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Bishop Beckwith’s Address at the June 9, 2012 Special Convention
By:The Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith
We are gathered here this morning to deliberate on an important matter that affects our common life, but I want to set it all in the context of living into Christ’s mission, which has been our theme for this year. I want to start with Columba, whose name we honor today. Columba was an early missionary – and his story provides real insight into the journey that I see us on as congregations and as a diocese – and tellingly, the insurance issue that is before us.
Columba was born in Ireland in the 500s. A Christian, he studied at the feet of St. Finnian. As part of his training, Columba copied a manuscript of the psalms, and instead of leaving it with his teacher in the monastery, he kept it. A nasty dispute developed over the ownership of a copy of the psalms, which resulted in the pitched battle of Cul Dreimhne in 561, during which many men were killed.
A synod was called and Columba was threatened with excommunication. But St. Brendan of Birr intervened and suggested exile – and in 563 Columba’s small boat landed on the Isle of Iona in Western Scotland. Columba went with the missional conviction that he would work to convert as many people as had been killed in the battle.
We don’t have enough historical data to really know what motivated Columba on his missionary journey. No doubt there was a fear of punishment; and guilt over the loss of life in battle. There may have been a desire of redemption. But as Columba continued his journey beyond Iona to other islands in the Hebrides -- and brought to the Christian faith far more than were killed in the battle over a manuscript, no doubt Columba was converted as well. He was converted by the stories he heard – and converted from a proprietary and ego-driven idea of stewardship – “this manuscript is mine;” to a soul centered conviction that it all belongs to God: “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own we have given thee.”
Columba went out – to unfamiliar territory. It changed him as he was changing others.
As a diocese, we have been going out. On Ash Wednesday, about half of our congregations went out to train stations and Starbucks and Post Offices to offer ashes. Some of us went out of guilt, maybe out of duty. Many went out timidly – or at least I did. But as people came to be blessed by the imposition of ashes, confidence grew and gratitude deepened. And I, for one, was converted by the encounter – converted to the realization that we tell our story through our liturgy (and offering ashes was in fact liturgy); and more importantly, converted by the gratitude of the people who were blessed with ashes. I was grateful to mark a new place in my life – both a geographical and spiritual place, where God is working.
This year, for the first time, we invited congregations to tell us stories of transformation in their communities. The official parochial report, which each congregation is canonically required to submit, tells stories exclusively through numbers. Page five, which is an optional addendum – but which over a third of our congregations submitted (which I think is a good start), tells stories of transformation and conversion – for those who are receiving the ministry and those who are doing it. Some of the stories involved going out all the way to China, as St. Paul’s Chatham did with their youth group; and others to the local community. St. Dunstan’s in Succasunna staffed four of the sixteen town service sites in the community of Roxbury on a community service day. These are but two of some very compelling stories of ministry. We will send these stories on to the Presiding Bishop’s office, and post them on our web site.
Our mission strategy team will be going out – this fall, to clusters of congregations across the diocese. You will hear of their intentions in a few minutes. They want to test some ideas that have emerged from the mission and vision statements – and from their work together. They have identified four areas of engagement: engaging in radical hospitality, fostering Christian and spiritual formation, bringing the altar into the world and providing assistance to congregations in discerning and developing their mission. The Mission Strategy team wants to test these ideas, but they also want to do some deep listening to people in congregations. They want to know the hopes and concerns of congregations; what their mission needs are – and how the diocese, through the Mission Strategy Team, can help. The diocese cannot fashion a mission strategy without first listening to people in congregations – and becoming more aware of where else God is working.
Our mission strategy team will be going out. I will be going out. In addition to my scheduled Sunday visits, beginning this month I am going to schedule two visits per month outside of Sunday – to spend a few hours with ordained and lay leaders in their congregational based ministries – or to go with those same leaders to places in the local community where people gather. The purpose is not so much to see what is going on, but to listen those being served and to find out what God is up to – and to risk being converted in the process. My intention is to be a model for listening based mission.
To effectively go out, we must intentionally go in. Spiritual formation is a key element of the missional work, and there will be prayer and reflection at the beginning and end of any listening that we do. Prayer grounds us in what God is asking us to do. And all missional engagement needs to be grounded in the commitment of radical hospitality – which by definition means that the missioners both welcome the stranger and go out with the intention that they will be converted to a new way of seeing and experiencing God.
This year, September 11 falls on a Tuesday. It will be the 11th anniversary of that terrible day, which still lingers in people’s psyches. My close friends and colleagues – Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, and Imam Deen Shareef and Masjid Warith Ud Deen in Irvington, who with me and Bob Morris, make up the leadership team of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace, will join me at Newark Penn Station in the early morning to offer interfaith prayer, witness and blessing to commuters. I encourage you to go out on 9/11 as well. Go out and tell us all about it. What did you see and hear? How did you experience God working? How were your souls affected? We will provide some interfaith resources for this engagement with what has become a holy day in this region.
