“So be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
We open our Convention this year with the commemoration of St. Fabian, bishop of Rome in the early days of the church; whose predecessor had died suddenly in office a month after his consecration. As the story goes, when the search committee reassembled, blindsided by the sudden demise of their recently elected bishop, wondering (good heavens!) what they were to do, they were suddenly thunderstruck when a Pentecostal dove appeared and landed on Fabian’s head. To the mind of the electors, confronted with this evidence of the Holy Spirit, God had clearly chosen Fabian, and their role was simply to affirm the choice.
In my experience, the work of discernment in the church, which I would define as attempting to understand what God is doing and then to get on board, is easier said than done. Wisdom emerges in prayer and consultation, as we do this work, but rarely with the stupefying clarity of Fabian’s selection. Nevertheless, search committees take heart! God makes things clear to us all the time, sometimes by closing every other door except the one we are meant to walk through.
Fabian was also a noted administrator. I suspect many early bishops were, but it’s rarely remembered as their distinguishing characteristic. According to the record, Fabian reorganized the church in Rome into seven administrative districts, perhaps channeling the church’s charitable work; he was also responsible for seeing that the deeds of the earliest Christian martyrs were recorded and their places of burial maintained.
“Paperwork” sems like a simple thing, at worst even a nuisance, but in Fabian’s case it must have been a game-changer. Some folks shy away from administration but they’re neglecting a pastoral tool. One church historian (W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church) notes the power of keeping “the record,” a work pioneered by Fabian: in those days a matter of parchment and papyrus and the humble but crucially important work of church administrators. I wonder what our spiritual forbears in this work would have made of Google Docs and the digital database.
Fabian’s careful attention to the legacy of the saints and its dutiful recording reminds us of why Fabian himself was best known: as a martyr in the time of the Emperor Decius, who ordered the first empire-wide persecution of the Church. If Fabian was as wise as a serpent in administering his diocese, he was as innocent as a dove in the manner of his death. Arrested by the authorities in the crackdown, he most likely died in prison before his execution. Buried in the catacombs in Rome, the faded inscription on his tomb can still be made out: “Fabian: Bishop, Martyr.”
Martyr means witness, and the early Christian martyrs bore witness to the power of Christ’s death and resurrection by confessing him as Lord, rather than the Emperor. The Romans were keen to eradicate this witness, which challenged their imperial authority. The Church’s witness was countercultural, in the midst of a world that was beginning to fall apart, and to collapse under its own ruthless assumptions about the absolute nature of power. Paradoxically, the life and power of Jesus Christ was made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), in the innocent sacrifice of Fabian and many others martyrs.
This witness and sacrifice of the saints continues. Part of what we learned as bishops at the Lambeth Conference this summer is that the persecution of Christians is a reality in many places across the world. The poet Denise Levertov writes in her poem, “The Mystery of the Incarnation”: “It’s when we face for a moment / the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know / the taint in our own selves, that awe / cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart.” Christians continue to suffer in the face of the worst that human beings are capable of, and in doing so witness to a deeper solidarity with all humanity, even their persecutors; and to the reality of that transcendent power, as Levertov says, that “cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart.”
We bear our witness in our own time and place: different in circumstance from Fabian’s and from many others across the world, but the same witness. We know the transcendent power of God revealed in Jesus Christ, and the new life that comes through his death and resurrection. Our calling is to share this good news with a world that is in desperate need of it; to share new life with a world that needs renewal. We are called, like Fabian, to be as wise as serpents and as an innocent as doves. May we in our own day bear witness to the transforming power of God, to crack open our minds and to enter our hearts.