Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Letter from Bishop Shannon -- please read

Bishop Shannon Johnston of the Diocese of Virginia -- our bishop -- issued a letter today reflecting on our recently concluded General Convention, the highest governing body of the Episcopal Church.

His letter is thoughtful, comprehensive and thoughtful. I highly commend this letter to you, whether you live in the Diocese of Virginia or elsewhere. We have a very good bishop who is guiding us well and pastorally. Here is his letter:

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July 24, 2012

The 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, recently concluded in Indianapolis, was by far the best - and most positive - of the five that I have attended. How so? In almost every case, disagreement did not manifest itself in division. In all of the "key" votes, bishops and deputies debated and responded in such a way as to minimize the sense of winners-and-losers. Even during the most controversial matters at hand, in which profound disagreements were voiced and significantly split votes resulted, both sides remained respectful and reached out to one another after all was said and done.

For example, with regard to one of the most publicized and momentous resolutions, the authorization of a "provisional" rite for the blessing of same-sex couples, strong conscience-clauses were inserted to protect clergy and congregations whose convictions will not allow for such liturgies. I can tell you first-hand that some of the most vocal support for the conscience-clauses came from those who staunchly supported same-sex blessings. This, for me, is important evidence that Episcopalian inclusivity can indeed embrace both left and right.

I supported the Convention's resolution not because of the movement of secular culture but out of personal and theological conviction. Moreover, after over 30 years of the Church's study and dialogues, I believe that it is time to be publically clear about the full acceptance of committed same-sex relationships in the life and witness of our Church. I will continue to honor the convictions of our clergy and communicants who disagree, because in my judgment we have now reached an equitable and workable settlement of this long-running debate. We can now move on to other important matters that require the Church's energetic attention.

That resolution takes the same track we have had in the Diocese of Virginia for more than a year now. The process I have previously outlined will remain the same - clergy must still submit a fulsome application for my approval to perform such rites- but starting with the First Sunday of Advent this year (December 2, 2012) the liturgy to be used will be the one approved by the Convention (rather than a specially-composed service in each case).

The Convention did address several other critical issues, including the budget, the Anglican Covenant, the nature of baptism and its requirement for admission to the Holy Communion, and the very structure and governance of the Episcopal Church. In each one, there was a high degree of consensus as the classic Anglican via media (middle way) prevailed in the various proposals. On baptism, however, the teaching was traditional and clear: Holy Baptism is the ancient and normative way into full, sacramental Christian life. A large majority of the House of Bishops rejected proposals that weakened the requirement of baptism prior to receiving communion, and the House of Deputies concurred. In this, I wholeheartedly agree. I am aware of places that make exceptions to this requirement and I quite understand what people are hoping for in allowing the communion of those not baptized. There are other ways to achieve hospitality and inclusion within a community of faith. Baptism is specifically a part of the Great Commission from Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20) and it remains primary in our discipleship of the risen Lord.

Another area of particular interest was the proposed Anglican Covenant. Because of its provisions for a legalistic process to enforce a kind of uniformity of doctrine and discipline throughout the worldwide Anglican Communion, the Covenant has been controversial in a number of our global Provinces (the Church of England, among others, rejected it). The Convention recognized that the Episcopal Church does not have a real consensus, and declined to take a position on the Covenant itself. Instead, we strongly reaffirmed our commitment to the Anglican Communion and our full participation in its mutual life and ministries. I have been clear that I am vigorously "pro-Communion." Even so, I oppose the adoption of the Covenant in its present form because I believe that our worldwide fellowship of Churches must be chosen and not required and enforced. To me, this dynamic is at the heart of our very essence. We must be able to honor our faithful differences (many of them cultural and historical in nature) and learn to live together with them. To be sure, this is messy but I am convinced that it is a witness this polarized world desperately needs.

Our presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, paved the way through a brewing controversy regarding the Church's budget by offering her own detailed proposal, based on the Anglican Communion's "Five Marks of Mission." These points were developed by the Anglican Consultative Council (an international, representative body of the Communion) and are as follows: (1) To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom; (2) To teach, baptize and nurture new believers; (3) To respond to human need by loving service; (4) To seek to transform unjust structures of society; and (5) To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and renew the life of the earth. A very fine presentation of the final version of the proposed budget ensured a virtually unanimous vote in favor from the Convention. That in itself was highly indicative of how hard this General Convention worked to achieve broad consensus. 
After the Convention adjourned, there appeared two op-ed pieces about our Episcopal Church, one in the Wall Street Journal and the other in the New York Times. Probably most of you have either read, read about or simply heard of these articles. They were both "opinion" pieces, the former chock-full of factual errors and shameless personal invective and the latter based on several unexpressed and very questionable assumptions about our Church and its witness. To me, the quite positive thing about these distressing articles is how strongly a broad range of persons (including conservatives who are usually critical of the Episcopal Church) refuted the writers' opinions. I would hope that we agree that "opinion" articles, particularly those published in distinguished newspapers, should not be allowed to leave plain fact behind, let alone descend into mean-spirited personal attacks.

General Convention 2012 showed that the Episcopal Church is indeed vibrant and Spirit-filled. Although no one can say that "all is well" - in my view we have some major reality-checks to face - I, for one, came out of our gathering hopeful and encouraged. I also emerged prouder than ever of our Diocese of Virginia. We are strong and very much considered across the Church as a leading and faithful witness. I hope you were able to follow news and perspectives from the Convention in our unique publication, Center Aisle. That is a true gift to the Church at large, one that was appreciated by thousands over those long days.

Our great thanks must go to our hard-working deputation, diocesan staff and the several volunteers who were with us. If ever I'm in need of a reminder of the Church at its best I need only think of all of them. With blessings and prayers for all of you,

The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston
Bishop of Virginia

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