Bishop Gulick's Report
I don’t exactly know why I said yes when Paris Ball proposed that I serve as chaplain to the 8 and 9 year old camp at St. George’s this past summer. I think I have had a residual fear ever since 1993 when I was elected bishop that being kicked up to management would compromise some of my best values and skills for ministry, especially in the arena of experiential Christian formation. So this past July for the first time in 44 years I was again on the staff of St. George’s Camp. I loved it! And I learned, or more precisely I had an instinct deeply confirmed, that the campaign that we are in for Shrine Mont Camps is not a prolonged do-good moment for an institution that has garnered the affection of Virginia Episcopalians, but rather, it is part of a must-be-claimed strategy for the Evangelization of the culture in this post-Christian era that is our present reality.
Let me illustrate: I had about a week with the campers and decided that I wanted to tell them about Jesus. Chaplain’s sessions divided rather neatly: His birth, His maturation on His visit to Jerusalem, His calling of disciples, His ministry of teaching, His ministry of healing, His death and His resurrection. Each day I had the creative and passionate support of the staff who helped me, the story teller, bring the story to life as Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, thus making Jesus an immigrant (all true Christian formation is subversive!); James and John were called from their dad’s fishing nets; prodigal sons returned home; a liturgy of healing occurred where I anointed the counselors, and they anointed the campers after the campers whispered their fears, and anxieties into the counselors’ ears. The staff members were passionate in their efforts, the kids amazingly focused, and the responses that I am about to describe are sticking like glue in my mind six months later.
One kid said: “Thanks for telling me those stories; I have never heard them before.”
Another said. “I think Jesus healed me. I am not afraid anymore.” And as evidence of that healing the comfort toy she had been clutching was left safely on her bunk.
Another said, “My dad’s Jewish and my mother was raised Methodist, but we just don’t go to church… my favorite part of camp has been chaplain’s time.”
Of equal significance were the conversations that this in-depth plunge in the Gospel occasioned with our young adult staff. One counselor said," It really changes the conversation about immigration when you realize Jesus Christ was a refugee." Another staff member, a lifelong Episcopalian, after he had helped me depict a St. Georges’s camp version of what Passover was like when Jesus and his parents celebrated it in Jerusalem said, “ I have been Episcopalian all of my life, but never realized the essential link of the Eucharist and Passover. I will never think about Holy Communion in the same way again.”
When I last worked for St. George’s from 1965-1970 I did not think of the experience as primary Evangelism. I would have described it even then, in low church Virginia, as a kind of discovery of a Catholicism… the faith taught to my friends at St. James’ in Richmond, or Trinity Charlottesville was the same faith we held in Catlett… we Episcopalians were something larger than our local franchise and we were excited to live that together on the Mountain. That still is not a bad thing to discover!
There has been a shift. I would guess that at least one-third of the campers in the session I participated in at St. George’s were either un-churched, or at best had a vague amount of Episcopal or other Christian DNA, but no lived experience of the Gospel. This has probably been increasingly true for over a decade. I know from direct testimony that a child vaguely related to an Episcopal Youth Group in Richmond, came back from camp two summers ago and asked her mother’s permission to be baptized.
Shrine Mont camps are not just places and memories that we treasure; they are increasingly one of our primary methods of direct Evangelism. As that part of camp life becomes even clearer and even more owned, I hope it will help this diocese move more courageously into an abundant harvest in Virginia that the Lord of the Harvest trusts us to claim for His glory. I hope that some lessons learned about the successful proclamation of the Gospel on the Mountain will transform our churches. There are too many places where survival is the strategy, not evangelism. Many of our churches are still trying to own their share of the market where four Episcopal Churches exist within seven miles and all are trying to find ordained leadership and have not had a word of conversation among each other about common evangelistic or mission strategy. The joint work of common mission in Northern Fauquier County between Leeds, Delaplane, and Upperville are a glorious exception that has yet to become our missionary norm. Shrine Mont Camps can lead the way in the glorious opportunity “to tell the old, old, story” but they are not the only context.
Because our Bishop has a dear friend named Justin Welby, I recently had dinner with the Archbishop. He said that he had recently been up to his waist in water, baptizing adults in a cattle watering trough that had been moved into a village church yard. He said that if we don’t become a baptismal community there will be virtually no Church in England in about a decade. I found that both a stunning comment and a clarion call. Having just read Archbishop Welby’s recent biography I came across the words the Archbishop recently delivered to the Methodist Conference: “We do not want to be useful. We want to be the revolutionary, society-changing, transforming, extraordinary, Spirit-filled church of God.”
My experience on the Mountain this past summer infected me with a similar urgency. Part of they way we will need to measure the effectiveness of the next season of mission on the Mountain, a mission that the good folk of this diocese have already committed $1,743,219 towards, is how many came to hear the gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ on that mountain…. and we will need to ask that same primary question of our churches. We need to spend more time in the baptismal waters and much more time getting people ready to take the plunge and be thrust out into this hurting world alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s the Holy Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that we shout not only on the Mountain but in all we do as The Episcopal Church in Virginia. This Gospel is not just worth our money… it’s worth our life.