Dear Friends in Christ,
I begin my address with a reading that gives me courage and hope. It is from letter to the Hebrews (12:1-3). “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus . . . Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we do not grow weary or lose heart. With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we are One Together in the Diocese of Virginia as we walk the way of Jesus’ love through our current moment and into God’s desired future. With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we go forward to be the Church.
At our Convention last year, we embarked on a time of intentional interim between Bishops Diocesan in the Diocese of Virginia. Inspired by the images of Light, Life, Joy and Love in Jesus, we began articulating a fresh vision for our life together across our 179 congregations, six diocesan schools, six diocesan homes, five campus ministries, two conference centers, vibrant summer camps and a wide variety of legislative bodies, committees, commissions and related organizations. After Convention we gathered to put flesh on the bones of the vision. Nearly 400 clergy and lay people took part in our Visioning Tour in five locations across our diocese. Ms. Chris Cameron of St. Anne’s, Reston, compiled and collated the ideas and suggestions, capturing every one. I thank her for this invaluable work.
By the last stop of our Visioning Tour on February 29, a crisp articulation of our priorities was emerging. Then our life and ministry dramatically shifted. Just two weeks after our Visioning Tour was complete, it became clear that the threat of the novel Coronavirus was profound and that protecting each other, particularly the most vulnerable, had to be our priority. We ceased gathering together in person for worship and began learning new skills for being together in other ways. In those early days that now seem so long ago, we thought we’d be out of our church buildings for maybe a month or so. Surely, we imagined, we’d be back for Easter! Here we are now, a full eight months later, still in the throes of a pandemic whose infection rate is spiking dramatically, prompting the Governor of Virginia to issue new restrictions that go into effect on Monday. Here we are, grieving nearly a quarter of a million people who have died of COVID-19 in this country alone. Here we are gathering for this Convention via ZOOM, uncertain about when we’ll see each other in person.
We have been in the throes of at least three other crisis points as well. The killing of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Ahmad Aubrey and other black men and women has shined a spotlight yet again on the racism that is endemic in America. Their deaths have exposed yet again the systems that deny dignity and justice to black persons, indigenous persons and persons of color. Many who are white are seeing the depths of racism and the pain it causes, perhaps for the first time - a pain that persons of color have long suffered.
We have been in the throes of dramatic changes in weather patterns due to global climate change. According to NASA, 2020 is likely to be the warmest year ever recorded on earth. We see the consequences of warming in dramatic ways. Fires across the west. Hurricane after hurricane in the Gulf. Unprecedented heat in the southwest. Floods in coastal areas and river towns. Lives and livelihoods are threatened.
We continue to live in a season of upheaval as sharp divisions between democrat and republican, red and blue, urban and rural remain exposed in a seemingly endless election year. Families are torn, communities are divided, congregations are stained.
It is no mere coincidence that these four crises points have converged in the same year. Each does not function independently, but all are interwoven. Coronavirus and race intersect as Indigenous, Black and Latino/Latina persons contract and die from the virus at disproportional rates. Climate change and race intersect as indigenous, black and persons of color often suffer first when storms rage and waters rise. The Coronavirus and climate change remain flash points as politicians and citizens politicize them. COVID-19, racism, climate crises and political polarization are interlinked.
With all that, we have been walking through painful territory these past eight months. We’ve been living what feels like a long, long Holy Saturday, suspended between the loss and grief we see around us and the resurrection we know will come. Like the women disciples who prepared the spices and the men disciples who ran away in fear, we experience grief and loss, confusion and anger. This is hard. We are exhausted.
And, our eyes fixed on Jesus, we walk together with perseverance the way of love. Our eyes fixed on Jesus, we walk together toward the new ways of being community that God is revealing to us. Our eyes fixed on Jesus, we walk forward one step at a time.
Forward. These days people often ask, “when can we go back to Church?” In this pandemic, that question typically means, “when can we regather in person in our beloved Church buildings?” The truth is, there is no going back to Church. There is no going back, because we never left the Church in the first place. Worship in person in our buildings has been suspended, but worship has not stopped. Church buildings are closed, but the Church is not closed. Ministry across the diocese continues. Building community in Jesus’ name continues. We’ll see today just a few stories of profound mission and ministry in our video “stories of the diocese.” We can’t go back because we never left.
And there is no going back now because we are being changed. We are learning new skills. We are building community in new ways, community that is wider than it used to be as we connect virtually not only with people in our neighborhoods, but with people across the nation and around the world. We are seeing a bigger picture of ministry beyond the walls of our buildings, and experiencing excitement about what we have learned.
Some of our pre-pandemic habits were consumer oriented - “I go to Church for what I can get out of it.” “I make an offering in return for what I receive.” That consumer model of Church is crumbling in this time of change. The shift can be seen in many of our congregations when people give generously even when there are fewer programs and activities. People give when they receive nothing concretely identifiable in return because they support what the Church is now and want the Church to thrive in the future. Their giving is all about relationship, not transaction.
