Orientation of Bishops and Deputies
I'd like to add my welcome to that of Mrs. Chinnis and Rosemari Sullivan and thank you for your willingness to be part of this great deliberative body we call the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I also need to thank you for your sacrifice, realizing that this is the Fourth of July weekend, and many of you in walking back and forth have murmured to me where you would have been and with whom you would have been had you not been sent here. So, thank you for that sacrifice.
For some of you this is a new experience, and possibly a somewhat overwhelming experience to sit in this vast array of people. It certainly was for me the first time I served as a deputy in 1976. I remember, too, the last General Convention which met here in Denver in 1979 and how important it was to be mindful of the altitude and to drink plenty of water. As your chief pastor I pass on to you this same advice. But I will add something more, and this may be even more mundane and not quite as attractive but for some I think quite necessary: go buy a nasal spray. It makes quite a difference.
As Dr. Chinnis said, this convention is a new experience for me as your Presiding Bishop. Three years ago, I played a far less active role and waited for something to be done to me, and now I find myself in a very different place. And, in my hotel room I've propped up two cards in front of the place where I scribble away. And, one says, "My grace is all you need." And the other says, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." Maybe one of those texts or both of those texts will be useful to you in the days ahead.
We come together for these days of discernment and deliberation, as Dr. Chinnis said, in a spirit of Jubilee, a theme I am not going to develop right now but will develop in the homilies at our daily eucharist. Jubilee has to do with release and remission and the reordering of relationships.
As we gather we are supported by the prayer of people all around our church and our Communion, as well as our ecumenical and interfaith partners, some of whom will be with us during the course of this Convention. Brothers and sisters from other parts of the Anglican Communion are here as well. And we are grateful for their prayers and presence and the experience and witness they bring from quite different contexts.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has sent us his greetings in a letter addressed to me and the President of the House of Deputies, which I would like to read to you now.
Dear Frank and Pamela,
I write to ask you to give my greetings to all the delegates of the Episcopal Church gathering in Denver, Colorado for the General Convention and to promise you that you will be daily in my prayers for God's gracious blessing on your meeting. I rejoice in the faithfulness and vitality of the Episcopalians whom Eileen and I have met during our recent travels, to say nothing of the warmth of hospitality you have showered on us in your homes. My visits have shown me many encouraging signs of missionary confidence, sensitive pastoral awareness, and loyalty to Anglican liturgical tradition and it concerns me greatly when I hear these gifts being ignored or your church being misrepresented. The Episcopal Church deserves the affection and respect of us all. No Archbishop of Canterbury can be unconcerned when tensions threaten the unity of our Christian witness, as division is never part of God's plan. Unity is not something we can create because it is a gift from God. But it is something we can break and only overwhelming reasons can justify us separating ourselves from the baptismal community in which God has placed us. I pray that you will guard the precious gift of unity, believing with St. Paul that no part of the body can say to another part, "I have no need of you." May the Holy Spirit give each of us such love for God and his broken world that nothing we do will impede his mission to lead us into all truth, and give us joy and peace in believing.
Yours in Christ,
We also come together also in the service of our common life and mission which, as our Prayer Book tells us is to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ and this is a work of ongoing reconciliation and evangelization.
While each of us has a particular role to play in discernment and decision-making at this Convention, it is important that we keep before us the fact that we come together first and foremost as limbs and members of Christ's risen body, the church - bound together, as Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Wales, loves to say, in "solidarities not of our own choosing." Look around your congregation. Would you have chosen those people to be fellow limbs of the body of Christ? Yes, but sometimes, no. And therefore we are unable to say, as much as we might wish to at certain moments, "I have no need of you." Like it or not, in ways that pass our understanding and are known only to God, we are for one another's salvation.
I remember when I was a parish priest I once prayed fervently that an antagonistic parishioner would have the good sense to transfer to another congregation that would be much more welcoming of his particular gifts and sensibilities. But ironically, the more fervently I prayed, the more resolute this person became in staying put and making trouble. And then finally one day, I realized that it was the divine sense of humor, the divine intention, that this person be part of that community, not just for me to endure but in some profound way, to be part of my own stretching and salvation. And that was a very helpful insight and we ended up, not intimate friends, but at least able to recognize the authenticity of Christ in one another. So, look around, Christ is present in those about you and remember we are for one another's salvation.
Each of us through baptism bears the image of Christ. The risen Christ is present in each one of us though the agency of the Holy Spirit. And therefore we carry within us, shaped by our own personal history and experience, some dimensions of the truth "as in Jesus," to use a phrase from the Letter to the Ephesians. Some dimension of the truth as in Jesus, who is himself the truth. Therefore seeking the truth of Christ is a corporate undertaking, a communal enterprise. "Truth is discovered in communion" as a contemporary Greek Orthodox theologian observes.
