Bishop’s Address to the 35th Annual Convention of the Diocese of East Tennessee
The Right Rev. Brian Lee Cole | Knoxville, Tennessee
Click here for the video of the bishop’s address to the 2019 Convention. The text is below.
Before I begin my address to you, I would like for us to pray. The Lord be with you. (And also with you).
Grant, we beseech you, O Lord, perseverance in your holy service, and that the people serving you in our days may increase both in spirit and in number. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Traditional Benedictine prayer)
I would like to begin my address this morning with a fact. The equatorial circumference of the Earth is about 24,901 miles. However, from pole-to-pole — the meridional circumference — the Earth is only 24,860 miles around. Regardless of which measurement you prefer, in my first year as your bishop, I have nearly driven enough miles in East Tennessee to circle the earth twice.
I say that because last year, in my first bishop’s address to Diocesan Convention, I spoke of the need to begin this work as bishop and Church by focusing on relationship, our relationship with each other and our shared relationship with the Resurrected Christ. For me, the key to good relationships, even in the 21st century, begins with being in the room together, showing up, sharing meal and conversation and common prayer together. In this first year, if you invited me, I have done my best to show up, to meet you, to hear from you.
In my travel throughout the diocese, I have been reminded again of the Apostle Paul’s description of the Church of Christ as a Body. In traveling 48,000 miles this year, I have gone from head to toe and side to side, from knee to shoulder, from eyebrow to thumbnail.
So, you may want to know what it is I have seen and learned this year in regards to our diocese, our part of the Body of Christ.
Before I do so, let me say that I have also discovered there is a tendency for each parish community to make their experience of church life now to be the norm for all other East Tennessee parish churches. If your parish is dealing with significant debt, I have noticed that the leadership in that parish tends to assume each parish is equally burdened. Or, if your parish is welcoming and incorporating newcomers, especially young children, then you might assume the other parishes have the same happy challenge.
So, as your bishop, you have graced me with a particular perspective, by asking me to look closely at each parish before then pulling back in order to have some appreciation for what the sum of all our work might be.
Here is what I have learned. The Apostle Paul was on to something when he used the image of the body to describe the scattered followers of the Risen Christ. For just as he spoke of the body with weaker parts and stronger parts, so I have also seen such places of weakness and strength, of flourishing and diminishment, of enthusiasm and fatigue.
In speaking of weaker and stronger parts, please do not hear me saying this in terms of making our common work competitive or to suggest the use of shame has any place in our reflection on our common life. Rather, what I have appreciated already as your bishop is your honesty with me, your willingness to let me know how it really is with you in the contexts where you all lead and serve.
So, you have made me aware that some of our parish churches are physically located in less than ideal places if you are trying to welcome newcomers, or even make them aware of your existence. At the same time, we also have some parish churches situated in the midst of new growth and development in East Tennessee, be it urban or small town or countryside.
You have made me aware that some of our parishes rely heavily on drawing down from financial reserves in order to continue to fund current ministries. At the same time, I have seen examples of parishes where intentional conversations on money and mission have been met with increased pledge income and sustainable plans to fund current and new ministries for the 21st century.
I have seen examples where a parish is grieving over the death of a certain way of being church, with a sense of loss so great as to be paralyzing to them, wanting to be able to go back to the way it was, realizing that the golden age might have been 50 years ago, or 20 years ago, or simply 5 years ago.
I have also seen parishes embrace this moment, realizing that models for Christian formation and mission, while shaped and nurtured by the Spirit, which knows no age, continually requires reformation and renewal. How do we tell the old, old, Story in a new time? The best way to do so is with little experiments, realizing small failures can teach us as much as our successes.
In this past year, I have heard from parishes where they tell me it has never been better. In this past year, I have heard from parishes where they tell me it has never been worse.
When you total all that up, how is the body doing? It is a mixed body, not in the way St. Augustine spoke of a mixed body, with believers and unbelievers. Rather, it is a mixed body, where strength and weakness live in close proximity to each other, where great need and the gifts necessary to meet the need live nearby.
