” and leave behind us our familiar environs.

Many blessings to this year’s graduates and to those still in process. Pray for us. We will pray for you.

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