Friday, October 13, 2017

Address to Synod, 2017

Bloomington, Illinois--13 October 2017

This is the seventh annual synod of the Diocese of Springfield over which I have presided as Bishop, and the eighth that I have attended. Serving you, serving our Lord Jesus with you, continues to be among the greatest joys of my life. Thank-you.

I continue to be supported by a small but omnicompetent staff. I once told Archdeacon Denney that he is my factotum, and he knows enough lawyerly Latin to realize that was a compliment; a factotum is someone who simply gets everything done, and, in Shawn’s case, important stuff involving lots of details that I earnestly don’t want to do! Sue Spring is equally detail-oriented, and any of you who have worked with her around insurance or pensions can testify to her prowess in those areas. Most of you never get to interact with Molly Henderson, our part-time clerical assistant. Molly is assigned the really, intensely boring things that virtually nobody wants to do, and she tackles this work with enthusiasm and good humor. And our staff addition this year, Paige Daugherty, our Communications Coordinator—well, I haven’t yet thrown anything her way that she can’t handle, so I’m going to just keep trying until I find her limit! If you haven’t yet met Paige, please take the opportunity.

Last year when I stood before you on this occasion, I regaled you—for an hour and ten minutes, no less!—with long stories from the sabbatical that I had concluded only a few days earlier. This year, I’ll be briefer and more conventional, and simply offer a sort of “state of the diocese” report.

Six years ago, at the synod in Belleville, we unveiled a Mission Strategy Vision statement that had been developed by the Department of General Mission Strategy, as it was known then. While much has changed over the years, this vision statement is, I believe, still vital, and I will use it as the template for my remarks, asking with regard to each of its components: Where are we? Where are we called to be? –or—What are we doing well? What do we need to be doing better? Then, a bit of a sidebar on some of the external forces that directly affect us but over which we have no control.

Our strategic vision statement begins with the claim that the Diocese of Springfield is one church. So here’s where I need to throw a little bit of theology at you, because that “one church” bit, when talking about the diocese, might be causing you to scratch your head or raise an eyebrow. The traditional theological understanding is that the diocese is the fundamental unit of the church. Why? Because the diocese has all the resources that are needed to be the church. In fact, in just a little while, as we’re gathered for the Eucharist at St Matthew’s, we will together be forming a living icon of the fullness of the church’s life—the community of the baptized, the ordained elders of the community, whom we know as presbyters or priests, the college of deacons, who represent the servant ministry of Christ in our midst, all gathered with the Bishop, who is a living personal link not only horizontally across space to other Christian communities, but vertically across time to the apostles and to Christ. While most here experience the church most frequently at the altar where they are habitually fed on Sundays, that experience is only possible because of the diocese. I’m the main exception to this! St Paul’s Cathedral is the closest thing I have to a home church, but I’m certainly gone from there way more often than I’m present, because by far the most important thing that a bishop does is to be the thread, the glue, that binds together the Eucharistic Communities of the diocese into one church. And some may be tempted to think that our brand name, the Episcopal Church, stands over and above us in importance. But please don’t ever think that we as a diocese are simply a regional subdivision of the Episcopal Church. It’s actually the other way around. It’s the various dioceses that covenant together to form the entity we know as the Episcopal Church.

So, yeah, that theology lesson was probably necessary, I think, because it’s not how we might be naturally inclined to understand things. But we’re making some progress: I’m going to be spending some time tomorrow and Sunday right here in McLean County working with the Eucharistic Communities of Christ the King and St Matthew’s toward developing and deepening a sense of shared mission and shared responsibility for that mission. I know that the Eucharistic Communities of Tazwell County—All Saints in Morton and St Paul’s in Pekin—are exploring their own call to be one parish in two worshiping locations. The congregations in Marion County—St John’s in Centralia and St Thomas’ in Salem—have also been bending in a similar direction. We are making baby steps. Sangamon and St Clair and Madison Counties, you have not been forgotten!

You heard me refer earlier to Paige, our Communications Coordinator. She has already given a steroid shot to our Facebook page and our website, and she and I are just beginning to sink our teeth into a database system that will help us make email communication and event registration at a diocesan level way more robust than anything we’ve been able to do previously. We also working together to up our game in the area of online video resources for catechesis and discipleship formation. I can’t tell you how encouraged I am to have someone in this position.

