5 February 2000
Two weeks ago, I returned from New Orleans where I attended my 17th meeting of Executive Council. My 18th and final week- long meeting will be the week after Easter in Bethesda. My 6-year term ends in mid-July at the conclusion of General Convention in Denver, so this will be my last report to Diocesan Convention on the wonders and vagaries of the General Church.
On my computer, I have a program called "the Delorme Street Atlas USA." Supposedly, this street atlas can find any street in America, but it's not especially good, so don't run right out and buy a copy. Before I travel, I can look up specific addresses. For instance, the Hotel Roanoke is at 110 Shenandoah Avenue. I can put in `Shenandoah Avenue,' and find the location of this hotel. At first, I see Shenandoah Avenue, and where it is in Roanoke. If I use the zoom feature, I can come in closer and read the names of the intersecting streets. Sometimes, it's more helpful to take the long, panoramic view, and sometimes it's good to get in close and look at the details.
What works in geography also works in the church. It makes a big difference whether I see the church as me (an individual Christian), an interest group, a parish, a diocese, many parishes and dioceses, a national body, or an international body. It also makes a difference whether I see the church as just a present reality or as the Body of Christ which has developed over the course of the two millennia since it was established by Jesus Christ.
During the past six years, I have been privileged to spend significant periods of time taking the long panoramic view. When I sit at the table in Executive Council~think of it as a whole week at a Vestry or diocesan Executive Board meeting, so don't envy me too much~my concern should be the whole Episcopal Church, not just Trinity-Staunton, this diocese, or Province III.
Since the last Diocesan Council, Executive Council has met in Fond du Lac (Wisconsin), Honduras, and Louisiana. We move around so that we can have a closeup, though brief, view of a number of dioceses. Each diocese is different, but all of our recent visits made me feel good about the future of the Episcopal Church. Fond du Lac is a very small, but very upbeat diocese. It is quite Anglo-Catholic, but I have an old friend there who is, in churchmanship, about as Low as you can go. He loves the diocese, his bishop, his clergy colleagues, and his parish.
The Diocese of Honduras is an amazing place. Most of us got there early to work on building houses sponsored by the Presiding Bishop's Fund. As Bishop Frade put it, "Most of the people getting these houses aren't Episcopalians~yet. But they will be." The Diocese of Honduras is a model of evangelism, social ministry, government relations, and interaction with parishes and dioceses in the United States. It's a great place for a youth or adult mission project.
The Diocese of Louisiana has emerged from a long period of laissez faire (though not laissez les bon temps rouler) administration into mission oriented and evangelistic activity under its new bishop. My former parish is selling its building, and moving to a site on the campus of the University of New Orleans, where it will be both a parish and a college chaplaincy. Bishop Jenkins says that he's stolen all his ideas from the Bishop of Texas. He goes on, "If plagiarism were a crime, I'd be the permanent chaplain at Angola State Penitentiary."
My friend, Ernest Campbell, former Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, says the following in answer to an Episcopalian, who notes that it's the conservative churches that grow fastest:
Where I leave him to go a different way is at the point where he resorts to that now tired old saw that main line churches are declining because they lack a distinctive theology while conservative evangelical groups have grown because they are theologically well defined. The plain truth is that most conservative churches I know anything about have over-simplified the gospel, resisted any role in the fight for social justice, turned a blind eye to scholarship, and embraced an eschatology that effectively debases this world in favor of the next."
Speaking of social justice, at the Executive Council meeting in New Orleans, the first piece of real business was a decision affecting the whole church. This July, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church will be held in Denver. We have reserved 2000 hotel rooms for people from all over the church. The largest hotel in Denver is the Adams Mark, and we had reserved all of their 1000 rooms.
Within the past couple of months, the Adams Mark in Daytona Beach was sued for a pattern of racial discrimination. More significant, the US Department of Justice has sued the entire chain of 32 hotels for the same thing. The Executive Council was faced with the decision of whether to honor our contract with the Adams Mark in Denver or withdraw. After checking with some key Episcopalians in Denver and after a closed-door debate, we voted unanimously to withdraw. We think we have done the right thing but, in the process, have made ourselves liable for up to $1.27 million to make up for the hotel's lost revenue. The potential monetary sacrifice is high, but we thought it was necessary to uphold a higher standard.