In some of our congregations, people are not able to give at all because they have lost their jobs and struggle from day to day simply to feed their families. And in those places relationships endure as people lift and support one another in worship, in prayer, and in other concrete action. We are replacing transactional with relational ways of being, building deeper relationships with God, with other people, with God’s creation and with our deepest, truest selves. We are being changed so much that there is no going back. There is only going forward, One Together, with perseverance, our eyes fixed on Jesus,
Last year at Convention I named four priorities for our moving forward in common ministry in 2020. In early March, we added another set of new priorities.
The number one NEW priority became keeping all people safe during the pandemic. We suspended in-person worship and activities in our church buildings until it is safe for everyone to regather, and we developed guidelines, protocols and processes for protecting each other. Our Regathering Task Force has worked long and hard to provide needed information and support to congregations. My colleague, Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson, put together a team of coaches to aid churches in this work. I am grateful to her and to the coaches, as I am to the Rev. Fran Gardner Smith who trained the coaches, and to the Rev. Randy Alexander and the team he assembled to assess applications for regathering. I am grateful to the Rev. Canon Mary Thorpe who has managed this work with clarity and competence. It takes a village to protect the vulnerable; it takes a diocese, all of us together, and together we are faithful.
The number two NEW priority became supporting our clergy and lay leaders with the resources they need to lead their communities through multiple pandemics. To carry out that commitment, I invited clergy to meet with me and the other bishops every week for a clergy webinar. During these Zoom gatherings, we pray together, give updates on guidelines and procedures, answer questions about whatever is on peoples’ minds, and hear from presenters on matters like self care during a pandemic, resources for civil discourse in a time of political unrest, and helpful practices for worship and pastoral care. We continue those gatherings now every other week, and will do so for as long as they are helpful. All of the resources we’ve shared are posted on our diocesan website.
Our treasurer, Mr. Ted Smith, and our Canon to the Ordinary, the Rev. Canon Mary Thorpe, have met with Wardens and Treasurers of our congregations first weekly then biweekly to share resources, to help congregations in such tasks as applying for the Payroll Protection Plan and to support them in other areas of parish financial and administrative life. The meetings with Wardens and Treasurers will continue for as long as they are helpful. Resources shared in those meetings are also posted on our diocesan website.
We put together a Task Group on the Eucharist to reflect on our theology and recommend practices for sharing communion safely. I thank the Revs. Whitney Edwards, Ben Shelton, Shearon Williams and Charlie Dupree for their sound theology and leadership. I also thank my colleague, Bishop Porter Taylor, who coordinated these efforts.
In addition to these new priorities that emerged early in the year, I added the personal priority of becoming cancer free after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer in February. I am grateful to the people of this diocese for your encouragement and your prayers. I am blessed that I was able to work full time through the months of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and blessed that I am now cancer free. I thank God for the wonders of healing grace as I continue with follow up treatments to remain cancer free.
Even as these new priorities demand our focus, we have not abandoned the four priorities we named last year.
We shined a spotlight on our first priority, Healing Across Differences, last January. We brought Dr. Catherine Meeks, Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, to Virginia. Leaders of the diocese spent a day learning from her and beginning to reshape our diocesan work of racial healing. We formed a new Ministry for Racial Justice and Healing, chaired by Ms. Carolyn Lanier of St. Philip’s, Richmond, who will report on the ministry right after this pastoral address. This ministry builds on the good work done by the previous Committee on Racial Reconciliation, to whom we remain grateful.
This new Ministry team is working with me to articulate our diocesan strategy for Racial Healing and Justice. A piece of our common history in this diocese is that were not merely complicit in the sinful institution of slavery; we perpetuated it. We benefited from it - and we continue to benefit from it in ways that we have scarcely begun to name. We will be more intentional than ever in the coming year about articulating, lamenting and repenting our role in slavery and in ongoing systems of racism.
We commit to doing all this in specific ways, including bringing on board a full time staff person to coordinate diocesan-wide work of racial justice and healing. I hope that we will adopt a budget later today that will support the new staff position sometime in the second half of 2021, and that we will work together to ensure that this ministry will be sustained financially and in every other way by the entire diocese for years to come.
Ms. Julia Randle, our diocesan registrar and historiographer, continues to work with congregations and organizations across the diocese to support them in uncovering their histories.
Building on the chronicle of racism in the Diocese of Virginia that our previous Committee on Racial Reconciliation completed in 2012, Ms. Randle’s research identifies at least 48 congregations in the Diocese of Virginia that currently worship in buildings constructed prior to 1865, buildings likely created through the labor of a least some enslaved people. Mayo Memorial Church House, our Diocesan headquarters in Richmond, was also built prior to 1865, likely with the labor of at least some enslaved people. We examine and name this past history as a first step on our journey of living truthfully today and creating a changed tomorrow.
