Following is the text of the address as delivered by Bishop Alan M. Gates on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, at the 234th annual convention of the Diocese of Massachusetts.
Inexplicably, it was “The Pony Express.” When Tricia and I first joined an Episcopal church right out of college, the stewardship campaign was underway. The theme of the campaign was not “equipping the saints” or even “a new boiler for St. Philip’s.” No, the theme of the campaign was inexplicably “The Pony Express.” A set of saddlebags was prepared. Each one had a pouch on one side with 10 blank pledge cards; another pouch on the other side where you could put those cards; and on the strap in between were the names of 10 parishioner households. So the saddlebag was brought to your home by a fellow parishioner, and you took a card out, and you filled it out with your pledge, and you put it in the other pouch, and you took it off to the next household that was listed on the strap. Presumably on your horse. Riding at breakneck pace. Through suburban Washington, D.C. Cowboy hat and prayer and theology of much of any sort evidently optional.
So perhaps it was that formative experience as a newcomer in the church that has always had me a little bit wary of “the next Big Thing” to come out from the church as the key to institutional salvation. Whether in the form of a new curriculum or a program for evangelism or stewardship, such initiatives have, I confess, evoked in me a certain “hermeneutic of suspicion.” It’s the fault of the Pony Express!
And so it was that when the presiding bishop and his staff first began to promote The Way of Love, I was a little bit uncertain. Not that I am opposed to love, of course. I’m not! But if The Way of Love was going to be just one more catchy theme, like an adult Vacation Bible School, I was not especially interested.
What I have come to understand–and I trust that you have, too–is that The Way of Love is none of those things: It's not a stewardship campaign. It's not an evangelism gimmick. It's not a new curriculum. Indeed, it’s not anything new at all. It’s altogether ancient. It is simply a presentation of foundational practices of the Christian faith. Prayer. The reading of Scripture. Worship. Repentance. Servanthood. Sabbath renewal. As we have seen this past year, or in materials you received today, or in the video we just saw, The Way of Love is an invitation for us to engage in foundational practices that have grounded, nourished and guided Christians for 2,000 years.
Now, The Way of Love, like any articulation of spiritual practices, lays the groundwork. But it will need to be made particular in one's own time and place and life. Love, in order to be love, must be enacted. I want to comment upon three areas in our diocesan life together which, for me, are three particular concrete enactments of The Way of Love in our life together.
First, a practice from The Way of Love–“Go.”
"GO" says the resource, "Cross boundaries, listen deeply."
"Jesus sends us beyond our circles and comfort … We go to listen with humility and to join God in healing a hurting world."
Our diocesan mission strategy calls for “Reimagining Our Congregations.” We have recognized that the dramatically changed landscape of our culture calls for new ways of being church. For many of us, “reimagining,” frankly, is hard. Of course it is! The church that we love is the church that we have known, and as Episcopalians "tradition" is a core value. So in many congregations and for many of us, it’s a struggle to “reimagine” beyond changing the hour of our worship or trying out a new hymnal.
In the realm of reimagining, the conversations which I have had which have been most helpful and exciting to me–and often the most challenging–have been those I have had with young adults. At gatherings with our Life Together fellows, with students in our chaplaincies, with young adults in the ordination process, with members of The Crossing, in these and other places, I hear questions and thoughts that expand my notion of how Christian community might be shaped and expressed.
Now I am not suggesting that when The Way of Love invites us to “cross boundaries,” that the boundary of age is the most painful or entrenched of the many differences that beset us. It's not. But it is a boundary that is vital to bridge in this matter of reimagining.
At last year’s convention, participants representing 20 years of Diocesan Youth Council testified that the DYC had been powerful and formative for them in their teens. They shared also the challenges that they have faced in carrying that experience forward into participation in the church in their 20s and 30s. So even among these young adults with a desire for faith community, and with a history of a positive experience of the Episcopal Church, most have not found a place for themselves in the life of our parishes. This represents a dramatic failure on our part.
We commissioned a yearlong task force to look at this challenge, to make a broad survey of young adults within and outside the church, and to come back to us with a report which we will hear shortly.
