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For Anglicans Online

The Parting of Friends

Cynthia McFarland

December 2003

If one is inclined to enjoy 19th-century clerical biography — and I am of that number — one frequently encounters chapters that include wrenching stories of families separated for years by some member or other 'going over to Rome'. Sometimes brothers, college classmates, childhood friends: bonds of deep affection were shattered by conscience and theological difference. The issues that brought on the divisions mattered deeply in that time, perhaps to an intensity that we, even in the height of tensions in our Anglican Communion today, cannot fathom and cannot recreate. Perhaps the most trying circumstance in the 19th century was a loss of faith, usually brought on by too much reading of Lyell or Darwin. No midlife crises then, with longing for red cars, younger lovers, or some such. It was a different time.

And yet, in the last few weeks, I suspect I have experienced a least a little of that keen pain that some of my most admired Victorians knew: After months of thought, prayer, meditation, brooding (and not a few tears amongst all those), I have left my parish. Searching for weeks for some other course of action, delaying in the hope that I would see some way to remain, I had, at last, to realise that the time had come.

My parish priest and I, who have enjoyed an easy, close, affectionate friendship since the first days of his ministry some five years ago, found ourselves on either side of the line that broadly and roughly divides the church in two these days. It was brought home to us more clearly than it might, as he and I were deputies to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA this summer. If there was no ambiguity about our differences, there was also much anguish. We shared a love of music, a strikingly similar sense of humour about church foibles and fashions, a pleasure in clear thinking and articulate expression, and a delight in strong coffee. And yet, to this dear friend and diligent parish priest, I was an apostate, a conclusion he reached sadly, I have no doubt, but with utter certainty, made plain in public forums and unequivocal statements.

As much as I tried to convince myself that he and I could surely, surely remain together in the same parish, could prove that what binds us is greater than what divides us, my heart wasn't large enough. I found that I couldn't be the fully giving, loving, participating parishioner, in heart, mind, and soul (the only kind I can be) in a place where that love was no longer considered Christian. I who had prided myself, here at Anglicans Online, at trying to convince you always to draw the circle larger, to not let boundaries be lined out, found myself flummoxed, paralysed, unable to draw my circle large enough round my rector to keep love in. Once I was seen as an apostate — such a hard word for me to write — it seemed to me that the very act of my drawing that circle was a matter of indifference. What would my actions mean, I who had already apparently abandoned the faith through my views and my votes?

In my months-long searching for reasons to stay, it became eventually clear to me that I had to leave; that I was spiritually stumbling and falling remaining where I was. My rector and I talked in person, sitting in my drawing room one cold winter day a few weeks ago. In a conversation of sadness, honesty, gentleness, and pain, I told him of my decision. He was not surprised, although I think it if fair to say he, like I, hoped the day would not come. 'If two reasonable people such as we cannot stay in the same parish,' I said at one point, 'what does that say? What a failure of love this sort of small schism between us represents'. And yet we both knew that all the goodwill in the world could not breach the line that was now between us. We parted as friends, each, I firmly believe, on a pilgrimage to that place where there will be no more weeping nor sighing, each loved by God, each saddened by the end of a sacred relationship between priest and parishioner and by the shattering of community that necessarily follows.

Towards the end of our conversation, I remarked that the trouble of a middle-aged, middle-class, white woman with her parish church, in a world where thousands of children die every day of diseases or starvation, is not of much account sub specie aeternitatis. It matters, of course, in its own way, as we are assured that even the fall of a sparrow matters. But we were both too clear-eyed to give the situation more drama and more weight than it deserves: a quiet, heart-wrenching, small-town sad story, where two Christians (for I will still claim the name) parted in sorrow and yet in certainty that there could be no other way.

I have no plans at present for where I shall attend church; I know God will fetch me up somewhere in His good time. I find it very odd to be adrift in Advent, but I know that if I pray, watch, and wait, my path will be made clear. If you can say a little prayer for me, my dear friends (and many of you have been online friends for many years), I should be very grateful.

For all those people who, like me, have had to face hard decisions and difficult choices in these troubling days — no matter what your opinions on this issue or that — I do indeed understand something of your pain and share your heavy-heartedness. Pray for those who leave and for those who stay; for those who are certain they are right and those who are certain those people are wrong.

These days I find myself wobbly enough that there is very little of which I can feel utterly certain, but beyond all else I know that 'the Word was made Flesh and dwelt amongst us'. I may not know yet where I will proclaim that astounding truth on Christmas Eve, but proclaim it I will.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

Cynthia's signature

Cynthia McFarland has been the managing editor of Anglicans Online since 1997.