Bishop’s Address of 1979

The Rt. Rev. G. Paul Reeves
8 February 1979

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Reverend Clergy, Delegates to this one Hundred-Fifty-seventh Convention of the Diocese of Georgia, our fellow-communicants, and our friends: Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ.

Herewith I present to you the Bishop’s annual address, as required by canon and by custom.

Paul ReevesIn preparation for this Convention I reread the Journal of last year’s Convention. As I reread, for the first time in a year, my address to Convention then assembled, it occurred to me that I could deliver the same address tonight, making only a few changes in names and details.

That thinking then led deeper, to a fresh realization of the gratitute I feel, but leave too often unexpressed, to the many of you whose intelligent devotion, generosity, patience, and good-will make life in our diocese so lively and so rewarding. That led deeper yet to a guess – a fear, even – that I, at least, but perhaps not I alone, may have become complacent. It is from this point that I go to the theme of tonight’s address.

Few of the problems that beset the Christian Church, or our branch thereof, have been solved in the past year. If some seem less serious, others seem more so. We must remember that the Church always has done its work in a sinful and confused world. Whatever the problems at home or abroad, I believe that we, as a diocese, are in a position from which we should move out and ahead.

A majority of our sister dioceses in the Episcopal Church are involved in the program called “Venture in Mission”. At our last Convention you approved a resolution which authorized a study of the feasibility of our participating in this program. That study was accomplished last Spring. Diocesan Council will present you a resolution the intent of which is to urge our engaging in Venture in Mission. I said to you a year ago: “My hope is that we will be willing to take [Venture in Mission] on, so long as we are willing to follow through.” I repeat that, and with even more enthusiasm than I expressed a year ago. I hope you have read enough, in our own diocesan paper and elsewhere, to be familiar with the aims and format of this program.

It has been criticised on two principal accounts, first, that it is a device to distract our people from the problems that face the Episcopal Church; and second, that it is simply a large-scale money-raising effort. I believe the first criticism is best answered historically, that is, by seeing how many years ago this program was conceived, far antedating the onset of our present problems.

As to its being merely a disguised fund-raising effort, I would answer that it is not disguised at all. As a parish priest, and later as your Bishop, I have been involved in several large-scale stewardship education programs and canvasses. It has been a matter of interest to observe the confusion, the inconsistency, sometimes the hyprocrisy, with which some Christians face the obligations of their financial stewardship.

Consider, first of all, how we twentieth-century Americans generally measure success. Generally, in material terms. Who is the successful business man, the successful professional man, the successful athlete, the successful entertainer ” Is it not, in the minds of most people, the one who makes the most money.” We admire skill of all sorts, talent, humanitarian activity,artistry and scientific insight. Most of us have the happy fortune to know a physician, a tradesman, a teacher, a mechanic, a businessman, who has made relatively little money, but the quality of whose life and activity we recognize with admiration as being successful in a deep meaning of that word. Still, in complete honesty, do we not – most of us – usually measure success in terms of money? And when we speak of security, do we not usually have in mind financial security? We make our jokes about there being no pockets in shrouds, but way down deep is not our idea of security much that of the man in the Gospel story who says, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” (Luke 12:19)

As twentieth-century Americans, we find it difficult not to be infected by the materialistic air we breathe. Yet – and here is my point -when it comes to the practice of religion we suddenly become very ‘spiritual’, and shudder at the idea of the Church’s being so crass as to suggest that what we do with our money has anything to do with the sincerity of our prayers or with the depth of our committment to Jesus Christ. Here lies an inconsistency that so easily can become hypocrisy.

So I say that Venture in Mission does involve an enthusiastic approach to guide our people in giving money, not to ‘a good cause’, but to the proper work of The Body of Christ. We need neither to fear, nor apologize for, an appeal to our people to finance this work.

It may be helpful to take a closer look at these words, ‘venture’ and ‘mission’. As you often have seen me do, I turn to my dictionary.

