Monday, January 15, 2007

Here I Stand (for now, at least...)

The 2007 Annual Parish Meeting of St John's, Stockton took place today. What follows is a substantial portion of my State-of-the-Parish address, wherein I offered some reflections on the state, not only of the parish, but of the larger church.

Now I’m going to ask you to turn your attention for a while to a subject that is a source of some anxiety, but which we can’t just ignore, which is the state of unrest that the Anglican world, and the Episcopal Church, and the Diocese of San Joaquin are in. It’s too big a subject for me to cover in detail right now, but I do want to share with you something of my own heart and my own mind as relates to how we as a parish might respond to all that is going on.

First, while the secular press gives the world the impression that the dispute is really all about sex, it really isn’t. Sex is only the match that lit the fuse. But I do want to say this much about sex, and I’m not trying to pander to anybody; I’m just trying to be as transparent as I can. I have what are, by any account, traditional views. But I try with all my might to hold those views humbly and compassionately. My heart truly aches for those who, by no choice of their own, find themselves able to bond intimately only with persons of the same sex. I am not closed to the idea that something of holiness might be reflected in some such relationships. I want St John’s to be a safe and welcoming environment for people who may be involved in such a relationship and are honestly looking to serve God faithfully as a member of his holy church. At the same time, I am quite confident that, because they fall short of the ideal God has revealed for his creatures, the Church lacks the authority to invoke God’s blessing on such relationships. I am equally confident that it is a horrible mistake to try and cast same-sex partnerships as in any way equivalent to marriage, or to expand the definition of marriage to include them. And, because same-sex partnerships are, at best, in morally ambiguous territory, someone involved in such a relationship is not an appropriate candidate for ordained ministry.

But, like I said, it’s not really about sex. It’s about the nature of Anglican Christianity, the nature of authority, the nature of mutual accountability under that authority. Perhaps because it is an American church, the Episcopal Church has a fiercely independent streak. The actions of the last two General Conventions have pushed independence to the point where it has collided head on with mutual accountability between the 38 Anglican provinces. Virtually since the close of convention in Minneapolis in 2003, whatever gravitational forces that have held the Episcopal Church together since 1789, and colonial Anglicanism for 182 years before that—those gravitational forces have steadily weakened on an almost daily basis. As a result, even those who support General Convention’s actions acknowledge that the Episcopal Church stands a very real chance of losing what might be called the Anglican “franchise” for the territory it now covers.

I don’t have time to connect every dot, but the action taken by our own diocesan convention six weeks ago is a direct result of that process of erosion and splintering. Our diocese is one two-thirds vote away from severing all ties with the General Convention—in effect, leaving the Episcopal Church. It is not yet clear precisely where we would “go” in such an event, but our constitution, as it would then read, makes it clear that we intend to remain Anglican, in full communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, such communion being the visible sign of Anglican identity.

You have the right to know where your Rector stands in all of this, and even as I shared my heart with you with respect to the presenting problem of human sexuality, I will try to be equally transparent in discussing these strategic and political concerns. That fact is, I’m very torn, and I wrestle with the question daily, almost hourly. You know, I once aspired to a career in politics. It’s a good thing I didn’t try to go that direction, because I would have been a terrible politician. It’s very hard for me to think in absolute, black-and-white terms. It’s relatively easy for me to see both sides—several sides, in fact—of most any given question. I know that this is frustrating to some of you, who are eager for me to exercise clearer leadership.

Unlike many in our diocese, unlike many in this parish, unlike our Bishop, I am not yet persuaded that it is morally necessary to formally separate from the structures of the Episcopal Church. Yes, most of the new Presiding Bishop’s public comments make my skin crawl. Yes, most of those who hold the reins of power in our church hold a vision of the gospel that is radically different from the one I hold, radically different from the one most everyone here today holds. But they are not the Episcopal Church, and they do not express the faith and teaching of the Episcopal Church, and even though they raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels, they are also my brothers and sisters in Christ and we are bound together in the waters of baptism and I’m not at all sure that it would not be a grave sin to cut them loose and say we don’t need them. As I understand orthodox Christian teaching about the Church, it is not a country club, where we can blackball members; it is a family, where we’re stuck with each other no matter how they behave. The Episcopal Church is not the enemy; it’s our family.

At the same time … and I know you must hate it when I say that! … at the same time, I have tremendous personal regard for Bishop Schofield, and for the faithfulness with which he has led this diocese for the last almost nineteen years. I have been, and want to continue to be, a loyal member of his team. In his vision—which, for all I know may come directly from the Holy Spirit—the time to make the break has arrived. I am open to discovering that this is how God is moving. More importantly, though, I am an Anglican before I am an Episcopalian. If it should come to pass that being an Episcopalian is no longer the recognized means of being an Anglican in America, I will choose whatever path maintains Anglican identity.

So, when the time comes, what will I do? How will I lead? The only honest answer is, I don’t know. There are way too many variables, too many things that can yet happen between now and the time convention meets next Fall. Of this much I am certain: I am not in control! We are not in control of the events around us, the collective behavior of world Anglicanism. However, there is something that we are very much in control of, and that is our response to those events. We have the freedom to let external circumstances define us—that is, to be reactive—or to be calmly guided by our own core values and convictions—that is, to be proactive. If you pray for me at all, pray that, as a leader, I will have the grace to lead proactively, even as I will pray that, as a community, we will have the grace to respond proactively to the challenges we encounter.

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