Bishop's Pastoral Address

To begin, I want to thank all of you, as the leaders and representatives of the congregations in the Diocese of Virginia, for what I have experienced over the past year, my first full year as your diocesan bishop.  By any standard, we live a rich and remarkable common life as a family in Christ. A pastoral address gives me the luxury to do something I suspect that most of us don’t do very often, if at all–to take pause and ponder deeply what it means to be together as a diocese, to reflect pointedly on what has happened and to envision what is to come and even dream about what might be. Recounting weekly visitations, Shrine Mont camps, countless meetings, conferences, retreats, celebrations and special gatherings, I am renewed by the ways in which we have engaged and encouraged one another over the course of a year. We have been empowered, by the grace of God, for faithful worship and fruitful ministry. We have so much, in our hands and right at our fingertips—not to mention what is within arm’s reach. I do worry that we can too easily take all of this for granted (or even remain unaware), so I hope that this address might spur you a bit in thinking about what we’ve accomplished as a diocese, what our opportunities and challenges are, what is our wealth and where we find ourselves wanting.

But, before we survey any of that, I’m moved to put “first things first”: people.  As I consider ministry in the Diocese of Virginia, I realize once again how much we depend on our diocesan staff.  I take this opportunity enthusiastically to thank all of them so very, very much. Time and again, this wonderfully dedicated crew goes above and beyond the call of duty, working overtime and taking on responsibilities quite outside of their own job descriptions to make sure that you as a diocesan church are served, not least being for this very Council. We have the smallest staff of any of the large domestic dioceses; two dioceses right around our numerical size have nearly twice the number of staff (40 and 43 compared to our 23).  But I’m here to say that even so, given who we have, we have the “biggest” staff anywhere! 

I’m so utterly delighted to welcome aboard our new assistant bishop, the Rt. Rev. Ted Gulick, who began his ministry with us on January 1 after having served 17 years as bishop of the Diocese of Kentucky.  Ted and Barbara have returned to his native Catlett, Virginia, so “Welcome home.”  Bishop Gulick’s new ministry here marks a milestone for us and we are most fortunate to have so truly a great servant leader come to us now.  He brings a wealth of experience to his ministry in our diocese: a deep spirituality, pastoral wisdom and highly respected leadership throughout the larger Church and Anglican Communion.  In addition to helping to guide the entire episcopate for this diocese, Bishop Gulick’s duties will, of course, include the full slate of weekly visitations, and he will help especially with the pastoral care of our clergy and their families.

As I address you, the major news of this Council has already been delivered to you, the forthcoming retirement of our beloved bishop suffragan, the Rt. Rev. David Colin Jones.  After much prayer, consultation and planning, Bishop Jones will resign his position as of the end of Council 2012–he will have given 17 years as bishop in our diocese and 34 years of ordained ministry here. For now, I’ll suffice it to say how unfathomably grateful I am for the years that I have been able to serve with this brother bishop and have come to know him and Kay as cherished friends.  I’m just as grateful to have one more year to share the ministry of episcopacy in the Gospel with David before he takes his leave.  And I promise you we will have one terrific send off for him at Council 2012!

Bishop Jones’ impending resignation does give us one required piece of business that I must now address.   This diocese clearly needs three bishops and we simply must be able to continue the fine tradition of ministry that Bishop Jones exemplifies.  Therefore, I hereby call for the election of a new bishop suffragan for the Diocese of Virginia, this election to take place in April 2012.  This timing gives us the ability to do a thorough self-study and will allow me to confer extensively with a wide range of diocesan leadership and a nominating committee about what we need in the ministry of our next bishop suffragan. Taking into account that we must allow for the particular gifts of any individual bishop-elect, I will present a general job description for the new bishop suffragan to the nominating committee for their search process purposes and I will also present it to the 217th Annual Council in 2012.