Here I find that ‘venture’ is defined as “an undertaking that is dangerous, daring, or of doubtful outcome.” I didn’t select those adjeetiees – there they are – but I joyfully accept them for our purpose: ‘dangerous, dazing, or of doubtful outcome.’

‘Mission’ means basically “a sending forth”, and is a word susceptible of several definitions. Two that seem best to fit our case are, “a missionary duty or work”, or, “that which one is destined or fitted to do; a calling.” Putting the two words together we come up with ‘Venture in Mission’ meaning something like ‘A daring undertaking of our proper missionary duty and calling.’ It is just this which we will accept or decline in the two days ahead.

Our missionary calling is to darkest Africa, and to the jail two blocks from the church; it is to Appalachia; and it is to the lonely octogenarian who used to head the altar guild. Our mission field is quite simply as wide as humanity. The slum dweller needs the Gospel, and the slum landlord probably needs it even more. The college professor and the kindergarten pupil alike need the Good News. The Church needs to speak to the frightened retired couple whose peace is eroded by inflation; and it has a message for the confident newlyweds.While we are far from having our diocesan structure in perfect order, I believe we are in a strong enough position to venture out into the world – in God’s world – and to do something for others.

When a year ago I said I hoped we would be willing to make this venture so long as we were willing to follow through, I meant that it is easy to pass a resolution here, but is more difficult to go home and assume responsibility for the considerable effort that will be required to make the resolution into a reality. Whatever this Convention decides about Venture in Mission is of secondary importance to that which lies behind any program of outreach that is genuinely Christian.

C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian. I may repeat, ‘Do as you would be done by’ until I an blue in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbor as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbor as myself until I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him.” [MERE CHRISTIANITY, Bk. I, Ch_ 3]

So then behind all other Christian ventures is the venture into God. If we get this one right, all our other activities may not succeed, but they will fall into place; if we neglect, or fail, to get right our relation to God, all our other activities will come to little or naught.

It is difficult to know quite how to say what I very much want to say, but I will try. The basic work of a diocesan convention is legislation, and spirituality cannot be legislated. But I lay before you tonight my profound hope that we can experience a spiritual renewal in the Diocese of Georgia.

Here and there this is happening already. Our Cursillo movement has involved nearly five hundred people, representing thirty-four of our congregations; its influence never can be measured, but it is considerable, Faith Alive, Marriage Encounter, Church Growth, prayer groups, and other movements have touched the lives of other hundreds. For the vast majority, these experiences have been positive; of course they cannot be misused, and not everyone is affected by them in the same way. Those who bear the responsibility for their leadership need always to remember that as they are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, so also they most be atoned to the mind of the Church.

It has become a truism to say that the basic unit of the Church is the diocese; this is what we mean by ‘the total Church’ – a bishop, the priests and laity in communion. But the normal working unit of the Church is likely to be the local congregation, and for most of our people, this is ‘where the action is’ – or isn’t. I have spoken of the generosity, the loyalty, the patience, the good-will which I see demonstrated by our clergy and laity. At the same time – and this in no judgemental spirit – who has not wondered why so many of our congregations stay so small, and why so many of our loyal people seem to grow so little in their knowledge and love of God.

Liturgical change has had mixed results, mainly good, I believe; but too often the changes have been superficial and have missed the point -the point being to bring the worshippers into closer contact with God and into a really deeper relation with one another. I cringed when I read recently the comment of a young Moslem who had attended a Christian Eucharistand remarked, “Looking at these people, no-one would suspect that they really believe in a Divine Presence in the bread they are about to receive.”