All of these initiatives are designed to help us be more focused on mission. Mission is creating a covenant among people to work with God to restore God’s creation – by blessing others and helping them claim that they are beloved of God. As described by Archbishop Rowan Williams, “it is not the church of God that has a mission. It is the God of mission that has a church.”
We are called to connect with God’s mission, which means that we need to discern where else – and how else, God is working. This morning each congregation received a copy of Introducing the Missional Church by Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren. An Anglican priest from Canada, Alan Roxburgh has written widely about mission. I present this book, published in 2009, not because it has the answers, but because it frames the conversation. It provides a common language that we can use together. The authors make the case that for decades, if not longer, the church (and by church I mean most established churches) has devoted its efforts to attracting people to their congregation by offering the best music, education, programs and ministry that the congregation’s resources can provide. This has great merit, but the authors point out that singular focus on attraction tends to miss what the Spirit is up to in the world – or more importantly, in the neighborhood. A missional church has God at the center of the conversation, and God shapes the focus and work of the people.
I am not suggesting that by reading the book we will all agree with the authors’ suggestions. What I am suggesting is that it provides a focus and framework for ongoing conversations within congregations and across the diocese. I encourage you to read it this summer – and to have conversations in small groups about it. The Mission Strategy Team will be reading it and talking about it – as will the diocesan staff leadership team. The book draws its insights from scripture and tradition. It invites people to use an alternative imagination, which the authors indicate was the invitation Jesus gave to Nicodemus in last Sunday’s Gospel: to be born again is to engage in an alternative imagination.
This will all take time. The authors indicate that. It will also require the spiritual discipline of gratitude. I am more and more convinced that gratitude is, yes, a gift, but one that needs to be practiced. In an effort to help create a culture of gratitude I am inviting congregations and the diocese to claim Epiphany as a gratitude season. And to thank people for their pledge gifts, their planned gifts, their gifts of service to the church, their families and the wider community – to thank them for their prayer and hospitality.
None of what I have talked about so far will involve money. It involves reconfiguring how we use our time – and drawing on our talent. But over the long haul, money will be involved. The Marge Christie Fund has been established to support congregations in their ministry. This past year it gave out $30k to congregations. We need to do more; and I will be devoting more time to developing resources to equip congregations in their mission.
I want to conclude with the insurance resolution that is before us. I first want to express my gratitude to the HR committee for working so hard for the better part of three years on this difficult issue. They have attempted to exercise good stewardship – to balance fairness and financial challenges – as well as living up to the Episcopal Church mandate of providing insurance for both lay and clergy employees of congregations. When their first proposal was issued last fall, I expressed some concerns about it. Others expressed concern as well. The HR committee then went out and worked on a new proposal, soliciting input from people across the diocese. They have revised their proposal – twice; to a degree that has addressed my concerns, as it explicitly provides for family coverage.
Let me add a general and a personal comment here. The structure, nature and organization of every institution in our culture – including the church, have been undergoing significant change over the past several years. The so-called normal that we inherited in every sphere of life is no longer normal. We are trying to identify the new normal. The recommendation of the HR committee is a faithful attempt to address changing circumstances – and is a result of their own independent work and experience.
On a personal level, for the past five years as a member of the diocesan staff, I have paid ten percent of my insurance cost; and for the previous ten years as a priest in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, I paid 15%, a practice which was introduced four years into my tenure – and with no phase in time, which is not the case in this proposal. Any cost sharing for insurance in this proposal will allow a minimum of two years to phase in.
I give my observation and experience as a context. But it is the Diocesan Convention’s decision to make.
The proposal has generated dissension as well as confusion. It has created conflict. I want to acknowledge that. Those who have expressed dismay at the resolution have, in part, expressed concern that we have some hallmarks of a closed system. It is important to pay attention to that. As we get ready to formally take up this resolution, I expect that we will pray our way through it, and as we pray that we are reminded that we are the body of Christ. That we are all in this together. And that as we deal faithfully with hard questions, my expectation is that we will deal respectfully with the hard questions – and deal respectfully with one another. Given the nature of changing circumstances in the world, we will – no doubt, be facing difficult, emotional issues in the future. And we will need God’s grace and one another’s graciousness to deal with them.
For some this has taken on the dimension of a pitched battle. Instead, I would hope that we can frame it as a disagreement. An issue of tension. I want people to be able to express their position, but in so doing to respect other positions as well. As Episcopalians, and as Anglicans – we know how to live in tension. We were created in tension. The strength of the Episcopal church is the ability to live in that tension. We know that from the tension the Spirit can take us to a new place – of reconciliation and conversion.
May it be so.