2011 will also bring the opportunity to carry forward the remarkable work of the listening sessions, entitled “Listen and Be Heard,” that were held across the Diocese during the fall of 2010.  The five sessions were open to anyone who chose to attend, with invitations sent through our Virginia Episcopalian newspaper, the e-Communiqué, a letter from me sent to everyone on the Diocese’s e-mail list, and announcements in congregations and at regional council meetings.  Just under 800 people attended these events.  In order to allow for a sense of as “safe” an environment as possible, and to prevent any stereotyping or assumptions creeping in, we did not require  any record of the demographics, such as lay or ordained, gender or age of those in attendance.  Likewise, we did not identify the churches represented.  All of this reflects an intentional decision to keep the focus on what was said rather than on who said it.

Each one of the sessions began with two questions that focused on the characteristics and meaning of faithful sexuality in the Christian life.  A third question then concluded the sessions with reflections on the blessing of same-gender unions in the Church. All discussions were transcribed by a recorder who took down the comments verbatim.  The printed document of the responses to the three questions is 247 pages.  And, yes, I’ve read every comment–almost 2,000 of them–and have been studying the data in its entirety.

The actual experience of the sessions, and the voluminous data that was collected from them, seemed at the time to be a true watershed event for the Diocese and I am confident that this estimation will prove to be true in the long run. As I noted in my letter announcing the sessions, we do not have a positive history of coming together to discuss controversial subjects. Particularly vicious acrimony and even demonization–from both Left and Right–marked the open forums that followed the 2003 General Convention.  Debates at Annual Councils, in many instances, have been personalized and politicized.  Happily, the “Listen and Be Heard” sessions last fall showed a dramatic shift in posture, content and tone.  There was definitely a premium placed on the role and importance of community.  Overall, the hallmarks of these evenings were trust, vulnerability and even intimacy.  There was demonstrated–from both Right and Left–a much greater capacity to hear and understand differing points of view than we might expect based on previous experience, not to mention simply respecting and taking care of each other in the mutual sharing.  

We also heard from a good number of people who spoke of continuing to struggle with the issues, holding profoundly mixed feelings.  And yet, such struggling certainly did not manifest as timidity; there was an accompanying strength and integrity in it all.  Many people, not only those who struggle, but even those with clear opinions, spoke of their openness to, and indeed the need for teaching, both at the congregational level and from the larger Church.

All of this should be encouraging for us, whatever your viewpoint, because it is explicitly and patently Anglican.  The very DNA of our expansive Anglican dynamic was quite to the fore throughout the listening sessions.  By this I mean that we are united in Christ rather than by agreement in issues. The center holds, but this does not mean the maintenance of the status quo or having some sort of balance of power.  Rather, our center holds because that center is nothing less than Jesus Christ.

Significant common questions are evident from the comments in the listening sessions with respect to the blessing of same-gender relationships.  To put these questions in theological terms, the first concern is the nature of blessing.  What is a “blessing?”  What does it mean? What does the Church do when it blesses?  Is a blessing inherently sacramental?  Does the Church bless or does God? Another question concerns the role of the community in a blessing.  What part does the assembled community play in a blessing? What is the nature of communal recognition and support afterwards?  

There were many comments that reflected various understandings or misgivings about the relationship between the Church and our larger society.  Does the Church exercise a prophetic role, leading society to do what is right?  Is a new set of cultural norms now leading the Church astray?  Is the Church now having to “catch up” with society’s justice? How does the Church appropriately embrace, engage, or accommodate culture?

And, finally, the nature of Scripture is raised.  Is Scripture clear in its teachings about same-sex relationships?  What is the place of interpretation and contextualization based on scholarship?  What does it mean that there are other parts of Scripture (for example, the teachings about divorce and remarriage) that we no longer apply to Christian ethics so strictly?  

Obviously, these are all big questions that go right to the heart of the matters at hand.  And, just as obviously, these questions are in fact too big to answer in the scope of this address.  But, they must be addressed. And address them we will, by means of teaching through various media and in gatherings across the diocese throughout the coming year.  After listening in order to determine the lay of the land there is teaching in order to chart our course and understand it.  This is an organic process and, I think, a helpful and a hopeful one.

