Bishop’s Address of 1966

given by the Rt. Rev. Albert Rhett Stuart
at Christ Church, Savannah

In the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I welcome the clergy, lay delegates and visitors to this 144th Annual Convention of the Diocese of Georgia, and the delegates to the 74th Annual Meeting of the Episcopal Churchwomen of the Diocese.

We are assembled in the oldest Parish of the Diocese and of the State of Georgia. Christ Church, Savannah is not only the first Colonial Parish of Georgia but one of the most historic churches in America. Here for over 200 years the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been preached, the Sacraments of the historic Church have been administered, and the devotions of generations loyal to Catholic Faith and Apostolic Order have been offered to God. The influence of this Parish, not only in the Diocese but in the community and in the State, is immeasurable. Meeting here as a diocesan family at this time we are particularly grateful to Almighty God for the inspiration of the constancy and loyalty of this Parish to the Episcopal Church and to the faith and practice of our forefathers, both now and in the past.

In 1945 the Reverend F. Bland Tucker became the Rector of Christ Church. For over 20 years Dr. Tucker has been the beloved pastor of this flock and a revered Christian leader in the City of Savannah. It is with deep regret that we realize that his retirement will come next year after more than forty-five years of devoted service in the ministry of the Church. In his years in the Diocese he has been President of the Standing Committee several times, served in various capacities on the Executive Council (now the Bishop and Council), represented the Diocese as deputy to seven General Conventions, and he has brought honor to the Diocese by his distinguished work on the 1940 Hymnal and as a member of the Joint Commission on Church Music of the National Church. The listing of these official positions does not begin to reveal the depth and extent of God’s grace manifested through Dr. Tucker as priest of the Church, rector of this parish, leader in this Diocese, minister in this community, and as a Christian gentleman and friend. We rejoice that he and Mrs. Tucker plan to continue their residence in the Diocese after retiring as Rector of Christ Church.

The world in which we live has changed and is changing so fast that it is very difficult to keep one’s bearings. Compared with twenty-five years ago we live in a new world. It is the cumulative effect of nuclear fission, population explosion, mass communication, automation, jet-speed transportation, centralization of government, urbanization space technology, the color revolution, population mobility and transiency, and so on. However we might wish for the old days and old patterns, they aren’t here and they aren’t coming back. It is a new world but it is still God’s world with new opportunities and new problems. It is not surprising that the Church today is deeply affected by the new world and encounters new experiences and new tensions. The ecumenical movement within Christianity is bringing self-evaluation to the Church and new relationships. The Liturgical Movement is leading to fascinating new experiences in corporate worship and personal prayer. There is a Biblical and theological ferment which is likely to bring new relevance of the old Faith to the new world. The social revolution in America involves the Church in witness and decision. We may not like this and we may wish for the old days that seemed more tranquil, but we cannot turn back or stand still—the new world will not go away and the Church is under command to minister in it and to it.

A careful study of the teachings of our Blessed Lord makes it quite clear that He expects His followers to be involved in the total life of the world. For the world—and here is the point which some laymen reject—the world is not man’s world but God’s world and therefore all our institutions fall under His judgment. In Christ’s name the Church must be concerned about such things as adequate housing, proper care for the aging, poverty, the United Nations, population explosion, alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography, racial justice, education, and the like. Because of the Church’s concern, she must inevitably become involved in specifics. If there are some who do not like this, then it must be said in all Christian charity that they have not learned Christ. A Christian cannot escape his personal or his social responsibilities. If the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, or the House of Bishops speaks to the Church of these social responsibilities, we don’t escape the judgment of God by withdrawing support from the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, or the Episcopal Church.

