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The Bishop's Annual Convention Address

The Rt. Rev. Mark M. Beckwith, Bishop of Newark

Diocesan Convention Address
134th Annual Convention - January 25, 2008

As you have perhaps noticed, the Bishop’s address has been divided into two parts – the first part to be given tonight – and the second to be delivered just before lunch tomorrow. Tonight I will provide what I hope is a more comprehensive articulation of the vision that I have put forth in the Voice and on our web site; and tomorrow I will have a proposal and an invitation – and a challenge, for how we might concretely – and practically, live into that vision. Tonight is about direction; tomorrow is about managing the direction to what God has called us.

In the 3rd chapter of Exodus, a voice speaks to Moses from a burning bush. God tells Moses to take off his shoes, because Moses is standing on holy ground.

Indeed. It is God’s holy ground. It always has been God’s holy ground and always will be. But Moses and his people had forgotten about holy ground. Slavery will do that to you. All they could do was Pharaoh’s bidding – and all they could hear was their own groaning. They had no time for anything else.

But God heard their groaning, and not only tells Moses that he is standing on holy ground – but that God will lead them to a new holy ground – where they will flourish in freedom, and live in an abundant land, flowing with milk and honey.

They are to live into their new holy space – offering their best to the blessing God has offered them. They are to dwell in their new holy land, praising God for freedom and love and guidance – and remembering who and whose they are.

Almost a year ago to the day, I had an unmistakable sense of the presence of God in a ceremony that took my breath away for its elegance and passion – and for the many voices praising the Holy Spirit who had brought us together in a new journey on this holy ground. It was not the burning bush; it was the September 2006 electing convention that invited me -- to the holy land of New Jersey. It is a land flowing with a people who continually and creatively build on their long-standing commitment to justice; it is a diocese where people are gaining confidence in claiming their desire to be in a deeper, more abiding relationship with God; it is a collection of congregations where diversity is a gift to be discovered, celebrated – and rediscovered and sorted through and re-celebrated – again and again and again. It is a unique piece of God’s real estate where the rivers may flow, but the traffic does not. It is a state teeming with Yankee fans – and now, unexpectedly, Giants fans; a diocese confounded with budget concerns and strategy confusion. The diocese of Newark is a holy land flowing with committed and talented priests, deacons and laypeople. Those of us who have been away for awhile – and have returned, know – perhaps at a deeper level than the rest of you who have always been here, how lovely you are.

It is an incredible privilege to be among you – to re-claim the holiness that has always been here, and together to discover new sacred acres and opportunities. Through your invitation and God’s grace, I am now to live into this new space – to fill this space – offering my best to the blessing of what God has offered me.

That is what I am meant to do. That is what Moses was meant to do. That is what all of us are called to do – to claim the holy ground on which we live and move and have our being – and offer our best to God and God’s creation. When we can claim our ground as holy – and praise the God who has given us this extraordinary gift – as holy; and when we see all our brothers and sisters (not just some, but all) and the ground they walk on– as holy, holiness and wholeness increase exponentially.

There are many ways to claim this holy ground. Here, in this diocese, we are beginning to live into a new vision – standing with the living Christ at the gates of hope. In the past several months, as I have pondered and prayed over this image, I have this deepening sense that the gates invite and guide people onto holy ground. And the core values that have emerged in my visits and conversations over the past year – worship, spiritual formation, justice/nonviolence – and radical hospitality, represent the foundational gates through which we – as congregations, individuals – and as a diocese, have been finding – and are finding, and will be finding – ways to new holy ground.

The gate of hope through which Moses and his people walked was the Sinai wilderness. After forty years of getting geographically lost and spiritually disoriented, they descended into their new holy land with a new hope and a fledgling freedom. They had no end of excitement as they prepared to set up housekeeping in the Promised Land, and there was no end of resentment from the people who were already there. The only welcome the Jewish people received was from God. Almost immediately, the gift of holy ground evolved into a struggle over turf. At first the struggle was with the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and the Jebusites – but over the centuries the turf war involved the Muslims, the Crusaders, the British – and now the Palestinians – who have genealogical connections with the original residents.

Holy ground – as God bequeathed it to Moses, got lost in the clamor over turf. It has been ever thus. The turf wars have wildly different manifestations. In the promised land of today, a thirty foot high wall has gone up separating the Jewish state from Palestinian neighbors. Those who have built the fence identify it as a necessary security fence; while those on the other side see it as an arrogant act of provocation – because when people see it they receive a very clear message – ‘this side is mine – and that side may be yours.’ In American cities, invisible fences separating turf are patrolled with deadly intent by street gangs. Across the country, anxiety over American turf has created draconian immigration policies that separate families and denigrates human dignity. Taking a cue from the Mideast experience, Congress has authorized the construction of a fence that separates Arizona from Mexico – challenging the poet Robert Frost’s wisdom that ‘good fences make good neighbors.’

