Video: Annual address by Bishop Gates to the 2020 Diocesan Convention


What follows is the prepared text of the address given by Bishop Alan M. Gates at the 235th annual Diocesan Convention on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.


Last week on my way to the Cathedral I walked through Downtown Crossing. There I spied a crane lifting a large, star-topped Christmas tree onto the facade of Macy's. I thought: "Too soon!" This week on my way to the Cathedral I walked through Downtown Crossing. There I saw Macy's, and dozens of other businesses, sheathed in a wall of riot-proof plywood. I thought: "I guess I'll take the Christmas tree."

Here we are: caught between the star of hope, and the plywood of fear.

Here we are: worn out, anxious, at the end of our "surge capacity."

Here we are: grieved at a nation riven in two.

Here we are: praying that a peaceful transition of power, and post-election peace-with-justice will yet prevail; praying for unity and healing.

Here we are: Followers of Jesus, committed to the Way of Love.

Here we are: Christians, and therefore by definition a people of resurrection hope.

Now, hope is a necessary foundation for change. And change is a thing we have been talking about for several years.  Embracing Brave Change has been the aspirational watchword for our Mission Strategy. Then along came 2020--the year that Brave Change embraced us. When we think about "embracing," a certain passage of Scripture may come to mind. Immortalized by Pete Seeger's song, the passage is Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose, under heaven ...
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing.

Think with me for a few minutes about some of the "purposes under heaven" which are causing us in some cases to embrace, and in others refrain from embracing.


To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; ...
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

This has been a year for more weeping than laughing, more mourning than dancing; "a time to die," with a pandemic death toll at this writing of more than 236,000 across the United States; 1.2 million deaths globally. This is a tragedy of epic proportions. No wishful thinking nor sense of "new normal" must be allowed to inure us to the human pain represented by those numbers. Our grief at the sacrifices that we have been required to make in the face of this pandemic simply do not compare with the grief of those who have lost loved ones. 1.2 million of them. Let's start with that. The greatest grief of this pandemic is not the fact that you or I have been deprived of the Eucharist since March. That grief is real. But the greatest grief is that Charlotte and David and Felicia and Jerry are dead. And ten thousand others in our Commonwealth alone. Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal one: have mercy upon us.

In the church, necessary changes came fast and furious last spring, and have evolved ever since: Streaming worship. Online programming for children. Virtual fundraisers. Zoom committee meetings. Parking lot graduation celebrations and drive-by pet blessings. Spiritual communion. Delayed funerals. Who could have imagined such things? In the midst of all these challenges, the church has continued to serve its communities. Your cathedral and your parishes have provided food for the hungry, adapting to new regulations; safe places for the unhoused to rest and connect; advocacy for immigrants facing new threats; calm spaces for children to do their virtual school work; and so much more.

Our Mission Strategy invited us to "reimagine our congregations." Some of the adaptations we have made for COVID-19 are temporary fixes which will not outlast the pandemic. A screen full of choristers in their living rooms singing with headphones represents a miracle of technology. A virtual rendering of "For All the Saints" last Sunday brought me to tears. But really, I just want to be back in our sacred spaces singing my heart out with those choristers. That won't change. Many of our temporary adaptations  are temporary.

Some of the changes necessitated by COVID, however, will turn out to have been positive "re-imaginings." Our worship is made accessible to the homebound. Study groups and webinars have hit attendance highs. We have been reaching inquirers in new ways. Expanded pastoral care teams have sprung up in countless parishes, determined to reach the most lonely and isolated among us. Our Mission Strategy set the goal of increased participation by those in every geographic corner of eastern Massachusetts with events and on leadership bodies of our diocese.  COVID-motivated technology has accomplished in just a few months the geographic inclusion we'd spent years talking about.

In so many ways, we will not go back to The Way Things Were. As we continue to change and adapt because we've been forced to do so, let us reflect constantly on what we are learning about church. What is core? What is not? Of what have we been forced to let go that we will be better off not reclaiming, even when we can? What endings, accelerated by COVID, were endings the inevitability of which we had simply been denying? Conversely, whom are we reaching now that we hadn't reached before? What creative adaptations really are the Holy Spirit pointing a new way? Where do you see in this time some "purposes under heaven," some stars of hope amidst the plywood of fear?


To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

In 2020 we have come face to face with another pandemic, though this one did not come upon us suddenly. Our national reckoning with the sin of racism has taken on its greatest intensity since the 1960s. The timing, of course, is not coincidental. The pandemic has served to highlight inequities in our society that are baked into our systems of health care, housing, education, employment opportunity, law enforcement, economic security, institutional structures, and more.

Let me tell you a story. Back in our undergraduate days my friend Tricia (now my wife) was in a Russian literature class. It was a small seminar, depending thoroughly on the quality of student discussion. A few weeks into the term, the ordinarily enthusiastic students had gone largely silent. The professor, having identified Tricia as someone who could give him perceptive feedback, called her up to ask why she thought things had taken such an unfruitful turn. "Well," she began as tactfully as she could, "I think that many students feel that you tend to cut off discussion." To which the professor replied indignantly, "No, I don't!" And that was the end of that. There was no further way for him to hear what he needed to hear if he was to effect a change for the better.

Here is what I want to say to my fellow white people:

When Black people name the legacy of racism in our nation as the foundation of clear and present injustice, and we say, "No, it's not!"--we perpetuate the blindness of our sin.

When people of color tell us that white supremacy is a daily reality in their lives, resulting in an existential fatigue the likes of which our own pandemic fatigue is but a bare shadow, and we say, "You're probably exaggerating"--we display a willful ignorance matched only by our lack of compassion.

When Black athletes tell us that Boston is a manifestly racist market in which to play, and we say, "It's just a few bad-apple fans"--we plug our ears with a rationalizing chorus of, "So good! So good! So good!"

When clergy of color in this diocese report--as they do--that this has long been an inhospitable place for them to minister, and we say, "No, it can't be"--we close off the possibility to hear what we need to hear before we can ever effect the change we need. If the names John Burgess and Barbara Harris are nothing but decorative historical laurels with which to crown our progressive heads, then we are living a lie.

A moment ago you heard from the co-chairs of our revitalized Racial Justice Commission about the Commission's new structure for our work ahead. I must tell you that my own participation in that work this summer has been deeply challenging, and has removed certain scales from my own eyes. I have been forced to recognize ways that I, in my own patterns, perpetuate systems that are racist and paternalistic. I have wanted desperately to say, with that professor, "No, I don't!" Wishing that would be the end of that.  Except that it wouldn't be. As four hundred years have demonstrated, denial does not change reality.

I John 1:8--If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

Our Mission Strategy four years ago affirmed: "We need a deeper and more inclusive conversation about racism and other forms of oppression, and we need to move beyond conversation to visible action to help create the beloved community of Christ." [Goal 7] As you heard from the Racial Justice Commission co-chairs, the work before us includes continued, theologically-grounded conversation and formation; paths towards concrete anti-racist actions in our life together; accountable and transparent structures in leadership bodies and financial resource allocation; shared concern for the well-being of BIPoC communities and their leaders; and equipping the saints for the work of gospel justice in the world.

Two resolutions passed by this body earlier in our proceedings today have advanced this conversation for us, calling for a robust process coordinated and facilitated by the Racial Justice Commission, but engaged by voices and convictions of those all around our diocese. We won't all agree--we know that from our midday vote. But initial unanimity is not a pre-condition for consensus. On the contrary. We must enter and engage the work together, in order to "turn, turn, 'til we come 'round right." In this way, too, the star of hope can prevail against the plywood of fear.


To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.

Sometimes things are better off separate. Sometimes they are better off gathered together. Our Mission Strategy highlighted the importance of connections and collaboration, affirming "the power and joy that come from working together." [Goal 5] I want to highlight two particular initiatives for the year ahead in this regard.

For its first 120 years, the Diocese of Massachusetts encompassed the entire Commonwealth. In 1903, Worcester County (except for Southborough) and the counties further west became the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. For over a century we have largely gone our own separate ways. In recent years a new spirit of collaboration has emerged. Joint youth events, clergy pre-Lent retreats, and gun violence reduction advocacy are a few of the ways we have walked together. Laundry Love, veterans' ministries, and Creation Care Justice are among the networks that have worked across diocesan lines.

So we have begun to wonder, with regard to our two dioceses: what next? What collaborations, and potentially what more formal institutional structures can be better together than apart? A Task Force to Re-Imagine Our Common Mission in the Commonwealth has been appointed by the three bishops, and will begin its work next week. Five members from each of the two dioceses will discern together, led by our co-chair Claudette Hunt of St. Andrew's, Ayer, and Western Mass. co-chair the Rev. Nathaniel Anderson of St. John's, Williamstown. We offer our prayers and gratitude, and look forward to a report of their recommendations at next year's convention.

