"The Context for Celebration": Sermon by Bishop Gates for New Ministry Celebration with Bishop Gallagher

Bishop Alan Gates gives sermon at May 27 new ministry celebration Diocese of Massachusetts Photo: Bethany Versoy Bishop Alan M. Gates gives the sermon at the May 27, 2023, Celebration of New Ministry with Bishop Carol J. Gallagher.

Following is the text of the sermon given by Bishop Alan M. Gates on Saturday, May 27, 2023, at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan for the Celebration of New Ministry with Bishop Carol J. Gallagher in her new role as assistant bishop in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

Watch the recording of the livestream here.  The order of service is posted here.

View photos from the celebration here.

Miss Margaret Jane Adamson, small-but-mighty, was my indomitable English teacher at Terre Haute South High School.  I remember her vividly for her two crusades.  The first was her crusade against chewing gum.  “Chewing gum is for the privacy of your own boudoir!” she would intone.  To underscore this conviction, if she caught you with gum in her class she would pull out a coffee can full of the gum of previous offenders.  You were required to trade your wad for one from the can, and chew that instead.  Thereafter nobody chewed gum in Miss Adamson’s class!

Her second crusade was for good old-fashioned grammar. We learned about syntax and diagramed sentences. On one occasion we were required to memorize a long list of prepositions.  There must have been 150 of them.  I recall walking the hall between classes murmuring the list to myself:

A: aboard, about, above, across, along, amdist, among, around ...
B: before, behind, below, beneath, beside, besides, between, beyond ...

Whatever else I knew or did not know in 1973, I knew my prepositions! 

Miss Adamson’s list reminds me of the Trinity, probably because of Saint Patrick.  We think of Patrick and the Trinity because of his famous prayer, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and the hymn based upon it.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me …

Now take a look at the first portion of the Dismissal which we will use at the end of today’s service:

God is before us.  God is behind us.  
God is above us.  God is below us.
God’s words shall come from our mouths
For we are all God’s essence, a sign of God’s love.
All is finished in beauty.  All is finished in beauty.

The dismissal is attributed to the “Navajo Prayer Tradition” – suggesting a deep resonance between the Celtic spirituality of Patrick and aspects of Indigenous spirituality exemplified by this Navajo verse.

Episcopalians claim lineage through the English Reformation, influenced in part by Celtic Christianity.  And what is that Celtic legacy?  Carl McColman, an author and mystic, suggests five distinctive qualities of Celtic spirituality. [i]

1. Hospitality.  This includes not only domestic hospitality, but an openness to other people’s ways of thinking and believing.  

2. Deep love and respect for Creation.  Saint Columba is reported to have said the most fearful sound he could think of is an axe cutting down a tree.

3. A less rigid view of the sexes.  Celtic Christianity was, says McColman, “no proto-feminist paradise,” but we know of powerful abbesses, and co-ed monasteries.

4. Local variation in practice and belief.  It wasn’t until the 7th-century Synod of Whitby when that oppressive Roman uniformity was imposed on the Celts!

5. Creativity and imaginative storytelling.  God as the prime and ultimate Artist and Author of all that is.

Now, these five marks of Celtic spirituality seem – to my limited knowledge and experience – to have some real resonance with elements of Native American spirituality.  Hospitality and openness to other beliefs.  Love for Creation.  Less rigid imbalance between the sexes.  Local context for practice and belief.  Deep creativity and imaginative storytelling.

Bishop Carol Gallagher brings to us particular gifts.  In her person and in her passions she braids together three strands: Anglican tradition; Native American spirituality; and classic Christian teaching.  Today’s celebration, crafted for us by Carol and her trusted liturgical partner Matthew Cadwell, displays precisely this threefold cord.  In so doing, I suggest, our celebration reflects both five marks of Celtic spirituality and an Indigenous resonance.

1. Hospitality and Openness.  Consider today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus asks for hospitality from the woman at the well when he asks her to use her bucket to give him a drink.  Simultaneously he extends another kind of hospitality to her – offering to slake her spiritual thirst, and also creating space for Samaritan piety alongside that of the Jews.  Neither your sacred mountain nor ours, says Jesus, is the sole place to encounter God in spirit and truth.  We rejoice today at Hospitality and Openness.

2. Love for Creation.  Consider our Gradual Psalm, offered in a Native American chant style.  “Let the sea roar, … let the trees of the wood shout for joy.”  Or listen to the beautiful litany we’ll hear appended to the baptismal covenant: “Wondrous Creator, … you shower us with water and warm us with the sun …”  Or to this image from the Oneida eucharistic prayer we’ll offer: “… so you sent Jesus whose life, death and resurrection radiated your love like the dancing colors of the Northern Lights.”  We rejoice today at the love of Creation.

