Bishop’s Address of 2008


February 7th, 2008

Welcome to the 186th Convention of the Diocese of Georgia.

Don’t you expect that John Wesley, Bartholomew Zouberbuhler, and Anson Dodge are surprised that their work has survived and grown.  And what about our 2nd Bishop whose Convention Address right after the Civil War are filled with fore boding about General Seminary encouraging candles on the Communion table, which he delivered would destroy our Church.

I.       Why should we belong to a Church in which there are people who do not agree with us in our Parish, Diocese, National Denomination, and World Communion?  Why should we belong to a Church in which people do not agree?  The Bible’s answer is simple regardless of whether we are considering a local church or a denomination.  God calls us as individuals into a people to serve him.

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

It took a good bit of historical time for most of us, God’s people, to get the message that God loves and cares for people other than us.  Our story about God and humans – the Bible – starts with Adam and Eve and moves through Abraham and Sarah before there were any Hebrews.

Under Saul and David years after Abraham, God’s people became a nation.  But almost immediately they split into two sections – the country of Israel and the country of Judah.  By 700 BC Israel, was destroyed by the Assyrians.  A hundred years later Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians.  God’s people, the part of them we know about, were carried off into captivity and began to have to think about their God in a pluralistic world – an international world.  The book of Isaiah shows us in its later parts their coming to terms with being God’s people and yet not having an opportunity to be a nation themselves coming to realizing that God cared about all people.   God actually send a “Messiah” “A Christ” called Cyrus, the Emperor of Persia (Isaiah 44:24 – 45:13) who did set them free to worship their God within his Empire.  He allowed the captives to go back and try to rebuild Jerusalem.  A number who were well established in Babylonia did not go back.  Jerusalem was a destroyed place and it took a long time to even get the security of a wall for the city.

The Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) shows God slowly getting through to some of his people.  Some Hebrews came to understand that his concern is for all people and that they were called to share and serve all the people of the world.  This is glimpsed in Isaiah chapters 56 – 62.

Into this situation centuries later God came as Jesus.  He recruited apostles and disciples.  Were they all alike Peter; James, and Paul?  Read their testimonies.  That’s their books in the New Testament.  Did they agree on the big story?  Eventually yes.  God was in Jesus, but did they agree on everything?  No.  There was a lot of struggle ahead about whether God would call Gentiles into his servant community.   But here we are mostly of Gentile background as his children in this year of Our Lord 2008 A.D. almost 3,000 years later.

The Bible does not show all faithful people agreeing.  It shows God’s people all over the map.  Even within the faithful NO ONE has the whole story.  It takes Matthew and Mark and Luke and John and Peter and Paul and James and Timothy and Titus and the author of Revelation and others to get all the critical aspects of God’s teaching down for the early Church.

Unfortunately, we learn slowly.  It took almost 2,000 years for your and my people to discover that all human beings were equally important in God’s view (first the slavery story and more recently the segregation story).  Of course we are not there yet.  At least for me there is the temptation to think all people who are poor and out of work are dangerous and “no good” and yet I know better.

God in the biblical account clearly cares about all he has made – not only all human beings, but about the whole creation.

Somehow we put glasses on that screen us from the Bible’s clear picture that we are to work for the good of the whole creation.  Science actually tells us that we cannot live without a healthy natural world (the Bible has known that all along).

SO, POINT ONE. God’s people, my Christian family, are bigger than my friends, my congregation, my denomination, and my world church.  If I am part of that people then my concerns have to go beyond my local congregation.

Why do we need a Diocese?

We know what we get out of our congregations.  In a healthy congregation we have friends and they care about each other and me.  There we are nurtured in the Christian faith and ministry.  We don’t know much about other congregations.  Of course, if we move we may look for another congregation that will take us in and care for us.  Unfortunately, many of our congregations are made up of folk who have a wide circle of friends beyond the congregation and do not have time to make new friends without giving up something in their busy personal life.  Thus, their congregations do not incorporate new folk or young folk or folk from other cultures.  They want their congregation not to die with them, but they don’t have time for new folk.  Larger congregations provide more diverse opportunities, but function differently in their incorporation and pastoral care.  Thus, they are not what people from smaller congregations expect and the same is true for people who started in a big church moving to a smaller one.

Often we assume every congregation to be exactly like the one I started in and loved.  But each community is different and has a different history.  Congregations are not interchangeable because they are as diverse as the people who make them up.  If we give them time most congregations have strengths and weaknesses different from the parish we came from, but in many cases they will be as supportive and creative as our first parish if we will allow ourselves to enter into their world as well as them giving us a little space to come to know their world and giving me a voice in it.  That is essential for a healthy church.

Your trouble shooter (that is what a Bishop is) sees a lot of longtime vestry members who become owners.  They want no change.  Change is a problem in small churches, but in larger ones we can have different worship services with different styles and music.  No change for old timer’s services and additional services for newer members.  Just for instance of the problems facing the pastor.  People want the hymns they know!  My experience is many congregations only love 10 – 15 hymns.  But the trouble is each congregation has its ten favorites, but they are not all the same ones; Holy, Holy, Holy and one or two others are all they have in common with other parishes!

