Presiding Bishop’s opening remarks to General Convention

Episcopal News Service reports the opening remarks to General Convention from the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori:

When this body gathered three years ago we reflected on mission as God’s beating heart in our midst. General Convention is this Church’s regular opportunity to strengthen that incarnate heart for its work in the coming years. We’re here for a tune-up – to breathe deep, clear our vision, focus the muscles, and synchronize our heartbeat with God’s.

I would invite everyone here to take a deep breath. Breathe in Holy Spirit, the source of life. Remember that we depend on that divine gift for all that we are and all that we have. Breathe deep, for the spirit is blowing a fresh wind, and bringing new creation out of the chaos of the deep. Contemplating that chaos frightens some, for we never know what is coming, but there is no creation without it – like the death that must precede resurrected life. We struggle with it because we can’t yet see what is aloft on that breeze. Yet we are the stuff of God’s creation, we are borne on that wind as partners in God’s re-creation, reconciling, and healing of this world. Breathe deep, and be not afraid, for God is at work in our midst.

Consider what happens when hearts and minds and spirits are open to receive that breath. For some, it may feel like the hard push of resuscitation after breathing has stopped – like rescue breathing for a drowning victim. The only solution is to let go and receive that breath, for there is no life without it.

Sometimes that breath feels like a mere whiff, a barely discernible zephyr in the evening garden. Go on out there and search for more – go look for the freshening breeze.

Or that breath may be like the last gasp of a hospice patient. Let it go. Give thanks for the life that has been, and expect resurrection.

And for some, that breath may come like the first one taken by a newborn child – the breath that comes with an old-fashioned whack on the backside. Cry out for joy!

Let that breath get the heart beating and the blood moving, for we will never be God’s mission partners otherwise. Let that circulating blood connect us with the other parts of this body, here and far beyond this place. Go look for connections with your sparring partners – for the left hook and the right jab both come from the same body. Link up with somebody from another part of the theological spectrum – this big tent is the dwelling place of the holy, and we will never be who we were created to be if we only work with the fingers of the right hand or the left. Search out those you have wounded or who have wounded you – seek them out and let the grudges go – there isn’t much life in hanging on to them. It’s like that old tale about swallowing rat poison and expecting somebody else to die. Go find the supposed source of wounds and build a bridge together – notice the blood that’s been shed, and let it form a good scab to draw flesh together. Continue to pick at the wound and it will never heal. Let it go and keep breathing.

If this convention is The Episcopal Church’s family reunion, then go find somebody who represents the outlaw side of the family for you and spend a few minutes learning your relative’s story. You might promise to pray for each other through the coming days. Perhaps you can find time for a cup of coffee or a meal together. That kind of reconciling work will have a greater effect on our readiness for mission than any legislation we may pass here. We’re here to tune up the muscles and nerves and ligaments of this body for reconciling work, for the work of mission writ large. We’re going to need the gifts of every single part of the body in order to respond to that breath/wind/spirit blowing over the face of the deep – so go and build some living bridges.

Episcopalians are increasingly engaged in creative reconciling work with other bodies and partners beyond this Church. We’ve learned a lot in recent years about neighbors across the globe and in more local communities. We have been in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for more than ten years, and we’re growing into a newer full communion relationship with the Moravians. We are sharing and exchanging staff members with the ELCA, and our armed forces chaplains are working and learning together. The Moravians have a great deal to teach us about reconciliation, particularly in their commitment to avoid having anyone leave the table. The first Episcopal church is about to receive a Moravian pastor – in Western North Carolina.

We’re seeing new possibilities in our conversations with the Methodist churches, and the ways in which that conversation is working to heal the sin of racism will ultimately strengthen us all.

Recent years have seen some healing in our relationships around the Anglican Communion, and missional partnerships continue to grow and deepen. We are learning a great deal about how to be more effective partners, particularly when we are able to engage with humility and openness to our own transformation.

We have another significant opportunity for bridge-building, with the SBNRs around us – those who claim to be Spiritual But Not Religious. Those fields are indeed ripe with possibility, but the crop needs rather different methods than we’re used to. We need robust networks and the eager humility that will let us learn from others who are engaging new populations. The people of the Episcopal church in Frankfurt in Germany offer a great example. That congregation is reaching out to American deportees, people with German citizenship but often no ability to speak the language and no knowledge of the culture, who have been expelled by the United States, often for quite minor legal infractions. The congregation Christ the King is building community with people who have deeply spiritual questions but no trust or experience with the church. There is some similar kind of need almost everywhere, but it means going out into the community to listen for it, and finding new ways of sharing what we know of more abundant life in Jesus.