It has been said any number of times that the Episcopal Church today is actually made up of two churches, the first made up of those who take scripture seriously, and the second of those who don't. I would buy the two churches theory perhaps, but not the analysis. I think the two churches are those who generally prefer to take a panoramic view of scripture and those who like to get in real close. We need to spend time doing both.
The poet and Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, John Donne, preached great sermons on single words, like `if.' A couple of weeks ago, Louis Fischer preached a great sermon that kept returning to Mark's use of the word `immediately.' It can be very instructive to look at a scriptural word or a phrase, particularly if it keeps coming back.
To take one divisive issue that threatens to split the church, homosexuality, how one reads scripture very much influences one's opinion of what the Bible says. Coming in for a close look, I count seven verses that are definitely (or probably) about homosexual practice. All are against it, so make the score 7-0.
Looking at scripture from a distance, zooming out as it were, these seven verses are essentially invisible. From a distance, I have no trouble seeing all over the map such themes as putting God first in one's life, loving one another, keeping the sabbath holy, maintaining the unity of the church, and ministering to those in need.
A review of a book entitled The Anatomy of Prejudices contains this sentence: "The four prejudices that have dominated American life and reflection in the past half-century [are] anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia." In the past, all four of these prejudices have been defended as scripturally sound~disdain for Jews, disdain for African-Americans, disdain for women, and disdain for gays. We've looked closely at scripture and abused it and misused it. We've been wrong at least three out of four times, and I think we are in this instance as well. Much of the rest of the Anglican Communion takes a harder line even than we do. When we decided to ordain women, we were the only church in the Anglican Communion to do this. Now, well over half ordain women. Someone has to be the first.
Taking the long view, we notice Jesus' disdain for the self- righteous. He spends his time with outcasts and sinners. When we realize we are all sinners, perhaps we'll be less likely to point the finger at those whose sins are different from our own. I can't see his suggesting that we stomp on the downtrodden. What would Jesus do? As George Bernard Shaw put it, "We learn from experience that men never learn anything from experience."
We've got lots of things to discuss, but it is neither helpful nor in the spirit of Jesus to be mean-spirited or self-righteous in our search for the truth. My opinion may be wrong. My friends tell me it often is.
I just finished reading a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of the most interesting and energetic women of modern times. She dominated the life of Boston during the last half of the 19th century. She founded the Episcopal Church of the Advent, and gave the money for the Cowley Fathers' monastery in Cambridge. The philosopher George Santanyana said of her: "Though she defied prudery, she practiced the virtue most difficult for a brilliant woman in a hostile society: she spoke ill of nobody." Let that be our goal, as we approach the issues over which we are divided. Santayana also wrote, "Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim." Let's not forget our aim.
When Bishop Marmion presided over Diocesan Council, there were big fights about whether to integrate Hemlock Haven, our camp and conference center, or cancel its program. My predecessor, Carroll Brooke, led the forces favoring integration. His senior warden led the forces favoring cancelling the program. I can only imagine the exchange of biblical verses. One parishioner, who was on the other side from Mr. Brooke on this one, says today, "Of course, he was right."
I am proud to report that an African-American member of Trinity, Ernest Holley, is the current President of the Augusta Convocation. And we are all pleased that Dr. Horace Boyer is our keynoter this year. Thirty-plus years ago, when we were looking for proof texts for the separation of the races, we would have denied ourselves their gifts.
Charles Gore (1835-1932), English theologian and sometime Bishop of Worcester, Birmingham, and finally Oxford, wrote:
The real development of theology is ... the process in which the church, standing firm in her old truths, enters into the apprehension of the new social and intellectual movements of each age: and because "the truth makes her free," is able to assimilate all new material, to welcome and give its place to all new knowledge, to throw herself into the sanctification of each new social order, bringing forth out of her treasures things new and old, and showing again and again her power for witnessing under changed conditions to the catholic capacity of her faith and life.
In my view, both from a distance and up close, the Episcopal Church is healthy. Parishes and dioceses are doing exciting things. Much more energy is being put into evangelism, helped along by the hard work of our guest, Hugh Magers. Americans, richer than they've ever been, have discovered that money isn't everything. They are searching for meaning in their lives. Our Presiding Bishop says, "The ability to live with ambiguity is Anglicanism's gift to the world." Only God knows it all. The rest of us know some of the truth some of the time. Thanks be to God for having mercy on us sinners.
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