Notes from the House of Bishops – Part II

On Monday the House of Bishops continued its engagement with evangelism through a series of provocative presentations. Bob Honeychurch, Episcopal Church Evangelism officer, Donald Romanik of the Episcopal Church Foundation, Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook of Claremont School of Theology, Jim Lemler, Rector of Christ Church, Greenwich, and Barbara Wheeler of Auburn Theological Seminary each offered challenging perspectives on the issues of leadership and evangelism.

On Tuesday, we spent the morning considering our sense of what God is doing in our contexts and what the challenges are for our work as bishops. We were aided in our conversation by presentations by Bishops Dabney Smith (Southeast Florida), Prince Singh (Rochester), Tom Ely (Vermont) and Mary Gray Reeves (El Camino Real). Each offered reflections on their own contexts and the work their dioceses were doing to advance the mission of God. I think the bishops found these reflections thought-provoking and encouraging.

Tuesday afternoon the various concerns of the week came together in the resolutions offered in our business meeting. A draft pastoral letter on immigration and an accompanying resource for teaching had been received and reviewed earlier in the week. It was presented again with much sharper, tighter language and was adopted unanimously. The bishops believe that the immigration crisis is one of the most profound social issues of our time, and a place where the church must confront the powers and principalities with the love of God. [read the pastoral letter on immigration]

A pastoral letter on the environment was presented by the House of Bishops Theology Committee. Its call for spiritual renewal in relation to the environmental crisis was well-received. However, it was returned to the Committee for presentation at the Spring 2011 meeting with the request that the direct and concise language of the immigration pastoral be used as a model.

We then turned our attention to the complex pastoral crisis created by the return of Bishop Charles Bennison to the Diocese of Pennsylvania. A call for some sort of response had been raised by several bishops. The Presiding Bishop created a small ad-hoc task group of senior bishops to address this concern, and the group presented a mind of the House resolution calling for Bishop Bennison to resign. The House gave the letter intense and prayerful consideration. There were several minor amendments. Although the bishops recognized that the situation in Pennsylvania goes beyond the matters addressed in Bishop Bennison’s trial, we felt compelled to assert the primacy of the church’s care for the vulnerable and to confess our participation in a disciplinary system that still needs work. [read the Bennison resolution here]

Our meeting concluded with the adoption of a resolution incorporating the College for Bishop in order to secure and stabilize funding for the College and a resolution recommitting us to the Millennium Development Goals.

Our time together ended with the Eucharist and a powerful sermon by Arizona bishop Kirk Smith on confronting the powers and principalities unleashed by the immigration crisis with non-violent action. At our closing dinner, retiring bishops and spouses were honored.

The fall meeting has traditionally been one at which spouses and partners join the bishops. This was no exception. About 80 spouse/partners attended their own program, including a trip to the Sedona Desert and work in a local food pantry. The spouses also shared some of the worship with the bishops, although there were problems coordinating schedules. The bishops renewed their commitment to meeting with the spouse/partners.

There were a number of new bishops present, and I increasingly appreciate the way that new bishops are welcomed into the House and encouraged to find their voices. The culture of the House encourages bishops to speak openly and to think out loud without concern about censure. Conversation was remarkably unguarded throughout, and bishops on all sides of the various matters spoke about their convictions and their concerns for the life of the church. I think this openness and mutual respect has been nurtured by the work of College for Bishops and strengthened by the presence of so many new and often younger bishops. I think it’s a hopeful sign for the church.

After a long day of travel, Gretchen and I arrived back in Maine on Wednesday night. It’s good to be home.

Bishop Steve

Ordination Sermon June 19, 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-9; Psalm 119; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Luke 22:24-27

We’re gathered here today to celebrate the ordination of five faithful, hard-working Christians to the transitional diaconate. In many ways this service is very much about the ordinands. That is, it’s a sort of matriculation service; the marking of a transition from a time of intensive preparation to a time of what we hope will be a fruitful and satisfying service. For the ordinands and their families, today marks the realization of a long held hope, a deeply felt sense of vocation. We join them in their celebrating this accomplishment and giving thanks to God for God’s gracious care.

