Bishop’s Address of 2004

February 5TH – 7TH, 2004

Good Evening Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Welcome to our family gathering in the 182nd Convention of the 71 congregations that are the Diocese of Georgia.

The Rt. Rev. Henry I. Louttit, Jr.

Here in Valdosta I spent 27 wonderful years as a priest.  I hope that you will accept Christ the King’s invitation to dessert tonight and see and hear about the really exciting special ministries happening on the Courthouse Square through Christ the King.   If you have never seen Christ Church our host parish, which is across from the beautiful Valdosta State College campus, it is well worth the visit.  Twelve miles west of here is the county seat of Brooks County, Quitman, which has an absolutely beautiful small Victorian Church with very good Victorian glass, St. James’.  Last year the congregation moved it from a site hidden from all eyes onto the nicest street in town, Court Street, a block behind the Court House.  They built a lovely parish hall to enhance it.  That’s also worth a trip.  Towards Moody Air Force Base, on the north side of Valdosta, is St. Barnabas, a mission congregation that is very excited and hopeful for its future with its new pastor, our newest seminary graduate, Deacon Mary Hemmer.

We are gathered here because God loves us even when we are selfish, turned in on ourselves, and unlovable.  He has loved us, called us, and made us part of His family through whom He hopes His love will flow to others of His children in His world.  Recently, I have seen parts of my hopes for this diocese, spelled out in last years opening address, being fulfilled.

Wednesday, January 21st, courtesy of the Bishop of Atlanta, I preached at a service celebrating the new ministry of Fr. Dann Brown in the Episcopal Chapel of St. Mary’s on the campus of the University of Georgia.  The Chapel was packed with college students responding to the witness of other young people, many of whom are Diocese of Georgia Happeners and to Chaplain Dann Brown.  The field really is ripe.  Some of our brothers and sisters from the University of Georgia are here.  They have a table in the display area and they will be at tables in the Convention.  I hope that you will talk to them about the exciting things that are happening there.

Secondly, concerning growth:  The American Anglican Council, a group on the conservative end of the Episcopal Church, (whom I do not totally trust), list on their website all the dioceses of the Episcopal Church and the number of new members gained over the last six years with no reference to the amount of population growth in the diocese.  Georgia was 15th out of 90 in growth over the last six years!  We did that with only a third of our congregations really showing growth.  But, brothers and sisters, even with our growth Satan is very happy!  He has a number of folks so angry with the Episcopal Church that they want to destroy it.

Last year I proposed that to be ready to do the ministry God has given us to do we need to work together across congregational lines.  Not God’s dream, but Satan’s anger, has had such inter-congregational conversations going on between those who want to form the “true” Episcopal Church which will have nothing to do with the ones of us on the other side of the issue of how we should treat our homosexual members.  Love did not seem to be able to cause some congregations to work together for the growth of God’s kingdom, but anger has now caused these congregations to reach out to people in other congregations!

Some parishes have not been willing to share proportionally in the diocesan family’s ministry together even before the last several General Conventions and still don’t seem able to trust their brothers and sisters in this diocese to give them room to live and grow.

Pledges to the diocese are down $236,452.  The facts are that endowment income is down because of the market and in a number of cases there have been significant losses of pledged income to parishes.  Some of that is because of General Convention, but at least in two cases the loss has almost nothing to do with General Convention but other local and long-term issues.  At the same time other congregations in the diocese increased their pledges by $49,000 for which we are very thankful.

I believed and said last year we would need to develop funds to endow our parishes for ministry in the future.  As proposed at our last convention, we have been able to place $24,000 in the budget to help congregations raise money for their own endowment needs if they wish to do the necessary work during this coming year.  Of course, that is if you pass the proposed ministry and mission plan of our 71 congregations working together (which we call the Diocese of Georgia).

