Some Reflections on Coming Down from the Mountain

August 1, 2000

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

I write this letter to the church now in the first weeks after the Denver General Convention. Many of us who took part in the Convention would say it was both figuratively and literally a mountaintop experience, as Episcopalians by the thousands came together in the "Mile-High City" for this triennial gathering. The events and actions that made up the life of the Convention have been reported elsewhere, and there is no need to restate them here. However, I would like to share something of my own reflections, now that the 73rd General Convention is part of the history of our church.

After the Convention I went for several days to a monastery near Elmira, New York, a place of prayer and reflection for the last 35 years. While there I allowed myself time and space to let the experience of Convention settle, and speak its own word to me. As one who spoke many words in the course of the days in Denver, I needed to adopt the stance of listener. I prayed to know what God has said to me through the experience of General Convention. Out of the many words that were exchanged in all sort of encounters - formal and informal - in resolutions, in conversation and discussion, in prayer, what is the deeper word being addressed to us as a household of faith?

One word that immediately stood out for me is not a word at all but a visual image, one that will be familiar to all who attended the Convention, and one that seems to me to serve as a metaphor for the event. Over the entrance to the space in which we gathered daily for the eucharist hung a large banner depicting the face of Christ. What made the banner unusual is that Christ was composed of many faces - faces of people like and unlike you and me who, together through baptism, form the body of Christ.

What this banner says to me is that the work of our community is to claim our oneness in Christ. We have been given the community. We have not created it ourselves. However, we must claim it, so that difference is reconciled in one body through a dynamic of incorporation. We claim the gift of community by breaking down walls of hostility and division, as we read in the letter to the Ephesians. I believe that bishops and deputies gathered in Denver understood at some deep level that, despite our different perspectives and experiences, we are members one of another called to live the costly mystery of reconciliation.

Another word I have pondered over these days since the Convention is jubilee. Over the last year or more, as we have prepared for the General Convention, I have spoken about jubilee and what it means to become a people of jubilee. The theme of jubilee ran through the Convention and pointed toward our hope for who we might become. When I first thought of jubilee as a Convention theme, I don't think I fully understood what it might mean if we took seriously the richly biblical notion of jubilee, which means to begin to do the work of release, remission, and the reordering of relationships according to God's passionate desire for the free and full flourishing of all that God has created. I don't think any of us knew as we moved toward this Convention where jubilee might take us. Dare I say, our faithful journey was in accord with the divine imagination, and not our own best plans.

Our journey toward jubilee led us to ask a very profound question, and through our days in Denver, as we moved from committee meeting to worship, through discussion and debate, we lived this question. What does it mean to live with one another in the communion of the Holy Spirit? Our daily eucharistic encounter with the risen Christ and one another kept the question always before us, not as something theoretical but as something we participated in and lived day by day.

"Truth is discovered in communion," observes a contemporary Greek Orthodox theologian. That truth, however, never stands on its own: it is always drawn by the Spirit of truth from the fullness of Christ (John 16). Any truth held apart from Christ who is the Truth is idolatry. Our Convention was a searching after truth in a context of communion. This meant that, by God's grace, we moved during those days on the mountain beyond notions of winning or losing - either/ or - to a capacity to welcome paradox - both/and - as integral to genuine orthodoxy and catholicity. It required of us all a disciplined willingness to listen to one another not simply with the mind ready to oppose or correct but with "the ear of the heart" ready to welcome the other in the strength of God's ever welcoming compassion - a fundamental aspect of a jubilee consciousness.

Genuine communion requires a dying to self and therefore self-interest: "for my sake and for the sake of the gospel," Jesus tells us. "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others," Paul urges the church at Philippi. Such transcending of one's own personal desires for the sake of the other is a consequence of love, because "love is patient; love is kind…it does not insist on its own way…it bears all things…hopes all things, endures all things" (1Corinthians 13:41) - and it can even live with unanswered questions.

Our Convention contained many instances of this kind of compassionate and loving attention to one another, and on all sides there was a willingness to seek after communion rather than resolution. How we live with one another says far more about us than the decisions we make. There were, of course, instances in which sin rather than grace was revealed, as we reminded ourselves each day in our corporate confession at the eucharist.

What stands out most clearly as I reflect on the Convention is that we have moved into a greatly expanded and deepened sense of the Episcopal Church as truly a eucharistic community. We are a community that day by day is growing beyond compromise and conflict into communion. Day by day we are becoming more able to bear one another's burdens, whatever they may be, and in this way to fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).

Now, we who were part of the Convention have come down from the mountain, but, in the way of mountaintop experiences, we have been changed. We are not the same people or, in a sense, the same church in virtue of what we lived together in Denver. Jesus came down from the mountain following the transfiguration, and set his face toward Jerusalem and the work God had given him to do on our behalf. There is work for us to do as well: the work of mission. What is the mission we have been given? Our Prayer Book supplies the answer: "The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." This is an ongoing task in every age, and it is my hope and prayer that the decisions, discernments and continuing questions which emerged from the 73rd General Convention will assist our whole church in being faithful to God's intent and make us a sign of hope to a broken and divided world.

As I ended my time of retreat, I realized that I have been given a great sense of joy about who we are, a sense of hope about who we are becoming, and a sense of wonder at the grace, and the power, and the love of God. May our community continue to grow into God's purposes for us, giving thanks for all that has been, and offering ourselves for all that might be.

With gratitude and affection, I am, yours ever in Christ.