Ministry Together: Bishop’s Address to the 140th Annual Convention of the Diocese of Southern Ohio

This is both a sermon and an address, so I’m delivering this as I would a sermon – without notes and walking around. Let me know if you can’t hear me.

We just heard a passage from John’s Gospel (17:11) , in which Jesus, on the night before he dies, consecrates himself, then prays for his disciples, and in praying for them, prays for us, saying “Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name.”

An odd gospel for the feast of Francis Asbury and George Whitfield – two great evangelists who propelled what is often known as ‘The Great Awakening’ – an important piece of American religious history, and of American history itself: a wave of religious fervor that overtook the colonies in the years just before the American Revolution. Whitfield and Asbury were two Church of England priests who came over from England – a long and dangerous journey. Both came several times, traveling up and down through all the colonies, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ where the people were: in fields, outside of the City Hall, in public houses (that is, taverns) – anywhere that they could gather crowds of people.

Benjamin Franklin was so impressed with George Whitfield’s ability to be heard by these crowds that he performed an experiment when George Whitfield came to Philadelphia. Sounds like Benjamin Franklin, right? While Whitfield was preaching, Franklin walked away until he found the point where he couldn’t hear him anymore. It was a distance far enough that he calculated that 1,600 people gathered together closely could hear him speak – and that was without a microphone.

We’re talking about real evangelism here. We are talking about a spreading of the Spirit, and a sense of God’s empowerment that some would say had a lot to do with making the revolution possible.

So why do we have a gospel today that is essentially introverted? Here is Jesus, in the intimacy of his Last Supper with his disciples, praying to the Father that he will protect this small band of people who sense that they are about to be orphaned. What’s going on here? I think this gospel passage is actually quite appropriate for this day. Remember that Whitfield and Asbury were both Church of England priests. They were part of the birth of the Methodist Movement, but the Methodist Movement was totally Anglican. It was about taking the prayer book seriously. It was about taking communion every week, saying Morning and Evening Prayer every day, and actually living as if the Book of Common Prayer  meant something.

That wasn’t the case in England at that time. In fact, everyone in Oxford made fun of John and Charles Wesley and their friends in college – George Whitfield among them – when they began living according to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer. They were called ‘Methodists’, because they were following a method that they believed would bring them closer to God. That’s the high church part of Methodism. But there was also an evangelical dimension. They believed that if you take the Book of Common Prayer seriously, it’s about all of society becoming church. It’s about our connection to one another. It’s about relationship, which is the major theme of this convention.

We are learning that worship can never happen individually. It must always include our facing one another, our presence to one another, our conversation with one another.

So these probably introverted undergraduates – the kind of neophytes Jesus probably had in mind in today’s gospel – began to go out into the streets to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. And when the sophisticated University people wouldn’t pay attention to them, they went out into the countryside. They found the poor people, the country people, the rustic people. They would stand in the fields and begin to preach and people simply emerged from everywhere to hear them, because they were so hungry to hear the message of God’s love for them. That’s what George Whitfield and Frances Asbury were doing for us, the American people. They took the power of the Methodist Movement, which was a Church of England movement – an Anglican movement – and they brought it to our shores.

Let’s not forget that for the most part the leadership of the Anglican Church rejected Methodism, and wouldn’t allow its preachers into our pulpits. But eventually we got it. We understood that what the Methodists were saying was what the Prayer Book had been saying all along.

So, slowly but surely, throughout our history as a minority Christian presence in the United States, we Episcopalians have tried to do two things. We have tried to live according to the discipline and rhythm of the Book of Common Prayer. But we’ve also tried to understand that as we live into that rhythm and discipline, we are learning about the connection into which God is calling all of us. We are learning how to be Christians together. We are learning that worship can never happen individually. It must always include our facing one another, our presence to one another, our conversation with one another.

We can only grow in our life in Christ, and in our relationship with him, through our relationship with one another – by listening to the witness that we have to offer to one another.

So back to our passage from John. John’s gospel doesn’t end like the other gospels. It doesn’t conclude, as Matthew does, with Jesus saying, “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations, and I am always with you.” That command and promise is implicit in John, but he forces us to linger in a period of connective incubation, if I may call it that. Jesus rises from the dead, and what happens next? Having appeared to Magdalene and the other apostles, he appears to Thomas, who doesn’t believe his friends when they tell him that they have seen the Lord. So Jesus comes to Thomas and says, “Thomas, blessed are you, because you see me. But more blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” That’s all of us.

What is Jesus saying to Thomas? He is saying that you cannot have God unless you’re willing to receive the power of God through the ministry of your brothers and sisters. You’re not going to get it direct. Some of us get it direct once in a while, or once in a lifetime, but for the most part, we can only grow in our life in Christ, and in our relationship with him, through our relationship with one another – by listening to the witness that we have to offer to one another. That’s the economy of God. That’s how the church works. It goes around and around through each of us.

Then comes Jesus’ encounter with Peter. Peter sits down to have breakfast with Jesus on the shore of the sea of Galilee. Do you remember what Jesus says to Peter? “Peter… Do you love me?”, “Yes, Lord. You know I love you. Feed my sheep.” The second time Jesus says to him, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter says, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” A third time Jesus says to Peter, “Peter, do you love me?” By this time Peter’s upset. “Lord, you know I love you!” “Feed my sheep.”