Because of this, because of our mixed state, let me say as your bishop – this is all the more reason to remember that the Apostle Paul emphasized the various parts of the body have need of each other. We are a body that has need of each other.
Now, this need of each other is not only true when there is a crisis or a cry for help from one parish to the next. Our need of each other is not situational, only driven by a lack. Our need of each other is theological, an opportunity to let the world see how we choose to live together as followers of Jesus.
We are a community of believers who also need to be equipped as a community of learners, humbly learning how to be re-evangelized to the Gospel of the Risen Christ. The Spirit did not equip us simply to maintain an institution. The Spirit has equipped us to be the Body, to proclaim the Good News, to expect that God continues to move in our world and in our midst.
So, we believe God’s Spirit is still on the move. And I have just told you in this past year that I have been on the move. What I also realize is that you, too, have been a people in motion, on pilgrimage.
You all have made your way here, to Knoxville, to gather at Convention. But in this past year, you all have also traveled to Grace Point for camp and various retreats and gatherings. As the people of this diocese, you have traveled to be together for diocesan ministries and mission. You have traveled throughout your parishes and this region. You all have also traveled to places such as Haiti, Bolivia,Tanzania, and Haneyville, Alabama, to be in relationship with other Anglicans and Episcopalians. One of our young adults recently completed a Service Corps assignment in Liverpool, England. So, we have all been a people on pilgrimage this year.
So, while I have a perspective on our work, it is simply one view. You all have also been on the move, traveling from place to place in order to be the body. So, my perspective needs your perspective included in order to more fully understand where we are now and where we might go.
This is where it is important to remember that, as Episcopalians, we believe in shared authority. You need me to take up my work as your bishop, to fulfill the tasks entrusted to me. But as your bishop, I need you to take up your roles and your authority, too, to lead and serve with me.
In this past year, I have challenged the Bishop and Council to more intentionally own the work entrusted to them between Conventions and to make decisions, not by asking what would the bishop like us to do, but what do we together, as Bishop and Council, feel called to do in this moment in the 21st century?
It is an interesting to note that the primary interim body for diocesan leadership between Convention is called Bishop and Council. It might leave you with the belief that we function like Gladys Knight and the Pips or Kool and the Gang.
Yet, it is my belief that Bishop and Council is intended to function with each member taking up their space, offering their wisdom, sharing in leadership and authority. Bishop and Council includes a bishop (that’s me), along with clergy and lay leaders from throughout our diocese. I am one member of that body, but I am only one member.
As a parish priest, I learned long ago that I was called to care for the people in my parish, to preach and teach, to equip and to preside over the Eucharistic altar, from where we were strengthened for our common journey as disciples of Jesus in the 21st century. I also learned that I could not care about their spiritual lives more than they did. I had a part to play, but that also included treating them as responsible believers, encouraging them to grow up in the faith and to stand on their own feet.
The same is true as your bishop. The symbols of the office of bishop include the chair and the crozier, the shepherd’s staff. From the chair, I am called to teach, and I plan to take that work seriously. With the crozier, I am called to care for you and the people of East Tennessee, and I plan to take that work seriously.
But as your bishop, I am aware that it does not serve us well if I do all the caring for our body and if you expect me to take us back to some golden age where everything will be certain. I believe I am called to be your bishop now and not take you back to some land of ecclesiastical make-believe but to be your bishop firmly grounded in the 21st century.
So, I am entrusted to teach the Good News, which is an eternal story. But I am entrusted to teach and preach it now, and to help that story find an hearing now, which means we all have to pay attention to tending to this body together, and to listening and learning about our communities together. So, I have a work to do and I am energized by that work. I believe you also have a work to do and I believe you are capable of that work and capable of doing it well.
We need to continue to identify and appoint or elect lay leaders and clergy willing to pay attention to the needs and the gifts we have in this moment while recognizing that the way forward for the Church often requires renewing what has gone before us. In other words, we must idenitfy leaders for the Church who can do improv, realizing leadership for the Church in a changing time requires the right balance between flexibility and form, freedom and order, tabernacle and temple.