I realize that there are presently clergy and congregations who have addressed these questions of blessing, community, society and Scripture in ways that could be deemed thorough and conclusive.  Furthermore, you may remember that I have always affirmed that committed, monogamous same-gender relationships can indeed be faithful in the Christian life. Therefore, I plan also to begin working immediately with those congregations that want to establish the parameters for the “generous pastoral response” that the 2009 General Convention called for with respect to same-gender couples in Episcopal churches.  Personally, it is my hope that the 2012 General Convention will authorize the formal blessing of same-gender unions for those clergy in places that want to celebrate them.  Until then, we might not be able to do all that we would want to do but, in my judgment, it is right to do something and it is time to do what we can.

The controversy surrounding sexuality must not overshadow the primary matters of mission and ministry in this diocese, some of them groundbreaking.  In two weeks I shall ordain the Diocese of Virginia’s first candidates for the vocational diaconate.  This historic step is the result of a long and deliberate process that is committed to enriching the Church’s ordained ministry while further empowering and informing the ministry of the laity.  I offer thanksgiving for this ancient pattern and gift to the Church.

A true keystone of ministry in Virginia is mission.  I see that we are second to none in this commitment.  Our service to others, our ministry with others, inspires and deepens literally thousands of our people.  We treasure the relationships that we build through mission.  Whether domestically or internationally, our strategic principle is to go where the need is the greatest and where the Gospel can bear much fruit.  

Domestically, we have offered much of ourselves to the Gulf Coast ever since hurricane Katrina.  We have been and continue to be a leading mission presence there.  And great opportunities abound right here at home in mission work with our Native American partners. These ministries and many others all remind us that mission is simply what Christians do and rich opportunities are everywhere; you don’t have to go far away to find them.

With respect to our relationships and ministries abroad, we are at this time especially prayerful for peace in the Sudan.  We deeply value many long-standing and productive links there.  The recent referendum as to whether Southern Sudan should become an independent nation will certainly present weighty challenges to Archbishop Daniel and the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. The Diocese of Virginia expresses deep confidence that they will rise to the occasion in the times to come just as they have done so faithfully—indeed heroically—in the past.

International relationships with many other partner dioceses and congregational links remain vibrant and vitally important.  In addition to the Sudan, these include our “Triangle of Hope” partners, the dioceses of Liverpool, England and Kumasi, Ghana, dioceses in South Africa, particularly the long-standing link with the diocese of Christ the King, several locations in Tanzania, numerous links throughout Central and South America, and points across the Caribbean.  Many of our congregations have additional individual links, for example in Uganda, Myanmar, Liberia and Honduras. Throughout 2010, Virginia sent and received missions in the solidarity of the Gospel.  In all cases, growth in ministry and serving those in need wherever they might be was the pattern, goal and result.  Our Christian lives are much empowered by these diocesan partnerships and congregational links and we are deeply grateful to our friends in the Gospel across the world.

In one month I shall be traveling to Tanzania.  I was invited to a conference in Dar es Salaam that will bring together some American, Canadian, English, and West African bishops to discuss issues that affect us all.  We hope to clear up any misunderstandings and thus to build bridges that will strengthen Anglican Communion ties.  Then, I visit the Carpenter’s Kids ministry in several villages that are linked with Diocese of Virginia churches that range in size from St. Paul’s, Richmond to Buck Mountain Church in Earlysville.  Yes, your congregation can do mission, anywhere and everywhere.

The Diocese of Haiti, the largest diocese in our Episcopal Church, presents a special case even among special cases.  Surely now we must look to our own doorstep to respond to such a critical need, not only for humanitarian relief efforts but also to help rebuild the ministry of what is most certainly a strong Church there in spite of it all.  The pastoral letter I sent out recently on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake said what I have to say, but I am pleased to announce that we now have 16 of our congregations that are now either in links with the Diocese of Haiti or are actively considering establishing new links for long-term ministry there.  Even so, Haiti needs many more of us to step up.

The Diocese of Virginia became so deeply involved in developing these newer links in ministry with the Diocese of Haiti when Episcopal Relief and Development gave us a call very shortly after the earthquake.  The gist was that we had been so successful in providing help on the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina that ERD wanted to know if we could do it again in Haiti.  This resulted in maybe the best part of the year for me.  In just a couple of weeks, the Diocese of Virginia raised over $240,000–enough to provide all 10 pickup trucks they were asking for with money left over for three additional trucks.  

