When Bishops Gather
Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”
I have just returned from the first in-person gathering of Episcopal bishops in over two years. A lot happened in a week that was both convicting and encouraging, sobering and hopeful.
It was billed as a spiritual retreat, and in large part, it was. In worship, those who preached spoke from the heart, including the Presiding Bishop, whose opening sermon Give Me Jesus set the tone. Cynthia Bourgeault, a modern-day mystic and Episcopal priest, guided us in sessions of Centering Prayer, with practical suggestions on how to seek equiminity in tumultuous times. We had a full day of Sabbath.
Yet as in the story when Jesus invited his disciples to come away with him to rest and crowds of people followed them there, the concerns of the world and of our dioceses met us in Texas.
How could it be otherwise?
–Mark Edington of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, arrived late, as he was with his congregations welcoming refugees from Ukraine. With a map of Europe before us, he soberly described how millions of Ukranains were fleeing the violence and of the fears of war spreading across the continent.
–Kathryn Ryan of Texas spoke of the fear she lives with as the parent of a transgendered child given the punitive laws passed in Texas. More than a dozen bishops from other states rose to share similar concerns for trans children in their families and dioceses.
–Scott Barker of Nebraska confessed that worries for his diocese keep him up at night, given how the pandemic impacted smaller congregations and how hard it is to recruit clergy to serve in rural areas. Sean Rowe of NW Pennsylvania and Western New York described the grief in his dioceses for the loss of a way of life in many Episcopal congregations that is gone forever.
–Eugene Sutton of Maryland began with these words: “Standing before you is an angry Black man. You’ve met me before. I am not alone. Rarely do we tell you how angry we are. I am also a follower of Jesus, committed to non-violence, and a practitioner of Centering Prayer.” He exhorted us to continue the work of reckoning with our past. Given the undeniable fact that the Episcopal Church colluded with slavery, encriching itself on the uncompensated labor of Black and Brown people, reparations is one way to pay back a debt that is owed. “Given all that we have stolen,” he asked, “what would Jesus have us do?”
There were more stories, some so heartbreaking that all I could do was pray for the courage to stay present, take in what was being said, and ask myself, in the first person, Bishop Sutton’s question to us all, “Jesus, what would you have me do?”
To be sure, there was uplifting news to celebrate–of congregations deepening in spiritual practice, innovation, and service to their communities, and of dioceses taking bold steps, in the Presiding Bishop’s words, “to be a church that looks and acts like Jesus.” I learned so much from my colleagues, not only in plenary sessions but in conversation over meals, or on walks. Laughter and tears are healing, and we shared both.
I was encouraged by the strides other dioceses have made in collective Creation Care initiatives and the energetic vision coming from newly-elected bishops, including our own Elizabeth Gardner and Kym Lucas, and Bishop-elect Paula Clark, whose courage and strength drew others to her like moths to light.
Because it’s what bishops do when we gather (we can’t help ourselves), we issued several statements to the wider church. What I’d like you to know about each one is that they were born out of heartfelt discussion and prayer. All were unanimous, which is rarely the case.
The first addresses the conflict in Ukraine, which is simply our expression of the grief I know that you feel. Thank you for all that you are already doing to help those caught in the ravages of war.
The second is a statement of support for all transgender and non-binary children and their families. In an interview with Episcopal News Service, Presiding Bishop Curry described our motivations for speaking out: “Whether you’re liberal or conservative, there’s such a thing as human kindness and human decency. . .We don’t expect that it’s going to change votes, but we pray [it does]. Maybe the most important thing is if it brings some comfort, some affirmation to transgender folks, that you are children of God, created in God’s image and likeness, as are we all.”
Finally, we approved a Pastoral Letter on Jerusalem that had been mandated by the last General Convention. It states that the entire Episcopal Church (not just the Diocese of Washington) feels a particular responsibility to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and work toward that peace in whatever ways we can.
Bishop Chilton Knudsen sends her love, as do our friends across the church. Many told me that they are inspired by your witness and generosity. So am I. It’s good to be home.