As it relates to money, you were honest during the bishop search process that the Diocesan budget for the last several years has not been sustainable, only being balanced by drawing from reserves. So, this year, because of the good work of Bishop and Council, along with the Finance Committee, we are proposing to you a budget that is balanced without drawing down reserves. Actually, it is a budget that will begin to pay back reserves. As your bishop, if my work includes helping parishes take seriously the need to speak of sustainable stewardship, we can only do so if our common budget reflects what it is I hope to teach.
As it relates to ministry, I am greatly encouraged by the work of the Commission on Ministry this past year. In the 21st century, we can no longer speak of ministry and think that only pertains to the ordained. Ministry pertains to the baptized, to all the baptized. So, the work of the Commission on Ministry is to help equip all the baptized for ministry. In March, the COM will hold their first Discernment Day intended to be a place to make the case that the Church needs everyone to find their call to ministry now. As the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee, we need all orders of ministry to be strong—priest, deacon, lay, and bishop.
I believe we are in a hinge moment when it comes to understanding ministry in the Episcopal Church. In the 1970s, as the new Prayer Book was coming into being, it articulated a reclaiming of the centrality of weekly Eucharist. This liturgical moment was wedded nicely to a robust number of priests and seminarians, who would be priests, in order to pray the Eucharist at all those altars where people were gathering each week, if not several times a week in some parishes.
Now, let me dare suggest something to you. Let me be clear, I am a pro-Eucharist bishop. However, I am aware that for much of the history of the Anglican tradition, we have also been a people where all of us have been equipped in the gifts of prayer and the leading of common prayer. So, I can foresee a time when we might speak of Episcopal places of worship and mission that are shaped more by common daily prayer and not by a weekly celebration of the Eucharist. If it is all about the Eucharist, we can get tripped up by our need for a priest, accidently disempowering the ministry of the laity and the diaconate.
I say this to you today, not to disturb you or distress you. I say this to you today because we continue each year to see more priests retire than we ordain. I remain committed to identifying individuals who have gifts for priesthood, so we will continue to make priests. However, we might find ourselves making fewer of them.
Instead of that being a cause for great alarm, it might be an opportunity to see how it is we have need of each other. One priest at each altar may have simply been an economic luxury of the mid-20th century and not something actually spelled out in the New Testament.
In the coming years, imagine if Episcopal Daily Office missions were connected to more traditional parishes, with the understanding that priests might travel to celebrate the Eucharist occasionally. The body would clearly demonstrate need of each other and the body would share the gifts we all hold in common. The opportunity to plant new Episcopal missions would not be driven by first finding a priest, but rather simply by finding a people called to pray together in community. If we believe God continues to move in our midst then God’s Sprit has to have the freedom to move in and through and even despite our structures.
As it relates to my office and the staff that supports the episcopate in this diocese, our focus in this time must be on supporting and resourcing parishes in East Tennessee. The diocese cannot be strong if our individual parish churches are weak. This past year, many members in the diocese have asked me how they might help me in this work you have entrusted me to do. My answer to them, my answer to you now, is by re-doubling your support of the parish church. The body needs to grow together, to exercise the gifts together.
As your bishop, I have no energy in contributing to an Us versus Them mentality. So, from now on, hear me say there is only us. It is not the parish or the diocese. There is only us. It is not Chattanooga or Knoxville or the Tri-Cities. There is only us. It is not Grace Point or Kondoa. There is only us.
Now, I realize it is one thing to say something and it is another thing to live differently according to what has been said and with a shared desire for a hopeful future. So, in asking for us to come together and realize we are all called to work towards nurturing and deepening the Episcopal witness in East Tennessee, I say that realizing some of you carry some real hurts where our body has been divided, where you have been made to feel excluded or taken for granted or dismissed.
Which brings us to our theme – Reconciling All Things in Christ. It is our new diocesan theme. It is a work deeply grounded in New Testament scriptures. It is, I believe, the core work of the Gospel and The Episcopal Church. It is our mission, it is a call given to all of us in our baptism.