What’s going on here? Most obviously, Jesus is giving Peter a chance to take back the three times that he denied him. He gives him a chance to say three times, “I love you.” But beyond that, Jesus is saying to Peter, “I’m leaving you with a church to take care of. Take responsibility for it. You’re going to represent me. Feed my sheep.” That’s not just addressed to the bishop of Rome and his successors. It’s addressed to all of us. We are all called through our baptism to be responsible for the church. We are all called to be responsible for one another – to be shepherds of one another.

The challenge to Thomas and the challenge to Peter go together. We’re called to believe the witness of others to the power and presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. And we are called to be so open to God’s mercy poured into our lives that we can be icons of God’s mercy to others. The discipline of the Prayer Book is nothing more than the discipline of learning to listen to each other, and to take care of each other. And as we listen to each other and take care of each other, we become the Body of Christ. We become capable of following people like Francis Asbury, and George Whitfield, and John and Charles Wesley, and Martin Luther King, Julian of Norwich, and on and on it goes. We become capable of following them out into the world, unafraid to preach the gospel, not by ourselves, but as a body.

That, I believe, is what God is calling the Episcopal Church to these days. In our table conversations we were asked to consider what was the most important thing to talk about. I was at Table 28. What emerged immediately in that small group was, “We need to talk about how we respond to what feels like a diminishment in our church.” Someone at the table very wisely said, “You know it’s not just the church that’s feeling diminished. Every human association is becoming gray. Every community chorus, every club, along with every church, seems like it’s dying.” But, as someone else said, “God made us for talk. God made us for relationship. God made us for connection. We can’t do without it.” So if the habits of connection that we grew up with are fading away, it doesn’t mean that our need for conversation and relationship is fading away. It means that God is doing something new. God is calling us, perhaps out of the communities that we felt comfortable with, into new confrontation with the stranger. Surely that is what Jesus is calling us to as a church.

I’m so grateful to the Task Force on the Reimagining of the Church for coming to what might have seemed like an obvious conclusion, one so close to our noses that we couldn’t see it. And that is, “Who cares about structure? What we care about is connection.” I have always felt, from the moment I became your bishop, that this is a diocese hungry for connection. But we have been so overlaid with structure, process, and history – some good, some not so good – that often connection doesn’t come naturally to us. In their long and rich report the task force has many suggestions to make about how we can embrace connection, and let structure take care of itself.

I would like to build on just one of the suggestions that they have made today. It’s about deaneries. You know what I’m going to say. With a few exceptions, our deaneries don’t work. There are some notable exceptions to that, but for the most part our deaneries have been a structure in search of a use. I’m going to suggest this morning that we abolish them and stop trying to shore them up. Where they work, let them work. If you’re in a deanery that works, and you love it, keep going. Call it what you want. But I want to suggest that we simply concentrate on connection. (This is the address part.)

First of all, let’s celebrate the relationships that already exist in this diocese. I have the privilege of being able to see these relationships all over the place, but we don’t talk about them very much. Places like Saint Andrew’s, Evanston and Calvary Church in Cincinnati, who have formed a new bond with one another, and are becoming partners in mission. Or Franklinton Gardens in Columbus, an intentional community that’s into urban farming and helping kids learn how to build, and repair bicycles. They’ve now allied themselves with all kinds of other agencies in that impoverished part of Columbus, so that they can work together to transform the neighborhood.

Things like this are happening all over the diocese. We need to celebrate them, and that’s the first of three things I’d like to propose. I would like us to spend a couple of months as a diocese identifying and celebrating the relationships and partnerships for ministry that are already happening. I ask you to go back to your congregations and invite your fellow parishioners to talk about the connections that have already been made – connections that transcend the boundaries of your parish life.

I’m not just talking about relationships with other Episcopal churches, which is, of course, what deaneries were supposed to be about. I’m talking about all kinds of relationships – with Lutherans, and Methodists, with Roman Catholics, with Jews, and Muslims – relationships with agencies, whether they’re Christian or not, and with all people and institutions of good will that are trying to help people live and work together in peace. It’s already happening. We don’t need structures to make it happen. It’s already happening, but we need to talk about it.

So I invite you between now and the last Sunday of Epiphany (February 15) to talk about this in your own congregations, and to send a report in to David Dreisbach, our Director of Communications (dreisbach@diosohio.org), and/or Julie Murray, our Associate Director of Communications (jmurray@diosohio.org) The reports don’t need to be long, and they don’t need to be wordy. They can just be pictures, links. But send them by the end of Epiphany, so David and Julie can spend Lent turning them into a big Easter report on the partnerships that are already happening.

That’s the first thing. Here’s the second: I would like us to build on the partnerships that have already been forged. Please think about your partnerships with one, two, three, four, five, or six other faithful entities. Get together with them, and cook up a proposal about some new ministry endeavor that you can do together.

