I came here three years ago at an age in life when most Bishops are actively contemplating retirement. For me, somewhat disturbingly, a new call emerged to come here to the Diocese of Pennsylvania as your Bishop. I couldn’t decide if I was more like Grandfather Abraham heading out to an unknown land or like St. Paul as one “born out of time.” Either way, I came to the strange and new (to me) land of Pennsylvania and I became one of you. I have come to love this diocese, its people, its rich history and its beckoning future.
We are gathered tonight as the 232nd Annual Convention of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. This marks my third and likely last address as we gather in convention, looking ahead to the election of the 17th Bishop of this Diocese. As I begin this address I offer my thanksgivings for you and my deep thanks to you for the honor, privilege and joy of serving you as the 16th Bishop of this blessed Diocese.
As always, we begin Convention with a service of Holy Eucharist, celebrating Jesus’s presence among us and praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our deliberations and decisions. For this service, we are singing two of my favorite hymns, one as our entrance hymn (“All are Welcome in this place”) and the other as our closing hymn (“O for a thousand tongues to sing my dear Redeemer’s praise”) Let me tell you why I asked for these hymns.
Every ten years, all the Bishops of the eighty million members of the worldwide Anglican Communion are invited to gather in Canterbury Cathedral to begin the Lambeth Conference, a three week gathering of eight hundred or so Bishops of the Communion. The Conference begins with a grand service in the mother church of the Anglican Communion, Canterbury Cathedral, with all the Bishops vested and entering the Cathedral through the great west doors in procession down the long nave and toward the high Altar. Along the way, the procession passes the place where Thomas Becket was martyred almost a thousand years, and near the place where the monk Augustine came and established the Church in England almost fifteen hundred years ago. The place reeks of history and tradition.
I had never been to the Cathedral, and in the long line of the procession as Bishops and congregation sang the hymn “O for a thousand tongues…”, about halfway down the aisle, I was overwhelmed and simply burst into tears, and I was not the only one.
Canterbury Cathedral has a rich and long history and an honored place in the life of the Anglican Communion and in our life as The Episcopal Church. In the same way, this Diocese of Pennsylvania has a rich history and honored place of leadership in The Episcopal Church. Ours is the first Diocese of The Episcopal Church. It was here in Philadelphia at Christ Church that The Episcopal Church was established and the first General Convention held. The Diocese of Pennsylvania has led this Church in many ways through the centuries. We are the Diocese of Absalom Jones, the first African-American ordained Priest in this Church. We are the Diocese in which prophetic witness was enriched by the ordination of the first women Priests in this Church. This Diocese has offered leadership, witness and ministry in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania and in the larger Church, nation and world down through the centuries. As our first act tonight, let us give thanks for our Diocese, its history and heritage of ministry and witness, let us grow in confidence as we move boldly into the future God prepares for this Diocese, and let us be thankful for the continuing abundance with which God continues to bless us. Our Diocese has a rich heritage and a robust history made up of great times and hard times, but always a history of faithful witness and ministry. History can be either a millstone around our neck that holds us back or it can be a heritage that emboldens us for the ministry and mission we are called to in the present and future.
I don’t use the word “mission” very much these days. I think we too often use it in a casual way that has lost much of its meaning for us. Nowadays, I use another word in its place: “agenda” … God’s agenda for the world and the Church. God’s agenda is about what God is up to in the world and the ministry we are called to as the Church in fulfilling God’s agenda. God’s agenda is clear and direct: God’s agenda is to feed the hungry and eradicate hunger. God’s agenda is to free the enslaved, liberate the oppressed and to reconcile the divisions in human life. God’s agenda is to eradicate racism. God’s agenda is to enact justice for all and to end violence in all its forms. Your part and mine, Church, as followers of Jesus is to repair what is broken in this world, to feed the hungry, eradicate racism and prejudice, to heal and reconcile the divisions in society and to bring justice and peace to the world.
Now we live in a complex time in the life of the Church. I remember when I was a child, as perhaps you do, that churches were packed on Sunday mornings, and growing. The Church was held in general esteem. But that day has passed in our present day. Our membership is declining. Congregations struggle to maintain antiquated facilities built for a different era in the life of the Church. We cannot predict what the Church will look like fifty or five hundred or even five years from now. But I have no fear for the future of the Church. The Church is Jesus’s living and resurrected body, and Jesus will not abandon his Church. We can choose to mourn the loss of past glories, fear for the future and in doing so become like a prehistoric insect frozen in amber; or we can embrace the challenges and invitations of the present.
How might we embrace the invitations of the present? Our new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, tells a story of talking with a Mennonite pastor who had been sent to Raleigh NC to organize a new Mennonite congregation, a congregation not housed in a building of its own, hoping to attract new members but a congregation without walls. The Mennonite pastor was doing this because his community of faith believed that in the societal environment, in which we live today, the church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it; but rather the Church must go where the congregation is. That, I believe, is God’s great invitation to us in this day. Yes, I’m using the word Episcopalians often dread, the “e” word – Evangelism. Our call is not to worship our buildings but to build our worship in such a way that actively attracts and draws others into the Body of Christ by fulfilling God’s agenda of feeding, and justice, and peacemaking.
