Wednesday, September 27, 2017

2017 Fall House of Bishops, Day 6

No dramatic or particularly compelling photo ops today. What you're looking at here is a fuzzy shot of the Rev. Robert Williams of the United Methodist Church, who flew all the way out from Philadelphia to advocate for the emerging full-communion agreement between the UMC and the Episcopal Church. This matter won't come before General Convention until 2021, but its proponents are doing all they can to get it on everyone's radar.

I'm of a double mind on this. I have a deep personal commitment to ecumenism. Reconciliation and unity are of the essence of the gospel. The way the proposal is being framed is that we are being asked to recognize one another as churches, and hence, one another's members and ministries. There is no assertion that we are to agree on every point of faith and practice. That said, I stumble over the Methodists' use of grape juice rather than wine in the Eucharist. That may seem like a picayunish detail, but it's not, particularly in view of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral's articulation of the use of "the elements ordained by [Christ]" when it lays out the benchmarks for Anglican ecumenical discussions.

But there's more. Liberals in TEC are queasy about the proposal because the UMC still officially holds to an orthodox understanding of sexuality and marriage. However, the only reason this is so is because the UMC includes within its ranks large numbers of Methodists in various African countries, who tend to hold traditional views. There is a big showdown scheduled for 2019, and it is anybody's guess what will happen. If the UMC remains intact as is, it will likely continue down the road of orthodoxy and therefore become unappealing to mainstream Episcopalians. If they split, opposition from the left will dissolve. The fat lady has not yet even begun to sing in all of this.

So, what else did we do today? We had a business meeting--an official session, with Roberts' Rules and all that goes with it. The most time-and-energy-consuming part of this meeting was the passage of a "word to the church" on issues of stewardship of the environment, with cognate intersections with racism and other issues of social justice. I don't have access to the "perfected" text just yet, but I'm sure it will be out in cyberspace shortly. I didn't vote against it, but I didn't vote for it either, so I guess that's an abstention. There's nothing glaringly egregious about it, but I think it's theologically weak and is riddled with imprecise language that weakens its impact. I didn't join the plenary wordsmithing discussion, mostly for reasons of keeping my powder dry for other battles. But I am concerned about a pattern of using language like "people of God" and "family of God" to seemingly refer to all people generally, rather than specifically to those who are "in Christ," the community of the baptized. This both flows from and abets sloppy thinking and sloppy biblical exegesis.

Everything else was pretty pro forma. We had the afternoon off, which I used to keep on top of the never-ending stream of emails. We gathered again for a closing banquet, and we're officially finished now. I write at mid-evening local time. Many of us are on a flight that is set to depart at 1:20am, so it's going to be a long night and a long day. Brenda and I have a substantial layover in Seattle and a just-plain-long one in Dallas. It will be bedtime Wednesday by the time we get home.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

2017 Fall House of Bishops, Day 5

Every day during this week-long event, aware that I'm going to be blogging in the evening, I'm scouting about looking for a "cover photo" for my post, something that will best encapsulate the significance of the day.

So this is what I've got. It was hanging on the wall of Soapy Smith's, a downtown Fairbanks eatery where Brenda and I had dinner with three other couples from the Class of 2011--a calendar from 1910 promoting a restaurant in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Don't look for any hidden or subtle symbolism in the image, because there isn't any. It's pretty much a cipher, kind of like what went on in the official activities of the House of Bishops today--with one exception, which I will get to in due course.

In both our morning and afternoon sessions, we were asked to spend most of our time in table groups "unpacking" the experiences of the last couple of days--the drop-in visits to native villages on Saturday, and yesterday's potlatch in Nenana. We were supposed to focus on themes of racism and environmental justice. To be blunt, it was too little to do and do much time in which to do it. The afternoon session was noticeably depleted attendance-wise; I myself slipped away to process a mountain of email when I literally found myself alone at my table.

I don't mean to sound cynical (well, maybe a little). I was deeply moved by our experiences, particularly the visit to Ft Yukon on Saturday. It was worth a bit of peer group reflection. Maybe an hour's worth. But not the bulk of an entire day.

At 5:00, following the Eucharist, spouses and other observers were dismissed from the meeting room while the bishops had our customary "fireside chat" with the Presiding Bishop. This is an opportunity to be candid, speak in an "executive session" environment, and deal with sensitive issues. As it turned out, there was nothing brought up that needed sensitive treatment, It could all have easily been done in open session.

In the remarks that follow, I have the permission of those whom I mention or quote.
At one point, a bishop asked the Presiding Bishop if he had any comment on the latest statistics that track the continuing precipitous numerical decline in the Episcopal Church. This question evoked an extended and rather passionate response from Bishop Curry. I wish I had a transcript or a recording, because I would like to be more precise in how I characterize his remarks. But they were along the lines of, "If we concentrate on what we're supposed to be doing, making and forming disciples of Jesus Christ, people who know the Lord and follow him and live the way Jesus call his people to live, we won't have time to even worry about Average Sunday Attendance. That will all take care of itself. If we continue to navel-gaze, then we won't survive, and probably shouldn't survive." It was a clarion call to keep first things first, and focus on the work of gospel proclaiming and evangelization.