I realize that this overlaps with the work of the Episcopal Community Services Foundation (ECSF) and the Commission on Congregational Life (COCL). ECSF is helping individual congregations do ministry in their own neighborhoods. COCL is helping congregations to be healthy presences where they are. I want to concentrate on how we can do ministry, not as individual congregations, but as partnerships.

I would like us to build on the partnerships that have already been forged. Please think about your partnerships with one, two, three, four, five, or six other faithful entities. Get together with them, and cook up a proposal about some new ministry endeavor that you can do together.

That’s how diocesan life happens. The diocese is not my office, nor is the Diocese a super-structure, an administrative process imposed on congregations from above. The Diocese is all the partnerships that you have with each other, from the ground up. That’s all that it is, but it’s at the heart of what we are as Episcopalians. We bother to be a diocese because we believe in the embrace of connection. At our best we are willing to connect completely to the neighborhoods around us, to the other churches that are near us, to people maybe a hundred miles away across the diocese who are into the same kind of ministry we’re into. We’re so willing to embrace all the connections that the Holy Spirit presents us with that we risk losing our identity to embrace them. That’s what it means to be an Episcopalian. That’s what we took from George Whitfield, and Francis Asbury. We said, “Okay, the Prayer Book is important. We’re going to take it so seriously that we’re willing to lose everything else for the sake of what it says to us.” That’s what it is to be an Episcopalian.

In the 1870s, at the General Convention meeting in Chicago, the House of Bishops decided that it was time for Christian unity. They knew such unity would be costly. So they made a list of the four fundamental things they must hold onto while uniting with other Christians. They were willing to get rid of everything else. And what were the four things? The Bible, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, the historic creeds (that is, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed), and best of all, bishops. They made a public statement to the whole Christian community throughout the world: “These are our four fundamentals, and we’ll let everything else go.” Imagine that – all the trappings of being an Episcopalian – they were willing to let it all go for the sake of connection. That was the moment when the Episcopal Church came into its own. Those bishops went to the very first Lambeth Conference a few years later, and they presented their “quadrilateral” to all the bishops of the fledgling Anglican Communion, and it was adopted as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (you can find it in the historical documents at the back of our Prayer Book).

God is calling us right now to reclaim those fundamentals in the name of our tradition, because that is the gift that we have to offer to the world. The embrace of connection is our charism, and when we deny it, or resist it, or don’t pay attention to it, we wilt, we decline, we die.

So before our next convention, figure out how you can build on the partnerships you already have, and what new ministry goal you can identify that you will accomplish, not by yourselves, but with at least one other ministry partner. This could be an Episcopal Church, or another Christian Church, or some faith body, or any agency of goodwill. I invite you to direct these proposals to my office, where my staff can do its appropriate work, seeing which proposals fit with other proposals, so we can begin to connect similar ministries, and then enable structures and processes to support the ministries you want to do, rather than the other way around.

I would love all this to happen by our next convention, so we can soon say that, instead of deaneries, we have organic molecules of ministry that are happening all around – some geographically defined, some defined simply by affinity of ministry. For instance, I have learned as I go around the diocese that there are a number of congregations that are really interested in prison ministry, but they don’t know about each other. So what would it be like, if instead of a deanery we had a prison ministry group that was able to use all the technology that has both burdened and freed us to connect more deeply across all kinds of geographical lines?

That’s what it would mean to be a diocese – not asking for the bishop’s permission to do things, but just connecting crazily, irresponsibly, foolishly: not being afraid of risking failure, but just doing stuff together. Maybe that’s a good motto for us for the next couple of years. Let’s just do stuff together. You’re already doing stuff together. Let’s do more, and let’s do it more intentionally, and gather more and more partners into the work that the Holy Spirit is leading us into.

Let’s just do stuff together. You’re already doing stuff together. Let’s do more, and let’s do it more intentionally, and gather more and more partners into the work that the Holy Spirit is leading us into.

That was the second thing. There’s a third item that I’m going to need your help with. I want to identify a group of people, maybe six to nine, who are really skilled at discernment, and listening, and who have an organizational streak to them. These people would function as companions to help congregations and intentional communities discern the partnerships the Spirit is leading them into, and what the concrete possibilities are for partnership. This group would look at all the reports from all the various congregations and groups, and say, “Aha! We’ve discerned some possibilities here. Can we come and spend some time with you, and talk about that? Can we walk with you? Can we be a support for you? Can we help you find the resources that you need to do the ministry that you want to do?” I don’t know who these people are, but I’m sure some of them are right here in this room. I’m going to need your help with this, because it’s a really interesting skill set – good listener, discerner, and somebody who has a sense about how an organization works, and how systems function.

That’s my address right there. But I want to return to the gospel reading that we started with. Jesus says to the Father, “Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name.” We began this convention by singing. The words that Ana Hernandez gave us were something like this: “Don’t be afraid. I have promised to be with you. I am stronger than your fear. What I have promised, I will do.” That is a paraphrase of what Jesus is saying in his prayer for his disciples. That is what he is saying to us in this time of apparent diminishment, and eclipse. “Do not be afraid. I am with you. I have promised that I will not leave you as orphans. I have given you my Spirit as my own first gift to you. Do not be afraid. Do stuff together. Amen.”