I am very aware of how different our congregations are.  Just like children in any family, each is unique.  Many see the job God has given us to witness and serve those not in the family.  Others see the job before us as purging the family and having only people that think like us in it.  Actually, as Luke Timothy Johnson points out in his excellent book called The Creed:  What Christians Believe and Why it Matters, two of the four notes of the church in the creed seem in history to have built-in conflict.  The church is “one” and the church is “holy.”  This Bishop confesses to being a Johannine Christian.  A central text for me is Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-21.  “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  This is Jesus’ prayer as he is on His way to be betrayed and crucified.  Over and over again in church history holiness has been identified with particular signs – “following the Pope,” “speaking in tongues,” and “doing no work on the Sabbath” … and if you don’t follow this sign of holiness you are “de-churched” or “excommunicated.”

Historically we were founded on this continent when there were two groups who thought themselves to be the true Church of England.  The Puritans – Calvinists all – who rightly, in my view, reacted against a church who compelled church going using the police powers of the state and yet a church in which they saw few members growing in goodness or grace.  Unfortunately, the Puritans had to kill the king and a number of bishops to take over the church.  They were pure and required everyone to conform to their rules protecting their pureness and, therefore, take part in what to many seemed “bleak but solemn assemblies and life style” in God’s name.  Many people decided their “police” were worse than those of the bishops’ so they were disenfranchised.  They came to the colonies to build anew.  Despite their requirement for people to show signs of holiness, their children mostly deserted.  The Church in England recognized the Episcopal Church in the United States.  The irony is that the Puritans’ denomination, now known as the United Church of Christ, became the most liberal American denomination. They have been publicly ordaining homosexuals for years!

Holiness is a note of the Church.  As Anglicans, we need to grow to understand holiness as being “conformed to Christ” and develop the ability to share a love and tolerance for a variety of ways to be serious about “following Christ” rather than one measurable action that includes or excludes others from the family.

This leads me to my central concern tonight.  I think we have been poor teachers of how the Episcopal Church uses the Bible.  “Holiness” oriented people often see the Bible as a book of laws.  We need to take its laws seriously, but always in the context of the whole Bible story.

Anglicans have always read more of the Bible in public worship than any other church.  Every person ordained has to say and sign a vow: “I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.”  We obviously think the Bible is important.

How do we understand the Bible to be authoritative?

All of us want certainty.  Our brothers and sisters in the Southern Baptist Convention decided to require an understanding of the authority of the Bible based on “inerrancy.”  This doctrine declares that every word in the Bible was written by God and, thus, has to be true.  This doctrine was often assumed by many people in earlier cultures, but never was a stated doctrine of any part of the church.  For instance, Galileo was condemned, despite his deep commitment to the Gospel of Our Lord, because having developed the telescope and watched the sky, he recognized that the earth moved around the sun rather than the sun around the earth.  You may remember on Sunday, January 25th, in the Episcopal Church, we read Psalm 113 and it clearly says “the sun rises and it sets.”   Galileo, then in his 80’s, because of his age was not burned. He was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.  Many years later, in the 1960’s, the Pope apologized and admitted the Roman Church was wrong and Galileo was right.  About that same time a segment of the Southern Baptist Convention decided on inerrancy.  It has taken about 50 years, but they have purged most pastors who have not signed on to the doctrine of inerrancy, and they have influenced most of the evangelical and charismatic world to join them in so defining the authority of scripture.   Thus, the Baptists see the Bible exactly as the Muslins see the Koran.  To them, the Bible is God’s physical way of meeting us.  It is in a very real sense an incarnation of God or is God’s saving physical presence in the world.

Luther, way back in the 16th century, was clear that the ultimate revelation of God’s Word was the living and incarnate Christ.  Anglicans have generally agreed with Luther; the Bible is God’s word in the sense it records for us the picture and words of Christ during His incarnate presence on earth.  Anglicans believe that it is through the Bible’s words that we are prepared to recognize the risen Lord in our life today as He leads us into His new creation!