In the spring when the presiding bishop visited Massachusetts, he had a series of events and conversations. He was clearly delighted and, I think, impressed with the life and ministry of our diocese. But something particular happened on the Saturday morning that he spent with young adults gathered at Boston University from communities across our diocese. I was with him shortly afterwards and frankly, he was speechless. Michael Curry is very rarely speechless. The questions that he had received at that gathering, the depth of commitment that he had glimpsed, the challenge and the yearning that he had heard–these things had moved him deeply. And we too need to listen in order to have such an experience ourselves.
Now, mark well, dear friends: This is in no way an appeal or a stated intention to forget, ignore or dishonor our elder members, upon whose wisdom and commitment we depend, and whose faithfulness is the beacon and the backbone of our church. But those of us over a certain age need the imagination and creativity of those of us under a certain age, and we need it not in 20 years. We need it now.
So we are blessed with a much stronger-than-average presence of young adult leadership in our diocese than most have. We are well positioned to listen, and to grow, and to lead the wider church, if we empower those leaders. In a short while we will receive that report from the 20-member task force. Their report will call for action in five distinct areas in order to help us accept the challenge and the gift of their presence. So I urge you to listen with the ears of your heart.
Another practice from The Way of Love–“Turn.”
"TURN," says the resource. "Pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus."
"With God’s help we can turn from the powers of sin, hatred, fear, injustice and oppression toward the way of truth, love, hope, justice and freedom."
One way in which we must pause, turning from those powers of sin and injustice, is in listening to survivors of sexual misconduct in the church. In last year’s address I announced that a diocesan #MeToo Task Force had been formed to help us confront our past, and safeguard our future. I shared then my conviction that creating a trustworthy culture and clear protocols for honesty about both current and past sexual misconduct in the church is not about “political correctness.” It's about facing into systemic and cultural sin. And it's real. It's real.
In the past year the #MeToo Task Force has further developed procedures for responding to those who have been victims of clergy misconduct, and also those who have experienced or witnessed abuse by lay people in the church. In the spring the task force issued materials detailing multiple ways for stories to be shared. An online reporting tool and a secure e-mail address provide new and additional avenues for those who need to be heard. Several primary contact persons, each of whom brings professional experience in responding to sexual misconduct, are available.
Laminated copies of an informational poster on these points of access were mailed to all congregations for display in offices, bathrooms and parish halls. PDF files of the poster in English and Spanish are available on the diocesan website. It is my expectation that this poster will be displayed in every congregation of our diocese. And I'll be looking for it, and Bishop Gayle will, on our visitations.
On a related note, we now have two new diocesan Safe Church Policies designed to foster safe and welcoming space for minors, elders and people with disabilities, and those engaged in ministry with them. We also have model policies for congregations which we are asking you to review and adopt in your local settings. These policies will be on our website within the next week. More information will be forthcoming about expectations and training–including widespread access to online training modules.
In all of this, the goal is to support victims, to seek accountability and to create healthy boundaries which are the best defense against future misconduct. I must tell you that certain stories which have come forth this year have affected me deeply. Historic violations of trust and power in our diocese, as well as in the wider church, require individual and collective honesty, individual and collective repentance, and the healing which God can accomplish–but only if we do our part. I am grateful that recent developments in our national culture and the Episcopal Church have provided some victims with a new sense of confidence and trust to come forward. I pray for the grace and integrity to be worthy of that trust. And I hope that you will join me in that prayer and determination.
A third practice from The Way of Love–“Rest.”
"REST," says the resource. "Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace and restoration."
"From the beginning of creation, God has established the sacred pattern of going and returning, labor and rest."
The discipline of rest is directly linked to Creation. It is nature’s rhythms of ebb and flow, of dormancy and renewal, which set the pattern for our own rhythms of work and rest. But if God’s balance and restoration are manifest in Creation, we must acknowledge that humankind has unbalanced the balance of the Creation that has been entrusted to us. The crisis cannot be denied. Our very capacity as a human race to “rest” in the harmony of the created world is deeply imperiled.
