Bishop Johnston's Pastoral Address

The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston

Audio File of Address

I imagine that a significant number of you have had the chance to notice that over the past several years, our diocese’s Annual Council has become much less contentious. I know that many of you have noticed this because you have told me so, and you have appreciated the difference it makes in comparison to some very difficult years in the not-so-distant past. Of course, there are several reasons “why” this new concord has come to be, but I’m not going to enumerate and evaluate those dynamics. We’d all have our own explanations. Some of these reasons would be fairly obvious and commonsense, and some would be more nuanced. Let’s just suffice it to say that we’ve had a relative lack of arguing over our common life as a diocese in recent years and, yes, things are easier that way.

Now, at the risk of stirring things up and opening boxes that would be better left undisturbed, I stand before you today to say that generally speaking, agreement is over-rated! I know, I know, who could quibble over a more pleasant, easy-going Council? Besides – and more pointedly – we do have a conspicuous bit of “one heart” and “one mind” language in the collects of the Prayer Book, and in Holy Scripture St. Paul returns over and over to the theme of the members of the Body of Christ living peaceably with one another. But I submit that these examples are NOT simply about everyone thinking and believing in the same way. I certainly don’t think that Christians are, by some sort of definition or default, supposed to shy away from having honest differences among ourselves.

As can be seen from all of Christian history, questions regarding faithfulness can be settled by common consensus, or simple majority, or by authoritative decree. Now, as then, there are questions that must be settled in some fashion. Even so, unanimity or conformity are not absolute tenants of Christian belief and spirituality. I would say that this is particularly true about our Anglican heritage . . . but, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back and take a look at the beginning; let’s look at Jesus and how He gathered his disciples, for a compelling example.

I’m often surprised that many people miss a crucial reality about Jesus’ closest followers, the ones we call the Twelve Disciples. We too often neglect a scandalous fact about who Jesus chose to be in His closer confidence and trust. We may be able to name most, even all of the Twelve, and surely we know that some were fishermen and that one (Matthew) was a tax collector. When we remember to name the disciple Simon we might also include his Biblical description, “the Zealot.” Now, wait just a minute! A tax collector walking in a common witness with a “zealot?” There’s my point.

Pause to consider that a Jewish tax collector was perhaps the ultimate collaborator with the hated Roman occupation government. Practically by definition, Matthew had used force against and cheated his own people, not only to benefit their oppressors but also to line his own pockets in the process. Understandably, Matthew himself was likely despised; a tax collector was certainly shunned and even targeted for abuse (if not violence) by the Jewish nationals.

Consider also that the “Zealots” were chief among those who carried out such retribution. But, beyond that, they also employed what today we might call “terrorist” tactics against the occupying and coercive Roman army and government. I think it’s safe to say that no one hated those who collaborated with Rome more than did the Zealots. And so the collaborators themselves, such as tax collectors, had every reason to fear the Zealots more than they feared anyone else.

And yet Jesus called both a tax collector and a zealot to walk together for His sake? Precisely. You couldn’t find two people more opposite each other than Matthew and Simon (not to mention how all of the others might have sided with, or at least sympathized with one or the other.) It’s hard to imagine how those two could ever have “agreed” on the burning questions of the day. But Jesus decided that both of them were needed for what He had in mind for His Church.

We don’t know how – or if – Matthew and Simon worked out and lived with their differences with one another, except for the fact that they came to agree on Jesus Himself or, at least, upon the hope and confidence they each placed on their teacher and leader. No, they didn’t get everything “right” along the way (sometimes we’re close to asking “What did any of them get right, during the earthly ministry of Jesus?”) but, for all of their shortcomings and failings, they all came to know and follow Jesus of Nazareth as Lord, God Himself with us.

