[June 24, 2015] “This body is meant to be sacrament of God, an outward demonstration of the life and hope within us.” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in her opening remarks to the78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church on June 24.
Watch the presentation on the Media Hub here.
The following are the opening remarks by the Presiding Bishop.
When we gathered as a body three years ago, we were intensely excited about boldly going where only one man has gone before. We authorized a study of how the Episcopal enterprise works, and how it might be renovated for its current mission. TREC started the work, and they’ve given us a map for the long journey ahead. It’s not a final product, but an invitation to warp up and get moving. There is abundant adventure ahead on this heavenward trek, and it asks our courage to engage unknown beings, new challenges, and unexpected opportunities. We’re bound for the galaxy called Galilee and the edges of the known world, because that’s where Jesus sent us and that’s where he promises to meet us. The journey is likely to be a long one, in spite of the glimpses of heaven around us. We will measure this journey in light-years, and expect those years to be filled with growing awareness of the light of the world. We’re in this for the long haul, as we call on ancient truth while responding to the new thing that God continues to do in our midst. This is not a trek for the faint-hearted. We must keep that long view AND attend to the joy and suffering around us.
Reflect for a moment on what has brought us to this place. Our recent history as a Church has been filled with warring, chaos, and quite a bit of collateral damage – and we live in a larger society that has shrinking interest in “church” as they understand it. Yet today we are leaner and more focused on essentials. We’ve rediscovered some of what is most central to being part of the body of Christ – that it already has a head, and that isn’t any one of us, and that our lives, our health and wholeness and holiness are ultimately bound up with all God’s children and all creation. We don’t make this trek alone, and we can’t go alone even if we’d prefer a solo journey. We’re tied to one another through the bonds of affection called the love of God. We will never live that interrelated life perfectly, but interdependence is our vocation and our destiny – and we know it as the Reign of God. This journey requires courage – to venture into the unknown future, to befriend strangers, to confront whatever denies life and liveliness, and to keep learning interdependent ways of living.
We are living in a new world – digitally connected and more diverse than we might ever have imagined, where people are deeply hungry for the greater life that courageous living can bring. We are leaving behind the fortresses of the past, the bastions of privilege, and the overconfident assumptions that we have all the truth that is needed. Those realities are scaring the socks off of a lot of us, and they should, for the truth is that we must engage God’s transforming spirit or die. It’s probably accurate to say that we must die AND engage the transformation being offered, because we cannot do one without the other.
The dying and rising so central to Christian life is all around us, and it applies to all parts of the body of Christ. The way of living together we seek has similarities at each level of the organism. The behavior of holy living is holographic – similar at different magnifications – and it applies to individuals, families, congregations, community relationships, church relations, nations and their struggles. Another way to describe that is integrity or congruence, where each part of the body is consistent with, and accountable to, the whole. But it does not mean uniformity, for the diversity of peoples, and creatures, is a gift of God’s creation! Loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves is about building a larger society that is mutually responsible and interdependent. No one goes alone; together we care for those most in need. Our growing understanding of human interrelationship with the rest of creation means conscious care for the earth and all its inhabitants, not just the human ones, for our lives are bound up in the health of the whole oikos (the whole household or ecosystem).
Our work at the last General Convention demonstrated some of the ways of interdependent life, as we found joy in creative responses to what at first appeared to be intractably opposed viewpoints – around same-sex unions, a denominational health plan, and how to prioritize churchwide budgetary resources. We let go of a lot of our fears and found synergy in trying ways that no single party or person had conceived of alone. That kind of behavior reflects the mutual interdependence of a Trinitarian God. We have found greater peace within this body as a result.
We begin this General Convention with plenty of challenge ahead. We will reflect on the canons and liturgy related to marriage, consider how to tune our interdependent governing structures, and seek to promote justice and foster peace in areas of conflict here and across the world. Yet it is not only the decisions we make here that can help to build a more just and peaceful world. If we live and act together as a vibrant and diverse body, focused on the upbuilding of all, our very being will bring forth transformation. This body is meant to be sacrament of God, an outward demonstration of the life and hope within us.
We’ve been promised that holding our life lightly leads to finding more of it, and we’ve experienced that before. Holding our life with open hands, and traveling light mean relinquishing our death grip on nonessentials and dead wood. What no longer brings life must be laid down to fertilize future growth. We will not all agree about precisely what that includes, but we need to be fearless in examining what will come before us, whether it is marriage, the size of this deliberative body, or where we store up our treasure. Be fearless, not foolish. Godly judgment will not come in solitariness; it must be discerned in community. Consider how NASA’s space exploration missions run – the supposed “heroes” are launched into space, yet the essential support comes from mission control in Houston – a focused group of technical experts with lively connections to global networks. When there’s a problem or a crisis, the word flashes out to the far corners of the world – help, we need you to weigh in, offer your insight, gifts, and perspectives. And the good news of kingdom sightings flash out as well – see what we found, and look for it with your own lenses, in your neighborhood. The whole enterprise is an interdependent system with a singular focus and goal. No part functions alone; the gifts of multitudes are needed for the onward journey.