It would be a bit comforting to think that our communities of faith would be spared from turf wars, but they aren’t. Most of us have people in our congregations who insist that the pew they sit in each week has been given to them by divine decree. As a Rector, I learned long ago that there were certain areas of church life that I ventured into at my peril. It could be the roof or the boiler – or parts of the sacristy – or a room of the Sunday School – or an area of the budget, which was the special fiefdom of a lay leader who had long ago carved out that territory as their own. I discovered that I needed permission to enter into these privileged provinces – and in some cases I was required to show an ecclesiastical passport with accompanying Vestry issued visa. Woe would befall me if I didn’t have one.

Not that I didn’t have my own protected provinces. During my years as a priest, I was reluctant, if not resistant – and some might say downright grumpy about the prospect of someone else singing the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil. As bishop, I have a whole new arena of canonical responsibilities – that are vast and complex, and I will try and honor them as responsibilities and not allow them to become territory that I look over with an imperial air – but temptation will no doubt tug at me, as it does with all of us. I invite us all to hold one another accountable – graciously.

It would be bad enough if issues of turf were confined to geography. And of course they aren’t. The Anglican Communion is in the midst of an ideological turf war. There is an emboldened and brazen group of Episcopalians and Anglicans, who are – to my mind saying, ‘this is my Gospel. You have misread it and misinterpreted it and misapplied it – and we are going to take it back for ourselves; it is ours – and we will no longer share holy ground with you.’ And these same passionate people are saying that they have carved out a corner on human sexuality – and instead of sexuality being a holy gift from God that can – and should, reflect the diversity of the human family, it is reduced to behavioral turf.

The temptation is to issue counterpoints to the incendiary sound bites coming at us. But -- as a good friend of mine told me recently, it is tempting – and may, in the short run, be more satisfying, to make a point. But the biblical challenge is to make a difference. Making a difference takes longer than making a point – but the result is more abiding and transforming.

Our vision is to stand with the living Christ at the gates of hope. Our challenge is to claim God’s holy ground. Through God’s grace and our witness – we can – and we must, find ways of sharing holy ground with the Canaanites (both the ancient – and now more recent iteration) and the Hittities, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – and whoever else is out there who makes the claim that this is primarily about turf. Sharing holy ground is how we will make a difference.

We also make a difference by claiming God’s holy ground, and by providing invitation and welcome to the gates through which we get to that holy ground – and the divine hope that is abundant there. Are the gates high or low, narrow or wide; should the gates ever be closed – and for what reason? The presence of the gates – be they images in our prayer or tangible renderings as we have them around this room, remind us that there is, in fact, holy ground; and it is on God’s holy ground where we are meant to live -- with each other.

The congregations of the diocese are gates of hope for the communities where they have been planted. As gates, they need definition and dimension. What is the community the congregation is called to serve? Is it the immediate neighborhood? Does it extend to the next town – and/or to the nearest jail or shelter or immigration/deportation center; does it include the next county – and does it embrace Newark or Paterson or Jersey City – or the rural challenges of Warren and Sussex Counties; and how might it consider Cameroon or Kothapallamita, India or Panama or Haiti? What is your mission field? How are you going to determine it? When I was in Worcester, Massachusetts, it took a group of us two solid years to mark the boundary of our urban neighborhood – which became our parish, which became our mission field. It was hard, but rewarding work. We walked the streets. We prayed a lot. We made a lot of mistakes. We drew on the wisdom of the Gospel of Mark, and of each other.

Instead of sinking into the mire of the latest turf war, we would do well to seek clarity and develop discipline in defining our gates. In my visits to congregations I have discovered that – much like Americans and the British are separated by a common language, we in the Episcopal Church are separated by a book of Common Prayer. There is wide diversity in how the liturgy is celebrated from one congregation to another. I see this as a good thing. Actually, it is a wonderful characteristic of this diocese. I also see that worship is the foundational and most important gate of hope that we have – because worship leads people into a deeper appreciation that we live on God’s holy ground. Worship invites us – through word and sacrament, into the mystery of God’s abundance and blessing. Worship reaffirms and reinforces the outrageous claim that we are all brothers and sisters in the divine family. So we need to be clear about the worship gate – which means there needs to be choreography for the liturgy, an intention for how we might identify and celebrate seasons and saints’ days, national and local crises and community opportunities. We need to engage creative discipline in the use of the prayer book and music and space and language so that it can become a more solid floor upon which our souls can more freely dance. Without an adequate gate, confusion follows – especially those who are coming through the worship gate for the first time – and then holiness is compromised.

The same discipline and clarity need to be applied to the gates of spiritual formation, justice/nonviolence and radical hospitality. We would do well to draw from the wisdom of the business community and be SMART about this – smart being an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timetable. Many of the people in most of the congregations I have been to say – with pride, that theirs is a warm and friendly congregation. This is a good thing. But warmth and friendliness are the gifts that are released when people stand together on holy ground; but they are not, in and of themselves, gates of hope. Every congregation says they are warm and friendly – whether it is true or not. The challenge is to provide a carefully articulated gate of hospitality through which people can enter into the warmth and fellowship of what it means to be the body of Christ. And saying that you need more money and people communicates a lot of anxiety – but very little in terms of a plan – or a welcome.

