A Pastoral Letter
“For the Sake of the Gospel”
Bishop Henderson Comments on the Meeting and Statement of the House of Bishops
“I do all for the sake of the Gospel so that I might share in its blessings”—I Cor. 9:23
Beloved Sisters and Brothers in the Lord, I return exhausted but exhilarated after the meeting of the House of Bishops in New Orleans (19-25 September). There, together, we worshipped God…engaged in Bible study…listened for the voice of the Holy Spirit…heard inspiring accounts of the life and mission of the Church (including one from “our own” Paul Farmer about the work in Cange)…labored physically at sites of Katrina destruction…and—yes—had a little fun, and a little too much food, too.
Regarding the Bishops’ Response
This was possibly the most congenial and unified meeting of the HOB in my experience—truly a blessing from God. That is not to say that we were all of one mind about the serious issues before us—but throughout our striving I perceive there was a unity of purpose, a unity in spirit. More than once I recalled the words of that hymn, “Surely the Spirit of the Lord is in this place”. Though disappointed that three or four bishops departed after the first two days—their voices, too, needed to be heard throughout the meeting—there was, nevertheless, a remarkable sense of urgency and a remarkable passion for the task which was ours. Bishops with sharp differences of opinion seemed determined, by God’s grace, to respond faithfully to the expectations within our own province and from other Anglican provinces. Commitment to maintain the unity of The Episcopal Church and full partnership within the Anglican Communion was patently obvious.
The Presiding Bishop set the tone by announcing the appointment of eight “Episcopal visitors”—bishops (including yours) to provide pastoral oversight for dioceses unable to accept her ministry. Unlike an earlier, rather elaborate proposal from her, this plan leaves the details of such oversight to be worked out between the “visitor” and the diocesan bishop. This spirit of openness and trust set the tone for much that followed.
Two days were spent listening to, and in conversation with, the Archbishop of Canterbury and representatives of the Anglican Consultative Counsel. That was followed by conversations among us bishops, some public, some in executive session. A “writing committee” was appointed to develop—based on those discussions—a response to the larger church to which the HOB could subscribe. We went through at least four or five drafts; however, the “meat” of the final document was the result of suggestions of bishops with very different viewpoints: +Charles Jenkins (of Louisiana—our preacher at the “Great Gathering”) and +John Chane (Washington, D.C.), with some involvement by +Jon Bruno (Los Angeles). Their work eventually became the “bullet” points in the final version. I feel that those bullet points respond to the Primates’ requests faithfully, explicitly, and consistent with our Constitution and Canons—thus honoring the twin Anglican principles of provincial autonomy and interdependence within the Communion.
The results can be seen within the contents of the document itself, which is entitled “House of Bishops response ‘to questions and concerns raised by our Anglican Communion partners’”. My own summary assessment of the document is that it is a sincere, heartfelt, gracious and adequate response at this stage of discernment. As before, I urge you to read the document and assess it yourselves, avoiding anxious voices and agenda-serving analyses, no matter their origin. (As example of the different “spin” which is possible, note these conflicting headlines: from “The New York Times”: “Episcopal Bishops Reject Anglican Church’s Orders”; from “USA Today”: “Episcopal bishops make concessions for the sake of unity”. Ironically, the contents of the two articles are almost identical—what a difference a headline writer can make!)
Consensus and Comprehension, Not Compromise
In the Collect of the Day for the Commemoration of the life and witness of Richard Hooker (Priest, d. 1600), we pray as follows: “O God…Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth….” The Bishops struggled mightily—and, by the grace of God, rather successfully in my mind—to frame our response as “comprehension for the sake of truth”—acknowledging that we differ among ourselves on some matters, but that we strive, in effect, to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers”. I trust that you can see this in the “Summary” section of the Bishop’s response. Read that summary carefully, as well as the discussion of each point which follows.
That consensus and comprehension were achieved by the bishops could be seen in the vote on the final version of “Response”—only one “nay” vote was heard.