In other ways, though, this service isn’t much about the ordinands at all. Rather, it’s about the church, about how the church understands its life, why it calls people to ordained ministry, how it organizes itself so that we, all of us, may proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and to share the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. And it’s this second aspect that I’d like us to consider for a moment.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future of the church. And one of the matters that occupy my attention is what the ordained ministry might look like in the future. Clearly the long cherished norm of a full time resident priest is fading from the scene in many places. It’s being replaced by all sorts of other patterns that attempt to sustain our sacramental life and to preserve the partnership between lay and ordained which is the core of our governance. In some places there are now ministry teams or circuit riding priests. Some think we should go even further, replacing ordained ministry with the ministry of the baptized, including lay presidency of the Eucharist. Ordained ministry is being evaluated, like most things in contemporary life, in terms of its cost effectiveness.

The difficulty with such thinking in my view is that it misses the main point. Ordained ministry isn’t primarily about governance or administration or, even, sacramental life. It’s about apostolic teaching. It’s about conveying the faith once delivered to the saints. Our Anglican tradition places the highest value on well-formed, well-educated people who can teach us the faith.

You may recall from the Book of Acts that as the church grew, the Hellenists complained that the Hebrews were neglecting the Hellenists’ widows. And so the twelve called together the whole community saying, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” Those seven became the first deacons, called to serve the poor in the midst of the community, so that the apostles could devote themselves to teaching. The orders of the church exist so that the people may be taught, may understand, the Word of God.

And what do the orders teach? I’m not asking here what bishops, priests, and deacons teach when they hold a class. I’m asking what the orders themselves teach. And I think it’s this: the bishop, as chief pastor, is the icon of God’s care for the world. The bishop is responsible for caring for the flock, for all the people and all the clergy, and, more importantly, for all the world. The bishop is the chief spokesperson for the church to let the world know that it is beloved of God. The priest is the icon of God’s presence in the midst of the people. In the proclamation of the word, in the breaking of the bread, the priest reminds us that God is always present, always among us, in, with and under us, accomplishing God’s purpose. And the deacon is the icon of Christ’s service, helping us to connect our own empowerment as the body of Christ with the needs of a wounded world. In the deacon’s service we see the call of all Christians to serve the world. The orders of ministry, by their very existence, remind us that we, the baptized, are to embody all these things – the love of God, the presence of God, the service of Christ – in our homes, in our work, in our relationships – wherever we live and move and have our being.

So the church ordains to insure that the apostolic faith continues. Yet such ordination does not thereby elevate the ordained to a superior place in the life of the church – far from it. Ordination is something the baptized do for the health of the body.

Take a look at page 15 in your service booklet. You’ll note that the consecration of deacons begins with the people standing and the ordinands kneeling. So the active participants are the people. You’ll note too that the consecration begins by invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit. And following that invocation, there is a long period of silent prayer asking the Spirit of God to descend powerfully on the ordinands. And out of the prayer of the people, the bishop, as the president of the gathering, lays hands on the ordinands. At the end, the people say in a loud voice, “Amen.” The power for ordination, the source of authority for the ordained, is the prayer of the people. The baptized select and empower the ordained so that the whole body may be strengthened in its knowledge of the glory of God.

Today we happen to be ordaining transitional deacons. Transitional deacons are an odd bunch, being neither fully deacons nor yet priests. The ministry of deacons is a full and equal order of the church, and the folks who are ordained today will spend but a short time as deacons and will spend most of that time learning to be priests. But the church in her wisdom decided not to ordain candidates for priesthood directly to priesthood, but to continue to require an experience of diaconate for those who would lead congregations. Some of that decision was undoubtedly rooted in the sentimentality of bishops who remember their own time as deacons fondly. But some of that decision was also rooted in the desire for the leaders of congregations to appreciate the fullness of the ministry to which we are all called – a ministry of love AND SERVICE in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s not enough to love Jesus in our heads or in our hearts. We have to love him with our arms as well.

