Following is the text of the address given by Bishop Alan M. Gates on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, at the 233rd annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Actions of the Diocesan Convention, including resolutions in final form, are available at www.diomass.org/diocesan-convention-2018.
This was the year that–perhaps for the first time in history–a presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church became a media sensation. The Most Rev. Michael Curry, now known far and wide as “The Royal Wedding Bishop,” appeared on every talk show and just about everywhere else, including even a sympathetic spoof on "Saturday Night Live" of all places. I imagine that you heard something about all of that.
I wonder whether you also heard about another deeply significant thing that our presiding bishop did on the same weekend. Even while basking in the glow of post-wedding klieg lights, Bishop Curry joined two dozen other religious leaders to issue a remarkable document entitled Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis. (i) The authors included such highly respected leaders as Walter Bruggeman, Jim Wallis and Richard Rohr. The document cites as its context the polarizing times we are living through as a nation, describing “a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest level of our government and in our churches.” It is, say its authors, “a time to be followers of Jesus before anything else–nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography–our identity in Christ precedes every other identity.”
The document then outlines six affirmations of Christian belief, together with the resulting rejection of practices which the authors find antithetical to those beliefs, policies that they are convinced will corrode the soul of our nation and its integrity.
I commend the entire Reclaiming Jesus document to you, individually and in your congregations. For today, I want to cite excerpts from three of its affirmations and rejections, highlighting ways in which they intersect with our own diocesan life.
From Reclaiming Jesus, part 1, Bishop Curry and his colleagues write:
WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us …. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God in some of the children of God. … Racial justice and healing are … central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. …
THEREFORE, WE REJECT … the use of racial bigotry for political gain … In the face of such bigotry, silence is complicity. In particular, we reject white supremacy and commit ourselves to help dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate white preference and advantage. … Racial bigotry must be antithetical for those belonging to the body of Christ….
During the past year in our diocese the Standing Committee, the Commission on Ministry and the Life Together program each have surfaced with painful clarity the extent to which the racism which we deplore is nonetheless a present reality within our diocesan processes and structures. Diane D’Souza, director of the Mission Institute which has served as a companion in these conversations, writes: “For many of us who are white, coming to understand how we contribute to the sin of racism is a painful awakening. … In order to change, we need first to see where we are, an act that sometimes requires courage to speak and courage to listen.”
A racial justice audit conducted this year for the Commission on Ministry invited input from those involved in the ordination process for the past decade. Respondents described systemic barriers and relational interactions which, however unintentional, have been real and painful for candidates of color in our process. As your bishop, I found portions of it deeply challenging–even searing–both institutionally and personally. But it is necessary work, holy work, and it will continue.
Such work continues, also, in countless ways throughout the diocese.
*Parishes around the diocese have been engaged in a variety of books, each of which presents us with an excellent vehicle for being challenged and finding our way forward.
*St. David’s Yarmouth, members collaborated with Nauset Interfaith Association and 50 study groups on the Cape to engage with Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
*St. Paul’s, Natick, has hosted regular meetings of “Natick is United,” formed in the wake of incidents of manifest bigotry in that community.
*Old North Church, a congregation of our Episcopal diocese which greets a non-stop stream of visitors within its walls, offers to its guests a warm welcome, and a historic review of the slave membership and ownership in its past. Old North’s “Sacred Seats” program for youth and young adults highlights where different classes and races sat in the colonial church, and challenges participants to talk about how they observe social location in their own lives.
These are illustrative examples, not an exhaustive list, of how the sin of racism is being confronted in our churches around our diocese, and I call upon every congregation to find its own way to heed this call and enter deeply this conversation.
From Reclaiming Jesus, part 2, Bishop Curry and his colleagues write:
WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28).
THEREFORE, WE REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God.
The calling out of misogyny, abuse, and harassment in our politics and culture necessitates the acknowledgement that the church has also been complicit. Last July at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the bishops held a listening session at which were read out stories of people who have suffered such abuse in the Episcopal Church. Some were clergy and lay people who have been harassed or abused by clergy. Other stories revealed the consistency with which female clergy in our church have been subjected to verbal harassment and physical boundary violations from male parishioners. I confessed to the clergy last month the realization of my own failure adequately to assure the safety and dignity of female clergy colleagues serving in parish systems in which I have had authority. This is not “political correctness.” This is a systemic, cultural sin, and it is real.
The church should be leading, not following, in our honesty about confronting this past, and safeguarding our future. A Diocese of Massachusetts #MeToo Task Force has been formed under the leadership of Regional Canon Martha Hubbard.
Martha writes, “We recognize that there is a real need for spiritual support and healing for those who have experienced these sorts of abuse. … Our group hopes to offer a pilot event in the Merrimack Valley Deanery in the coming months that we hope might be a model to be tailored to other … contexts around our diocese. … Since our Title IV process only applies to clergy, we need to develop a response [also] to lay sexual misconduct in the church that focuses on supporting those who have been abused, asks accountability of those who are accused, and offers open conversation among us to build healthy boundaries which are the best defense against future offenses.” We are grateful for the leadership of that team in advancing this work.
The Reclaiming Jesus affirmation that “In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class” also bears directly upon our continued press for justice for all, regardless of the gender of those we love, or the gender we ourselves inhabit.