To get to that point they all had to start with something, and that “something” was the person and the authority of Jesus. But we would do well to remember that they squabbled with each other after they came to follow Him. And this after stupefying miracles and even after the Resurrection! Sometimes, over the most self-centered, or mundane, and seemingly never-to-be-settled issues.  And so it continued, over the centuries, down to our own day and times. Liberals or Conservatives. Progressives or Traditionalists: who will be the true Church? No! Liberals AND Conservatives; Progressives AND Traditionalists make up the one Church. Yes, a great many important, surely definitive questions were indeed settled along the way, but I say that this both/and is still essentially what Jesus has in mind for His Church.

I’ll grant you that the tax collector and the Zealot getting together is an extreme example, but the point, of course, is that if even they could do it because they had JESUS “in common” then surely so can we with one another and still to others near and far.

And the key? What is it that would allow moving from human estrangement to a Godly commonality in Jesus Christ? Well, first of all, it’s grace, the gift of God to God’s repentant people. Repentant people. This means that we have to recognize the ungodliness of estrangement and enmity and be sorry for it. As we know about the origin of the word “repentance,” it means that we must turn away from the ungodliness, and go in the other direction. This is most especially true for people who themselves profess to follow Jesus and belong to His Church. We must want reconciliation and be open to the possibility of it. That’s when “Grace happens.” And I suggest to you that at least as often as not, the vehicle that conveys God’s grace in the Church so that we might live in the restorative power of the Holy Spirit is relationship, not theological ideology. A commitment of faith in Jesus Christ means the willingness to share your life with and for others. It’s about relationship: find it, dive into it, stick with it and just see what God’s grace can do. Try it; you’ll find that by definition, it is impossible to see another person as one to be shunned or disregarded when you are committed to having a relationship in the name of Jesus and through invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is profoundly true even for someone with whom you vehemently disagree, even about weighty matters in the life and witness of the Church.

This all might sound like pedestrian, even predictable, piety were it not for my “zinger.” And that is . . . not only “may” you still disagree in many matters in the life of faith, but I would go so far as to say that it’s even somehow “better” when you do disagree! Engaging questions and differences actually makes us stronger and more confident in our own faith and corrects us when need be. Moreover, we give a better witness to the power of grace when the relationships we seek out and hold onto are, in and of themselves, “unlikely.” And by “unlikely” I mean not only against our common-sense, but even being all out nonsensical by human standards (like the relationship between Matthew and Simon). It is in such relationships that grace does its best work and gives the greatest witness to the power of God through the Church.

Perhaps you’ve experienced such an “unlikely” but definitely Godly relationship. If not, I earnestly pray that you do one day. I know I have; I’m being supported and encouraged and made more faithful by one such friendship right now (in fact, it’s been going on for about a year and a half). I want to tell you about it, because, as your bishop, I firmly believe that you should know about it, if not “understand” it. I’m not even sure that I “understand” it, but I do know that the Holy Spirit is absolutely running wild through it all!  Some of you know about this extraordinary friendship, but most of this Council doesn’t, so if you’ve heard me tell of this before please bear with me. In fact, listen more closely as you may hear new things that might ease your puzzlement.

I have found a true brother in Christ in the Rev. Tory Baucum, who is now Rector of Truro Church, a congregation that left the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church in 2006 under the leadership of its former Rector. An American, Tory was serving as a priest in the Diocese of London when he accepted the call to Truro Church at just about the same time that I came to the Diocese of Virginia in mid-2007 to be bishop coadjutor. As I said, about a year and a half ago, Tory called my office and asked whether or not I would be open to a meeting between the two of us–no agenda, just to have some “face time.” I readily agreed (I hope you know by now how important I think listening is) and we had a very good first meeting. It went so well that we began to have meetings approximately every month in my office. In a remarkable convergence of experience, we both had a strong feeling that we were being called together, and that simply talking and listening to each other was somehow very important for reasons we couldn’t define. We talked about our experiences of ministry, theological influences, family, movies, books, and what-not–and yes, about our own differing beliefs and practices and the division between our two Church bodies. I’m not implying that we’re anywhere near the differences of, say, the example of Matthew and Simon, but our disagreements over important parts of Christian witness and ministry were obvious and deeply held.