We are on a missionary expedition, scattering seeds of life and love to the winds and across the earth. There is abundant risk in such profligate sowing, for not all will take root and grow to harvest. But it is abundantly clear that many of the older plantings have reached the end of their lives. We need to find new ways of tending the birds of the air who haven’t found sheltering trees or nourishing fruit. St. Lydia’s dinner church, Love in the Laundromat, Common Cathedral, camps for the disabled or children of the incarcerated, micro-housing and elder housing and co-housing and homes of healing for the trafficked – all are taking root in new fields and showing interdependent love of neighbor. How will this body in here Salt Lake continue to foster that kind of sowing?
Christians everywhere are beginning to rediscover our marginal DNA, the same genes that led Jesus to focus his work with the least and lost, the left behind and the left out. The Episcopal Church is beginning to understand that we are never whole when we exclude members of the wider community, however subtly or overtly. We ARE becoming more diverse in almost every aspect, growing in migrant communities and overseas, slowly getting better at bridging socioeconomic divides, and increasingly understanding our place as solidarity with the least of these. Recovering our edgy DNA also means crossing those boundaries more willingly to partner with other Christian bodies, other religious communities, and anyone who shares our vision for a healed and reconciled world. This is not just about post-denominational Christianity. It is about recognizing the spirit of God at work in places we’ve failed to look before. Religious affiliation may seem to be waning across the developed world, yet at the same time there is a far greater eagerness in civil society to work with religious leaders and religious bodies – in advocacy, compassionate human service, and ethical dialogue. Much of the world around us yearns for a greater sense of human dignity – and the belief that every human being is created in the image of God is core to our identity. We cannot be laborers in the vineyard if we shun engagement with those who are not overtly part of this body. Our good news is the reality of these unsought solidarities, and the reality that Christ has bound us all together in the love of God.
This missionary expedition doesn’t need updated instructions – we know where we’ve been sent, and what the prime directive is: love God, love neighbor, work to heal the world. We do need a next-generation operations manual, with more granular ways of teaching and encouraging the missionaries and expedition crew. One size does not fit all, even though the shape will be similar – it’s that ancient Anglican holographic principle of congruity. Trees have to grow in local soil, and adapt to those conditions, but whatever their size or stature, all are challenged to be fruitful. We need to consider Prayer Book and Hymnal revision and an expanded vision of how the crew comes together to be fed. This is another place where we’re learning from the margins and distant outposts. We need to be brave enough to go and see, to learn, test, and practice, and to join in creating new forms and adapting old ones.
The work we begin and continue here should keep us in mind of the larger body – the Anglican Communion, our ecumenical and interreligious partners, many of whom are represented here today – and the entire body of God’s creation. Our decisions must consider how they might contribute to more abundant life for others. We do not travel alone, but in company with many we do not see or hear in this gathering. May we go together, aware that we live and move and have our being in solidarities we have not chosen.
Go with integrity, each reflecting the divine lover and creative spirit, mutually grounded in one society, humble enough to learn from partners and strangers, with eyes fixed firmly on the eternal prize of right relationship with God, neighbor, and all creation. Go into the neighborhood, across the tracks, and across the galaxy. Meet and befriend the other, whether poor or bruised or differently abled or too beautiful for words. No matter who you’re afraid of, we need each other, and we need to meet on the field of peace, drawing the circle ever wider. Trade hate for greater life. We know how, if we will GO out there, unburdened by all the prejudices and presuppositions we use as crutches and weapons. Turn guns into swing sets. Turn chains into park benches. Go out there and find God already at work, preparing the ground for the peace that brings abundant life for us all. Go, for Jesus sends us on the only journey truly worth our lives.
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
The 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church will be held June 25 – July 3, in Salt Lake City, UT (Diocese of Utah). The Episcopal Church’s General Convention is held every three years, and is the bicameral governing body of the Church. It comprises the House of Bishops, with upwards of 200 active and retired bishops, and the House of Deputies, with clergy and lay deputies elected from the 108 dioceses and three regional areas of the Church, at more than 800 members.
 Rowan Williams’ cogent phrase: “solidarities not of our own choosing.”