On the heels of this, the Bishop of Albany rose and wondered aloud whether there might be a way, at the next General Convention, to consider no resolutions save for those pertaining to the DFMS budget and necessary elections, devoting the rest of our time in Austin to workshops and seminars on how to fulfill the vision that had just been articulated so compellingly by the Presiding Bishop. Of course, there is no constitutional or canonical way to do that, and I suspect Bishop Love knew as much. But I know I'm not the only one who found it an arrestingly attractive notion. What a concept.

Monday, September 25, 2017

2017 Fall House of Bishops, Day 4

This being the Lord's Day, the morning was dedicated to worship. The visiting bishops and spouses were divided between (read: crammed into) three churches in the greater Fairbanks area. I was part of the group that attended St Matthew's, which was walking distance from the hotel, and which observed its patronal feast day today. The Presiding Bishop preached and the Bishop of Alaska celebrated. We were welcomed with over-the-top hospitality, and the entire occasion was altogether lively.

Shortly thereafter, we boarded buses and rode south and west on the highway toward Anchorage for about an hour, ending up at the village of Nenana, one of the 42 native villages in the interior of Alaska, and among those in which the Episcopal Church has been the major ecclesial presence and influence. There we were treated to a traditional potlatch, as the guests of honor. Feeding a couple of hundred guests in a room (the tribal hall) not designed to accommodate nearly that many was a feat of true logistical legerdemain. We were asked to remain seated--just in chairs, not at tables--while the young people of the community served a multi-course meal, the centerpiece of which was roast moose. (We were told that three animals were harvested for this occasion.) There were speeches galore by all sorts of tribal and ecclesiastical dignitaries, and lots of traditional singing and dancing, to the compelling beat of drums.

We got back to the hotel around 6:45. I gathered for light supper (most of us were still full from the potlatch) with seven other Communion Partner bishops and three spouses (there are more of us, but many aren't here). We have strategizing to do as the next General Convention looms on the horizon, and another House of Bishops in between, and a potentially shattering proposal to surgically amend the Prayer Book and catechism just with respect to marriage already formally in the pipeline.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

2017 Fall House of Bishops, Day 3

Here's the lovely Lady Brenda, along with Alaska's own Bishop Mark Lattime, boarding our principal mode of transportation today. It took us, along with the Presiding Bishop and his right-hand man Canon Michael Hunn, the Bishop of Wyoming and his wife, and the Bishop of Vermont and his wife, to the village of Fort Yukon, a little more than an hour north from Fairbanks by air (and well inside the Arctic Circle). This was but one piece of a large "apostolic progression" of bishops into several communities in the interior of Alaska. (Bishop Lattime, by the way, travels this way all the time; most of the places he visits can't be driven to.)

A word about the history of Christianity in Alaska is in order. The gospel was first brought to this part of the world by Russian Orthodox missionaries in the eighteenth century. But they tended to concentrate on the coastal areas and not pay much attention to the interior. It was other mainline churches--generally Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Anglican--that were hugely successful in evangelizing the native peoples of the interior in the nineteenth century. But since, in that era, churches were expected to take responsibility for hospitals and schools, the churches prudently decided not to compete with one another, and divvied up the territory. The sprawling plain known as the Yukon Flats became an Episcopalian enclave.

So visiting one of these villages is akin to visiting an English village 75 or 100 years ago. Separation of church and state is not one of their core values. We were greeted at the airstrip by the mayor, the village chief, and the parish priest. They bussed us directly to the village church, St Stephen's, which
was established more than a century ago by the legendary evangelist of the Yukon, Archdeacon Hudson Stuck. We entered the building to the strains of a string band of children and youth--fiddles and guitars--leading congregational singing. It was magical.

Because this  village shares a priest with another, they can't celebrate the Eucharist as often as they'd like, so it wasn't too difficult for them to prevail on Bishop Lattime and Presiding Bishop Curry to lead a somewhat impromptu celebration--again with the fiddles and guitars and a venerable reed organ leading the way. Bishop Curry did what Bishop Curry does by way of a sermon, which means that there were no dull moments.

We were then whisked off to the Tribal Hall, where we were given seats of honor and feted with moose soup, local king salmon from the Yukon River, and sundry side items. It was a feast. With the chief presiding, we were addressed by the mayor, the police chief, the parish priest, and all the members of the tribal council. Two things stood out for me: their sincere and abiding faith in Christ, and the oppressive weight of alcoholism, an epidemic of teen suicide, an anxiety over the prospect of environmental change making it ever more difficult to continue with their centuries-old way of life, which is organically bound up with the cycle of seasonal change, fish spawning, and caribou migration. Then there was more music, this time accompanied by some folk dancing, which they even persuaded YFNB to participate in. (Sorry, no pictures or video.)