Unfortunately, not all challenges are so happily met; not all problems are solved so expeditiously.  The Diocese of Virginia continues to be entangled in litigation with congregations that are attempting to keep their Episcopal Church property after choosing to leave the Episcopal Church.  Our position is that the properties in question were given for the mission of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia and these properties ought to be returned to us for the use of our congregations and for our mission strategy.  We have four continuing congregations that have been turned out of their houses of worship and yet are continuing faithfully to worship in other places until they can return to their church homes: Falls Church, Episcopal in Falls Church, St. Stephen’s, Heathsville, Epiphany, Oak Hill, and St. Margaret’s, Woodbridge. It is vitally important—a matter of faithfulness to our doctrine, discipline and worship and to who we are as a Church—that we secure a positive resolution, not only for these congregations but also for this diocese and the whole of our Episcopal Church.

That being said, litigation is not the only means we have to resolve matters.  We have pursued litigation because up to this point there has been little choice.  We will continue to do so if that remains the case.  But I’m sure that neither side wants the litigation to continue.  So, be assured that in the past we have opened dialogue for settlement and we are even now pursuing settlement.  Given the need for confidentiality in these matters, I cannot say any more than this, but do know that we will continue to pursue all avenues to the just and appropriate resolution of this dispute.

We all know that the litigation has been expensive, but I will remind you that these costs are being covered by a line of credit secured by unconsecrated, non-strategic real estate.  No pledge dollars given to the diocese’s annual budget are being used to fund this legal battle.  And this reminds me . . .

I remain shocked and grievously troubled by the lack of adequate funding for our diocese.  Make no mistake: this is not about sexuality or any other controversy.  Virginia has been dead last in the Episcopal Church in its percentage funding for the diocesan budget for decades.  Our congregations’ average giving to the Diocese is a less-than-modest 6.5 percent of plate-and-pledge, and only 5.4 percent of all unrestricted operating revenues. Only 18 of our 183 congregations give at least 10 percent of their revenues to the Diocese. With all of the resources in the pews of our congregations–not to mention all of the amazing ministry that happens at the diocesan level–this is not only hard to believe, it is even harder to understand.  

And yet I have been around this diocese and I know that the vast majority does not know much about this.  Neither do they like this grim reality when they hear about it. And so I believe that our situation needs aggressive stewardship education–education with a view to spiritual transformation, not budget managing.

The problem largely rests not on our vestry tables, it lies on our congregants’ desks at home.  If our communicants tithed to their churches, or even gave 3-5 percent, our congregations would be more than flush with resources.  Heavens, we’d be beside ourselves having to figure out what to do with all that money for ministry, instead of agonizing over how to cut or not fund items for the budget.  Yes, it is all about embracing proportionate giving—giving by percentage until 10 percent is reached—a wonderfully joyful and empowering journey in Christian life. There are thousands of years of spiritual wisdom in this practice and it is no accident that it is the Bible’s standard.  Jesus Himself often spoke so pointedly about the faithful management of personal wealth.   He tells us that in our giving that we know spiritual blessing and a closeness to God.  In short, you just can’t know how true faithfulness in giving brings you to know Jesus until you actually try it.  Spread the word at home.

I am convinced that the means to embrace proportionate giving and thus to answer the challenges posed by inadequate funding for our congregations and for the Diocese is in your commitment to our five priorities for mission and ministry: (1) Youth and Young Adults; (2) Strengthening Congregations; (3) Evangelism & Proclamation; (4) Multi-cultural and Ethnic ministries; and (5) Mission beyond Ourselves.  These priorities are truly the cornerstone of our common life and ministry.  They are a statement of who we are now and who we want to be. When our households and vestries really catch this vision our congregations will have all that they need while also being able to provide appropriately for our diocese.  I have no doubt that the old adage is true: money follows vision.  It is my fervent hope that these five priorities will be what we all think about whenever we say “the Diocese of Virginia.”  And, these ministries are what we want the public to see going on, so that the term “Episcopal Church” makes people think of the Gospel and the saving power of the Lord Jesus Christ.

May God bless this Council, and may God bless you and our Church throughout 2011.