The following is the text of the oral remarks given by Bishop Susan Goff at the Listening Sessions that were held in five locations across the Diocese during the months of February and March, 2019.
We are in a creative time of transition in the life of the Diocese of Virginia. Previous transitions between bishops in our 240-year history followed a pattern: a Bishop Diocesan announced his retirement and called for a Bishop Coadjutor, who was elected and ordained, then served along with the Bishop Diocesan for a time. When the Diocesan retired, the Coadjutor became Diocesan.
This time we are in an Interim period that began when Bishop Shannon Johnston resigned sooner than he’d originally planned. Bishop Johnston outlined his reasons for retiring in letters to the Diocese and in his address to Diocesan Convention in November. He said then that his reasons are personal. I can assure you with full confidence that Bishop Johnston’s resignation in no way involved any sexual misconduct or “#MeToo” movement kind of matter, neither was there any financial impropriety. His decision was his decision. Our task now is to respect that decision, give thanks for his ministry, and move together into this chapter in our life together.
When Bishop Johnston stepped down at the end of Diocesan Convention last November, I became Ecclesiastical Authority, a cumbersome title that simply means, Bishop in Charge. I have taken on that responsibility through a provision in the Constitution of The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, (Article IX, Section 1,) which states that, “if there is no Bishop Coadjutor, then the ranking active Suffragan Bishop shall be in charge of this Diocese and shall be temporarily the Ecclesiastical Authority of this Diocese until such time as a new Bishop shall be chosen and consecrated.” So when this diocese elected me Bishop Suffragan in 2012, I was elected to this succession.
Just as an interim rector has the same authority and responsibilities as a rector, so the Ecclesiastical Authority has the same authority and responsibilities as a Bishop Diocesan. That means that there is no leadership gap now; we are not in a holding pattern, but we are moving into our future together.
While an interim bishop is new in the Diocese of Virginia, it is not new in The Episcopal Church. After Michael Curry was elected Presiding Bishop, the Diocese of North Carolina had an interim period of over two years during which the Bishop Suffragan was Ecclesiastical Authority. That model of leadership served them well, and it is serving us, too.
How long will our interim be? The process for electing a Bishop Diocesan is a long one. In addition, we’ve got work to do together. The Standing Committee and I, in consultation with the Presiding Bishop’s office, anticipate that the interim period will be at least a couple of years, as it was in the Diocese of North Carolina.
When a parish is between rectors or vicars, the people have a chance to reflect deeply on who they are, where they have been and where God is leading them. While we as a Diocese have been intentional about self-study at the election of each bishop, we have not had an opportunity like this one in decades.
I hope you’ll join me in grasping this opportunity. I invite us to RECALL what our ministry in this Diocese is all about, and who it is all about - because if everything we do is not at heart about Jesus, then we’ve lost our center.
Strengthened by that recollection, I invite us to connect more deeply than ever with one another and with a world so in need of the Good News of Christ Jesus. Because if everything we do does not lead from the heart of Jesus out into community, then we’ve lost our way.
I invite us to RECALL and RECONNECT. With those words as a frame, I share briefly three of the themes that I see in our work during this first year of the interim time:
- Reconnecting or strengthening existing connections. We are the largest diocese in the US, with about 72,000 members according to our 2017 parochial reports. We have many kinds of communities - congregations, elected leadership bodies, clergy groups, related organizations, Diocesan staff and others. Some connections between and among those groups are healthy and strong, others need loving attention. We will name relationships that need attention and work on them.
- Sharing leadership. We have strong and effective leaders in this diocese who serve on bodies to which they are elected or appointed. We will empower those individuals and bodies by sharing leadership as fully as possible. As one concrete example, I empower and deputize Regional Deans to preside at Celebrations of New Ministry within their Regions, with the hope that there will be greater regional investment in this aspect of our common life.
- Recalibrating the Diocesan staff to serve the Diocese even more faithfully. Our diocesan staff is strong and deeply committed to the life of this Diocese. I am grateful beyond words to them and for them.
There are simple questions about the purpose of the staff that we haven’t asked in a long time in this diocese, questions like:
- What do congregations need from a Diocesan staff?
- What ministries can be provided only by the diocesan staff?
- What ministries should the staff not provide, given the small size of the staff and the limitations of our diocesan budget?
We’re asking those questions and will act on the answers we hear in order to connect more fully with the whole diocese.
All of this work of recalling and reconnecting, empowering an recalibrating within the diocese is for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are called to be strong and healthy within in order to go out into a world that is so in need of Jesus’ redeeming and transforming love. So as we work on strengthening our diocesan communities, we will also focus on three areas of Christian life that shape how we connect with the world.
- Telling our story. As people of faith, we promise to proclaim by word and action the good news of God in Christ. Through what we say and what we do, we show others what we believe, and we show them who Jesus is. How will we proclaim our faith in the transforming and redeeming love of Jesus in a world that is so in need of that love? How will we tell our stories without fear and with great joy so that the lives of others will be blessed, and so that our own faith will be deepened? How will we be evangelists for the sake of the Gospel?
- Building community in Christ. We Christians proclaim that all of humanity is created by God; we are all in the image of God. By the power of the love of God, made known to us in Christ Jesus, there are no “others” in the human family. There are only brothers and sisters. Yet we separate ourselves from one another based on race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, language, culture, political affiliation, religion - and on and on. How will we work together to heal divisions and build wide-embracing Christian community in our diocese and in our world? How will we expand leadership in this diocese so that it includes not only folks like me, the white, graying majority, but persons of color, young people, those who worship in languages other than English, LGBTQ persons, people who experience financial insecurity, people of differing levels of ability? How will we imitate the humility of Christ to bridge divides in the wider world?
- Honoring God’s creation. We human beings were created by God with a unique role as stewards of God’s creation. Yet we separate ourselves from the creation of which we are a part. Our lifestyles often leave us disconnected from the power, the wonder and the beauty of God’s creation - to the harm of the earth and ultimately to our own harm. Poor communities are particularly vulnerable to the changing weather patterns and to the severe weather incidents that are occurring with increasing frequency around the globe in our time. How do we take more seriously than ever our role as stewards of God’s creation? How do we change our own habits for the sake of the most vulnerable? How do we live faithfully for the sake of this amazing earth, our island home?
I see the work I’ve been called to do in his interim time in the frame of recall and reconnect, and through the lenses of telling our story, building community, and honoring creation.
Through it all, the ongoing ministries of the office of Bishop will continue. We are blessed that four faithful bishops are serving with me during this interim time.
Bishop Bob Ihloff, retired bishop of Maryland, will continue as Bishop Associate through 2019.
Bishops Ted Gulick and David Jones, who are well known in this Diocese, are Visiting Bishops during this time.
Bishop Jim Mathis, Dean of Students at Virginia Theological Seminary, is also a Visiting Bishop for this year.
In addition, Bishop Richard Blackburn, recently retired Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Liverpool, will be resident in our Diocese for one month in the fall. I am deeply grateful to each of these wise and experienced bishops and brothers in Christ.
Looking forward, I am actively seeking an Assistant Bishop, someone who has retired from Episcopal ministry in another Diocese but who has the energy and sense of call to engage in another setting. We have had strong and effective Assistant Bishops in the past and we will, with God’s help, have another later this year.
It is all about Jesus. It is all about community. It’s all about building up the body of Christ, the Church, in our place and time.