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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

A Transfigured Church

A Transfigured Church

By The Rev. Jim Bradley

(a sermon after the 74th General Convention using the propers for the Feast of Transfiguration.transferred from August 6 to August 10, 2003)

Our help is in the name of the Lord; the Maker of heaven and earth. Amen.

The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote these words: "Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I.ll meet you there."

I bring greetings to the Christians gathered here today from your brothers and sisters all across the length and breadth and depth of this wonderful church as we gathered--all 108 dioceses--in Minneapolis for the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

The news I bring is good--full of grace and hope--here, on this celebration of the Feast of our Lord's Transfiguration, we are a transfigured Church. We have been to the mountaintop and met the Lord there in a new way. And now we come down--as Jesus did after his Transfiguration--back to the lowlands that, in many ways, is like the wilderness of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. We have never been in this place before. It is new and not a little frightening. But it is--I tell you--full of hope and joy and reconciliation and a new and abundant life.

The Spirit of God moved with power and grace in Minneapolis. The Spirit moved in our prayer and worship, in the astonishing diversity of this church, in our working and playing, in our love for each other across deep and real divides...even in our profound and painful disagreements. The Spirit of God moved through us, around us, in spite of us and in our midst in new and remarkable ways. The Spirit moved in ways unknown before.

And through the movement of the God's Spirit, we are a "transfigured church"--a church of hope, of inclusion, of absolute hospitality, of promise, of wonder and of a future "already here" but still unknown...and, in all those ways, a church in a wilderness...a new place, unknown, not a little frightening; however, it is a wilderness full of healing and hope for we are there with our God and with each other. Just as I told you in my sermon two weeks ago--I tell you now and tell you with all the conviction of my heart and soul and mind: fear not. God has not brought us to this place to leave us alone. All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

First, the most obvious thing: you may think or imagine that what happened in Minneapolis "split" the church, broke us apart, severed the blessed ties that bind the Episcopal Church together.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We arrived in Minneapolis--200+ bishops and 800+ deputies already broken. Three years ago, right after the 73rd General Convention in Denver, the members of the American Anglican Council--a group of the most conservative members of our church made arrangements for worship space and office space in Central Lutheran Church--right beside the Minneapolis Convention Center. They requested a space to hold daily worship and to have telephones and connections to the Internet. From the first day of General Convention, the AAC was already offering worship opportunities "at the same time" as the General Convention Eucharist.

We are a church based on "common prayer"--it was the AAC who broke that communion from the beginning of Convention. One of the AAC bishops was assigned to my worship table. He would come in, sit in one of the chairs, glance at the worship booklet, the leave to go to the alternative Eucharist across the street. I was told other folks--bishops, priests and lay people did the same thing at other tables. That was so they could say, if asked, "I was there"--but they did not break bread with the larger church a single time.

We are a church divided and only time will tell the results of that division. It seems unlikely, but perhaps some arrangement will be made to allow the separatists to form a national alliance affiliated with the Anglican Communion but not the Episcopal Church. But there have been breaks before--over women's ordination and Prayer Book revision, for example--but those movements have withered. We are a church divided and dreadfully so. And you will hear denunciations from bishops around the world decrying the loss of "unity"; however that "unity" is and has always been a unity of prayer, not doctrine or practice. The vast majority of Anglicans still do not recognize women as priests or bishops. Yet we continue to pray together and with each other across that profound disagreement.

What the votes of General Convention on the consent for New Hampshire to ordain Gene Robinson as their bishop and on the blessing of gay unions was as much about inclusion and justice and honesty as about homosexuality. There have always been gay bishops. Gene will not be the only gay person in the House of Bishops. He is, however, the only one to be open about it up front. I was told by several people who voted against him that they would have voted "for" him--knowing he was gay--if he had not been so public about it. Gay priests and bishops "in the closet" are all right for many people. Honesty is not.

Even his most virulent opponents acknowledged over and again that Gene Robinson had all the qualifications and gifts and skills needed to be a bishop. And New Hampshire elected him. That is the other issue. The vote for Gene's ordination was a vote for the democratic process of this church. It is simply the way we do things as Episcopalians. We are a distinctly "American" institution in the way we govern ourselves. Some Anglican churches are much more hierarchical than ours. In England, for example, bishops are appointed by other bishops, not elected by the people they will serve. The Archbishop of Canterbury--the symbolic head of the Anglican communion-- must be approved by the Prime Minister and the Queen! Not the way we do things here....

So, the General Convention, in its vote for Gene Robinson, reaffirmed the polity of this church. The Episcopal Church is a "bottom up" federation of independent dioceses, not a "top-down" national organization. We are a church ruled by canon law and New Hampshire faithfully followed the procedure set forth in the Canons of the church in electing their bishop. General Convention, in approving New Hampshire's choice, supported "the rule of law" that governs our church.