We had two “rules”: one, that we were not together to “negotiate” in any way or to serve as agents of communication for the respective legal teams that were then in the thick of litigation and, two, that we kept the content of our conversation to ourselves so that we shared an absolutely safe space. And we prayed together – deeply and humbly – for ourselves, for each other, for our churches and people, our respective leaders, our ministries, and our families.

 What grounded our relationship was this: we did not paper over our differences, but neither did we exaggerate them or allow them to divide us any more than the ecclesial realties and politics dictated. And “Grace Happened.” We found that we had become fast friends, bound together in relationship through our mutual discipleship of Christ and our conviction that our time together is what our Lord wanted of us.

Now this is what I think is meant by “Christian unity” and “like-mindedness,” the one heart and one mind that the Prayer Book and St. Paul call us into. This is what our classic Anglican heritage has handed down to us and still embodies. The spectrum, the whole spectrum, Right, Left and Center holds, and it must be valued and nurtured as a whole. And in my judgment, the Diocese of Virginia must be the “whole Church,” Right, Left, and Center together.

In our ongoing friendship, Tory and I still believe the way we believed, and lead and minister as before. We have compromised nothing of our core theologies; we’re not looking for some sort of mishmash of middle ground. We have no sense that the theological and legal conflicts between our traditions can be simply overcome, but we are clear that those conflicts will not overcome us. What’s more, we both know that we’ll probably not see structural or organic unity restored between our church bodies. But, we are committed to the vision that, so far as it is in our power, our congregations should not walk farther and farther away from each other. From this, it is our hope that at least some common mission and ministry might be shared, not for “feel-good works” but for the sake of nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In a broken and deeply hurting world that desperately needs this Gospel, a great many broken lives and hurting hearts really don’t care about our ecclesial divisions – except to find them discrediting of any claim that God is working among us as “Church.”

Fast forward to March, 2012: to make a long story short, Tory happens to be a close friend of Dr. Jane Williams, herself a most distinguished theologian and the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The Archbishop heard from her about Tory’s and my “unlikely,” indeed, surprising friendship. Given the sad experiences he so often had about Anglican divisions, he was intrigued by our small story of mutual respect and personal commitment in the midst of a divide. When Archbishop Rowan learned that Tory and I would be attending a conference together in London, he offered to send his representative to a luncheon that was being held so that we could share our story with friends of Tory’s who are leaders in the Diocese of London.

That representative turned out to be my friend, the Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham (formerly Dean of Liverpool Cathedral, where we had come to know one another through the companion relationship between the dioceses of Liverpool and Virginia). Bishop Justin was much moved and encouraged by the relationship Tory and I shared. He was impressed that, somehow, we had–at least in a way– transcended theological and ecclesial boundaries. In fact, he was so moved that on Pentecost Sunday he used our story in his sermon at Durham Cathedral as an example of how the Holy Spirit can come crashing into the Church’s life, and soon he invited us to be presenters at a conference called “Faith in Conflict” that he is co-sponsoring at Coventry Cathedral. A bit flabbergasted, we agreed to attend that conference (to be held next month) and make a presentation as to how our personal relationship of sharing our faith with one another took us above and beyond our disagreements.

The next thing we know is that Bishop Justin Welby of Durham is named to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury! Just a short time after that announcement was made, Tory and I had personal invitations from the Archbishop-designate to attend his enthronement on March 21 at Canterbury Cathedral as his guests. Obviously, we are deeply humbled and feel so privileged and very honored. We will gratefully attend this historic event.

Then comes the news that the Public Broadcasting System’s program “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” has picked up on our story and will be interviewing the two of us, both prior to, and after, our presentation at that February “Faith in Conflict” conference at Coventry Cathedral.

Really, we ask, “What in the world is going on?! And, what could possibly be next?” We’re confident that something is and we simply wait to see.

