As the college student knelt at the altar rail, another parishioner pointed accusingly and loudly said: "Don't give him communion. He does not believe. He is mocking us all."
Stunned, Father George Carey asked the student for his response. He looked up and said: "I am confirmed. I am here because I want to follow." The priest served him communion.
This scene occurred at St. Nicholas Parish in Durham, England, years before Carey began his decade-plus service as the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury. Today, he still uses this story as a parable about spiritual seekers and those who are quick to judge.
But this kind of story has several levels, said the archbishop, speaking last week at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. The student's simple confession indicated that he wanted to start a journey. What spiritual leaders are supposed to do is embrace seekers and show them where God wants them to go.
This implies that there is an ultimate destination and even a true path. It is a sign of the times that making such a claim is controversial. So be it. Carey said he was delighted that the primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion recently took just such a stand.
They said: "We believe that God the eternal Son became human for our sake and that in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth God was uniquely present and active." The archbishop added: "The statement is a full-blooded recommitment to the historic faith of the church. And to that wisdom of glory and weakness all Christians commit themselves."
The key words in the primate's statement are "uniquely present." Many Anglicans, especially in the Third World, are convinced their communion's powerful left wing believes that all spiritual paths are ultimately the same and have the same end. Jesus is one path to salvation, clarity, enlightenment or whatever. But other paths work just as well.
This fundamental disagreement leads to legions of bitter conflicts about biblical authority, creeds, sacraments and, of course, sexuality.
"God has given us sexuality. It is a mysterious gift," Carey told a circle of reporters, before his address. "But I'm of the belief, and I have been consistent on this throughout my tenure, that any sexual relationships beyond the confines of heterosexual marriage is a deviation from scripture. ... I don't approve of that."
The archbishop is used to hearing this question, because fights over the status of sexual acts outside of marriage have been tearing up the Anglican Communion for decades. This is true of virtually all mainline religious groups.
While known as conservative, Carey is - in keeping with the style of his office - a soft-spoken British diplomat who strives not to tread on ecclesiastical toes. He knew that he was in the United States and that its Episcopal hierarchy has a de facto policy of ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians and allowing same-sex union rites. A church court has ruled that Episcopalians have no "core doctrines" on marriage and sex.
Yet Carey was speaking at an evangelical seminary, one that has served as a strategic bridge to Anglicans in the Third World, especially Africa and Asia. Thus, he gave journalists a candid answer and repeated this stance in his speech.
It is impossible to separate theology and morality, stressed the archbishop. At some point, church politics bleed into real life. The political becomes the personal.
"There have to be boundaries to pastoral care which result in pastoral discipline, just as there are boundaries to doctrinal orthodoxy," he said. "To say, 'Jesus is Lord,' is to accept his discipline. It is to place ourselves under his obedience. We cannot do what we please or believe whatever we decide suits us personally."
There are those who disagree, often hiding their views in lofty language. Carey said he was reminded of one jester's version of the Caesarea Phillippi encounter which begins with Jesus asking Peter: "Who do men say that I am?"
A postmodern Peter might answer: "You are the existentialist flux of Being shimmering in the signifying chains of inchoate Reality. You are the pre-existent Ground of our Being."
To which, Carey noted, Jesus would certainly reply: "I am WHAT?"