Bishop’s Address of 1999


Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

At this beginning of my fifth year in serving as your bishop I greet you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true Man; one with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit; three persons in One God. This was the best that thinkers within Greek culture could do to describe the experience of the God who called them and who called us here. No thinker since has been able to do better.

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

God is bigger than we are so we should not be surprised as we realize that we cannot capture a complete human friend in words, that our words are stretched when trying to describe the God who created the whole universe.

Paul used a Greek word that translates as mystery to describe the reality of God and his plan of salvation for us. This use of the word mystery does not mean a puzzle to be solved some day, but that the truth of God is bigger than our minds and our language. Greek-speaking Christians recognizing that we met this God in the sacraments used the word to include God and his salvation reaching us in the sacraments and called the sacraments Mysteries. The Book of Common Prayer continues this usage in calling the Holy Communion “these Holy Mysteries.” One of things that we should call to mind when dealing with humans, and even more so with God, is that all of our language is approximate not exact.

Current science led by the people working in theoretical physics has had to come to terms with the fact that reality is so big that it is paradoxical. Two things seem to be true that contradict each other in the partial definitions that we have. Physics research today is telling us that the reality of the physical universe is so big and complicated that we will never be able to define it again in a simple unitary proposition.

I would suggest to you that the Christian doctrine of God, the Trinity — he is one but he is in himself a community — is paradoxical for the same reason. It points to the richness of the creator of this universe.

The major subject I want to discuss with you tonight is the purpose of God’s community, the church that Paul calls the “Body of Christ.” I might describe it as God’s calling us into community with himself.

In my first address to you I asked you to consider a new way of living together. For thirty years, I’d watched us beat each other with the issues before the church — sometimes I was on the winning side and sometimes losing. But what I came to realize is that losers went away mad, and the winners thought they had made a difference. But mostly, not a single mind had been changed. Well, I believe that people can change when they ask God to help them see things his way and then listen carefully to people who disagree with them. So I ask you to consider that no issue should be off limits to discussion. Let each side try to explain the strength of their position, their understanding–and unless we have an action which would change how we do business in this Diocese, let’s not cause the minority to be badly hurt and the victors lulled into complacency believing we’ve accomplished something by passing a resolution which does not change a single heart.

As I have grown older I have been forced by God to realize that often there has been truth on the side of those I opposed even though I still know that the truth I saw on my side is part of the truth. The issues just were not as simple as I thought. I would urge you to seek for any statement by Jesus in the New Testament that gives us the authority to judge people and to try to drive them out of this church. Pray about why did he not excommunicate Judas?

Satan wishes to destroy God’s church, and my desire to be in charge is as deadly to God’s family as Satan. So I expect to find myself again and again wishing some people would leave our church or even die. Life would just be so much simpler if everyone saw things my way. But I am thankful for your love that tells me I don’t have to be right and perfect. It gives me strength to fight the evil in my constant desire to be in charge, to be God.

I believe we together can see what God is calling us, you and me, his disciples, his body of Christ in our place in time to do. I ask you to think and pray about the purpose of our church where we work, our congregation, our diocese and not to spend our energy trying to correct somebody somewhere else.

One of our strengths is to realize that the local congregation is where people live and grow in Christ. But also in Paul’s understanding the local congregation is representative of the whole Church in its place; Christ’s body which all baptized people in all places and times make up. That’s what it means to be catholic and apostolic. That’s what it means to be an Episcopalian. We are not in this alone. What we do affects many people beyond our local community and, of course, we’re supported by the prayers and work of our brothers and sisters around the world and in heaven.

In this context, what is the purpose of my local congregation and of this family of congregations, the Diocese of Georgia? If we go back to the sources, what does Jesus call people to do? We have had both John’s and Matthew’s story of Jesus’ call of his first disciples on the first Sundays in January. What did Jesus call Peter and Andrew to do? If you assume most editors or authors design their books to build to a major point, to what do all four Gospels build? Matthew has the risen Jesus meeting with the disciples and commissioning them to do what? “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Luke reports Jesus, after his resurrection said, “Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and the forgiveness of sin is to be preached in his Name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things”. And the Book of Acts can be seen as Luke’s report of the disciples in the power of the Holy Spirit making disciples throughout the known world! John reports Jesus as saying “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, yet if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”

You obviously have a Bishop who believes the purpose of the church is to make disciples. In this I have the unanimous support of the third world bishops of our communion as they spoke in assembly at Lambeth. I am asking you to pray this year about what you believe our purpose in God is? If we look at the Diocese of Georgia, we do make disciples. All of our congregations are made up of people who die and most are made up of people who move to better their job or place of living. We have only a few congregations who are seriously shrinking. Most of our congregations seem able to make a new disciple or find a disciple to join the community when someone leaves. Yet our growth is negligible. If we did not have a couple of new congregations like St. Peter’s, Skidaway, St. Elizabeth’s of Richmond Hill, or St. Stephen’s Lee County, we probably would show slow shrinkage.

Now honestly, we have a problem in that we do not have adequate statistics to measure what is really happening. The definitions of communicants vary so much that the numbers reported are not really comparable. It is interesting, for instance, to compare what people report as their communicant strength against their average Sunday attendance. In our Diocese, Sunday attendance as measured against what is reported as communicant strength ranges from 20% to 120%. Thus, when friends call me to ask about recommendations for a new priest and say that they have 600 communicants, I ask how many folk are there on Sunday. Oh, they reply, “About 150.” That, of course, tells me that a priest with 300 communicants and attendance of 250 on Sunday really is probably not going to be interested in my friend’s parish, unless he wants a smaller place or a real challenge. Of course, many of my presbyter friends will say that God does not care about numbers. But I say that he cares a lot about your health and though he doesn’t care about the numbers of your blood pressure and your cholesterol count, these are serious indicators of your future health. Leaders of congregations need hard data to evaluate the health of the congregation so that they can see both where they were and where they are and decide whether their current diet is working. We need to know our average attendance, the number of giving units, and our average giving per family unit. But even given our lack of hard data, it is clear we are not majoring in making disciples.