Two quick asides--first, some history about the issue of ordaining homosexual persons in committed, monogamous relationships. Back in 1991, retired Bishop Walter Righter was tried by a court of 12 bishops on the charge of heresy for ordaining a gay man who was in a life-long relationship. The court acquitted Bishop Righter because, their opinion said, "such ordinations do not violate either the canons of the church or the core doctrines of the Episcopal Church." In their decision, the court of bishops suggested that General Convention could, should it see fit to do so, pass resolutions making the ordination of openly gay priests uncanonical. Three General Conventions have passed and no such resolution or canonical change has been brought forth. So, we are still operating out of the ruling of that court. The Episcopal Church, that court's decision said, "is not of one mind" on this issue.

The second aside is that the vast majority of those who voted against Gene Robinson, among the bishops and the deputies, are not going anywhere. They are good, faithful Episcopalians. They are in disagreement with those who voted to give consent. But they understand how this church governs itself and they will continue a part of this church just as the vast majority who opposed women's ordination stayed. And this church is gifted and adroit at containing widely divergent points of view. Kindness and understanding will prevail.

In fact, Art Bennett, a deputy from West Virginia who opposed Gene Robinson's election, was my supervisor when I was a new deacon in West Virginia. Art made a point to find me after the charges against Canon Robinson surfaced on the day the Bishops were to vote. "You know where I stand," Art told me, "and I want you to know that these accusations are crap!" (Can I say that in a sermon? I am quoting someone else....) "I don't believe them for a minute. And I want you to know I'm not going anywhere. This is my church too.)

The vote on the blessing issue was also a declaration of honesty and a defense of how we, as Episcopalians, govern ourselves and live together in diversity and love.

The original resolution was proposed by the Diocese of California and would have required that the Standing Liturgical Commission prepare liturgies for blessing of relationships outside of marriage. Because their resolution dealt with worship, it went first to the House of Bishops. The Bishop of Virginia--who would have voted against the original resolution--and the Suffragan Bishop of New York, who would have voted "yes", jointly proposed a substitute resolution. That resolution passed by voice vote with over three-quarters of the bishops agreeing. The bishops wouldn't approve apple pie by three-quarters vote--so it was overwhelmingly approved.

The next day the substitute resolution came to the Deputies and after a respectful but impassioned debate we voted by orders (that complicated system where the 4 lay deputies of each diocese have to cast a single vote and the 4 clergy deputies cast one vote. For a deputation to cast "yes" for the diocese, the order must be either 4-0 or 3-1 in favor. A 2-2 vote is cast as "divided". The lay vote was 62 "yes", 33 "no" and 13 "divided". The clergy voted 65 "yes", 31 "no" and 12 "divided".

The substitute resolution is a page long and I packed it with my other papers to send home by UPS. My box weighed 39 pounds! The Earth Ministry of St. John's-- indeed all of us--should be horrified by the wholesale slaughter of trees by the General Convention!

Queen Elizabeth I would have been proud. What the General Convention said about blessings exactly mirrored her famous saying about the practice of crossing yourself--"None must, All may, Some should."
Next Sunday I'll have copies of the resolution for you. The key part--the way it affirms honesty and the polity of our church--is a clause that acknowledges that in some parts of the church, blessing have happening and will continue to happen. So each bishop was given the authority to have the liturgical committee of their diocese design liturgies for the diocese. However, since we are "not of one mind" on the issue, no bishop or diocese is required to and many won't. It is a "local option".

How absolutely Anglican and elegantly Episcopalian! The General Convention chose "both/and" rather than "either/or".

Queen Elizabeth I would have been proud. What the General Convention said about blessings exactly mirrored her famous saying about the practice of crossing yourself--"NONE must, ALL may, SOME should."

The bishop of Vermont, for example, really SHOULD authorize the blessings. The Vermont law on "Civil Unions" has had the effect of necessitating the church's involvement in the unions between practicing Episcopalians. Other dioceses--especially large urban ones--New York, Los Angeles, California, Chicago, Pennsylvania and, surprisingly enough, Kansas, have already authorized blessings.

The decision is "honest" in that it acknowledges what is already happening in the church in some places. However, by leaving the decision to individual dioceses, the both/and "parataxis" of the Episcopal Church is preserved, acknowledged and even strengthened.

So--the two divisive issues were decided in honesty and a commitment to how our church works and how we differ from other denominations.

But, more importantly, I want you to know about the quality and nature of HOW those decisions were made.

At all times--in committee meetings and open hearings, in debate on the floor and in comments later by bishops and deputies on both sides the conversations were uniformly and invariably dignified, restrained, polite and for the most part, kind. The St. Paul morning newspaper had a long lead editorial praising the process and quality of the General Convention's decision making. The editorial ended by saying "the way Episcopalians conduct themselves when dealing with difficult and painful issues should be a model for all our decision making bodies. We commend them." (A slightly different tone from the editorial in the Waterbury Republican!)

