Diocese of Washington consecrates outspoken activist as eighth bishop

June 4, 2002

Themes of justice and compassion permeated the service at the Washington National Cathedral June 1 where the Rev. John Bryson Chane was consecrated the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Washington.

In his sermon, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who as chaplain at Yale University in the 1960s and 1970s was one of the most outspoken social activists in the nation, used the parable of the Good Samaritan to argue that compassion is at the center of the religious life. He said that the parable is 'a multi-faith story that sees love/compassion as the core value of religion. It is bad religion to deify doctrines and creeds. While indispensable to religious life, doctrines and creeds are only so as signposts. Love alone is the hitching post.'

Coffin reminded the congregation of over 2,000 that doctrine has been used to support slavery and apartheid and 'some still strive to keep women in their places and gays and lesbians in limbo.' While doctrines can divide people, 'compassion can only unite' so it is time for 'religious folk…. to recover tradition and recover from it.'

Expanding the theme beyond the individual account in the parable, Coffin said that 'whole communities, even nations, have been stripped, beaten and left lying in the ditch. And what these communities and nations need is not piecemeal charity but wholesale justice,' but it is important to distinguish between charity and justice, he said. 'Charity is a matter of personal attributes, justice a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice, justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitable to political confrontation.'

Coffin added his hope 'Christians would see that the compassion that moved the Good Samaritan to act charitably--that same compassion prompted biblical prophets to confront injustice, to speak the truth to power.'

Open and honest

From most reports, the new bishop of Washington is not afraid to confront injustice. When he became dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in San Diego he asked Barbara Harris, the first woman in the Anglican Communion to be elected a bishop and a very outspoken liberal, to preach at his installation. The result was a boycott by some traditionalists priests--and a death threat for the new dean.

Last year he chastised his own bishop, Gethin Hughes, for refusing to allow Bishop John Spong, the controversial retired bishop of Newark, to speak in local churches, arguing that pulpits should be open to people who express different views.

'He's very open and honest,' said Catherine Hopper, of about 250 people who traveled from San Diego for the consecration. 'He will not do something because it is politically right or will put him in a better light,' she told the Washington Post. In an interview with the paper, Chane said that he is convinced that it is time for the Episcopal Church and other institutions in American society to reestablish the engagement with culture that they demonstrated during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. 'Regrettably we have lost that,' he said. He said that would include a need to reinterpret the Gospel in the face of cultural changes. He is also deeply committed to housing for the homeless, an education system that helps students avoid drugs and violence, respect for other faith communities, and finding a way for church members to 'lovingly disagree' while addressing difficult issues.

Chane told the Post that he believes that times of disagreement can be 'teachable moments,' when people with strong but differing opinions can learn from each other, in a spirit of candid engagement. Last fall he pleaded with the San Diego School Board to stop the infighting, for the sake of the students. 'We have to love each other, work together,' he said. 'He knows about the art of compromise,' said Bishop George D. McKinney of St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ in San Diego. 'He will come down on the side of justice and compassion.'

The bishop's job

In his homily at the Sunday June 2 service when he was 'installed,' Chane asked God to 'strengthen me to be a patient listener, a prophetic preacher, a faithful pastor to all, a wise teacher, and to live simply and yet as one who seeks out and works for justice and the full inclusion of all your children into your church.'

Chane cited the wisdom and vision of the late presiding bishop, John E. Hines, who said, 'A bishop's job is to keep his church firmly on the firing line of the world's most pressing needs and to learn to accept the exquisite penalty of such an exposed position.

Chane expressed his 'desire to engage the secular and political leadership of the District of Columbia, the Congress of the United States, and those who hold the highest elected and appointed offices of this nation.' While remembering 'our heritage as a people of God,' he expressed a hope to engage with a nation that 'desperately seeks a voice of broad theological reason and compassionate caring. Such a balance is one of the great gifts of the Episcopal Church and we need to stop agonizing for it and begin to exercise and live into it.'