The Battle of Antietam, on September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day in American history. In the Cornfield, at the Stone Bridge, and on Bloody Lane, Americans from North and South slaughtered one another in carnage never before or since witnessed. Episcopalians who used the same Prayer Book and read the same Bible wore blue and gray on that fateful day. Men who shared a common faith and belonged to a common Anglican heritage, disagreed so greatly about a theology of anthropology (in that time, slavery) that they took up arms against one another and killed one another in the tens of thousands.
Yet, this butchery did not divide them. One month to the day after the bloodbath that was the Battle of Antietam, the northern bishops in the Episcopal Church wrote a pastoral letter concerning the war. In moving, classical nineteenth century prose, the bishops conclude their letter by praying,
that those who have sought to depart from us may speedily and happily be reunited with us in the bonds of Christian, as well as national, fellowship; and that all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking may be put away from us and them “with all malice;” that we may “be kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another even as we hope that God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven us,” we affectionately “commit you to God and the word of His grace.”
Indeed, the Episcopal Church was speedily reunited with bonds of Christian fellowship. Unlike every other Protestant denomination, the Episcopal Church from north and south came back together within months of the end of the Civil War. The Presbyterian Church was not reunited until the 1980s. The Baptist Church is still divided across its old north and south constituents.
Yesterday, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church amended its canons so that same-sex couples would be permitted to use liturgical rites of marriage. While the vote tallies in both houses were overwhelmingly in favor of these changes, opposition was not unheard. In many ways, we are a Church divided. United by common prayer and heritage, we profoundly disagree again on matters of theological anthropology (this time, human sexuality).
In order to move forward in unity and charity, we must first look back. Taking courage from the witness of those southern bishops who made a shameful walk back into the House of Bishops in 1865 and from the charity given them by their northern brothers, we too can seek common ground. Episcopalians were killing each other, they had lost brothers, fathers, uncles, and sons to the other side, and yet still found enough room at the table for common mission. Unity and charity at this moment, though the differences and wounds are great, is well within our grasp. May we be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another even as we hope that God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven us.