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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Obstacles and Opportunities

We're in the midst of Alumi/ae Days here at The Episcopal Divinity School. In addition to catching up with former fellow classmates and friends, the annual Kellogg Lectures are part of the festivities.

You know it's your 25th Anniversary when friends come up to you and say, "Hey, you look great!" and they act surprised. Harumph!

I, on the other hand, was not guilty of making such statements, preferring, instead, to pass on a genuine compliment about jewelry or dress, or gently teasing some of my male classmates whose hair has grown a little thin.

I did run into my church history professor and the leader of my senior tutorial, who is, now, ancient of days.

"You have aged well, sir," I said. And, he has.

"On the inside," he laughed, "I don't have a wrinkle."

I'm totally stealing that line.

Today, we will hear two lectures from Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies, who will speak at 10:30 and 2:30. Her lectures are titled "Courageous Change: What it takes, and how it happens" and will examine how intentional change, when created is a tool for the ministry of all the baptized.

Yesterday, we heard a panel of bishops who spoke about "Obstacles and Opportunities for Bishops Today" featuring Bishops Mary Glasspool '81, John Smylie '81 and Ian Douglas '10 who joined moderator/faculty member Fredrica Harris Thompsett.

I apologize for the poor quality of the picture, but that's them, above.

All three bishops spoke frankly about the obstacles and opportunities facing them in their individual and widely differing contexts, but all were united in optimism for the future of the church.

Bishop Glasspool is, of course, the Bishop Suffragan in the Episcopal Diocese of LA. She spoke briefly of the challenges and joys of the enormous diversity of her diocese. She also mentioned that women are bringing a different leadership style to the House of Bishops, one that is more collaborative with an emphasis on consensus building. "It doesn't change the politics, necessarily" she said, "but it does change the process." And that will, eventually, change the politics of our process.

John Smylie is the Bishop of Wyoming which has 49 congregations, 25% of which have a full time rector. Two of those congregations have an average attendance of three people - although, he later mentioned, one of those congregations had eight people in attendance on Easter, representing a 200% increase in ASA.

I do believe that makes it one of the fastest growing congregations in all of Western Christendom.

When you consider that WY has a population of 550,000, you understand that evangelism and church growth are particular challenges.

However, Bishop Smylie said that the greatest obstacles are the church buildings, naming it an "attachment issue". He also cited the climate of litigation and legalism in our culture and a lack of passion for the gospel, saying that we must reform the vision of the way we are and do church. "Theology by resolution doesn't work," he said.

No, bishop, but legislation that bears the marks of what we believe about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are an important means of doing the business of the institutional church.

Ian Douglas is Bishop of the Diocese of Connecticut where he has been functioning in that capacity just slightly over a year. He said, "The acknowledgement of our differences is an opportunity."

He was teased by Dr. Thompsett about the diversity of his diocese. "There was a New Yorker cartoon which showed a driver entering the state and the sign said, "You are entering Connecticut. Dress nice."

Bishops Douglas countered by saying that the stereotype of the state was as inaccurate as most stereotypes - that the affluent, white, heterosexual, male paradigm is still alive and well but pretty much contained in one place in the southeastern part of the state.

He said that the greatest opportunity he saw was a real hunger for change and that the greatest obstacle was the institutional church, the inherited structures of doing business as well as the buildings. He said his focus was on building relationships in community and fostering faithfulness to the gospel.

Bishops Douglas also dropped a bit of a bomb shell when he said that he believed in "direct ordination" - that is, if you are called to be a deacon, you should be ordained to the diaconate. If you are called to be a priest, you should be ordained directly to the priesthood. And yes, if you are called to be a bishop, you should be ordained directly to the episcopacy.

"Direct ordination," he said, "would begin to help break down hierarchical structures which are impeding the growth of the church and the faithfulness to the gospel."

There was a Question and Answer period which followed their presentations, but, to my dismay, no one asked him more about that.

I didn't get to ask my question, either, which was this: "Yesterday the College of Bishops, an independent 501-C-3 non-profit organization, founded in 1993 in response to a specific need to strengthen the Episcopal Church’s bishops, announced a $15 million dollar campaign to endow the work of this organization.
“Through its myriad of programs, offerings, and educational enrichment sessions, the College for Bishops has proven to be invaluable for our bishops, which in turn has greatly benefitted clergy and laity,” explained Bishop Matthews. “Our goal now is to make sure that these offerings are available for future generations of Episcopalians.”
I had two questions for this esteemed panel of bishops: First, given the obstacles and opportunities you have outlined, I'm wondering what your reaction is to this news. A second question is that I understand that there are more than 30 bishops who have signed on to the campaign. Are any of the three of you involved in this work, and if so, why?"

I did have a chance to speak briefly with Bishop Glasspool after the presentation. She said that she has undoubtedly benefited from her time at the College of Bishops, but, since this was the first time she had heard of the initiative, her initial thought was that the timing of the initiative was unfortunate.

I couldn't agree more.

Last night we had a wonderful reunion banquet which recognized the work of two distinguished alums who work quietly and without much recognition for the mission of Christ's gospel. One of them was Richard Witt, a member of my class, who does amazing work among the rural poor and migrant population in upstate New York.

This morning, I will be preaching at St. John's Chapel here at EDS during the 8:30 AM Eucharist. It's "Doubting Thomas". Again. I doubt I have anything new to say, but I trust Jesus will give me something to preach.

There are many obstacles and many opportunities to preach and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, obstacles are opportunities. Other times, opportunities are occasions for paralyzing fear, as they represent change from the norm or status quo.

I am curious to know what Bonnie Anderson has to say to us about "courageous change" and what it takes and how it happens in the church.

Courageous change.

Courage and change.

God knows, we need both now, in this church of ours.

Off I go, then. I'll write more about these days of reunion and renewal later.  
I must say, however, that after being here for  a semester and listening to these three new bishops, I've never been more hopeful for the church. 


Hutch said...

I am a little dismayed about the Press announcement. While I agree the Bishop's need education, mentoring, etc. - and let's get some people who know how to head up justice filled corporations in there to mentor - I see a lot of priests who need the same. And, seeing my partner has always been at struggling, small congregations, and has just been downgraded to 10 hours, losing her health insurance, benefits, etc. and we will now have to sell our house and begin looking again, I have a very negative response to this. Pay attention to the least among you, Bishops.

Brother David said...

I agree with the bishop of CN, I hope for the day that here in Mexico we legislate new canons which will lead to direct or per saltum ordination.

To often folks view deacons as priests in training or serving an apprenticeship, when in reality the two ministries are very different. And unfortunately, those same folks usually view someone serving as a permanent deacon as someone who has failed to become a priest, someone stuck in their apprenticeship.

I hope that in the future we can come to a much better theological understanding of the historic ministries of the bishops, priests and deacons. I find what we have today often extremely lacking.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hutch - Some of us are trying to bring attention to this issue. It just doesn't make sense on so many levels.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dahveed - I am still undecided about the issue, and I'm grateful for your perspective. I hope to educate myself better about this issue.

kenju said...

What a great line. I don't have any inside wrinkles either!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

kenju - I'm so totally stealing this one.