The point is we need a Diocese to assist congregations in trouble to develop new priests and deacons for current congregations and new ones to start new congregations where congregations are “full” and can’t receive more people whatever their size to encourage our congregations to share their good experiences and programs with other congregations to encourage them to see new opportunities for their congregations and to relate them to the world church.

II.      Why do we need to belong to a church that has people in it that don’t agree with me?  The reason is because as far as I can see each person is shaped by their experiences and community or communities by their jobs, education, family, careers and entertainment.  Each of us has a different perception of the world.  As much as I, your Bishop, would like all of you to see everything through my eyes – I’m not at all sure I want to see everything through your eyes.  But for families, churches, communities or denominations to be healthy we have to try and see things through others eyes.  Most important, we need to try to see through God’s eyes!  That means we also have to try to see through eyes not only of friends and neighbors, but through the eyes of people in other cultures in other parts of God’s world.  He loves them too according to Our Lord Jesus.

The Episcopal Church has always had a great diversity of thought!  In the days of the founding of the United States some of our leaders (even Bishops) appear from their writings to have been deists and did not believe that Jesus was God but was just an outstanding spokesman for God.  Others at the same time treasured the Book of Common Prayer, its doctrines, and discipline having to do, of course, with a “three person one God” and the death and resurrection of Our Lord as central to salvation.  They believed in the Creeds.  We survived and grew and Deism, which made sense for some people in an enlightenment culture, was never able to run out the Prayer Book people.  It ultimately died with the enlightenment period.  Today we have a different division between those who hear clearly the Bible’s demands that all people be valued and served and thus service of those hurting physically, mentally or culturally is the church’s major focus.  The other group believes that the church’s major work, also with biblical precedence, is to worship so that people may know God and see how he would have us live.

Social activist Christians tend to “burn out” in the face of intractable, multiple reinforced poverty and ignorance.  Worship centered Christians tend to forget to get out of the formation period of worship to serve God in and through his needy children.  I suggest we need each other in our world.

I would underline that every healthy congregation in our Diocese is actively serving the needs of troubled people in their larger community and the world as well as being faithfully active in providing worship and Christian education for their church community.  Our deacons witness widely to the service of others as the basic mission to which Jesus has called his church.  We see worship as that which empowers the church for service which is Jesus’ call for us to live and act as he lived.

The point is we need diversity to serve in God’s richly diverse world.

III.     What now holds our Diocese together?  I believe that it is this convention and the Bishops.  Our most struggling congregations probably have no lay persons present here.  That is complicated by the fact that most of our small county seat congregations do not have resident priests.  They cannot afford them.  Most of them are served by either volunteer priests who are retired or non-stipendiary priests who make a living some other way.  We are thankful for their ministry, but that means their only connection with the Diocese is the Bishop’s annual visit as their clergy are not often available to go to diocesan or convocation meetings and share insights from these meetings with the congregation.

What a difference it would make for a couple of people from a neighboring congregation within a sixty mile range – a distance that is fairly usual in some parts of our diocese –  would take it upon themselves to worship on a quarterly basis with a small congregation to boost their spirits.  Perhaps encourage the folk to participate in some diocesan area events or send a child to camp.

But the reality is our committed folk hold responsible jobs within their congregations and find it hard to take a Sunday off from their congregation.  The reason we ask you at this convention to sit with other folk, rather than friends from your own congregation, is we need people within the diocese, lay people as well as clergy, to know and care for each other.  I hope you will try to find out something about the people and their congregations that are sitting at your table and the kind of ministry and gifts that they have and share with them the ones you have and see in your congregation.

I believe clergy relationships are very important.  Granted my own needs drove me to develop clergy communities as a priest to keep me sane.  If I couldn’t find priests within an hour or so drive, that I trusted to share with, I sought ecumenical clergy that I could share with.  Sometimes both worked at the same time – sometimes one or the other.  This Bishop has tried, I think, with considerable God given success, to build the clergy community of the diocesan priests and another clergy community with the diocesan deacons.

I am proud of our clergy!  I believe we have the most supportive and gifted group of priests and deacons in the Episcopal Church.  They are invaluable. Some priests have turned down considerably larger congregations and income to serve among us.  We have clergy that are on the “get list” of multiple other dioceses.  Do we all look alike?  No!  Do we trust each other?  In a great part, yes.  Do we learn from one another?  Yes.  Do we always agree?  No.

What are the results?  This year, ten people are in seminary, fourteen people are preparing in the diocese to be priests, seventeen people are preparing for the deaconate through our Diocesan School for Deacons, and twelve people are in diocesan discernment about possible calls to priesthood or the deaconate.