Did I forget to mention that in addition to giving up on the word “mission,” I’m also giving up on the word “outreach”. “Outreach” to me is a rather outmoded and overused word that describes a circle of safety from which the members reach out to offer gifts out of the overage of abundance with which God has blessed the membership. The word I have begun using is “partnership.” Partnership with communities of faith, partnership with civic and community leaders in feeding, and educating and healing and meeting the immediate needs of their communities in organic and structural ways. There are great examples of these partnerships both extant and emerging in the life of our Diocese as we go about fulfilling God’s agenda, not just locally, but nationally and globally as well. I point to St. James School, here in Philadelphia – dedicated to providing a great education to the youth of the community in which it is placed. I point to the expanding strength and growing numbers of St. Andrew/St. Monica just a couple of blocks from here. I point to Christ and St. Ambrose and its vital ministry to the Latino community. I point to the Darby Project, undertaken in a town in which there is no Episcopal Church building and undertaken with the partnership of Darby Borough elected and community leadership and Episcopal Community Services to meet the expressed needs of that community. I point to our Diocesan Young Adult and Family Ministries, a thriving ministry of 20 to 30 year olds who come from all over our country to serve in a variety of settings in this diocese where they can make a real difference, or City Camp offering respite and recreation to urban children. I point to the emerging joint ministry of St. Mary’s and St. Paul’s in Chester, a ministry which will offer employment to youth of that town this coming summer. I point to our Cathedral Food Pantry which just one day this week distributed 2000 pounds of food to those who are hungry, and St. Peter’s, Philadelphia food pantry and all the other food pantries in parishes throughout our Diocese who are actively fulfilling God’s agenda in eradicating the hunger that haunts 26% of the citizens of Philadelphia every day. I point to the strong neighborhood ministry of Church of the Advocate. And St. Paul’s, Elkins Park, in its efforts to keep us from forgetting the Underground Railroad and its efforts to free enslaved persons.
These brave ministries are only some of the vital ministries spread throughout our Diocese. When I visit a parish vestry, I usually ask for an example of how that congregation is concretely fulfilling at least one part of God’s agenda in the world. Many are eager to tell about their ministry of partnership and service. Others are unable to do so, and I must confess that when a vestry cannot name an example I fear for that congregation’s spiritual health and for its future.
In 2008, I attended my second Lambeth Conference at Canterbury Cathedral. I promised myself beforehand that I would not cry when we bishops entered the Cathedral. I even brought tissues to hand out to the newbie bishops. We processed in and I did not cry. The service was magnificent and uplifting. As the service was ending we Bishops processed out down the long nave, singing along with the vast congregation from all over the world, the hymn “All are Welcome in this place.” About halfway down the aisle I realized that one Bishop had been excluded – Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. He had been specifically uninvited to the Lambeth Conference and to the opening service in the Cathedral. Out of love and honor for his Church and Communion, he honored the dis-invitation. So as we sang “All are welcome in this place” the words rang hollow to me. Exclusion does not befit the community of followers of Jesus, who himself welcomes all. Exclusion points to the brokenness of our world, and sometimes the brokenness of our Church. So near the spot where I had cried some 10 years before, I once again burst into tears but this time for very different reasons.
One of the clearest needs for repair in our world is the repair of relationships between races and an end to prejudice and oppression. These are some of the most urgent calls of God’s agenda in this day. Racism is the most enduring sin of our nation after economic injustice and the pain and suffering left in its wake. And there are other pressing needs: The bitter fruit of racism and economic injustice are lived out in the daily violence on our streets, the growing number of prisons built for profit, the growing disparity between the rich and poor in our nation; the growing inequities in educational opportunities, health care, food availability, housing and jobs and the inequity of job opportunity and pay between women and men, human trafficking and brutality toward LGBT folk.
Our Diocesan Anti-Racism Committee has worked steadily and valiantly to address racism and its effects. It was here in Philadelphia several years ago that The Episcopal Church and our Presiding Bishop held a service of repentance for this Church’s part in the sin of slavery. It is now our call in this generation to carry on that witness and repentance. We carry it onward by healing to ensure that people can walk their streets in safety without fear of gun violence; by insuring that black children can ride through their own neighborhood without fear of harassment from white neighbors or police. We can carry that witness onward by we white people honestly facing the anger brought by centuries of physical, social, economic oppression and prejudice against black people, and committing ourselves as followers of Jesus to become active healers and repairers of the breach and workers for reconciliation.
Finally and above all, we Christians are called to have a tender heart towards our world and our neighbor. A tender heart does not have to be a soft heart, nor does it have to be a sentimental heart. A tender heart is a heart that looks honestly and realistically at the world to determine how best and most effectively it might meet the needs, the hurts, the desire, hopes and fears of a broken and hurting world. A tender heart always considers the wellbeing of others and is committed to denying selfishness and self-service. A tender heart shares generously and forgives liberally. A tender heart laughs readily and often weeps in the presence of pain, injustice or injury. A tender heart is a realistic heart reflecting the tenderness that God expresses toward our wayward and fractured human race. God’s Son came directly from God’s tender heart and lived among us to live and die as one of us in order that we might know what it is to be reconciled, repaired and healed so that we ourselves might become reconcilers, healers and repairers.
I have gone on for too long. I thank you for your patient listening, endurance and generosity of spirit. I thank God for granting me the privilege of serving you and this great Diocese as together we seek to fulfill God’s agenda in partnership with the communities we serve.
As we leave tonight, let us joyfully sing “O for a thousand tongues to sing our great Redeemer’s praise…” And let that praise spill out of our lives into the lives of the people of the world we are called to serve in God’s name.