GUEST BLOG: Bishop Hirschfeld's Pastoral Letter re: General Convention

A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Rob Hirschfeld to the Churches in New Hampshire on the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church

Feast of Benedict of Nursia

11 July 2015

Dear Friends in Christ’s service in New Hampshire:

From time to time, it is incumbent upon your bishop to address the wider congregation of the Church in New Hampshire about particular matters of moment in our life together. 

By now, the news media have reported on the major decisions that have come out of General Convention in Salt Lake City that ended last week.  Other decisions hardly drew much attention at all. As people who see the world through a sacramental lens, we are invited to examine not only what is manifested openly, but also to investigate and take note of the inward and spiritual.  It’s my hope to convey some of my own investigations in this letter to you.

Before I begin, I have to share with you my admiration and affection for your deputation.  General Convention is a marathon, requiring your brothers and sisters to sacrifice almost two weeks of their routines at home (including time with their young children and their paying jobs!) to focus their thoughts and prayers and compassion for the mission of God in the church.  I came away so grateful to the members of the New Hampshire deputation who came to Salt Lake City: the clergy deputies were Bill Exner (Chair), Randy Dales, Jason Wells, Kate Atkinson, Kevin Nichols and Jane Van Zandt.  The Lay Deputies were Bonnie Chappell, Margaret Porter, Sarah Ambrogi, Lynn Tyler, and Becky Goodwin.  It was a delight to see Bishop Don Hart and Bishop Gene Robinson for a good part of the deliberations in the House of Bishops.  We also had superb moral and technical support from the Reverends Richard Davenport and Gail Avery.  Marjorie Gerbracht-Stagnaro lent her prayers and presence as well for a short time. Georgia Atkinson and Keaton Nichols offered their services as child-care providers.   It was such an honor for me to serve with people of such love for the church and God-given wisdom.  They make me proud to be part of this diocese.  Now let me share my impressions of the Convention.

Election of Bishop Michael Bruce Curry as the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.  For me the inward and spiritual realties of Bishop Curry’s election relate to the fact that it happened in the midst of our nation’s re-entrance to the deep and tragic wounds and injuries of racial hatred.  It’s safe to say that all of us who gathered in Salt Lake City were still reeling from the news of the slaying of nine faithful black Christians who had lovingly welcomed that hate-filled young man into their sacred space and time of bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  It would be naïve to say that we bishops who elected Michael Curry were not conscious of what his elevation to presiding bishop would say to the culture outside of the Church. It is clear to us that God has something powerful to teach us through Michael’s experience as a black American and how it has shaped his own spirituality and walk with the Redeemer.   But there was something even more spiritually exhilarating about his election.  We were also soaked in the awareness that we are at a time in the history of our church when we need a preacher and leader who is not afraid to proclaim unabashedly the gospel of Jesus. Sure, we need a strong administrator and manager, but we need one who is going to remind us that we are part of a movement, the Jesus movement, more than we are a brick-and-mortar institution.  As I heard someone say in Salt Lake, “We need to get out there and fish like Jesus told us to, not just take care of the aquarium.” In Bishop Michael Curry, we have a preacher who is full of the Holy Spirit, who will bring us to the shimmering waters of our baptism and encourage us all to fish again.  If you have yet to witness the Spirit in this man of God, then I encourage you to check out one of his sermons at these links:  Sermon at 78th General Convention and Crazy Christians: Sermon at 77th General Convention.

That he was elected so overwhelmingly in the first ballot also suggested another “inward and spiritual” reality of our Convention.  There was an almost uncontainable joy in the cathedral among the predominately white, straight, middle class, male house of bishops who know things need to change and who embrace the Spirit’s movement to do a new thing in this Church and in God’s world.  The election was the first sign in this Convention that the bishops, who can sometimes be accused of paralysis by contention, are very eager to get on with the work of Jesus and to make disciples for God’s mission in the world.  Later in the Convention, we voted to approve $2 million to assist Bishop Curry and the Church to address racism and to further reconciliation among the races both within our church and in the communities where we are present.  As a body of both deputies and bishops we recognized the kairos moment, a time of spirit-led opportunity and decision that is before us.  I ask that you join me in the prayer that we won’t squander this moment in our church and in our hurting society.

The Approval of Same-Sex Marriage Liturgies for Trial Use.  The House of Deputies overwhelmingly approved without amendment the Bishops’ resolution that was discussed and crafted over the past three years to expand the definition of marriage to include couples of the same sex.   That’s the outward and visible news, and for us in New Hampshire and Vermont, having led the way in the civil recognition of marriage equality, it may not seem like news at all.   What’s new, I would say indeed historic, was the manner in which the bishops deliberately, carefully, and charitably chose to hold themselves accountable to the health of the whole Body of Christ.  The simultaneously published “Salt Lake City Report of the Communion Partners” and the statement of “Mind of the House of Bishops” both expressed the deep commitment that all of our bishops have to remain in the Episcopal Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury as a mark of our unity (you can read both of these reports at the Living Church website). These documents and the resilient Spirit from which they sprung, did not make the national news--tending the vine of relationships rarely does.  But these statements express the inward and spiritual work of our relationship in the Holy Trinity.  And yet, it was such an important, even groundbreaking, development to come out of our time together because it provided a model for our life together, both in the wider communion and in the Church of New Hampshire.