Keeping this in mind will help us as we seek to establish and maintain an environment - a context of trust and mutual respect in which the truth "as in Jesus" can reveal itself in the diverse opinions, perceptions, and experiences of those we encounter on the floor of Convention, in committees, in hearings, on escalators, yes in restrooms, restaurants, and along the street.
What we do here in Denver over the next few days is our offering to our church. Our actions will effect our congregations and dioceses, as we provide direction for our mission as a community of faith, and order our common life in ways that support our continuing work of reconciliation and disciple-making.
Our task is broad and far-reaching: racism, international debt, poverty, environmental degradation, religious persecution are some of the concerns and instances of systemic sinfulness we are called to acknowledge, confess, repent of, and address.
Probably the most emotional question we will deal with is that of sexuality. When we talk about sexuality we are not dealing with an abstraction. I get very frustrated when people talk about sexuality as a sort of "it," a disembodied "it," removed from human experience. My friends, we are all sexual beings. And if you haven't acknowledged that, take a minute to do so. We all come with sexual histories and experiences out of which we assess and evaluate the concerns at hand. And many of us would admit that sexuality, as a dimension of who we are, is sometimes awkward, it's irrational, it reveals us to ourselves often at our most vulnerable level. But it is also sacramental, it's revelatory of God's love in bonds of fidelity and mutuality. We, as a community of faith, contain within ourselves a wide variety of perspectives and life experiences. We represent different understandings of what it means to live as sexual beings in fidelity to the gospel of Christ. Divergent readings and interpretations of scripture and assessments of tradition lead, at times, to seemingly irreconcilable points of view.
Here I am put in mind of some words of William Blake written in 1818 in an essay entitled The Everlasting Gospel:
Both read the Bible day and night, But thou readest black where I read white.
I think it is good for us to remember that all readings of the Bible are, in fact, interpretations.
As you are aware, under General Rule 1 of the House of Bishops I have appointed a special committee to focus on resolutions related to human sexuality. And Dr. Chinnis has done the same under rules of the House of Deputies. In each case, the committees so established have been assigned the number, committee 25. The committee, at least for the House of Bishops needs a name, so we are calling it the House of Bishops Committee on the Church and Human Sexuality. These two committees will function in the same manner as regular cognate committees, and will work to present for our consideration what they consider to be the best way forward for our church at this time.
Most of the response to our decision has been very positive. However, we have heard some contrary opinions as well. But please know that we have considered this matter with great care, and believe that this decision is in the best interest of our two Houses, our work together, and our church.
As we consider the question of sexuality, it is important to remember that being decision-makers has to do with discerning the best way forward not only as members of the Episcopal Church in the United States but as part of that larger community of faith - the Anglican Communion. How can our work become a gift, an invitation, to others whose contexts and experiences are very different from our own?
The context in which we find ourselves is one where faithful people - all of whom take seriously the life-givingness of scripture - which is what its authority properly means - do not agree on questions of sexuality, more specifically the place within the life and ministry of the church of homosexual persons who do not perceive that they are called to lives of life-long celibacy.
One way forward is through the ascetical discipline of conversation which involves careful and patient and courageous listening to and receiving one another as fellow limbs of Christ's body. It is interesting to note that conversation and the word "conversion" both come from the same Latin root, a passive form of the verb, "to turn." Both mean, in some sense, "to be turned." Conversion means, commonly, to be turned back to God and conversation means opening ourselves to the possibility of finding ourselves turned by what we receive from the other person.
We tend often in difficult conversations that threaten us in someway, to lead with our conclusions. "I will tell you where I stand, now I expect you to tell me where you stand." If we do that, we often miss meeting one another at a deeper and more significant level. Am I willing to meet the Christ in you, born in experience that may be very different from my own and are you willing to meet the Christ in me? And in meeting Christ am I willing to find my perception of truth is stretched and enlarged by the truth you embody and represent in your attempt to live the Gospel faithfully and are you ready to be stretched and enlarged by the truth that is in me? It is not easy to have an undefended heart but I think if our work is to be indeed a gift to the church, we must pray for that gift deeply among ourselves.
The recognition of Christ in the other in the fullness of their personhood and their attempt to live the Gospel faithfully in the fullness of their difference from us is not necessarily resolution; it is something far more profound and more significant. It's communion. Communion often involves the capacity to stand with another in the truth of who they are in such a way we can make room for difference. We can still see the Christ within them even though their perspectives, their experience, are very unfamiliar to us, and in some ways, uncomfortable.
I think here of some words of the Sufi mystic Rumi, who said, "Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there lies a field. I'll meet you there." And my sense is that beyond the ideas of right doing or wrong doing, can I accept you, can I make room for you, can you make room for me, there lies a field, and that field is the field not of resolution but of communion. I hope that we can meet one another there in the course of this General Convention.