Meanwhile, the Mission Strategy has called us to "gather more stones together"--to engage more fully in widespread collaboration here in our own diocese. Much collaboration is already underway. Parishes are engaged jointly in the Sacred Ground program. The Lower Merrimack Valley Collaborative and South Coast Episcopalians each have joint Facebook pages. Parish musicians and parish administrators gather regularly. These are but a few examples. The Networking and Formation video this morning touched on numerous network collaborations.

A related dimension of our life together is the increasing proportion of our congregations with part-time clergy. More than half of our clergy now serve in part-time cures, and we see an increasing number of bi-vocational clergy. This and other realities point to our need for more models of collaboration. Aspects of this conversation are underway in several contexts: in individual parishes and deaneries; with the Regional Canons; in the Commission on Ministry and the Clergy Compensation and Benefits Committee; and of course in the wider church. We find ourselves at a crucial moment to seize this energy.

I am calling now for the creation of a Collaborative Ministries Working Group to consolidate these conversations and move them forward in a more structured and coordinated way. This group will gather and analyze information about existing collaborative ministries; explore the theology that grounds such collaboration; review the practical implications of collaborative structures and models for our context; and identify steps we can take to "gather stones together." The Collaborative Ministries Working Group, given its vital place in our Mission Strategy, will provide updates to the Diocesan Council via the Mission Strategy Committee, and report to next year's convention.


Finally, I want to return to the pandemic context of our lives these days. We are weary. We are anxious. We are sad. We yearn for the physical fellowship we cherish, the sacred spaces we treasure, the sacramental meals we crave, the joyful singing for which we pine. One day these yearnings will be fulfilled.

At the moment, however, we know that infection rates are surging and the Governor this week issued revised, tightened restrictions. Your three bishops in the Commonwealth are receiving new guidance from public health professionals, and you should expect further communication from us in the days ahead. For now, I must reiterate the strong cautions included in previous guidelines. Reality-based restraint is essential, especially as regards indoor, in-person gatherings that will become ever more challenging and risky as cold weather descends. Advent and Christmas simply will not, cannot, be observed with many of our cherished traditions this year. It will be a year, instead, for small, quiet, contemplative possibilities--perhaps not unlike the stony stable in Bethlehem shared by that little family at the Incarnation, where the original star of hope prevailed against stony hearts.

Last week I was talking with my 97-year-old mom about the limitations of COVID, and our fatigue as this crisis stretches on. How, I wondered, did everyone manage throughout the four long years of World War II? (My mom was 17 at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.) Well, she said, we just did what we had to do. She reminisced about food restrictions and ration coupons for things like sugar. She spoke of limited movement, of not traveling from Massachusetts to Maine to see family on account of gas rationing.

But then, mostly, she talked about the six young men she knew from her hometown, Bedford, who died in the war: two of her high school classmates; two from the class ahead of her; two from the class behind her. After seventy-five years, she recalled each one by name. She recollected what part of town they lived in. Which one had been an orphan. Whose family had immigrated from Latvia. What work their parents did. Whose surviving brother was a Bedford cop for subsequent decades. It was a phenomenal demonstration of memory.

But it demonstrated something else as well. It spoke about priorities in a time of crisis. When I asked her how people had endured four years of restriction and anxiety, her answer mostly dwelled upon those who'd died--upon the deep loss to their families and community. Sugar and gas rations and lost opportunities endured by everyone else were recollected as inconveniences, but they were not the tragedy, they were not the sacrifice. I say once again that when you and I think about the COVID-19 pandemic, we must never lose sight of the fact that the restrictions and losses that most of us face--while real, and resulting in frustration and grief--do not compare with the loss of life suffered by pandemic victims--1.2 million of them--and their loved ones.

And that is why masks are a sign of Love; and that is why closed concert halls and closed churches are a sign of Love. And that is why economic deprivation at every level is a sign of sacrificial Love. And that is why the notion of acceptable collateral loss of life in order to minimize economic hardship should be anathema to us.

When my mother's answer to "how did you endure?" was to talk about baked bean and brown bread sales at the church, and to name the boys who didn't come home, what she was talking about was Community. Question: How did you endure? Answer: Community. My intention is not to romanticize the small-town 1930s and 40s experience of my mother's growing up. I simply mean to say that in her context, the way four years of war was endured was Community. And so it is for us.

So, dear friends, go forth and be the Church in Community. Physically-distanced, yes. Masked, yes. Gathering mostly virtually, yes. Sad and anxious and tired, yes. Worried and grieving and impatient, yes. But loved, and capable; blessed to be a blessing; serving those who need you; hopeful, by disposition; hopeful, as an act of will; and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Be Community. Be the Church. Be the Body of Christ, as I know that you can be. Be the Body of Christ, as you know that you are.