Episcopalians have never claimed to have an infallible source to give us certainty that we know the absolute truth for all times.  I tried, in my early years, to accept the infallibility of the Pope or find some other source of certainty.  I could not find a way to have certainty that I believed was true and honest.

Episcopalians have always understood the Bible in the context of the whole story not verse by verse.  Leviticus 20:13 condemns a male who commits a homosexual act to be put to death!  All of the Old Testament texts, whatever they mean, about the context of the homosexual act, require the person be thrown out of the church community.  Why has no one in the Diocese of Georgia taken the second part of this verse as seriously as the first?  I suspect because the texts that say “we shall not kill” including the sixth commandment is a context that causes all of us Episcopalians not to take “kill” literally in this text.  But for some reason the great majority of the Diocese of Georgia does not call for all male homosexuals who are sexually active to be thrown out of the church?  Why?  I suspect again because Jesus calls us to invite the sinners in.  Christ offers the sinners table fellowship again and again in the Gospel.  This action is probably the reason church leaders crucified Him.  Certainly, this scandalized most members of His church in Israel.

If we look at the texts mentioning homosexuality in the Bible we find six or seven at most.  Certainly, five of these are clearly negative and there is no positive contradicting or contrasting text.  However, note there are hundreds of texts about greed, which keeps us from sharing our wealth, a gift of God, with the hungry.  So homosexuality can hardly be seen as a sin of major concern for the Bible.

But more importantly the most disturbing text about homosexuality is Romans 1:24-29.  Here homosexual acts are seen not as a sin people are warned not to commit, but seen rather as the result of God’s giving freedom to those who do not honor Him as God to live as they choose, homosexual acts being one graphic symbol, at least for Paul and Hellenistic Judaism, of the destructive nature of humans without faith.  Or, you might say, it is seen as the natural punishment for the sin of not recognizing and honoring God.

However, Paul’s rhetorical skill in chapters 1 and 2 of Romans parallels the story of a good police sting operation!  Just as we get really full of our sense of being right and righteous about the sin of homosexuality, Paul gets to his punch line in Romans 2:1 “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others, for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you the judge are doing the very same things.  He had said in Romans 1:28-31 that we all are filled “with every kind of wickedness, covetousness, malice, envy, strife, deceit, craftiness.  We are gossips, slanderers, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, heartless, and ruthless.” What can we say except: “We have not loved you with our whole heart and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”  “Have mercy.”

Episcopalians have always understood the Bible as the community’s book, thus, the public readings.  Community agreement on understanding is expected – one individual conscience reading by itself is questionable.

Question?  How does God get through our cultural biases?  Is the Old Testament’s, very patriarchal society where women are pretty much the possessions of men, God’s will for all times?  Could we mistake the cultural bias of people who heard God 3,000 years ago as God’s will today?  How did Jesus get through the cultural blinders in the first century?  The writers of the Gospel are clear that the apostles, and it was the apostles who were telling and writing the story of the New Testament, constantly misunderstood Jesus!  Why?  Because they were only hearing parts of scripture that were important to them.  It was only when they met the risen Christ that they saw it His way and realized that His actions and teachings were expected or foretold by the Bible itself in other texts.

A few priests say the problem is not the homosexual act, but the person’s lack of repentance that is the problem.  They have a point.  But Romans 3:9 is clear we are all sinners.  Thus, most Episcopal services include a confession within the service for all people.  I remember the shock of one long time communicant the first time she came to church for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer Service on Ash Wednesday.  She stormed out of the service yelling at me “that service says I’m a sinner.” After that she attended only 1928 rite services.  She was clear real Episcopalians are not sinners.  However, when I think about my sins they keep reoccurring even though I say the confession several times a week.  And most of the time I really mean it.  I really try to quit the sins that I am aware of.  How do I know that someone else doesn’t mean repentance when they say the confession?  Who am I to judge them?  The Bible is very clear about judgment saying that it is God’s business, not mine.