As your bishop, in traveling through this diocese and being with you in your parishes, I have pondered what it means for you and me to be in ministry together. I am aware that I do not want to distract you with programs or projects that take you all away from the daily ministry and mission of a parish church. So, how does my ministry support your ministry? How does our body function when it is at its best?
I believe by keeping us all focused on the core work, the heart of the Gospel you have asked me to proclaim. In the Book of Common Prayer, the Catechism teaches that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
So, reconciliation is the heart of our Gospel. Through the cross and the empty tomb, we believe the Risen Christ has reconciled us to God. So, the work of reconciliation is first the work that God through Christ Jesus has done on our behalf. It is a work of grace; it is a work of divine, sacrificial love overcoming the violent power of this world.
From 2nd Corinthians, we hear that we have now all been made ambassadors of Christ. Therefore, we have been given the power to live as reconciled people, to live as a people called to be reconcilers. From that place, we know that God has done the work. From that place, we also know we live in a world where real brokenness remains. That brokenness is not only in the world, but also in the Church.
I believe it is timely for us to recommit to the core work of reconciliation even as have concern for our mixed body, for a body that has stress and strain. For if the body is to flourish in the future, we need not look for other means of salvation, for tempting idols that might promise us a future, but a future that has no place for God’s Spirit or the Risen Christ. If we believe God’s Spirit continues to move in our midst, then parish churches committed to the work of reconciliation will be a blessing to the communities and neighborhoods where we live.
During this Convention, we will hear nine different voices reflecting on reconciliation. We will only hear nine from this platform. However, I believe we all have a story to tell. It is your story. It is how your story has met God’s Story. And, I pray, it is how you have experienced reconciliation or been a means by which reconciliation has been offered to others.
Reconciliation begins with us. By that, I mean it begins with me. It must first be a personal journey, realizing some of the most deep conflict I have ever faced has not been communal or in society. Some of the deepest conflict I have ever faced has been interior. From an unresolved, unexamined place of brokenness, I have hurt others. So, to be reconcilers, we must know the story of how God has healed us or desires to heal us.
From there, the story of reconciliation has a word to say to the Church. Before we march out into the world proclaiming the ministry of reconciliation, we need to find ways to listen to each other, to hear where the body has hurt the body, in order that truth and trust and forgiveness and healing might take place.
From a healed self, from parishes growing in health and honesty, we can then together, as the body, serve others in our parish communities, regardless of their religious affiliation. In a time when divisions and fractures seem to multiply, we could take up the very necessary work of creating spaces for the ministry of reconciliation to take root and grow.
This past year, I traveled with the Rev. Robert Childers to Coventry Cathedral in England. We were there together to attend a conference sponsored by the Community of the Cross of Nails. The Community has grown out of the historic work that Coventry Cathedral took on in the aftermath of the German bombing of the Cathedral during World War II. Instead of seeking revenge, the Cathedral community committed to being agents and ambassadors of reconciliation.
While we were there, I heard a quote attributed to a young person who had worked in the Cathedral’s Reconciliation Ministry. The young woman had said, “The ministry of reconciliation makes Christianity believable for me.”
Reconciliation allowed this young woman to believe in the story of the Risen, Reconciled Jesus. I am asking us to take on this work of reconciliation so that we might learn what it is we truly believe about Jesus and the story of God.
I believe our body is in a mixed state, with some places flourishing, while others struggle. For those places of struggle, it might feel as if we are the Apostle Peter, when he was old, when he stretched out his hands, and another dressed him and took him where he did not want to go.
But I also believe that the Spirit of God, the Spirit present at the Resurrection, the Spirit present whenever true reconciliation takes place is still here and moving in our world and through our Church.
As your bishop, I plan to continue moving through this diocese. I look forward to many more years of ministry among you. I believe if we are willing to listen, to each other, to God, and if we are willing to move, to keep moving, to be a people on pilgrimage, learning as we go, then our body has reason to hope, for renewal and reconciliation to find a place in us.
It will not be easy. It will require us to consider what it is we truly believe and what exactly we are willing to lose in order to be found again in the body of the Risen, Reconciled Christ.