3. Less Rigid View of the Sexes.  That Jesus was even having a long conversation with a woman was a transgressive act in itself.  Jesus’ disciples “were astonished that he was speaking with a woman!”  That’s in our Gospel account today.  And here’s another thing.  Have you even noticed that our liturgy today creates an episcopal team composed of a man and a woman?  Maybe you have thought about it – but if you haven’t, that’s probably because here in the Diocese of Massachusetts that has been the shape of things for 34 years. As we know, that was a radical departure; this was the first place that happened in the history of the Anglican world.  If it doesn’t seem remarkable to us now, after a generation, that’s a really good thing!  On a related and very timely note, Indigenous spirituality and its Two-Spirit tradition has a great deal to teach us about non-binary gender identities.  We rejoice today at a less rigid view of the sexes. 

4. Local variation and context.  The local context matters.  We’ve already talked about Jacob’s well at Mt. Gerazim as the local context for the chat with that Samaritan woman.  The setting is constantly one of the characters in Gospel stories: the Jordan River; the wilderness; the Sea of Galilee; Golgotha.  As the Gospel traversed the world, it adapted to its new contexts and new settings – or failed to adapt, to its peril.  

Local context matters here, today.  Bishop Carol wanted this service to be here, in Mattapan – at one of our historic congregations of color, in a community long composed of and supportive of the rich place of immigrants in our diocese.  We rejoice today at local context and diversity.

5. Creativity and Imaginative Storytelling.  Today’s Gospel is a great tale.  Today’s epistle is powerful poetry. We know that the storytelling gift of Indigenous ancestors is unsurpassed.  We sing the song of our hearts; we do our best to sing the songs of others, not to appropriate but to honor and share.  “Touch our ears,” said today’s opening litany, “that we may hear stories of refreshment.  Touch our tongues, that we may tell the wonderful works of God.”   We rejoice today at the gifts of Creativity and Imaginative Storytelling.

All these characteristics of today’s celebration show that threefold chord of Anglicanism, Indigenous spirituality, and historic Christianity which is manifest in our friend, colleague, companion, and bishop, Carol Gallagher.

We celebrate with joy today, as she marks nearly four months as our Assistant Bishop.  Carol brings us that strong biblical tradition inherited from her Presbyterian minister dad: that’s a gift.  Carol brings us the strength born of courage and tears, inherited from her Cherokee ancestors through her mom: that’s a gift. Carol brings us the creative theatricality and humor she has shared with Mark Gallagher (now known as Special Canon for Episcopal Mobility) and their family: that’s a gift.  Carol brings the experience of more than 20 years as a bishop – in Montana, North Dakota, Newark, and Southern Virginia.  Lots of that was in small towns and small churches – but then there’s that Ph.D. in urban affairs and public policy.  All of that experience is a gift.

And Carol brings her love for the Diocese of Massachusetts – deepened and displayed for more than four years during her service as our regional canon, but begun long before – back in the 1980s as a seminarian in this diocese.  (What you have here today is a reunion of Episcopal Divinity School classes of 1987 and ’88 in the persons of the Bishop Diocesan, Assistant Bishop, and Rector!)

I am so glad to have Carol Gallagher as my companion bishop.  Here I must acknowledge an added dynamic of our partnership, given the recent announcement of my retirement at the end of 2024.  It’s true this means our partnership in the episcopate will not be especially long.  But it is especially vital.  I have spoken of my determination for us as a diocese to have a bishop transition which – unlike those in 1995 and 2014 – can be realized in the context of a smooth and healthy chapter, with a focus on mission and ministry, an attitude of mutual thankfulness, and a forward-looking hope. With that goal in mind, Carol Gallagher is just the right companion for me, and just the right bishop for you. I thank God for her. And she and I thank God for you today.

One final note: this is not the historical moment that changed heaven and earth when Barbara Harris became Bishop Suffragan.  But we so mark a historic development: the Diocese of Massachusetts now has not one but two bishops on Instagram!  You should follow us both!  But you should especially follow “carol.j.gallager” – on Instagram or Facebook – for her beautiful daily reflection and prayer.

Yesterday, after a brief reflection on Mary and Martha and sisterhood, Carol offered us this prayer. I expect that it represents her hope and prayer for families of every shape and definition – including the family which is our diocese:

Loving Creator, heart of all families:
you set us in families and communities
to share the challenges and the work,
to share the bounty and the love.

We know there is no perfect family here.
Living together causes friction and strife;
we often bicker and complain, feeling used,
yet we fail to see how blessed we truly are.

Renew our hearts and hands today, Lord.
Let us be those who appreciate both the work
and the times of listening and learning.
Make us your family, Lord, here on earth.  Amen.

[i] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/2007/12/distinctive-qualities-of-celtic-christianity/