Episcopalians always say the creed at each service because it is a summary of the most important parts of the story of God’s actions for us – creation, redemption, and the new creation or resurrection life.  All but one phrase in the Nicene Creed is directly from the Bible.  The creed is biblical.  But it is also our guide to reading the Bible.  It tells us what are the most important themes of the Bible.

What in the Bible is authoritative?    It’s authoritative about God’s love and actions for us – the story of creation, redemption, and sanctification.  Remember the required doctrinal statement of all those who are ordained in our part of the church catholic:  “I believe the Holy Scriptures to be the Word of God containing all things necessary to salvation.”  Note the second half of that: “containing all things necessary to salvation.”  That is what the Bible is about and what it is authoritative about.  Also, note that not only do we swear to that, but “to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church.”  In fact, not only all the ordained clergy, but all vestry members have been required by our Diocesan Canons, from before my arrival to this diocese in 1963, to sign a similar declaration each year!

To understand the Bible we need to know the whole story, reading texts in context.  We need to read it in community struggling with how it has been understood and our individual shared insights.  We need to read through the prism of the creed, which reminds us of the main story line of the whole Bible.

I know that some people’s consciences are telling them that they cannot agree with the change in the doctrine of our church, but the only mention of sin in the creed is about “the forgiveness of sins.”  The issue of General Convention’s actions does not change the Bible’s clear injunction not to judge others – it does not affect any of the sins I struggle with!  It is not central to the Episcopal Church’s declared understanding of the purpose of scripture.

It is true that some of the people concerned about the General Convention issues would like the Episcopal Church (and the Anglican Communion) to become a confessional body like most other churches in the United States.  That means in addition to the creed, we should spell out the signs of holiness that tell us who is in and who is out of the church.  Others understand “Catholic” to mean all are welcome.  That means that God does the judging.  Remember Jesus’ “parable of the wheat and the tares,” it means at least: “Give people time.  God is the judge.” It would be a major change in the doctrine and discipline of our church to adopt a confessional statement of holiness to be required of all our members.  It also seems that such confessional statements in history always end up causing more and more divisions in the church.  In the past such statements have caused Christians to kill each other in God’s name.

We have not only taken an oath about the authority of scripture.  We have also taken an oath to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.  If we really believe we cannot conform we must leave the Episcopal Church.  What I cannot see is any biblical justification for assuming that it is all right to work out some scheme to take property given by those, now with God, who gave it to the Episcopal Church – to steal it by stealth and remove it from the church – which the saints knew when they gave it, was governed by an elected representative government (the best kind of government I believe God has yet led humans to discern, but not an infallible government by its own admission).  If we need to leave this church we need to do it without stealing from what was left in trust for us as Episcopalians.  I know that buildings are not nearly as important as the truth.

I know we will be more of a Catholic Church if we can contain and respect each other and lose no one, no matter what their opinion is about how we should minister to our homosexual members.  It is exactly in that struggle of opinions in the context of reading the Bible that the community will ultimately come to know God’s will.  However, if one’s conscience says he or she must go I would hope that person could find among the 2,000+ denominations listed by the Internal Revenue Service one that he or she can agree with without forming a new division in Christ’s body.

Brothers and Sisters, I have tried to say what I’m struggling with and where I am on a number of issues because people have demanded to know exactly what I think and what I believe should happen.  I have always been very clear that I’m not infallible, nor do I believe the votes of this diocese, or of the General Convention, or of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, to be infallible.  Some of the positions I now hold may be changed by God through what some of you say, or by God’s direct voice.  I didn’t want to say some of these things because I think they will inevitably be heard and repeated in a hurtful and painful way to members that I value very much in Christ’s family.

What I am sure of is that God is calling us as a church, not to create winners or losers, but brothers and sisters in Christ.  I pray that His will be done.

Last year I concluded my address by saying:  The gospel says that we are in His church because God loved us even when we were selfish, turned in on ourselves, and unlovable.  When we know He calls us into His love and opens us to His love, that love overflows to His other children in His world.

That was then and is now my vision for this diocese.

Thank you.