A couple of weeks ago we had that Gospel reading with the Parable of The Unjust Judge. If you ask people which is their favorite parable in Scripture, some will say The Prodigal Son, others will choose The Good Samaritan. My favorite parable is The Unjust Judge, said nobody, ever. You know the story. It tells about a judge who lacks both conscience and compassion. But a tireless widow badgers him until he acts. And I suggest it's a parable for our day. And in our day, the earth itself is the widow–Mother Earth is the widow. And we are the obstinate judge–humankind resolutely ignoring the impassioned pleas of the earth. We find the warnings inconvenient, complex, demanding, quite honestly overwhelming. Indeed they are. Nevertheless, she persists. Mother Earth persists. And we ignore her pleading and her warning to our eternal peril. In our short-sightedness, I daresay, we grieve our Creator.
A resolution put before us today by our Creation Care Justice Network proposes certain concrete steps for response. The Creation Care Pledge invites individual and congregational action. There's an online tool, sustainislandhome.org. It features a carbon tracker and it provides a host of specific ways to monitor and reduce our own environmental impact. It can be used individually. It also allows for members of a congregation to register that they are part of that congregation and thereby to aggregate their efforts–and it even thereby allows for a little friendly carbon-reduction rivalry with other congregations. Why not?
Last week I logged onto the Carbon Footprint Tracker, because, by the way, some of those tenacious widows in the parable had been suggesting that I should. So I did. Logged onto the Carbon Footprint Tracker. I entered my data and I began to see what patterns could be changed in my own household. And there are plenty. And already I am using some appliances differently, and thinking even harder about auto usage and looking towards ever-more substantive adjustments. So your bishop now has an “Island Home” dashboard for carbon tracking! Don’t you want one too?
Meanwhile, a Creation Tithing workbook is available. Our diocese extends Green Loans. The Trustees of Donations offer a Fossil Fuel Free Fund–so far, I would say, undersubscribed–for your parish portfolio. The footnotes and explanation text of today’s resolution contain many such resources and links. And the Creation Care Justice Network will be rolling out more.
No single one of these initiatives will solve the crisis, of course. But we’ve got to give God's Creation a rest. The Persistent Widow, a.k.a. Earth herself, is crying out to me and to you.
So: The Way of Love will ground us in prayer and worship. And it will equip us to turn outward and enact that love. Go: reimagine church with our young adults. Turn: and hear the witness of abuse survivors, and make the church more safe and whole. Rest: in the rhythms of renewal, and give God’s Creation the care it needs. These are just three ways that I look for us to enact The Way of Love. And there are infinitely more.
Around our diocese I rejoice at the movement of the Spirit in our life together.
I am delighted to hear from so many of you about the ways the new regional canons have begun to connect with their parishes.
I am energized by the global partnerships enacted by you through water purification projects in Tanzania, school and medical missions to Haiti and Cuba, and countless others.
I am proud of our youth whose pilgrimage in August to the U.S.-Mexico border explored issues of security and hospitality; of privilege and disadvantage.
I am grateful for the witness of young people with our B-PEACE for Jorge network, traveling repeatedly this past year to Smith & Wesson, to raise another “persistent widow” voice for corporate responsibility in the face of gun violence.
I am stirred by the work of our canon for immigration and multicultural ministries, forging a new sense of community and solidarity among the global Anglican communities right here in our diocese
I am heartened by last weekend’s Indaba celebration, at which members of the six congregations participating in the pilot program shared stories of joy and frustration in crossing lines of difference.
I am encouraged by the response of our clergy at the spring clergy conference, confronting our history of racism and white supremacy, encouraged also by the many parishes and community conversations that are engaging in this work.
I am thrilled at the continuing and new ministry networks supported by our missioner for networking and formation–people strengthened in their common commitment around the opioid crisis; ministry with veterans; adolescent mental health; domestic violence; Laundry Love; human trafficking; and literally two dozen more networks.
So, you will hear reports today on so many aspects of our life together. And undergirding it all is The Way of Love. I conclude as I began, amplifying our presiding bishop's invitation to return to those foundational practices of our faith–practices that have grounded and nourished and guided Christians for 2,000 years.
The love of Christ truly does have the power to change lives and to change the world. May we know that love. May we share that love. May we enact that love, to the glory of God and the building of God's realm.
As ever, it is indeed my honor and privilege to serve as your bishop. And I thank you for your companionship in the ministry which we share.