Christ’s mission continues to be the focus of the life of The Episcopal Church (as it does in our diocese). As usual, this part of the agenda is ignored by the popular, secular media. The Presiding Bishop—who, by the way, has accepted an invitation from Mark Lawrence+, the Bishop-elect of our neighbor, the Diocese of South Carolina, and its Standing Committee, to visit them—called us to “claim the mission that Jesus claimed”, and to “cooperate with the Holy Spirit” and to “make space for the Holy Spirit to work”. Thus, for example, we heard from Paul Farmer on the Millennium Development Goals; worked on various re-construction sites in New Orleans and Mississippi; heard from an appreciative local, secular leader about the work of the Episcopal dioceses in those two states, and received an update on combating the sin of racism.
[I, for one, have learned a new craft—dry-walling; luckily, there were experts on hand to teach this team of struggling bishops and spouses in what turned out to be a truly exhausting—but satisfying—day. We worked in a home destroyed down to the frame, owned by a teacher retired after 35 years in public schools, only to have her security stripped from around her. Then, on Sunday, I traveled with two other bishops to worship at Holy Trinity Parish (Pass Christian, Mississippi), whose church and parish hall were destroyed by the hurricane “Katrina”, and are now worshipping as guests of hospitable Methodists.]
The Bishop of Louisiana (+Charles Jenkins) and the Bishop of Mississippi (+Duncan Grey) are constant inspirations to us all. They live day and night with the devastation wrought by Katrina, coping with the needs of thousands of displaced persons (over 100,000 homes needing total or major reconstruction), congregations without church buildings, priests and their families without congregations—and therefore without income—exploitive contractors and ineffective governmental action at every level. After two years, conditions remain intolerable—even hospitals and schools remain closed. Please “pray without ceasing” for these bishops, other clergy and people of those two areas, which in a true sense bring home the MDGs and actual Third World conditions.
What Happens Next? The Windsor Process Continues
I think that as much as anything else, most of us strongly desire a swift resolution—an end—to the conflict in The Episcopal Church and in the Communion. That, Beloved, will not happen today any more quickly than substantive conflict has been resolved in the previous 2,000 years of the Church’s life. The Archbishop of Canterbury has appointed a committee which will study the House’s Response for the apparent purpose of evaluating it and what it means within the life of the Communion. Beyond that, the Anglican Consultative Counsel, the Primates of the Communion, and Lambeth Conference (to take place next summer) will continue the labor of discernment through their own prayer, study, and dialogue. The Windsor Report, after all, set out a process which cannot be both faithful and abrupt. Discussion and study of the idea of an Anglican covenant has hardly begun.
Beware, in the interim, those who would say that “this or that is (or is not) acceptable to the Primates”. Only the Primates can decide that, and this they doubtlessly will do, as a continuation of the conversation and discernment which is the Windsor Process.
We need to be reminded, too, that the Primates are only one of the four Instruments of Unity designated by the Windsor Committee—a cooperative structure in which no one “instrument” is supreme over the others. The concept of demands and deadlines is not conducive to the kind of careful discernment which, for example, took over 400 years in reaching consensus about a concept central to Christian faith—nothing less than the Trinity! Nor is the idea of demands and deadlines consistent with classical Anglicanism.
What happens next– for us? As I stated to Convention last spring: having been derailed temporarily, it is time to reclaim our mission. As a diocese, we focus on mission—spreading the joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While we have every intention of dealing seriously with the issues before us, I am confident that I speak for the great majority of Episcopalians in Upper South Carolina when I affirm, again and again if necessary, that we are a mission-driven diocese—not an issue-driven diocese—a diocese committed to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission—a diocese committed to God, who is love.
We continue the journey of faith, trust and action with prayers for the Church, for the mission of the Church, and for the faithfulness of the Church.
By God’s grace and as a beneficiary of your prayers, I remain
Faithfully yours in our Lord,
Dorsey F. Henderson, Jr.
The Right Rev’d, the Bishop