Approval of New Monies for Mission.   Almost $3 million was set aside to start new congregations and new communities of worship, discipleship, and service over the next three years.  Such new missions might look like a gathering of young people who worship and study at a coffee house, or a church that gathers in a Laundromat.  A new mission in New Hampshire could adapt the model of Magdalene House and Thistle Farm that the Rev. Becca Stevens initiated in Nashville. These places bring together and empower women who have been trapped in the insidious cycle of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.  We could also re-start with a refreshed vision and a new wisdom a church in our midst that has already died or is in “hospice care.”  Observing the overall atmosphere of this Convention I had a strong sense that as a church we are outgrowing the old habits and tendencies that have dominated our behavior and attention in the church over the last decades.  There was a general tenor of cooperation and collaboration.  People were curious about the experience of God as it was made manifest in different settings across the Church.  I found myself pondering, “Could it be that we are discovering that our obsession with our life within the church is giving way to the call to get out and discover where Jesus is?”  There’s a theological precedent that supports this: Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”  Or, as Michael Curry began his first sermon to us after his election as presiding bishop:  “Now I’ve got one word for you. If you don’t remember anything else I say this morning, it’s the first word in the Great Commission: GO!”

Here’s something of the inward and spiritual to the decision to dedicate this large amount of money:  it represents a deliberate choice to take a risk.  The money will nearly wipe out a reserve fund.  It might also demand that we spend another 1% above the more prudent 4.5% draw from the Church’s endowment funds.  As you might imagine, there was much discussion about this. At first I was reluctant to vote for this expenditure.  In the end, what swayed me and all of the bishops, was the choice that was set starkly before us:  We can be a large endowment fund that has a small church with fewer members, or we could do what Jesus outlined in the parable of the talents.   We have been entrusted with much.  Much is expected of us.

Other Notable Decisions.  The General Convention in Salt Lake City may very well mark the moment when the Episcopal Church decided to get its groove back for mission. We requested that each of our entities in the Church, schools, churches, dioceses, and trustees, seriously examine our profiting from investments in energy that derives from fossil fuels.  We made some decisions that will empower the Presiding Bishop to have greater managerial oversight and supervision of the staffing of the Episcopal Church in the hopes that we can end decades of dysfunction that have hampered our effectiveness.  We set in motion the wheels for Prayer Book and Hymnal revision, even as in our current digital age we are undergoing unstoppable changes in how information is disseminated as radical as the Reformation.  (The orders of service for all of our worship in Salt Lake were paperless: decimated on electronic tablets and cellphones.) There were myriad other resolutions considered, rejected and passed, all with the aim of empowering our Church for mission.  We are more poised than we have been to look beyond the internal politics and dynamics to get out, to go and make disciples of Jesus so that all may know the power of God’s love and the hope of the Resurrection.  The overwhelming majority of those with whom I spoke over the course of the General Convention felt that hope and strength infusing our souls by the “sweet, sweet spirit in the place.”  We left there with a renewed feeling of confidence for mission.  Indeed, some media have reported that the Episcopal Church might actually be about to undergo a renewal.  Are you ready for that?

A Disappointment.  But of course, there was also deep dissatisfaction that we did not accomplish enough in another area of deep concern.  After considering whether to divest from companies and corporations that profit from the oppression of Palestinians by the occupation of Israel, the House of Bishops decided that the cost of that action on the people we intend to support was too much.  As far as I could tell, all the bishops were of the same mind that the situation in the Middle East is unjust, brutal, and unsustainable. However, we were also mindful of the plea from the Bishop of Jerusalem not to divest citing that such action would only exacerbate the harsh conditions and tensions that he and his diocese seek to work through in their local relationships for peace. We encouraged relationships of truth telling and justice making among Israelis and Palestinians, both Muslim and Christians, struggling to live under oppression.  Without a doubt the resolutions that fell short of a consideration of divestment or boycott of Israeli products drew anger and dismay among many in the House of Deputies who felt it was cowardly and tepid.   In a newsletter from the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, the Bishops’ choice not to begin to identify the companies involved in the occupation was sharply likened to hitting the same Wall that bisects Bethlehem and that meanders through the rest of the Palestine.  It was made very clear to me at a meeting with the New Hampshire deputation how some of us were disappointed with the House of Bishop’s decision because it effectively closed down debate among the Deputies.  No doubt, the road to peace in the Middle East (and among those committed to a just and sustainable two-state solution) continues to be just as rocky and tortuous as the road that brought the exiles back from Babylon.  May we be open to hear “the voice of one who cries out:  in the Wilderness to prepare a highway,” straight and even, for the establishment of our God’s realm in this divided and wounded part of the world.”

Claiming Common Ground Against Gun Violence.  Finally, one way that we as a deputation walked together in the wilderness was when we joined in a march to claim common ground to end gun violence in America.  We heard the witness of former police officers and the account of a victim of a horrible senseless shooting who lost her daughter in a shopping mall and whose body is riddled with lead buckshot.  The march was an outward and visible statement that pointed to a growing boldness among people of faith to counter the equation of gun ownership with freedom. In our witness we pointed to the deeper freedom God gives us in the One who was born among us unguarded and who died deliberately choosing to lay aside means to cause harm in order to share with us eternal life.  I pray that this deepening knowledge of the Crucified One will continue to guide our meditations and conversations with our neighbors and lead to a peaceful transformation of our cultural addiction to the means of armed violence.

May your summer be peace-filled and provide you with ample time and opportunity to relish in the abundance of God’s love and life in the Holy Spirit.

Gratefully Yours in the Risen Jesus Christ,