Our strength, and we should be proud of it, is in nurturing our people. Jesus did say to Peter, “Feed My sheep,” but he also said, “Tend My sheep,” which would include rounding them up into the flock. This fall I asked our leaders at Convocation Council to take some time and list the things that brought them or kept them active in our church. The reports include a strong emphasis on nurture. How would we add to our strength and nurture disciple-making? Well, I would ask that we meditate on John I, 29 – 41, the Gospel for the second Sunday after Epiphany this year. The pattern seems clear: Jesus says, “Come and see.” The disciples then, “go and tell.” Andrew to Peter. Phillip to Nathaniel. Bishop Claude Payne of the Diocese of Texas says that we Episcopalians have our own method of evangelism.

We can be thankful that some other churches have other forms of evangelism that may reach people that we can’t reach, but Bishop Payne says the tried and true method for Episcopalians is to invite people to church where we gather in expectancy that we will be in the presence of Christ! We invite people to live worship — an environment in which we expect to see Jesus. (I surveyed the leadership present in the fall convocation council meetings. It was fairly balanced between born Episcopalians and people who had come to us as teenagers or adults. Both groups reported over and over again how important our worship was to their becoming or staying active in our church. Our experience supports what Bishop Payne says, “Evangelism for us normally happens in the context of worship.”

So, how do we make disciples? We invite to come to church people not active now in another church. True, many of us would like some friend to be part of our church, but if they are happily involved in another church, they are disciples now and that is not what God’s purpose for us is about.

To invite people to church we need to do several things.

  1. We need to pray about who in our town doesn’t have a church–we may need to do some research in this area–and we need to look for new friends outside our regular acquaintances if we have been in our town for several years.
  2. We do need to pray about how we strengthen our worship–so it is filled with the expectancy that God is going to meet us, and we are going to be changed by him to be more like him. That’s why we need our children in church. They are very honest, if they are bored–so are many of us–and so visitors will be.
  3. We need to pray about our hospitality. To pray for guidance and strength to greet and get to know strangers and newcomers before we feed ourselves on our long-time friendships.

The Third World bishops, the majority of the bishops present at Lambeth, were seriously puzzled about why a church with such tremendous resources of people, power, and money — our church — be so poor at making disciples. Their questions were uncomfortable for me, and I realize that in some cases they do not recognize the complexities of the society in which we are called to share the gospel. But I know deep inside that they are right about the purpose of the church; including the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Georgia. But this bishop’s understanding is not something that can be mandated/forced on you, the Diocese of Georgia. I asked 12 people who I thought would represent you to travel with me to a conference of the Diocese of Texas, a diocese that has adopted a vision for their ministry by which priorities are set at every level. We were represented by Mr. Langdon Flowers of St. Thomas, Thomasville; Father Doug Renegar, Christ Church, St. Simons; Ms. Gail Munz, Our Savior, Martinez; Pastor Donald Fishburne, rector of St. Paul’s, Augusta; Mr. David Saussy, St. Paul’s, Savannah; Pastor Sonia Sullivan, Good Shepherd, Swainsboro; Mr. David Burton, Good Shepherd, Augusta; Ms. Jackie Driggers, St. Paul’s, Albany; and from the diocesan staff: Ms. Marcia McRae, St. John’s, Bainbridge; Father Sanford Ulmer, St. Michael’s, Savannah; Dr. A. L. Addington, St. Peter’s, Savannah; and Canon Bob Carter, St. Paul’s, Savannah. I am very thankful to these people for giving time for this trip and for reflecting with the bishop about the Diocese of Texas’ experience and helping the bishop draw up his vision for our diocese. They would be glad to talk to you about their Diocese of Texas experience. I’m going to end by giving you a vision statement. It is not placed before you to be adopted at this time. A vision statement that is going to help us serve together our Lord Jesus Christ has to be much more widely digested, invested in, and incarnated and thus, I ask you to pray about it. We’ll have time to discuss this at this convention. I hope you’ll take it home and discuss it with your vestry and the leaders in your congregation. Perhaps from your suggestions, a stronger vision with your support will develop.

One note that I would add is that we, like the Diocese of Texas, believe there has to be some kind of objective measurement so that we know whether anything is happening or not. Believing that the average attendance figures on Sunday come closest to reflecting a common reality across our 69 congregations we, therefore, are measuring God’s work through us in reaching out to others in terms of our average Sunday attendance. The vision statement sees God through us doubling our attendance in five years. The Diocese of Texas, whose vision statement calls the church “the community of miraculous expectation,” believes that God will grow them from 40,000 to 200,000 people by 2005. They and your bishop know that growth is actually God’s gift. They know growth on that scale would be miraculous — God’s work. But we know that there are people hungry for the gospel all over the Diocese of Georgia, and we know that God has entrusted us with enormous resources of human gifts and physical resources. And we know that if we pray to do his will, he will use that for his purposes.

Finally, I pray that we will be able to recognize that we are not 69 relatively small churches when compared with the biggest congregation in our town, but rather that God has blessed us with a community of 14,000 members in the Diocese of Georgia representing a world church of many, many millions and part of his enormous family in heaven and on earth.