Ultimately, it seems to me, this ordination service isn’t about either the ordinands or the church. It’s about God. Like Baptism, like Holy Eucharist, like God’s mission of reconciliation, it’s about the salvation of the world. It’s about how this community, this Body of Christ, prepares itself to take part in the redemption of the world.

What really matters today is the ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. What really matters today is the ethnic violence which is shattering Kyrgyztan and so many nations across the globe. What really matters is plight of refugees and immigrants in every place, even here. What really matters is the endless war in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan and Palestine. And if this service is not about those things, then nothing we do here today really matters.

What the world needs more than ever, what the world needs to recover from the oil spill, from religious and ethnic warfare, from global greed and recession, from poverty, famine and disaster, is the Word that we are charged in this service to carry. Our problems will not be solved by competition, by favoring one group over another, by pillaging and polluting this green earth for more and more products. Rather our hope is in the proclamation that this is God’s world, that God loves it – all of us and all the creatures, that God is in our midst right now, that God wants us to serve one another. It is this truth by which we commend ourselves. It is this knowledge that is the light we carry in our hearts. It is this Word that we are all called to teach to one another and everyone we meet.

My charge to each of you today, our charge to you as a community of faith, is that you claim the apostolic faith – that you teach it, that you share it, that you call us to it. Help us to remember that God has charged each of us to proclaim God’s love by word and deed wherever we are.

And may all of us who participate in this ordination, may you who are ordained and you who by your prayers call God’s spirit upon them, be deeply aware that it is the salvation of the world that we are all about. Our call is not to preserve the church. Our call is to be the church for the sake of the world – to love the world, to be signs of God’s presence, and to serve one another in the name of Christ. May it be so. Amen.

Blue Hill

One of the geological landmarks I’ve now learned to recognize is Blue Hill. The shape and color of Blue Hill are distinctive, and I now anticipate seeing it as I drive along the Midcoast and up toward Bangor. St. Francis by the Sea, Blue Hill, is one of the first parishes I visited after arriving in Maine, even before I was ordained a bishop. So my visit on June 13 brought back a host of memories from my early months in Maine.

Blue Hill is beyond the two hour limit, so I headed up the coast on Saturday following a couple of days at the annual Deacon Formation Program retreat. I arrived in time for an early supper with a retired priest from the area.

On Sunday I was up early for a meeting with those reaffirming the vows of their baptism. We talked about the journeys we’ve been on in our lives of faith and about the events that led us to this occasion. As I often do, I heard moving stories of journeys with family members and from other faith traditions. Following our conversation we joined for the service of Confirmation and Reception. St. Francis is an unusual Episcopal Church structure. A former Methodist Church that has been placed on a new foundation, the plain white interior with wide plank floors makes for a bright, open worship space with excellent acoustics. Fine music is a tradition at St. Francis and musicians and choir were in excellent form.

Following the service, we adjourned for coffee and conversation. The many fabric artists and costume makers in the congregation were much taken with the “Maine” vestments, and we had several conversations about color and art in the life of the church.

As the coffee hour wound down, I met with Rector Claudia Smith and the Vestry. St. Francis is seriously engaged in discernment about its ministry in the Blue Hill region. It is working to be an ecumenical spiritual center and to create programs for people with differing needs. It’s also struggling to come to terms with an aging population and to find ways to offer support to people of all ages. And St. Francis’ beautiful building is beset by some ongoing structural problems that it is working to solve cost effectively and with an eye to future building use. My time with the vestry was engaging and encouraging, and I left feeling confident in the vitality of the parish.

I was close enough to Bangor to squeeze in a visit to someone in Eastern Maine Medical Center before heading home to Portland.