The same definition and dimension needs to be applied to the gates of hope for the diocese. We need to get clearer and more disciplined in our strategy for the future. There is a lot of anxiety about the future of congregations – and how the diocese might step in – or should step in, and either assist or force the closing of congregations. We need protocols and a plan for the 112 gates of hope across the diocese. When these gates are not adequately defined – and there is not an adequate strategy or plan on the horizon, anxiety becomes the prevailing attitude, issues of turf take over -- and hope ends up being little more than a four letter word. I have heard talk – in various quarters of the diocese, of consolidating congregations, which for some is a code word for closing churches. On one level, the consolidation approach seems – for some, to make the most sense in our urban centers – where the economic challenges are the most acute. Fifty years ago, there were 17 Episcopal churches in the city of Newark; today there are five. Fifty years ago, there were 12 Episcopal churches in Jersey City; today there are three. Fifty years ago – Paterson had five churches; there are now two. I suppose an argument could be made that our three largest diocesan cities were overchurched fifty years ago – but I wouldn’t make that case now. We have had enough church consolidation in our cities. Our cities are where human groaning is most easily heard, human degradation is most easily seen – and the incidence of violence and fear is hardest to avoid. Instead of dismantling gates of hope, we need to reinforce – if not re-define, the gates we have now – and consider building more. And we need to be creative and clever – if not cunning, in doing so.

So -- the challenge is to claim God’s holy ground and live into God’s holy hope. The work is to define the gates through which people travel to holy ground. And the invitation for us who stand with the living Christ at the gates of hope – is to develop a message as we show and invite and guide people in and through the gates.

We need to find our voice.

When I was a sophomore in college, a small group of us organized an Easter sunrise service for the college community. The college community considered itself a citadel of secularism, which in 1971 was the common mindset in New England, so our idea of a worship service was a somewhat radical one. We got permission to hold it on the edge of the bird sanctuary. The artist among us created a spiffy poster, which we proceeded to put up all over campus. We talked a bit about liturgy, but not much. Some of us were Episcopalian, others were not – and the rest weren’t sure what they were. We were committed to the idea, but were otherwise totally lacking in any spiritual confidence

A half hour before sunrise we began to assemble. Our design team – which is a loftier term than it deserved, got there first. And we figured we would be it. And then people started coming – quietly and reverently, taking their seats among the pricker bushes and fallen leaves. We figured that about one hundred people showed up, a sizeable number in a student body of just over a thousand. There was a sense of awe as the sun came up – and almost immediately disappeared behind a cloud. So did the collective energy. We weren’t really sure what to do next. One of our bolder members broke the awkward silence by saying, ‘I am going to read something from the Bible – and you can take it to mean whatever you want it to mean.’ He read the Easter story from the Gospel of Luke. Shortly after that, someone passed around some wine – with the same introduction – ‘you can take this to mean whatever you want it to mean.’ Finally, I led the singing of “Jesus Christ is Risen today” – and, so as not to offend anyone – or be considered a religious zealot, we sang it as a folk song rather than a glorious hymn of praise and faith.

It was our faith – no matter how tentative or confused, that led us to propose the worship service – but when people gathered, we essentially apologized for that faith, and the church which represents that faith. We didn’t have a voice – because we weren’t clear about what we wanted to communicate; and we were afraid that any voice we used might be misunderstood or seem offensive – or overly doctrinaire. I suspect most of us left that celebration at sunrise amazed that so many college students had a spiritual desire that was deep enough to get them out of bed before dawn on a Sunday morning. And I suspect that most of us were disappointed that their desire was responded to so timidly.

I have learned a lot in intervening 37 years. I have learned about the genius of the Anglican tradition – that our worship gate of word and sacrament, of sacred story and spiritual practice, of justice and nonviolence – and of welcome and hospitality – don’t invite people into theology and doctrine, but into mystery. It is the mystery of our being brought together through and by the living Christ. We live into a new way of thinking, rather than think our way into a new way of living. It is the mystery of transformation – of ourselves and of the world.

This mystery, this transformation – needs our voice. We need to learn to stand at the gates – not like a college sophomore afraid of his own faith, but as disciples who know the height and depth and breadth of the gate – who are insistent that those who have been pushed away because of prejudice or ignorance or fear, are given equal access. We need to know the gates, and embrace the promise of abundance and freedom on the holy ground on the other side. We need to talk about this hope. We need to pray with this hope. We need to sing of this hope – and dance in it. It is powerful, life changing, earth shaking hope. There is nothing timid about it.

Let us stand at the gates, let us claim our God given and Spirit guided voice – and issue the invitation – “Come on through. Offer your best to the blessing that God so desperately wants to offer you. Come on in; take off your shoes -- and together let us discover what it means to stand on holy ground.”

+Mark Beckwith