What else is working well to foster a sense of the diocese being one church? Cursillo certainly comes to mind. Some of you may have an impression of Cursillo as a niche movement with a fixation on returning to the 1970s. Well, think again. That was then and this is now. We have made significant strides in giving Cursillo in this diocese a fresh look and feel. Whether you are lay or ordained, if you have not been on a Cursillo weekend, just do it. To the clergy I might add, suck it up and do it. It can be a significant tool in your arsenal for the revitalization of your own parish community, but you need to know what you’re sending people to, and the best way to do that is to experience it for yourself.

Let me also say something about the St Michael’s Youth Conference. We’ve done it three times now, and I think it’s safe to say that we’re getting better at it each time. So, if you have kids in your church who are between 13 and 19, twist their arms or bribe them or whatever it is you have to do to get them to St Michael’s. I can point you to young people in this diocese for whom it has already been a hugely formative experience. We are making disciples of Jesus at the St Michael’s conference. Don’t miss out on it.

All this emphasis I’m putting on “one church” is not just a feel-good aspiration. It’s mission-critical. We need to be focused on mission, and we need to have each other’s backs as we do so. Along those lines, I’m pleased that the proposed budget that we will consider and vote on tomorrow has funds in it to continue our ongoing work in Cairo. What has happened there under Fr Muriuki’s leadership is nothing short of miraculous. Our Presiding Bishop has refocused Episcopalians on the work of racial reconciliation, which is nothing other than basic gospel work, and having diocesan financial skin in the game in Cairo is a sign of our partnership in that work.

… which leads to the next phrase in our mission strategy vision: “organized for mission into geographic parishes.” As I’ve already alluded to, we’re seeing progress in the geographic parishes of Tazewell and McLean counties. But, as you may recall, a year ago we adopted revised canons that provide tangible encouragement along these lines. Every Eucharistic Community is now required to submit to the Department of Mission an annual Mission Strategy Report. The statement this makes is that prosecuting the mission of the church is a grassroots, on-the-ground endeavor, carried out locally, and not orchestrated at 821 S. Second Street in Springfield. The format for the Mission Strategy Report is still being perfected, but you’ll have it soon. And if you’re in one of the three deaneries in the northern half of the diocese, you will have some special assistance in the form of a Mission Strategy Developer, namely Father Michael Newago, who is based at St Barnabas’ in Havana. It is on Fr Newago’s radar to be in touch with each of the rectors, vicars, and priests-in-charge in these three deaneries to set up some in-person time with your Mission Leadership Team.

Continuing with the vision statement: “… manifested in eucharistic communities and communities-in-formation …”  Nothing gives me greater joy than to celebrate the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day with the congregations of this diocese, especially when there are confirmations and especially even more when there are baptisms. I can see that we are being slowly but surely formed into the image of Christ by our regular participation in the holy mysteries of our Lord’s Body and Blood. That’s not news, I hope. But let me put a finer point on it, and mention adult baptism in particular. I’m convinced that the most significant metric of church vitality going forward into this post-Christian era in our society is the number of adult baptisms. I know inquirers and catechumens cannot simply be confected at will, but, if we are faithful in the pursuit of mission, they will be a natural by-product of our efforts. Will you not join me in prayer, and ask the Holy Spirit to prime the pump for us in this, to encourage us in our evangelistic calling, by sending us those who hunger and thirst for life in Christ, so that our baptismal fonts are never allowed to dry out? Pray that we may be found worthy for the Spirit to lead a growing stream of adults to us, of whom we can make disciples and bring them to the font. Pray that the Diocese of Springfield will be famous for the number of adult baptisms!

So, what do we need to keep doing and do better? We need to continue to focus, and focus more intensely, on turning baptized pew-sitters into equipped disciples, and turning equipped disciples into well-trained missionaries. About three months ago, Fr Dave Halt and I were sitting in a hotel lobby in Tabora, Tanzania with the bishop of that companion diocese of ours, Elias Chakupewa. He was explaining the way they do missionary work in their diocese. When parish clergy discern that someone may have a gift for evangelism, that person is sent to a diocesan training school for a three-month period of intensive residential formation with a cohort of others. Eventually, after continued discernment back at home, these folks are deployed as evangelists and catechists. They go into an unchurched village and start forming relationships (the diocese provides them a place to live). If the evangelist/catechist is successful—within a certain time frame; they don’t let it go on indefinitely—if the evangelist/catechist is successful in establishing a worshiping community, the diocese will send in a priest. The priest’s goal is to continue developing the congregation to the point where they can acquire a piece of land and begin construction on a church building. The evangelists who are successful at this form the pool of candidates from which priests are ordained. And the priests who succeed in their phase of this process are rewarded by—wait for it, now—being sent out of the diocese for a seminary education. So, by the time they collectively incur the huge expense of formal theological education, they’re not doing it on spec, they’re working with a known commodity, someone who has proven they have the gift and ability to do the job. What a concept!