I will not try even to suggest where I think things have gone wrong; and I an aware of the danger in trying to suggest how to put them right. I doubt that any diocesan-wide program could be devised to do it; but I believe we can identify some elements which in proper combination could move a congregation closer to the place where God wants it to be.In no special sequence I suggest four elements. First, teaching and learning. From personal experience I believe it is neither harsh nor unfair to say that many of our loyal people never get beyond the confirmation-class level of Christian learning. Salvation history as it is set out in the Holy Scriptures, the fundamental theology of the Church, even as outlined in the Catechism, these remain hidden mysteries. Misinformation and misunderstanding is far too common.

This is not a problem peculiar to our diocese. A godly bishop, who is as kind as he is wise, recently remarked sadly to me,”I’m afraid most of my people are, if not religious illiterates, first graders I am not so naive as to believe that reading books and attending classes necessarily will save a soul. I know that the teaching abilities of our clergy vary. Nor do I think all of our people will discipline themselves to go on and on learning. But the eagerness with which our people have greeted the Theological Education by Extension, where these courses have been offered, suggest to me that some people do want to go on with their Christian education. I would like to see us develop at least an outline of a course, shorter and less demanding than Theological Education by Extension that would lead anyone who followed it to a deeper knowledge of the treasures of our Faith.

And worship: This central activity of the Church has come under microscopic scrutiny in recent years. Many of us can testify to the fact that the dignity and beauty of Anglican liturgy was the principal factor, or one of the main things, that led us to the Episcopal Church. The period of liturgical experimentation which we called ‘trial use’ in many places saw a loss of at least some of that ordered beauty; but I believe we are now at a place where beauty and dignity can be restored, whatever rite we choose to use. Parenthetically, I repeat the hope I expressed to Convention a year ago that General Convention in September will approve continued use of the 1928 Prayer Book as an alternative to the now-Proposed Book, which latter most of us assume will be approved for use. The responsibility of ordering worship is a heavy one for the clergy, but it should be a joyous one, too. The very least we owe our people is an atmosphere of reverence in Church; the largest contact most people have with the church is at Sunday worship. That hour cannot accomplish everything, but it can achieve the proper end of public worship.

Then, fellowship. We often are reminded that ours is an age of loneliness and alienation. There is a deep sense in which man always is lonely until he is at home in the company of God; but no doubt our time is a special case. The breakdown of family life, the astonishing mobility of people, the loss of belonging to a local community or to a clan, the external pressures of noise and hurry, the seductive weakening of the mind that television is working – all these things and others make for loneliness.

We have only to note the warm, personal, caring fellowship of some congregations to see how well the Christian community can mitigate loneliness. Those who share the Life of Christ at the altar should be in a special position to know and express fellowship at a deep level. Again, I an not suggesting a committee approach to this matter, but the use of every means at our disposal to share the forgiving and accepting love of Christ.

Finally, the parish is the setting in which most priests work. In recent years we have been heavy on what is called pastoral counselling; of this we need not less, but more and better. But quite apart from pastoral counselling we need far more of that which for centuries has been known as spiritual direction, a special province of the parish priest.No two souls are alike, and in the guidance of each, a priest needs many things – academic knowledge, great patience combined with firmness, a sincere love for people – not as ‘humanity’, but as individual children of God – and holiness of life. I believe most of our people want in their priest not the ‘jolly good fellow’ (altho one who walks with God ought to be joyous) , nor the brilliant academician (altho one who teaches God’s truth needs to know it and have some skill in imparting it), nor yet a master of novel techniques and jargon – but holiness. It is true that a holy priest will repel some people – just as our Lord did; but in the end it will be this quality that will win enduring disciples.

As I have been speaking of Christian education and worship and fellowship and a holy priesthood, I suspect some of you may have been murmuring, “What does he think we are doing?” Of course I know these things are taking place; but I believe we need to stand back and take a new look at that which is the basis work of the Church, namely, extending the Incarnation, being Christ in Georgia in 1979: and then get on with that work to the best of our ability.

God grant that each of us will come to say with Saint Paul: “This one thing I do: Forgetting things which are behind, and reaching out to those things which are before, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)