Many in our Diocese take steps of this journey in Sacred Ground circles. Groups gather for ten sessions to explore and talk about a wide range of matters related to race and faith. We bishops in Virginia are in Sacred Ground Circles with other bishops from across the country. I find the work demanding, humbling, challenging and necessary as I face my privilege as a white person and begin to see so much that I have not seen before. From personal experience, I commend Sacred Ground to every congregation and organization in our diocese.
Book discussion groups continue in congregations and across the diocese. We bishops meet online with laity and clergy of the diocese to discuss the book Episcopalians and Race. Book groups are nowhere near enough in response to the scourge of racism that infects our souls as individuals, as a society and as a Church. We can’t read ourselves into justice, but education is a vital factor in the equation.
We continue these activities and undertake new initiatives because we respect the dignity of the descendants of slaves, the dignity of indigenous people and black people and persons of color as well as white people. We look back so that we can reshape the present and build a future on God’s desire for justice and healing for every beloved child of God. Our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will not lose heart as we up our game for racial justice and healing.
Our priority area of Resourcing God’s Mission has also continued strong through this year. Our Task Force is developing a plan that we anticipate will strengthen giving from congregations to the diocesan budget and allow us to continue to fund the ministries we believe are central to our life into the future. The Rev. Sven Van Baars, chair of the Task Force, will report on the work later in this Convention. I am grateful to him and the committed group.
In addition to a focus on how congregations give to the diocese, we are also exploring how to increase revenue in other ways. We in the diocese have significant resources; we cannot plead poverty. Most of our resources in endowments are restricted and therefore not readily available for our use. Most of our resources in property are the land and buildings of our active congregations, so they are not available for us to sell. We are actively at work to find ways to unrestricted some funds and to sell undeveloped land where we don’t anticipate planting a new congregation. These efforts, along with strengthening giving from congregations, will put us in stronger financial health in years to come. I thank our Diocesan treasurer, Ted Smith, for his leadership in this vital work.
For the 2021 budget, we had to make difficult choices. We have lost six staff members in the past 19 months, some through resignation or retirement, some through lay offs necessitated by the canonical requirement that we adopt a balanced budget. An additional staff member was moved from full time to part time. Letting staff go was painfully hard and no decision about staffing was made apart from intentional prayer and visioning. Our staff now consists of 19 people who work with one part time and two full time bishops to carry out our common mission and ministry in the Diocese of Virginia. The staff, while stressed in this time of multiple pandemics, is creative, energetic and strong. Mr. Mark Eastham, our Secretary and Chief of Staff, and the entire staff have worked for many months to prepare for this Convention and to make it run well. I give thanks for them as I pray for them every day. Our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will use our resources of people, money and other assets equitably and wisely as we move forward into God’s intended future.
Creation Care is a third priority area that we named last year. Our Creation Care Task Force is working to reframe this ministry in ways that are needed in this season of our life. At the same time, local ministries of creation care continue to flourish around our diocese. I asked one of our Candidates for ordination to the sacred order of deacons, Ms. Courtenay Evans, to flesh out a vision statement for community gardens after she wrote to me so eloquently on the topic in an Ember Day Letter. Her response included these words: “While tending gardens, we grow in reverence for God’s goodness. We grow in deeper relationship with the earth and with each other. . . Garden ministry stirs up in us a thirst for justice that protects the earth and all its resources, that we may leave to our children’s children the legacy of beauty and abundance that God has given us.” Our eyes fixed on Jesus, we renew and strengthen our commitment to caring for God’s creation in the coming year - for the sake of the earth itself and for the sake of all it’s creatures, including the human ones.
Our fourth priority is Evangelism - telling the story of our faith so that the transforming, life-giving power of Jesus will multiply in the world. This year our focus has been on raising up leadership in the Church that represents more fully the diversity in our communities. We are conscientiously aware that the bishops, clergy and lay leadership of this diocese are overwhelmingly white. The proposed amendment to the Constitution and Canons will allow us to expand diversity of any needed kind on the Executive Board. The racial audit that the Commission on Ministry is doing on our ordination process will expose areas of unseen bias and help us raise up and form more persons of color for ordained ministry. Our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will expand leadership and coordination of our work of evangelism in the coming year.
With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we go forward to Church in this intentional interim time between Bishops Diocesan. We will vote on a resolution this morning to begin a process for the election of the 14th Bishop Diocesan of the Diocese of Virginia. The dates for the election and consecration of the next Bishop Diocesan will be set by the Standing Committee in consultation with the Office of the Presiding Bishop. We anticipate an election and consecration some time in 2022. It has been and will continue to be an honor for me to serve as Ecclesiastical Authority between the last Bishop Diocesan and the next. It will be an honor to work with the next Bishop Diocesan for a time before I retire.
“Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus,. . . Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
May it be so. And may we, as One Together in the Diocese of Virginia, do our part to make it so.