Of course, Bishop Elias went on to tell us, “You can’t do that in your context,” referring mostly, I think, to that initial three-month residential training period. And he’s probably right about that. Well, what can we do in our context? That’s the question we need to be constantly asking ourselves. I have a couple of ideas that I’ve batted around with a handful of the clergy, but they need to be developed. In the meantime, maybe you have some ideas. If you do, please don’t keep them to yourself.

The final part of the vision statement: “… with a goal of being concretely incarnate in all of the 6o counties of central and southern Illinois.”  This is surely what’s known in the trade as a BHAG—a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, and I will not see it happen on my watch as bishop. We’ve actually lost ground, with church closures in Hamilton, Edgar, and Effingham counties over the last seven years, and Richland County just before that. The challenge of rural depopulation is besetting all of our small-town eucharistic communities. This is a sobering trend. But, it has been shown time and again that churches can thrive in depressed areas. In fact, the pain of economically hard times tends to make people a little bit more vulnerable to the good news of God in Christ, I would think. So, let’s not take our eyes off the goal.

Now, just briefly, I mentioned Effingham. A few years ago, we had to close St Laurence’s Church there, and we sold the property. Effingham is a place where we should be able to sustain a Eucharistic Community, and it is my hope and intention to replant there. We could actually cobble together the financial resources to jump-start such an effort. What we lack, to be honest, is the right person, a called and gifted church planter. They don’t grown on trees. I invite you to join me in praying that the Holy Spirit will lead us to the right person to take up our work once again in Effingham.

There is much to rejoice in, then, much that we are doing well and faithfully, and also a great deal that we need to hold in our prayers in the hope that grace will abound.

Now, a brief word on external threats. Next year, 2018, is a General Convention year. We elected our Springfield deputation a year ago. This presents two concrete challenges:

There will be a report coming from the Standing Committee of Liturgy and Music regarding revision of the Book of Common Prayer. There has a been a great deal of online discussion about this—maybe you’re seen the Facebook group dedicated to the subject—but my own reading of the situation is that there won’t be critical mass of energy around staring a years-long process of thorough revision at this time. If I am right about this, having lived through the last revision process, I will be grateful! However, there is also a resolution that has already been written, coming from a different source, a highly-influential task force that was itself created by General Convention, to amend the Prayer Book in a very surgical manner, focusing just on the liturgy for marriage and whatever material in the catechism pertains to marriage. The result, if such a thing were to pass, would freeze out those who hold to the understanding of sexuality and marriage that is rooted in scripture and tradition, and continues to be the official teaching of the Anglican Communion. I believe that this resolution will sail through committee and would sail through the House of Deputies if it ever gets there. Of course, the bishops will have first crack at it, and while I won’t say that I’m optimistic that my colleagues in the House of Bishops will join me in taking the wind out of its sails, I have a significant degree of cautious hope that such might be the case. Do pray.

The other issue that concerns me for our sake is something that was actually passed by the last General Convention, but which will not take effect until 2019. Until now, the financial contribution of the dioceses to the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, which is the formal name of what refer to casually as the “national church,” has been styled an “asking.” In 2019, it will become a canonical assessment, no longer merely an asking. It has been nearly 15 years since the Diocese of Springfield has paid the full amount of what the General Convention has asked of us, owing to a combination of political forces and financial exigency; we’ve essentially balanced our budget on this line item as our income has dwindled. This is still a fraught issue for us, I guarantee you, as we will learn if someone choose to broach the subject in tomorrow’s discussion of the budget. But we need to know that we will probably shortly be considered outlaws. Truth to tell, the sanctions for non-compliance that are attached to the canon are not anything that would actually harm us, but our reputation, such as it is, would be harmed.

I think that’s it … and in about half the time as last year! Know that I hold you in my prayers daily, especially whatever Eucharistic Community I’m scheduled to visit the following Sunday. I trust you will hold me in yours as well.

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