What are the results?  Many of you have heard the wonderful story of Christ Church, Dublin, after several years with no children: this year suddenly they are out of space for children’s programs!  That’s a county seat town congregation!  About the rebirth of St. Patrick’s in Albany – About the over flowing St. Paul’s, the Mother Church of the Albany area and its return to our top five congregations in size and activity.  There are three successful church plants moving forward.  A new one started and another in the planning stage.

What are the results?  Cursillo has called a number of people to ecumenical ministry in Kairos in prisons around the state, and to ministry in the Youth Detention Centers through Epiphany, a Happening inspired event also ecumenical but brought to Georgia by members of our Diocese.  We have regular Eucharists in at least two state prisons.  We have lay members and deacons with ministries in Hospice and Retirement Centers.  We have lots of folk involved in feeding and clothing ministries.  We have deacons involved in serving the alien seamen that are not allowed to leave their ships in the port of Brunswick.

What are the results?  Lay people within the Diocese, not from Statesboro, have raised $25,000 dollars to provide two years of use of a house adjacent to Georgia Southern University for our out reach led by Fr. Lonnie Lacy among the students at Georgia Southern University.

Of course there are angry folk among us, and there are a few congregations that are struggling.  We are sorry that some people believe that to be faithful they have to leave our denomination.  The Episcopal Church in its great variety has always had people coming and joining the church while others were leaving.  Our denomination’s loss of numbers has much more to do with changing demographics, neighborhoods now speaking languages other than English – the English speaking people not finding a welcome in the Episcopal Churches mostly in the south where they moved.

Episcopalians have never required monochrome commitment to statements of belief like the Roman Catholics on one side and the Southern Baptists on the other.  Certainty we believe is only possible for God.  We humans see only partially.  But we have and believe Jesus promise to be with us and his call for us to love our neighbor by caring for those in trouble or need.

I think it is important to report a little about where the money comes from that goes to support your diocese and, thus, I am going to list the givers of the ten largest pledges to the diocesan program last year, 2007.  Then I will list the previous year’s congregations with the largest receipts of money for operating revenue, we do not have those figures yet figured for 2007.  Note it is very important to remember that giving beyond your self is critical for both individuals and congregations for your spiritual life.  There is no easy measure for who is giving fairly because each congregation and each individual has things facing them that are not the same as their neighbors.  Some congregations have to spend sizable amounts to maintain or renew their facilities.  Others have programming that is particularly critical for their mission.  Those are not really easy to evaluate from outside.  It’s also very hard for congregations to know why the Diocese needs money unless the members of this convention are willing to share with their members what’s important about your diocese and your world church.

Ten largest pledges to Diocesan programs:

1.          Good Shepherd, Augusta
2.          Christ Church, St. Simons Island
3.          St. Paul’s, Albany
4.          Christ Church, Valdosta
5.          St. Peter’s, Savannah
6.          St. John’s, Savannah
7.          St. Paul’s, Savannah
8.          Calvary, Americus
9.          St. Thomas’, Savannah
10.          St. Andrew’s, Darien

Ten largest incomes for operating revenue in 2006, our latest figures:

1.          Good Shepherd, Augusta
2.          St. John’s, Savannah
3.          Christ Church, St. Simons Island
4.          St. Paul’s, Augusta
5.          St. Peter’s, Savannah
6.          St. Mark’s, Brunswick
7.          Christ Church, Valdosta
8.          St. Thomas’, Savannah
9.          All Saints’, Thomasville
10.          St. Augustine, Augusta

During the Business Meeting tomorrow I will share a report on 2008 pledges.  We are excited that we will welcome our Presiding Bishop who will visit us September 12th through 14th, 2008.  Note the Canons of the Episcopal Church specify as one of the Presiding Bishop’s duties is that he or she will visit each of the dioceses.

Bishop Griswold did not think he could fulfill the canon and did not accept our invitation to come to the Diocese of Georgia.  Obviously, there is only so much time in the day and Presiding Bishops have enormous issues to deal with.  The Presiding Bishop would like to get to know some of our people.  We will have a gathering for the clergy at Trinity Church, Statesboro, on Friday, September 12th.  We will have a gathering for lay people at St. Peter’s, Savannah, on Saturday, September 13th.  Space is limited and so there will have to be registration and limitation on the number of people who can come from each congregation until we are sure that each congregation has had an opportunity for some people to come.  If we find we have more space we will get the word out to congregations.

The Presiding Bishop will be with the people of Good Shepherd, Augusta on Sunday morning, September 14th and though this visit was planned before the division of Christ Church, Savannah she has now extended her visit to Georgia in order for her to be present with the people of Christ Church Episcopal in Savannah at their evening service on Sunday, September 14th.

This Bishop thinks we have a Presiding Bishop with great leadership skills and a great ability to listen to people’s questions and to respond to them honestly and openly and with love.  I look forward to her being with us.

We cannot as a Bishop and convention make congregations welcoming.  We certainly cannot change people overnight who have other views about what is central to the Christian faith.  We can however be open and welcoming to one another and carry home the news that God is at work in the Episcopal Church, in the Diocese of Georgia, and throughout the world.