Dear Diocesan Family,
|Bishop Hollerith, Rev. Dale Custer, Rev. Charles Robinson|
Now that the deputies and I have returned (and recovered) from the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City, some reflection seems appropriate. Given the “light-speed” nature of modern communications much of the details of Convention are already known by Episcopalians in Southern Virginia. But, should anyone desire more specific information, please visit both our diocesan website (www.diosova.org) and the General Convention website (www.generalconvention.org).
First, a few words about the context of General Convention: In many ways the setting presented more challenges for the Southern Virginia contingent than in years past. While the actual event took place in the massive Salt Palace Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, all the Southern Virginia folks were housed in a hotel three-quarters of a mile away from the Center. This necessitated quite a bit of walking - which was on some days a real challenge given the mile-high altitude of the city and sometimes 100 degree-plus temperatures. In addition, the sheer size of convention center was such that, even once inside the building, the walk to the various meeting spaces could be an additional half-mile or better! Needless to say, your deputies and bishop received plenty of daily exercise.
It’s hard to imagine the intensity of the work of General Convention unless one experiences it first hand. Work sessions typically began at 7:30 AM and often continued past the dinner hour and well into the evening. Breaks for meals were often short lived or even non-existent for some of us - depending on our specific committee assignments. Keeping up such a rigorous pace for 11 days meant that all of us returned home unanimously exhausted. Yet, despite the schedule challenges and distances, we remained fully engaged in our work while at Convention. The deeply spiritual daily worship services and the natural camaraderie that comes from being in community seemed to keep us energized and focused throughout the week. And it is truly inspiring to see the church-corporate, in all its diversity and in all its chaotic glory, striving together to do the work of Jesus.
Many decisions were made at the 78th General Convention, but there are three decisions in particular which I believe will have the greatest long-term impact on our common life in the Episcopal Church:
The Election of Michael Curry as the 27th Presiding Bishop
This was the highlight of Convention and a truly joyful experience. Michael was not just elected, he was elected by a landslide! Never before has the House of Bishops spoken so clearly and so single mindedly about the leadership it desires for the future of our Church.
Given the fact that Michael is the first African American to be elected as Presiding Bishop in the history of our church – no small thing indeed - it would be easy to suppose that his election was simply the Episcopal Church striving to be politically correct. While his election does make a powerful statement to the world about our church’s commitment to racial justice - a statement that is well-timed in light of the recent tragedies in our country - this was not the primary reason for his election. Michael was elected because of his personal charisma, his powerful preaching gifts and leadership ability, and the fact that he is an outspoken advocate for “Episcopal evangelism”. In short, the vast majority of bishops believe that Michael Curry has the “right stuff” to move our beloved church forward in mission. We celebrate the fact that he is the first African American Presiding Bishop, and we are excited about the future of his ministry.
A few days after the Supreme Court of the United States made marriage equality the law of the land, both houses of General Convention likewise voted to move forward and authorize same-gender marriage.
In essence, General Convention’s decision came in the form of two separate resolutions (A054 and A036) which act together to bring marriage equality to all dioceses of the Episcopal Church beginning on the first Sunday of Advent. The canons of the church regarding marriage have been changed to be gender-neutral, and two trial liturgies have been approved. One is a gender-neutral version of the current marriage service in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and the other is a version of “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” that was first approved for blessing same-sex unions in 2012 (presently in use in our diocese) and now can include vows of marriage. Bishops who object to same-sex marriage are not required to authorize these liturgies, but they are required to make provision with another bishop to do so for same-sex couples in their dioceses. As has always been the case, no clergy will ever be required to perform marriages that violate their consciences.
While we have been discussing and debating the issue of gays and lesbians in the life of the church for many, many years – over 40 actually - our decision in Utah signifies a momentous milestone in our common life. We have finally reached a point when we can provide not only legal protection, but also, in the words of my colleague, Bishop Sean Rowe, “full recognition of the sacred bond that unites both same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples who marry in our church.” I believe this is something to celebrate!
I am fully aware that these changes will be hard for some in our diocese to either understand or to accept. As always, we will maintain our policy of hearing and respecting dissenting voices and welcoming a broad range of theological positions into our common life. Likewise, as we move forward, I will continue to expect vestries and clergy to first engage in a process of mutual discernment and to reach a shared conclusion about their mission before using same-gender marriage liturgies.
Governance and Structure Changes and New Budget Commitments
While perhaps not as newsworthy as other decisions, General Convention took a significant step forward in redesigning the way business is done at the highest levels of the greater church. First, resolutions were passed to dissolve the massive standing commission structure that has so clogged the General Convention process over the past several years. In the future there will be only two standing commissions rather than fourteen: Governance-Structure, and Liturgy-Music. All other issues in the church will be addressed through a process in which the Executive Council of the Church initiates temporary, goal-specific task forces. This should go a long way to lessen both the number of resolutions received by any given General Convention as well as avoid the creation of commissions which have no end date.
Likewise, resolutions were passed that change the oversight process of the staff of the Episcopal Church office at 815 2nd Avenue in New York City. The Presiding Bishop's role as Chief Personnel Officer has been clarified. And a new canon was introduced which requires the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies to jointly recommend for appointment a Chief Operating Officer for the Episcopal Church Office.
Most inspiring was the fact that when it came to passing the budget and allocating funds for the next three years General Convention placed racial justice, evangelism and church planting into the forefront of our list of priorities. Evangelism alone has received a budget commitment of 2.8 million dollars.
While all these changes may sound minor and basic, such changes represent the Episcopal Church’s attempt to reinvent itself for the mission needs of the 21st century.
Overall, I believe there is a priority shift taking place in our Church – a priority shift toward mission and evangelism. And although we face many challenges, this shift, when combined with the energy and vision of our new Presiding Bishop-elect, promises that the future of our Church can be meaningful, exciting and more deeply reflective of Christ call to proclaim the Gospel to the world.
As a final word, I want to express my deep appreciation for the deputies and alternates who took the time and considerable effort to represent the Episcopal Church in Southern on behalf of all of us. I hope others in our diocese will express their appreciation to them as well.
The Rev. Samantha Vincent Alexander (St. John’s, Hampton)
The Rev. Willis Foster (St. Stephen’s, Petersburg)
The Very Rev. Charles Robinson (Bruton Parish, Williamsburg)
The Rev. Dale Custer (St. John’s, Chester)
The Rev. Keith Emerson (St. Paul’s, Suffolk)
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson (St. Aidan’s, Virginia Beach)
Mr. Sam Webster (Ascension, Norfolk)
Ms. Toni Hogg (St. John’s, Hampton)
Ms. Cynthia Barnes (St. Michael’s, Bon Air)
Ms. Alice Webley (All Saints, Virginia Beach)
Mr. Tony Robinson (St. Thomas’, Chesapeake)
Ms. Lily Burroughs (Old Donation, Virginia Beach)
Participating in the concurrent ECW Triennial Meeting:
Ms. Joyce Douglas (St. Augustine’s, Newport News)
Ms. Nancy Sands (Christ Church, Danville)
Ms. Nancy Smith (St. Aidan’s, Virginia Beach)
+ Holly Hollerith