Re-forming and re-imagining ourselves for mission in a changed world is the most essential task we have before us. We’re not going to fix the church or the world at this Convention, but we can do something to make the church a better tool and instrument for God’s mission if we can embrace that new wind, discover God creating new life among us, and listen and look for Jesus.

We need a responsive set of structures, more connected at all levels of the church, and better able to tap the gifts of all parts of the body. There is good and creative work going on in many places, and we need to learn how to spread that information and learning as widely as possible. It needs nodal systems, like the heart muscle in a circulatory system, or the cells in a nervous system that collect and keep passing on the news. That pumping heart or those nerve cells are initiators or stimulators of communication – in other words, leaders. When those parts are equipped and committed to sharing good news, then the network becomes far more effective, and communication ripples out and across the broader community. But when effective and distributed leadership is absent, those networks quickly disintegrate.

The world around us is learning to develop effective and robust networks – and so are we. There are networks of innovators in church planting and congregational development, including ones that offer peer coaching. A couple of days ago a deputy suggested another possibility – what about TED talks for TEC as a more fruitful purpose for this kind of churchwide gathering?

We are just beginning to move toward this kind of a network for theological education resources – of seminaries, diocesan programs, and others – and that movement needs a whole lot more encouragement!

The domestic poverty initiative born at the last Convention is an example that is bearing significant fruit, from the churchwide gatherings focused on best practices to the ongoing work in Asset Based Community Development and other forms of community organizing. Looking at the assets already present in our communities as a necessary part of mission engagement is a way of discovering where God has already been at work, blessing the created nature in a local context. It’s a theological approach that says we will notice where the kingdom is already present, or in the process of emerging.

Many of you know other places where effective connective tissue is emerging and growing – Episcopal Community Services, Episcopal Service Corps, the ethnic ministry and justice networks. Passion keeps networks like those growing and expanding – it’s about blessing the work of the Spirit and letting the wind of God fill the sails and propel us into the world.

Discovering the most effective ways to organize and network ourselves for mission, for governance, and for supporting that mission is going to require us to look outside ourselves. We have to be willing to search out the gifts and assets already present. Something like a blue ribbon commission would be helpful – a leadership group that includes independent voices, that is non-partisan, that will offer the input of outsiders and people on the margins of the church, not just those already deeply invested in the church and in the way the church is now. That may not be easy for this body to engage, but God is already at work beyond this Episcopal Church and we have something to learn from that reality.

A lot of the anxiety in this body right now is rooted in fear of diminishment, loss of power or control, or change in status. The wider church – the grassroots – in not all that interested in the internal politics of this gathering. It is interested in the vitality of local congregations and communities, in ministry with young people, and in opportunities for transformative mission engagement in and beyond the local context. Our job here is to make common cause for the sake of God’s mission. That is in part a political task.

Politics is not a dirty word – it refers to the art of living together in community, and it applies to Christ’s body as much as it does to the various nations in which this Church is present. We don’t yet live in the fullness of the reign of God, even though we do see glimpses of it around us and among us. Our task is to gather the various parts of this body of Christ, together with any partners who share our values, for the work of building societies that look more like the reign of God. That takes compromise, for we will never all agree on the proper route or method for getting there. We live in the awkward yet lively tension between what is and what will eventually come to be, in God’s good time. We aren’t going to find perfection at this Convention, but we can prayerfully work at discerning a way forward that will let us gather our common gifts to work toward that dream of the reign of God.

We’re in this together – as the full range of Episcopalians, together with our Christian siblings – both those most like us and those who seem most distant – and we have other potential partners for the various parts of the mission God sends us to do. Our task is to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, in finding and blessing any creative gift that will serve God’s dream. Can we reframe our view? Will those with eyes to see and ears to hear look for the places where God’s creative presence is already at work? God has given those gifts, and we will miss the mark if we ignore them. We will miss all five marks if we ignore the partners and possibilities around us.

So breathe deep, (sic) open your eyes and ears, build bridges with unlikely folks, and let God’s word prosper in that for which God sent it. And may God bless our labors in this place!

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