This year, Bishop Eleanor continued her series of Bishop’s Charges on being family by taking us on a “picnic tour” of conversations around various banquet tables around the world, finishing at the banquet table of Eucharist at our diocesan Synod. She paused at each to reflect on how in some cases, not all people were welcome at the table – whilst at others, a sense of belonging was felt in very real, practical ways.
Bishop Eleanor began in Auckland’s Cornwall Park, where she was sobbing over a direct and unsubtle request that her husband remove her son from church. The incompatibility of her love for God, for His church, and for her family was palpable as she struggled with the exclusion of a family member from the community of God. Moving to the St John’s College banquet hall, where in Ellie’s time there, all were welcome at the banquet table – but parents were required to provide the food for their children. In the prior generation, male-only clergy were welcome at the table whilst their wives and children were required to fend for themselves at home. The family meal was separated.
From exclusion to absence: in the kitchen of the Community of St Anselm at London’s Lambeth Palace, young people from around the world share with Ellie their local church contexts. Ellie tells us it would be easy to assume that the declining and aging demography of our New Zealand church is the norm – but that is not true. The average Anglican is a woman in her twenties, financially poor and from a pre- or post-conflict national setting. To a cafe in this land, where Ellie is asked – where are all the adult children of parishioners? Why aren’t they are the banquet table? Perhaps a painful question to ask in the face of the reality of declining congregations.
Bishop Eleanor takes us now to Africa, where she shares cooking bananas and sweet tea, served generously in a time of real and genuine famine, on a banquet table consisting of a dusty, red, dirt floor. “This is church,” Mama Martha tells her, “sharing food together across cultures in Christ, this is the real church.”
Then to her homeland, where a priory was to be sold: the sisters of the community reflect on the end of a season, but are quoted in a local publication as saying “We firmly believe that these planned changes are inspired by the Holy Spirit, and will allow us to develop a viable and exciting ministry for the future.” The Prioress of the Order told Ellie that despite changing demographics, “the call never ends.”
Returning to New Zealand, to the new community founded in Wellington’s university suburb of Kelburn, where Ellie and her family live with students and young adult leaders. As she lay in bed pondering the climbing of her stairs with a broken foot to procure a cup of tea, a text arrives: “if you need a cup of tea, I’ll bring one done,” accompanied with toast.
When we say we are family, it is not a metaphor – it is real in very tangible ways.
And so now, to the Eucharistic banquet table and the words of Jesus. In Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John’s Gospel, he asks his father for the gift of family. Please can I keep this family on earth and please can they be as much a part of our divine family as I am in you. This is what Jesus asks his Father. The man who told us that our Father God knows how to give good things to his children when they ask. Jesus asks for a human and divine family of unbreakable unity. Jesus asks for a human and divine family of one-ness in Him.
Reflecting on what we each bring to the family banquet, Ellie told us that we arrive weaving together Christ’s sacrifice, and our own willingness to encounter death and resurrection. This combined martyrdom unites us into a family of faith, and out of our love for God and His earth, we give of ourselves. Ellie invited us to hear again Christ’s words not as a measure of lack, but as a promise of the fulfilment of his prayer for us:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength… and you shall love your neighbour as yourself!
Bishop Eleanor’s charge to us all was a fitting exploration of the lyrics of the song we had sung during our time of worship:
There is but one love, and it is your love
Ko te mea nui, ko te aroha (the most important thing is love)
Your love has freed us, and we’re free indeed
Spoken to our pain, revealing hope again.
Jesus had indeed spoken to our pain, where perhaps we had felt excluded, and He had indeed revealed His hope. Together at our tables, we banqueted, sharing in the tangible reality of our family connection with each other – a reality which cannot be broken.