I hope that you saw the news of last week’s interment in the Washington National Cathedral of Matthew Shepard. It has been 20 years since 21-year-old Matthew was beaten and left to die in rural Wyoming. His ashes were never interred, because his parents feared what sort of desecration his grave might endure. But after two decades, an offer from the Washington Cathedral has finally given Matthew, who happened to be an Episcopalian, a resting place.
Last Friday’s interment service was live-streamed. Among the most moving moments for me was performance of a musical composition, one movement of which featured words Matthew himself had penned in his journal, describing himself:
I am funny, sometimes forgetful and messy and lazy. I am not a lazy person though. I am giving and understanding. And formal and polite. I am sensitive. I am honest. I am sincere. And I am not a pest. I am not a pest, I am not a pest. … I want my life to be happy and I want to be clearer about things. … I love Wyoming. … I love walking and feeling good … and helping and smiling and Charlie and Jeopardy. I love movies and eating and positive people and pasta and jogging and kissing and learning and airports and music and smiling and hugging and being myself. I love theater! I love theater! And I love to be on stage! (ii)
Matthew Shepard was your neighbor and my neighbor, your brother and my brother, your son and my son. And lest we imagine that the very real progress towards full justice and equality that has been made in the two decades since Matthew’s death is complete, lest we so imagine, we need only listen to the hateful bigotry that is being spewed with renewed openness and impunity in our nation; we need only look to legal reversals being advanced to turn back the protection of LGBTQ persons, and indeed to threats to legislate their very identity out of existence.
Protecting those rights is vital here in the Commonwealth this Tuesday. But it is only one way that we must not cease to promote a different Christian proclamation than that which many people have heard. This, I believe, is a charism of our Episcopal Church. Reclaiming Jesus has summarized, “In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class.”
One more excerpt from Reclaiming Jesus, part 3; Bishop Curry and his colleagues write:
WE BELIEVE that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46) … God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God … . (Leviticus 19:33-34)
THEREFORE, WE REJECT the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God. We strongly deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees, … and we need to remind our churches that God makes the treatment of the “strangers” among us a test of faith. …
It is hard to think of a moment in our lifetime when immigrants and refugees have been so thoroughly demonized and treated with wholesale contempt and suspicion. The immigrant and refugee has been transformed from the face of the American dream into the fear-mongering face of a Hallowe’en nightmare, a transformation with basis in neither fact nor faith tradition.
My late beloved grandmother having been a proud member of the Mayflower Society, I appreciated a meme which came across my screen this week. It said: “Every refugee boat is the Mayflower.” Indeed.
I am grateful for the leadership offered by Episcopal City Mission in our diocese; for the work of our Immigration Task Force and of our soon-to-be Canon for Immigrant and Multicultural Ministries when Jean Baptiste Ntagengwa transitions to that post in a few months. I am grateful also for our discussion and action on Resolution 5 later today.
In Reclaiming Jesus, our presiding bishop and his colleagues have called out what they see as a widespread failure to use Jesus’ biblical teachings as a moral compass–in the church, in the market place, in the ballot box. “We believe it is time" they say "to renew our theology of public discipleship and witness. Applying what ‘Jesus is Lord’ means today is the message we commend as elders to our churches.” May we listen to our elders.
For my last two words, I turn first to a younger generation, and then to an older one.
In this afternoon’s session we will be treated to a presentation by members of the Diocesan Youth Council and the DYC alumni. The presentation will include findings from a survey of DYC alumni representing 20 years of ministry since its 1998 founding – people now in their 20s and 30s. Among the survey findings you will hear that while most of them found participation in DYC to be deeply formative, fewer than half are currently involved in church.
We have fruitfully invested in diocesan-level engagement of high school youth for decades, but we clearly have much to do in keeping these individuals engaged in our church’s life and ministry. I need scarcely say, that’s not good enough! I call us in the year ahead to take a deeper dive with the wisdom of these alumni, and to undertake a thorough study of further models for engagement with young adults, taking to heart what we hear this afternoon and where it might lead us.
And now the word from an older generation, specifically from our retired suffragan bishop Barbara C. Harris, the 30th anniversary of whose election we celebrated with joy last night. Here’s an excerpt from what Barbara said to the Diocesan Convention in November of 1988, to this body 30 years ago, some five weeks after her election. Barbara said:
“You have invited me into ministry with you through the office of bishop. … Our work together must begin by venturing out on that broad platform of faith. Though we may not see clearly the full pathway that lies before us, we know that God, the God who chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, has brought us safe thus far, and we trust our God for the next step of the journey.” (iii)
Amen to you, Barbara.
Through all the challenges we face; in all the discouragement we feel; with all the energy we can muster; with the hope of the Gospel, with the faith of our forebears, and with the companions God has given us for every step of the journey; may we rededicate ourselves to the work set before us, here in the Diocese of Massachusetts.
i Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis, full document and study resources available at www.reclaimingjesus.org.
ii Considering Matthew Shepard Suite, by Craig Hella Johnson; “Ordinary Boy” movement.
iii Barbara C. Harris, Hallelujah, Anyhow!: A Memoir (NYC: Church Publishing, Inc., 2018), p. 66.