The pain of these decisions was made even more pronounced and profound because of the deep love between the people on opposing sides. Speaker after speaker in both houses began by acknowledging their respect for those on the other side. The morning after the Robinson vote, I watched a bishop who voted "no" walk half-way across the huge worship space, passing several communion stations--so he could receive communion from Gene and embrace him.

A deputy from Albany danced with Beth and Barbara from Connecticut when the Convention had a break and piped a Beatles song into the hall. That deputy left in protest along with about two dozen others after the vote on Gene was announced. But on her way out she stopped and hugged Beth. She said, "I'll be back--I still want to dance." And the next day she was back in her chair.

A few didn't come back. One was Ephrim Radner--a priest who I've known since he was at seminary at Yale. He was one of the Colorado deputation. He resigned from Convention and went home. His seat was right next to mine and we enjoyed each other's company as we canceled out each other's vote on resolution after resolution. Before he left we embraced--both in tears--and wished each other well. We both still journey toward the Lover of Souls; we just can't travel together right now. That doesn't mean we can't love each other.

If your friends or relatives or colleagues ask you to explain what has happened, tell them this: "My church chose inclusion over narrowness. My church chose justice and honesty over secrecy and suffering...
There are those of you here today, I realize, who are saddened, confused and hurt by what our church did in Minneapolis. And I am committed to listening to you, hearing your concerns, even being the brunt of your anger. BUT I AM NOT WILLING TO LEAVE YOU BEHIND. I AM NOT WILLING TO STOP LOVING YOU. I am passionately committed to "belonging" to you and having you belong to me as we all belong to God. Abide a bit. You do not have to agree to be fully a part of this parish.

That has always been true--and never more true than now. This is still your church. Jesus was transfigured, not "changed". After the mountaintop, he was still the same as he had been before his transfiguration. His "identity" was reveled on the mountaintop--but he was already the Son of God.

If your friends or relatives or colleagues ask you to explain what has happened, tell them this: "My church chose inclusion over narrowness. My church chose justice and honesty over secrecy and suffering. My church chose to be the most welcoming and hospitable church in the world. My church is not ashamed to disagree--and we do so openly, with respect, dignity and prayer. My church is a democracy and democracy is always messy."

On the first day of Convention a Deputy from the Diocese of Florida addressed the House and said: "Florida volunteers to count the close votes for this Convention--we have some experience with how messy democracy can be!"

You tell them your Church chose the Spirit of Christ over the letter of the Law. You tell them your church acted with courage born of angels, with profound humility and without malice. You tell them that the Episcopal Church welcomes them--tell them to come taste and see how sweet the Lord can be when people define themselves by worship and prayer and not by political positions. And you tell them in your church people don't have to agree with each other to love each other.

You tell them this church of ours is not afraid to go into the Wilderness from time to time to seek God there.

Deputy Crump of West Tennessee has been a deputy at the last 17 General Conventions over the course of 41 years. He stood on the last day to tell us he'll be 90 next week and this might be his last convention. He said nothing has given him more pride and humility and joy than being a part of this church. And he thanked the House for "putting up with him."

I saw him on the street and introduced myself that evening. He introduced me to his wife as "Deputy Bradley, Connecticut"--which is how we refer to each other on the floor of the Convention. I said, "well you've seen some battles in this church."

"There will always be battles in this church," he said, "that the kind of church we are. But we are God's Church--yesterday, today and tomorrow--and there is a sweetness in this church you won't find anywhere else."

Deputy Crump, West Tennessee, is right!

You tell the world that--you tell them your church belongs to God...yesterday, today and tomorrow. You tell them there is a sweetness to your church no matter what our battles are--a sweetness you won't find anywhere else.

You tell them that.

I have never been so proud of this church.

We fight fiercely but honorably. We aren't afraid to disagree. We make decisions in the most democratic way possible. We hear everybody. We deeply love those who our decisions pain. We don't gloat about the results. We know the mountaintop and the Wilderness. And wherever we are, God is with us. God did not bring us to the place to leave us alone. All will be well. Fear not.

Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

It is time to be about the work of God and the ministry of Christ. It is time for healing and listening and reconciliation. It is time to rejoice and renew, to feed the hungers of body and soul. It is time to invite others to join us as we journey on, learning about the Holiness in the Wilderness. It is time to be of good cheer, to be gentle with each other, to break the bread and share the cup....It is time to be--yesterday, today and tomorrow--Christ's Body and the Light of Christ in the darkness of fear and doubt.

"Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."

I am so glad to be home. I felt and knew your prayers and support these last two weeks. They gave me hope and comfort. I carried you in my heart. I love you so very much....Thanks for putting up with me....

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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