Today was designed to be a double celebration: first of John for whom the Fourth Gospel and the other writings attributed to him are named. Second, this was to be a joyful celebration of the 50th anniversary of the profession of Sister-Anne. I looked forward to her presence, hunched into her wheelchair, but it was not to be. Her death does not, however, relieve us from the opportunity to celebrate, to give thanks for her long, steady, and creative life as a member of this community.
First, however, a few words about St. John. Identification of the actual author is not as easy as the title of the day suggests. There are in the New Testament a number of men named John and scholars differ on the identity of the authors of this literature. I am reminded of debates about the authorship of the plays and poems of Shakespeare and the suggestion by a wag that they were written by another man with the same name. The title, “John the Evangelist,” refers to authorship of the Fourth Gospel.
The title, “John the Divine,” is frequently associated with the author of the book known as Apocalypse or Revelation, the vision of the last things and the final triumph of the kingdom of God. I have seen it suggested that the word “Divine” is used in a way that is associated with Anglican tradition. “Divines” for Anglicans are not simply godly people, they are theologians. The great Anglican scholars of our tradition’s most formative period are known as the “Caroline Divines.” They flourished during the reigns of Charles I and Charles II. When we refer to “John the Divine” we may really be saying, “John the Theologian.”
But let us leave aside questions of authorship and debate as to whether the literature identified by the name of John was written by a single man or even possibly by a community bearing his name. I offer a couple of points for reflection. The first is paradox. The author of the gospel seems to me to be able to hold together positions that might, at first glance, appear to be opposed. He presents Jesus as the embodiment—enfleshment, if you like—of the reason or mind or meaning of God. And with equal force he avoids the frequent temptation among Christians to suggest that Jesus only appears to be human. The Jesus of John’s gospel is totally human. He counsels the woman at the well who has a chequered marital history and suffers spiritual dryness and thirst. He weeps on the way to the grave of Lazarus. He says, “It is finished,” and gives up his spirit. And so in the first epistle attributed to John we read, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.” This is the heart of the theology of John the evangelist, or John the theologian, if you prefer.
And this tangible, physical, fleshy experience leads to a practical, tangible, physical experience of community. Behind the writings attributed to John there is this possibility, this vision, of a community bound together by love—not sloppy sentimental affection but commitment to mutual care and responsibility. As we read elsewhere in the first epistle of John, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.” (4.16b)
This brings me to the second dimension of our celebration today: the anniversary of the profession of Sister Thelma-Anne as a member of the community of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. Here I will speak more autobiographically. I first met Sister Thelma-Anne at a meeting of people concerned with theological education in the Province of Rupert’s Land. I met a sharp, forthright, direct personality. Our paths crossed a number of times in the ensuing years. And then she returned to the Toronto house of the community when I was a frequent presider at the Convent’s Sunday eucharist. She was the organist and director of music and we began a long friendship on the basis of liturgical collaboration.
Eventually the General Synod directed the Doctrine and Worship Committee to begin work on a new hymn book. Sister Thelma-Anne and I were members of the working group to which the task was assigned. The work went on for the next ten years. The mandate assigned to the Committee and its working group was to produce a collection which contained hymns both old and new, which would complement the Common Lectionary, and which would be as inclusive as possible in terms of theology, language, and gender.
Hundreds of hymns were considered. Some were selected as they were. Some were rejected. Others were tagged for adoption if they could be brought into line with the mandate, especially in the area of gender-specific language. Sister Thelma-Anne and I were constituted as a committee of two to work on these hymns. There were, as I remember, about 240 of them.
We met at the Botham Road convent for a day about once a month over a period of about eight years. Amending the hymns was concentrated work and sometimes we could finish only half a dozen hymns in a day. Sister Thelma-Anne brought committed but not fanatical feminism to the task. It was not enough to change gender loading; the result had to be as elegant and expressive as the original. Our goal was to make the work as invisible as possible. If people didn’t trip over the changes, we had succeeded.
This is a homily and not a biography so I will limit myself to two more aspects of the life of Sister -Anne.
First, for more than twenty years Sister Thelma-Anne offered her gifts of leadership to the Toronto chapter of Integrity, an organization of gay and lesbian Anglicans and their friends. Having become aware of discrimination on the part of both church and society against people with a same-sex orientation, she conducted retreats for the members of Integrity and wrote articles for their newsletter. In 2001 Sister Thelma-Anne was diagnosed to have Parkinson’s Disease. She treated it not as something she had, like a cold, but as something she was and which was therefore to be met and assimilated into the fabric of her journey. She met the disease with characteristic spiritual and intellectual vigor. All of this is documented in her book In Age Reborn, by Grace Sustained. She tells the story of the ups and downs of this degenerative disorder, a journey documented through the filter of her own ongoing development as a Christian and a religious. She concludes with the message that if she were asked to express in a single word what her experience has meant to her, the word would be grace. She wrote, “I have found again and again that what has been lost on one level is restored on another. And lost again. The gifts give me hope that lost ground can be recovered, if only temporarily. Nevertheless, the time comes to relinquish freely and generously into the wounded hands of the Saviour, the gifts and strengths we were entrusted with.”
Today’s psalm was doubtless chosen to highlight the ministry of St. John the Divine. It may be applied equally to the ministry of Sister Thelma-Anne, which we also celebrate today.
1 It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
2 to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night,
12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13 They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
14 In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.