There’s a lot of detail I’ve left out but, essentially, that’s our story. It all simply amazes the two of us . . . from just some “face time” in a Richmond office to the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury in just over a year’s time! We still have no “agenda,” and even only a very small sense about what all we’re experiencing actually means. Tory and I would like to find some ways to bring others from our respective “sides” into a circle of like relationship, enlarging that group as circumstances allow and as the Spirit calls and leads. We feel that whatever it is that we’ve stumbled into is bearing fruit that is too important simply to keep to ourselves.

I’m quite struck by the fact that our relationship is clearly quite meaningful to others. I think this is rather telling. The more cautious or (dare I say) cynical among us could opine that this is more of a “sad” example than an incredible one, that such a small thing could be raised to such heights, or even be “used” for church politics or just publicity. Or, more palatably, perhaps our story only shows how hungry divided Anglicans are for something of sustenance, how much we all need a semblance of normalcy or just some simple civility in the midst of our disagreements and divisions. I do think there’s some truth about that hunger and we do indeed see just how powerful “normalcy” and civility are for a Communion that is under great stress. So be it. God grant that more and more of us throughout the Episcopal Church and the whole Anglican Communion learn these lessons.

But I will say that I think there’s more to it all than just such lessons. Having given the friendship I share with the Rev. Tory Baucum of Truro Church a lot of thought and prayer, I’ve come to see something like a parable in our story, a parable about relationships that are grounded in the grace of the Christian faith.

The simple truth is that neither Tory nor I had any idea about “where” our relationship would take us, either figuratively or, as it turns out, literally. All we knew is that, by God’s grace, we were called to take one small step together. The wider truth is, all of us are called in one way or another. We took that step, and for a while that was sufficient; we just “stood” in that new place and grew comfortable in it. The wider truth is, this is the way it usually seems to go.  But then, we were called to take another step into another place. The wider truth is that God never stops calling us beyond our familiarities. Not knowing “why,” or what that next step meant, we trusted the fact that the Holy Spirit was leading us. The wider truth is that we are all asked to give ourselves over to the presence and leading of God’s Holy Spirit. Before long, yet another step, still small in and of itself, was requested of us in that Spirit. By then, we could clearly sense that we were caught up in some purpose quite beyond ourselves, yes, even Providence. The wider truth is that in our faithfulness we can perceive God’s presence and movement in our lives–we can hear God’s voice, if you will. The wider truth, disorienting for some, is that our like-mindedness has little, if anything, to do with the reaches, the depth and breadth, of the mind of God.  As I said, “agreement is overrated.” It might, just “might,” even get in the way sometimes of knowing the movement and the power of the Holy Spirit. History is rife with examples of portions of the Church living in a consensus that was proven to be wrong, such as our own part of The Episcopal Church with respect to the institution of slavery.

 Tory and I trusted each step that opened up before us because these steps were so obviously not of our own making. We simply could never have somehow engineered all that happened along the way. The “parable’s” overarching truth is that in a faithful, honest relationship, based primarily on trusting grace, our stories of the transforming power of the living God unfold right before our eyes, just out of the reach of our own devising, but not so far removed that we can’t take that next, small faithful step.

I am as creedal a Christian as you will ever find. The core of my faith is utterly and absolutely defined by the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. I do in fact believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation. But I also think that inevitably, people will have differing ways of understanding, interpreting, appropriating, and applying these essential truths. I do not accept that my own dearly held faith is in any way compromised by agreeing to disagree over the ways in which the catholic and apostolic Church gives witness and offers ministry, any more than I feel that my Church is compromised by my doing so. Furthermore, although sometimes I don’t live up to this ideal, I want always to keep an open and respectful mind to other points of view. To me, the plain fact is that I – we – need to hear and understand other views of Christian truths.

Maybe you’ll have the chance to talk about something in this Pastoral Address with an “unlikely” confidante and maybe you both would grow in your faithfulness and openness to God’s grace as a result. Who knows where such a conversation would lead you? Could you take a few surprises along the way?
+ God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bless you, one and all.