And so, instead of leading with conclusions, we might start with "Who is Jesus for you?" "Who is Christ in your experience as a person of faith?" And we may find that common ground is more solid than we first believed it might be. I had an experience of this several months ago when the Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Portugal and we all sort of postured ourselves in relationship with one another and what we presumed to be one another's perspectives and opinions. And then one of the sessions was a rather informal session in which we were invited to share with one another what scripture meant to us. And it was amazing to discover that in very diverse personalities, living in very different contexts, there was a deep and widely shared sense of the centrality of scripture as a place where we encounter Christ. And that experience then shifted and changed all the conversation and considerations that happened on the other side of that experience. We found common ground and it made a tremendous difference.
All this, I think, calls for patience, it calls for a willingness to meet one another openly and trustingly where the other is and it also calls for living the questions that confront us as a community of faith. Some of us are much more oriented toward, "let's get to the decision." Others of us are much more able to live with ample possibilities. Our psychologies come into play as we reflect on any number of concerns that come before us as a church. But the capacity to live questions in common, I think, is a very important gift we must seek. And here I think of some words from the poet Rilke, who said
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
This kind of living questions means, among other things, facing the reality of paradox - moving from a perspective of either/or to one of both/and. By paradox I mean the capacity to embrace seemingly irreconcilable opposites as part of one truth.
The tradition of the church has shown us that a capacity for paradox is integral to orthodoxy and has been with us since the beginning. Take for example the doctrine of the Trinity in which we contemplate the mystery of God who is both three and one - not three or one. "The divine is indivisible in its divisions," observed Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century. "Both the distinction and the union alike are paradoxical."
Or again, the Calcedonian definition printed in our Prayer Book, dated 451, in which the divine and human natures of Christ are declared coexistent without confusion or separation. Christ therefore is not either human or divine as the early Christological heresies argued but rather both human and divine. As we see, paradox in the life of the church is not a contemporary construction.
Discernment and decision-making are at the heart of our Convention and they are the work we will share over these next days. This being so, we must exercise great mindfulness. We must be aware that urgent voices can press upon us from outside this deliberative body and easily draw us off course. To be sure, we must listen carefully to all voices. But we must also exercise the discipline of discernment with respect to what we hear. And here I think it's good to be aware of the power of the negative which often has far greater emotional force within us than what is positive. Negativity can unbalance us and obscure all that is positive and hopeful and trustworthy.
Some years ago while I was serving as Bishop of Chicago, a priest came to me six months after he had become rector of a new parish and he said, "I think I had better resign." I was somewhat surprised and I said, "why?" He said, "they're all against me." And, as we talked through the situation it became clear that two members of the vestry had taken umbrage at the fact he had moved the lectern. And on the basis of that, he had surmised that everyone in the parish was against him. And when he finally saw that it was two voices and not 125, he said, "I think I've been caught." I said, "indeed you have been, you've been caught by the negative which has a way of filling the entire canvas and assuming a proportion that is completely out of balance with its real import. And so, be aware of the negative as we move through these days. Keep the canvas large and broad.
Keeping ourselves centered is extremely important and our daily liturgy and table reflection will be one of the ways we ground ourselves in the Risen Christ who meets us in Word and Sacrament and our fellowship with one another, and is the beginning and end of all we do.
We need also to be aware of the dangers of electronic communication which in seconds can send around the globe half-truths and untruths without their being properly tested or confirmed. Suddenly something that appears on the Internet from some unknown author can subvert much of our careful work and consideration. So be careful about what you read, what you report to others, and what you say yourself.
This was made very plain to the primates of the Anglican Communion when they met. Professor David Ford of Cambridge University, who guided our Bible studies, reminded us that in an era of electronic communication, incarnation and face-to-face meeting become all the more important in discerning the mind of Christ. That is what we have the opportunity to do here. General Convention is a profoundly incarnational event.
Several other points. Remember things take time. The Spirit works over time. And, it is important to discern what we are being called to do now. What is the next step? We may not yet have arrived at a final answer.
Also, something may be right in the long-term but its hour may not yet have come in the life of the community. Careful discernment is needed here lest we fall into either precipitous action or, conversely, into avoidance.
Here I am put in mind of Jesus' words in John 16. "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truthâ¦he will take what is mine and declare it to you." I doubt any single General Convention could stand all Christ's truth. And so it comes to us bit by bit, Convention by Convention as we seek to be faithful to the leadings of the Spirit. And, therefore God's compassion is such that overtime we are lead into an ever fuller and deeper understanding of the one who is the truth and who chooses to reveal that truth in and through the many members of his risen body.
Let me end these reflections with a quotation from Thomas Merton which captures, I think, much of what I have been saying.
If I allow Christ to use my heart in order to love my brothers and sisters with it, I will soon find that Christ, loving in me and through me, has brought to light Christ in my brothers and sisters. And I will find that the love of Christ in my brothers and sisters, loving me in return, has drawn forth the image and the reality of Christ in my own soul.
Thank you, and may each one of us be faithful as we undertake the work that lies ahead. And may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA