March 28, 2005

A Memorable Daydream

I had a troubling daydream the other day.

In this daydream Diocese X chooses to have an election and call for consents that would fall due prior to the next General Convention. A majority of the bishops with jurisdiction abide by their covenant and do not consent to the election. The leaders of X accuse the bishops of inconsistency, in that some of the bishops stated they consented to the election of Bishop Robinson not because of their personal approval of him, but as a recognition that the proper forms had been observed — and they have just chosen not to follow the form in the case of the election in Diocese X.

In reflection on this daydream, I realized the following:

1) No covenant was in place for the bishops to violate in the case of Bishop Robinson, where they were free to consent or withhold consent as they saw fit. They are technically “free” in the case of Diocese X, apart from the non-binding covenant; but one would hope that they would stand by their word.

2) To chastize the bishops for not consenting as a matter of form in this case is for the leaders of X to take the position that that is all the bishops’ consent amounts to; which hardly makes their point, as the leaders of X protested this same form of argument in the case of Robinson. They would be inconsistent with themselves in calling for this consistency in others.

3) The bishops would be acting in accord with the canon, covenant or no. The consent process is not an election in which the bishops vote for or against the candidate (although it is often seen that way). Close reading of the canon indicates that this is a consent process, and the withholding of consent (which any bishop is empowered to do at any time) is in the nature of a pocket-veto rather than a No vote.

For Diocese X to ignore the bishops’ covenant and proceed with an election in this way could only be a Pyrrhic victory, or perhaps a Parthian shot.

I raise this latter as a further fear arose in my mind, that Diocese X might then ignore the canonical finding of the Presiding Bishop that the election is null, and seek the consecration of their elected candidate at the hands of some others of the domestic or foreign episcopate, on their way out of the Episcopal Church.

I earnestly hope this fantasy does not become a reality.

March 11, 2005

The Last Temptation: A Lenten Meditation

Those of you who have seen the film (or better, read the book) will recall that the last temptation of Christ was to come down from the cross, not in a show of spectacular deliverance with legions of angels, but in renunciation of his messiahship to take up life as a simple Galilean carpenter, married with children, ending his life in obscurity. As we know from the other book (and countless films) he didn’t.

Jesus Christ did not commit suicide. He was executed at the instigation of religious leaders and at the hands of the state, for alleged crimes against both. Yes, he could, at any number of points, have prevented his execution by ceasing to do the things he had done, ceasing to claim the things he had claimed. Engaging a simple moratorium on public speaking would have done wonders for his longevity. But he didn’t. He kept doing what he knew was right (anguished enough about it and pleading for another way, another path, to the point of sweating blood). And they crucified him.

One of those in the conspiracy surrounding his end saw this as a way to preserve the status quo of uneasy peace between imbalanced forces; he thought it expedient that one should thus suffer for the sake of so many. Another, a politician from the north, saw this as a way to heal the breach with his opposite number, the governor in the capital; and they became fast friends. Victims come in handy when you want to displace anxiety, and ease tensions in the body politic—or ecclesiastic.

They urged him to repent and recant, to take back the discomfiting words that had so upset the equilibrium of the system—or otherwise to prove himself to be who he claimed to be with a show of power and might. But he didn’t.

Countless of his followers similarly were offered easy ways to keep the peace: to say, or cease from saying, a form of words—what is a word, after all; just air is it not? To drop a single grain of incense on the coals before the statue of the emperor—so simple, so meaningless; a trivial act to save your life! But they didn’t.

When the history of our present time is written centuries from now, what will be recorded? Did they, or didn’t they?

In the peace of Christ, which is no peace, but strife closed in the sod,


March 5, 2005

Plans and Blessings

St Thomas Mamaronceck • Episcopal Diocese of New York Strategic Planning Conference
Good morning, and welcome to the first Diocesan Strategic Planning Conference. My name is Tobias Haller. I am the Vicar of Saint James Church Fordham in the Bronx, and I served as the chair of the Diocesan Trustees’ Strategic Planning Committee.

Strategic Planning is another name for Long-Range Planning. Depending on your line of work, “long-range” can mean a number of different things. A butcher will keep an ear open for the news about beef-futures, and such matters as mad cows roaming the frosty fields of Canada. If you run a bakery, and know that your oven has a useful life of a dozen years, your long-range plans will include saving to purchase new equipment around that time. And the candlestick makers will try to keep abreast not only of the buzz in the bee-business, but the trends and fashions in demand for new scents and colors and shapes.

Of course, we in the church, unlike butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, and other allied manufacturing and retail trades, are faced with a different situation. First there is the “durability factor.” Looking backward in time, we can see that we are not part of an entity that we started up, nor even one started by our immediate predecessors. Nor, on the other hand, are we looking forward only one generation ahead, to those to whom we might pass along the family business. Rather, we are part of an enterprise that has been in continuous operation for two thousand years, and which we trust will prevail until the end of time, when the King returns in glory, and all of us stewards and managers will have to render our accounts. We have not only received a precious heritage, but a great responsibility and trust. So looking down the road a few years could only be thought prudent!

Second, and perhaps more importantly, unlike a business or trade, we don’t have a product to sell, but a story to tell, a word of Good News to spread and share. And we believe that the message we carry is not just a diverting story to pass the time, but important news vital to the life of the world.

So our primary task involves spreading a message, a spiritual message. Nonetheless we daily confront the fact that the means by which we spread that message, the tools we use to bear that witness, are physical and personal. The church of which we are members, and in which we serve, is not simply spiritual, but also institutional: and as the mystery of the Incarnation itself teaches us, the Word of God is spread in and through flesh and blood. A task and commission has been given to us, from the wounded hands of Jesus passed down these twenty centuries to our hands, a task and commission inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, but worked out by means of flesh and blood.

And, as we will explore further today, not flesh and blood only — the human resources of clergy and lay leadership — but in bricks and mortar, in balance sheets and bank accounts and stocks and bonds. We will look down the road to see how many clergy will be serving ten years from now, when a large number of those in parish ministry at present have reached retirement age. We will examine how the next generation of lay and clergy leaders is being nurtured and educated. We will take stock of our church buildings, without which we would have no place to gather for worship and ministry, and which stand as physical reminders of the church’s presence and identity on so many town squares and country hills and urban street-corners. These are the service centers of God’s mission and our mission, the outward and visible signs that the church is here and ready to serve — and should we fail in this, the stones themselves will testify to our lack of imagination.

It is a daunting prospect at times. The financial cost of maintaining a well-trained body of clergy, of educating and equipping the lay leaders and members to do their work in the church and the world, and keeping our church buildings in good repair, all have a major impact on our future ability to serve.

Take church buildings, for example. And I am tempted to add comedian Henny Youngman’s, “Please!” Instead, let me look for a more biblical word. When Moses reached the borders of the Promised Land, he said to the people of Israel, “I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Deut 11:26). As the priest of a parish that had to spend almost half-a-million dollars to repair the roof of its historic landmark building, let me tell you I can resonate with that sentiment! That historic building is a blessing, but it comes with a cost! Some of us, no doubt, have often wondered what our predecessors were thinking as they built so massively in wood and fieldstone and granite — and as Groucho Marx observed, “You can even get stucco. Boy can you get stucco!” How many of our ancestors in the church ceremoniously burned the mortgage when the bank loan for the building was paid off, as if that was the end of the expenses involved in maintaining and caring for a building? Dare I ask further, How many life-long members of some of our churches now find themselves unable to enter the very buildings whose continued existence testifies to their financial support, because the impressive stone stairways bar their entrance? And what of the very different message Gothic architecture sends to children today? Not too long ago a child stopped me on the street outside my church and asked if it was a haunted house! Talk about culture-shock!

However, at the same time, I think God is reminding all of us that while there are always difficulties, yet we are called “in all things to give thanks.” (1Th 5:18) We dare not see these difficulties as a curse — for if we do, we admit defeat. I was, for example, able to turn that child’s question about a haunted house into an opportunity to teach him something about the church, about how long it had stood there, and what it stood for. If we can come to see our church buildings and the issues surrounding them not as curses, but as blessings, not even simply as challenges but as opportunities; and not even only as opportunities but as tools for the worship of God, for the spread of the gospel, for the mission to a spiritually and physically hungry world, then we can begin to see not only how important is our stewardship and care of these resources, but begin to imagine new ways to adapt and adjust to the changes in the world around us.

The same can be said of our worship. There will always be the temptation to jump on the bandwagon of success that some of the non-denominational mega-churches appear to have in shaping their worship to meet the needs of a generation raised with short attention spans. The question is: will this in the end produce a lasting congregation of members or a transient audience of customers. We Episcopalians are fortunate not only to have a finger on the pulse of the modern world, and the capacity to look to the future, but a rich tradition that reaches back centuries and includes many cultures. This is a great tradition that many parishes have drawn on, recovering the deep spiritual nourishment in ancient practices of prayer and worship. They have found — ironically enough — that Generations X, Y and so on, are hungry for food that will sustain them on the journey, rather than a snack; and are seeking a direction for their lives rather than mere diversion for the moment.

In looking at our worship as at our buildings, it will be important to distinguish between tradition and its poor cousins: custom and habit. It will be important as we look at present and future needs, to challenge the proverbial claim, “We’ve always done it that way,” and in doing so perhaps discover that what we always thought was a hallowed tradition dates back no more than a generation. As Diana Butler Bass says in her excellent study, The Practicing Congregation, “In every generation of Christian history, faithful congregations have selected and reshaped tradition, developing patterns that reflect transcendent realities in ways that speak to the surrounding culture.” This is challenging work, but it will also be enriching and rewarding, as we dig deep into the wealth of our past as well as making best use of the possibilities of our present: like the wise householders of whom Jesus spoke, who bring out of their treasury both the old and the new. (Matt 13:52) Fully to make use of our blessings will require the twin skills of memory and hope — and imagination.

And it is the same with financial endowments, with the skills and talents of the leaders and members of the congregations — you and I — who, working together with our Bishop and the staff who serve the diocese, are seeking to do what we believe is not just a task, but a mission.

Our Lord gave us an image of long-range planning in Luke’s Gospel, when he asked, “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28) Many of us, faced with the difficulties just of managing from day to day, are likely to appeal to another of our Lord’s admonitions, “Take no thought for the morrow”! (Matt 6:34) The good news is that we are not alone in this enterprise, this mission, and the immediate matters need not overwhelm us because ultimately we are not simply butchers or bakers or candlestick makers — we are the people of God, and trust and know that God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

So let us today ask, let us imagine. And above all, let us trust that God will supply us with the courage to face the days and months and decades ahead, confident that God’s church and God’s mission will not fail.

In a few moments our Bishop will expand on these thoughts and lay out some of his hopes and direction for our future work together. We will then have an opportunity to gather in groups to address some of these specifics in greater detail, and then after Noonday Prayer and lunch, we will have a chance to hear from those who have explored each area of concern. Then we will have time to reflect as a body on the specific role that the Bishop, the wider Episcopal fellowship both within our diocese, throughout the Episcopal Church and in the broader Anglican Communion, as well as the resources of our diocesan staff, can play in empowering our future together.

And so now, without further ado, I give you our Bishop, the Right Rev. Mark S. Sisk. +++