We then, literally, went down to the river to pray On the bank of the Yukon, we offered a brief liturgy-of-the-word with the theme of stewardship of creation and blessing of the land. Many commented that they have never seen the water level so low, which only heightens their anxiety. (At that moment it felt to me like we were visiting December in September--it was about 40F, breezy, and overcast. Fortunately, we had been warned to layer up.)

On our way back to the airstrip, we stopped twice: once to visit and offer prayers at the grave of Archdeacon Stuck, and then to bless a newly-constructed morgue building. This may seem a little odd, but burying a body in the midst of a long and frigid Yukon winter is no mean feat. The morgue, which is next to the church, is the place where the casket is constructed, and the body prepared for burial, and preserved (a natural cold storage) while the grave is dug, which is a lengthy and laborious process.

We were back on our single engine overwing aircraft around 4:00, and safely at our hotel 90 minutes later. It was rather an amazing day. Within this calendar year, I have visited Anglican Christian communities in Peru, Tanzania, and now the Arctic interior of Alaska. While there are huge differences between the three places, I find myself tracking a thread of commonalities among these "developing world" contexts. There is much to ponder.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

2017 Fall House of Bishops, Day 2

This is a view of the Chena River, the banks of which were once deemed "fair" by the explorer who first steamed up it. I snapped it while on a lunchtime pedestrian excursion with the Bishop of Tennessee. For some inexplicable reason, downtown Fairbanks is swarming with Thai restaurants. I made the mistake of cockily asking the server to make sure mine was spicy. My head hasn't stopped sweating yet. (The weather today was around 50F and drizzly. It feels like November in September.)

The morning consisted of more presentations by members of various indigenous peoples. A 96-year old tribal elder singing "I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill" in her native Athabascan language brought the house down. It was impressed upon us how much the ancient peoples of this land rely on a finely-honed eons-old pattern of relationship with nature revolving around the cycle of seasonal change. It's not only their cultural heritage; it's their food supply and their social fabric. There is great anxiety over the effect that proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would have on this delicate ecological balancing act.

The afternoon session was devoted mostly to preparing us for our various excursions to remote villages tomorrow, include a crash tutorial on videography and video editing on a smart phone. They're encouraging us to shoot lots of video and send clips to the communications wonks in New York, which they can harvest and edit toward the compilation of a collective video narrative.

This was the evening for "class" dinners (I'm in the Class of 2011, which is made up of all bishops who were elected in 2010, no matter whether they were consecrated that year or the following one.) As a class, we bonded extraordinarily well from the get-go, and very much enjoy one another's company.

Friday, September 22, 2017

2017 Fall House of Bishops, Day 1

This is the actual airplane flown by the third Bishop of Alaska, the legendary "flying bishop" Bill Gordon, who was elected in 1948 at the age of 29 and served until his retirement in 1974. The aircraft is on display at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center, a museum in downtown Fairbanks about a dozen blocks from the hotel where the House of Bishops is meeting through next Tuesday. Most of the bishops and spouses made a stop there as part of their afternoon activities. I found it an intensely interesting place.

Our day began with Morning Prayer at our tables in the main meeting room. We were then welcomed by Bishop of Alaska Mark Lattime, who, in turn, introduced two gentlemen from the indigenous peoples of the area, who addressed us at some length. I was particularly impressed by the first one, who maintains a profound sense of connection with the people who have inhabited this land for 10,000 years alongside an uncommonly rich, articulate, and well-formed Christian faith. He had some insights into the story of Melchizedek in Genesis that I had never heard before.

After a break, and the usual "check in" time with our table groups, we heard from Bishop of Central Florida Greg Brewer, speaking on behalf of the Task Force for Communion Across Differences. How can we as a House do a better job of making sure we hear--and actively listen to--all the voices in the room, including those which, for one reason or another, may be soft or silent? Bishop Brewer was speaking particularly of those who represent what has become a minority position on issues of sexuality and marriage, but which has been long held in our church and continues to be mainstream in global Anglicanism. Personally, I found his remarks to be the highlight of my nearly seven years in the House of Bishops. He spoke truth that has desperately needed to be spoken, but which has been either so unwelcome or so inaudible that it has been accorded no venue. I felt light a huge weight was beginning to be lifted.

We continued with discussion at our tables around these questions. As we face a General Convention next year at which there will be a proposal for a surgical revision of the Prayer Book that would articulate an understanding of marriage for which maleness and femaleness are irrelevant, it is essential that the bishops arrive in Austin already having had deep and prolonged listening to one another about the issues in general and the proposal in particular. Our first public conversation about it should not be when we are debating a question that is about to be resolved by means of a vote. In fact, it might behoove us--and I felt some energy in this direction--for us to think of ways of making decisions that do not involve voting of the sort that creates winners and losers. It is, of course, a huge challenge for democratically-conditioned Americans to even conceive of such a thing.

We got back together late in the afternoon for Eucharist in celebration of St Matthew's Day. The Presiding Bishop served as celebrant, and Todd Ousley, lately Bishop of Eastern Michigan and now the Bishop for Pastoral Development, a member of the Presiding Bishop's staff, preached. We then adjourned for a cocktail hour and returned to the same room and table for a banquet-style dinner.