While the major story in ecclesiastical news over the past week has been the selection and installation of Pope Francis as the Bishop of Rome, Anglicans like me have been anticipating the enthronement of Justin Welby as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The ceremony ended a few minutes ago and included some of the best that our Communion has to offer: the choir sang Britten’s glorious Te Deum in C, the gospel procession featured African dancers chanting about God’s renewing action in the world, and the congregation prayed the wonderful General Thanksgiving that refers to Jesus Christ as “the means of grace and the hope of glory.” It was, in other words, a thoroughly Anglican experience.
At the same time, the enthronement spoke to all who call themselves Christians. In his sermon, Archbishop Justin reminded the congregation that there continue to be people in this world who are martyred for their Christian faith. After the service, a commentator remarked that there were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than there had been in all of previous Christian history. For those of us who have any contact with the Church in places like Sudan or China, we know that being a Christian in certain parts of the world can be a risky proposition. We also might think that the Archbishop’s mention of martyrdom is not particularly applicable to those of us who live in free societies that value religious toleration. It’s important to remember, however, that the word “martyr” comes from the Greek for “witness” or “testimony.” Martyrdom is not just about dying for one’s faith (though this can be an important element of it); martyrdom is about making the world aware of God’s deep love, to which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ testify. By highlighting the importance of martyrdom, Archbishop Justin reminded us of the importance of bearing witness to our Christian faith and testifying to what God has done in our lives and in the life of the world.
In some ways, Archbishop Justin is taking the helm of the Anglican Communion at one of the most turbulent times in its history. The church is deeply divided over issues as diverse as episcopal authority and human sexuality. Meanwhile, people are increasingly less likely to identify themselves as Anglicans or even Christians, as the number of people with no religious affiliation grows significantly. For all of the pomp of the enthronement ceremony, the worldly prestige of the Archbishop of Canterbury has eroded in the face of a secularizing society. Nevertheless, I got the sense that Archbishop Justin as a deep and abiding hope for the Church, because he understands that bearing witness to God’s great love does not require worldly power. The Archbishop alluded to Paul’s observation that God’s power is made perfect in human weakness. We have only to look at the example of Jesus Christ to know that this is true: God’s new creation was not inaugurated with a conquering army, but with a man who had been stripped naked, abandoned by his friends, and hung on a cross to die. At the weakest moment in his life, Jesus Christ bore witness to God’s great love for all of humanity. During the season of Lent, we too are called to bear witness to God’s great love out of our own vulnerability. We begin Lent acknowledging our unworthiness and being assured of God’s forgiveness. And we do not spend the season trying to make ourselves more worthy of God’s love; rather, we engage in disciplines to become more aware that we have received the abundance of God’s grace in spite of our weakness. When we do this, we bear witness to a God who makes his love known to us not through worldly power, but through weakness.