I spent last Saturday at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, helping make a new bishop. I can say that I was actually helping because I was part of a group of people who surrounded my friend to officially present her at the start of the liturgy. Projecting (as we were instructed) our statement into the cavernous building, our voices rang and reverberated in the space. The National Cathedral is a big church—you can look up the measurements, and you feel it as you approach the grounds and all the more so when you walk inside. It is massive and beautiful and meant to inspire.
The whole day was an experience of “big church” and not just because we spent the entire day in this enormous edifice. I mean big church because of the collection of people from (really) all over the world, speaking Spanish, Korean, and English, singing hymns and anthems familiar and unknown, representing other denominations and faiths, lay and ordained and non-believing. Incense and administrative details, communion and laying on of hands, selfie-snapping and prayer. The music was loud, and the buttresses were flying. It was big church: fancy and inclusive, an appropriate day for the phrase “we pulled out all the stops.”
This big church day was an all-day gathering of hundreds of people in one room, albeit a gigantic room, who didn’t all know each other but were there for a common purpose. We were making a new bishop. It felt like a momentous occasion, but it was also daringly small. At the actual moment, a few people—other bishops, not me—huddled around her and put their hands on her head and shoulders. The meaning of apostolic succession is that human touch forms a connection with generations of bishops in every time and place all the way back to Peter being embraced by Jesus. Big church was intimate at that moment, and tactile, and close, and very, very human. It was a small thing in a vast world where most people didn’t even know what we were up to as they went about their Saturdays in every time zone and walk of life. Big church, sure, but also small in the sweep of things.
This new bishop is a friend of mine. She walked up and introduced herself to me on our first day of seminary twenty-three years ago. I was honored to be there for this momentous occasion that I would not have missed for the world. And also, we are just friends who like to celebrate each other, and we’d be just as likely to toast much smaller accomplishments like getting the laundry done or handling a difficult conversation with a modicum of grace. Our lives have been intertwined because of the sacraments and a steady group text thread.
I’m so delighted for her that she’s a bishop, and I am so delighted for the church … the big church, the big tent that we’re a part of. And I’m also grateful for the small work of church in connecting us through love and prayer, through time and history—whether that’s two thousand years or twenty-three. The big church, as it turns out, is built of small moments, small stories, and small gestures. I wonder if this is your experience too?