What we are confronted with in the new world is the doctrine of the Church. Is the Church sent to be a refuge from the world or to transform the world? Is the Church sent to maintain the status quo or to protest evil in this culture or any other? Is the Church to provide a chaplaincy for its members or to serve all men? Is the Church to provide a stained glass sanctuary before a carved reredos for white people or is it to be a place of prayer for all of God’s people? The Church is not a religious club organized by man for pious sentimentality or personal status. The Church is a divine organism created by the Lord for the redemption of mankind. The Holy Scriptures provides this unmistakable answer in the scriptural doctrine of the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. It is of God, created by Him and not by men, to transform the world, to serve all mankind, to redeem all men. A tragic failure to understand this doctrine has resulted here in Savannah in the collapse of a vocation in Holy Orders and a schism in the Body of Christ. Both for the historical record and for present clarification it is necessary to deal here with this painful and unhappy development.

For many years the Rector of St. John’s Parish, Savannah, had difficulty accepting the doctrine and policy of the Church. This was well known in the Church generally and was probably the reason he was hurt by not receiving the recognition and honor in the Church at large which his responsible position would ordinarily have attracted. To offset this and in hope of gaining by his greater recognition of the nature of the Church, the Diocese regularly through the years elected or appointed him to responsible positions of leadership. In spite of this, the loneliness of a congregational position within the Episcopal Church led to the development of a very personal pastoral ministry and the gradual assumption of the parish as personal possession, and of the ministry as a personal profession. In April of the last year the pressure of the new world on the Church brought to a crisis this type of ministry. A choice had to be made between obedience to the sacred vows of Holy Orders in the Body of Christ and an individual personal ministry. The latter was chosen and renunciation of the ministry of the Church followed. In the tragedy of this priest we all participated—bishop, clergy, and people of this diocese. Somehow, by God’s grace, we should have been able to find some way to keep, strengthen, understand, and meet the need of this our brother as he gradually drifted into the destruction of his vocation. We did not find such a way and now we can only ask for the mercy of God for ourselves and for him.

In the deep emotional crisis of this development, the Vestry of the Parish was forced to choose between a personal relationship and loyalty to the Church of God. They chose the personal relationship and proceeded to recommend that the members of the congregation follow them out of the Episcopal Church. Many decided to do this while others transferred to other parishes and a few determined persons decided to remain as members of St. John’s Parish and loyal to the Episcopal Church regardless of the cost in personal friendships or in business. This courageous group is represented here at this convention and have answered the roll call of the Diocese of Georgia. They maintain the place and position which St. John’s Church, Savannah has held in the Episcopal Church for more than a century.

It is quite revealing in this tragedy that the deposed Clergyman and the group renouncing the Episcopal Church have been content to occupy property as a personal possession which was secured and developed over the years in the name of the Episcopal Church by devout and loyal Episcopal Church people. They also see no anomaly in continuing the use of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church they have renounced with certain amendments to fit their personal taste. This is a deterioration which is inevitable and will rapidly increase as rites are performed and ceremonies practiced without authority or grace. A deposed priest cannot administer the Sacrament of the Church he has renounced. A people who have turned against the doctrine and discipline of the Church have thereby cut themselves off from the privileges and inheritance intended for them in the Body of Christ and have become a sect divorced from the mainstream of the Church’s life—a sect which will in due course disappear.

The suffering of the Church here in Georgia has shocked the entire American Church and elicited great sympathy and support from our brethren throughout the nation especially in the Diocese of Atlanta and from our fellow Christians in other branches of the Church. Whatever other factors may have been involved in this development there is little doubt that the crux of the matter lies most certainly in a total misconception of the nature of the Church. We have not understood who we are as a people or to what, by God in Christ, we have been called or to just what kind of fellowship we are committed and what exactly is its basic teaching. Far too many of us see the Church as a voluntary organization which one joins or leaves at will—an organization that exists by virtue of the good will which people have toward it and that has relevance only to a particular segment of life and not to life in its totality. This is a sad commentary on the teaching ministry of the Church. Let us not delude ourselves by thinking that the condition which produced the tragedy of St. John’s, Savannah is confined to that congregation only. We have a tremendous task of Christian education in every parish and mission. We do not know the Bible, not the Prayer Book, nor do we understand the great articles of faith, nor to what we are commited and the new world is pressing upon us for the Gospel. The task of Christian education must be faced with adults. There is not enough time to polish up the Church School. We can hope they will continue their task as presently set up, but it is the adult life of the Church that presents the urgency of the moment. In addition to the machinery for education in every parish and mission, there is the diocesan Conference Center as an ideal facility for educational purposes which we have only partially used and which we are presently in danger of losing. With the creative imagination, both clerical and lay, in this Diocese and with the power and illumination of the Holy Spirit, we can move positively into this problem of Christian education confidently expecting an astonishing response in God’s people as they discover the relevance of the Faith to the new world.

Another need our experience of the past year vividly points out is that of our mutual responsibility for one another. This MRI is not just a program launched by an Anglican Conpress and supported by General Convention. It is at the heart of the Gospel—“Love they neighbor as thyself”. It begins in the parish with individual concern for one another in the parish family—“Bear ye one another’s burdens”. In Christ we are shepherds one of another and this is the great opportunity we have as members of the parish church. This concern moves out of the parish into the diocese. What happens in Augusta or Dublin or Hinesville or Thomasville should be the vital concern of every parish and mission of the Diocese and not merely the Bishop or the Standing Committee. Parochialism, as we have seen this year, is a malignancy in the life of the Church and a denial of our oneness in Christ. A congregation is suffering from it when it cannot give more than 10% of its income outside itself. Again we must not be deluded—the financial problem of the Diocese cannot be placed squarely on the St. John’s tragedy. It lies in the inadequacy of our leaders in failing to teach and guide God’s people in Christian stewardship. It lies in the unwillingness of Vestries and Mission Councils to believe in the mission of the Church. Until every member of the Church is personally confronted with the mission of the Church and called upon to meet his responsibility to God by not less than 10% of his income—until every congregation faces its responsibility for the mission of the Church and gives 50% of its income for the mission in the Diocese and the world—until the Diocese gives to the mission of the Church beyond itself a dollar for every dollar it spends on itself—we have not begun to understand mutual responsibility in the Body of Christ, and are unfaithful stewards of the Lord. The Dioceses of Milwaukee, Atlanta, the Virgin Islands have demonstrated to us by their gifts to us of our oneness in Christ—our interdependence.

There is one other area in which I am sure the Lord is expecting a response in this Diocese to His guiding Hand. It is in an ecumenical outreach. The Lord’s great prayer for the unity of His followers, realizing their oneness in Him, is beginning to be answered in our era. Only the blindest among us can fail to see the working of the Holy Spirit in developments in the Roman Church, in the conversations and negotiations between Protestant groups, in the new attitude of the Orthodox. While this is a movement of the spirit within Christian leadership today, it is not getting down to our local congregations and individual parishioners. I urge, therefore, that the clergy and lay leaders gathered here will resolve to pray daily themselves for the healing of the divisions in the Church; and in their communities resolve to encourage dialogue and inter-cooperation with other Christian bodies, especially with Roman, Orthodox, and Methodist groups. I hope we will plan locally to participate in the suggested exchange of clergy on April 24th or some other suitable day and use every means possible to indicate our willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit in our outreach to our other Christian brethren.

I am not at this time reviewing the work of the Diocese in detail. It is covered mostly in the reports which will be printed in the Journal. I do want to mention three things as I close this address. First, a miracle is being performed in Augusta as the Sisters of St. Helena move toward the completion of the Convent, chapel, and guest house on the magnificent site overlooking the Savannah River Valley. We give God the praise and the thanks for this achievement which will immeasurably bless this Diocese now and in the years to come. Second, in the eleven years I have known this Diocese, we have never had finer or more devoted clerical leadership that we have had this past year. It was a difficult year with great tension and many of the clergy under sharp attack and facing reprisal for their stand on the Gospel. Many of them have had difficult personal and family problems. Not one of them has wavered in loyalty or been lacking in courage and faith. We give God the praise and the thanks for this devoted leadership of the Church in the Diocese. Third, the people of the Church in Georgia have rallied around their Bishop in a remarkable fashion in the last two years which have been the most difficult years of his Episcopate. With this confidence and loyalty and with God’s good grace, we are ready to move forward to be better servants of God’s Holy Will in a new world which desperately needs the mission of His Church. For this opportunity we give God the praise and the thanks.