Bishop’s Address to the 225th Diocesan Convention

The Bishop’s Address

February 27, 2009

My dear friends in Christ, I have been to the mountain top.

On Monday morning, November 10, 2008, I arrived at Gilman’s Point, the second highest peak on Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain on the continent of Africa.   For a little while I stood on “the roof of Africa.” Getting there wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty. But it was glorious. I made it, by the grace of God, in the strength of your prayers and with the help of my hiking partner, Deacon Dan Fowler, and our Tanzanian guides.

So I begin this, my Sixth Address to the Convention of the Diocese of New Jersey, with a word of profound thanks to Bishop Romero and the diocesan staff, to the Standing Committee, to all of you and to our entire community. Thank you for the extraordinary privilege of a sabbatical leave from this office and ministry, from mid-October through mid-January. Not all of it was as demanding and dramatic as the ascent of Kilimanjaro. I also beheld, in awesome wonder, many other glories of God’s creation in the national parks in that region of Tanzania. Later, I walked a small section of the pilgrimage route in northern Spain, known as the Camino, that leads to Santiago de Compostela. Hiking the Camino so late in the year proved to be more adventure than I was prepared for, so I altered my plans. I took the bus! But, in the end, I found Jesus, present in the Sacrament exposed in a rather plain side chapel of the Cathedral, set apart from the excessive ornamentation of the shrine of St. James. In the stillness and silence, I was blessed.

I returned home and enjoyed several weeks of reading, reflection and rest. I celebrated a Christmas with my family unlike any other Christmas in 33 years of ordained ministry. God’s grace worked through this sabbatical to refresh my soul, renew my vocation and restore my health. It was good to lay down, for a time, what St. Paul refers to as his “anxiety for all the churches” (II Cor. 11:28). But it is very good to be back. I love Jesus, I love Jersey and I love being a bishop in this Diocese, this Church and Communion, at this time.  I am back and I am stoked.

My feelings are captured in the words of a young African pastor, who wrote: “I won’t give up, shut up, let up, until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, preached up for the cause of Christ.  I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go till He comes, give till I drop, preach till all know, and work till He stops me. And when He comes, He will have no problem recognizing me…” That is how I intend to serve, till He tells me to stop.

Last Sunday we heard the story of the mountain-top experience of Peter, James and John – known as the Transfiguration of our Lord (Mark 9: 2-8; Matt. 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36). Now some New Testament commentators argue that the Transfiguration is really a resurrection account that, in the course of the transmission of the Gospel, migrated from the end to the middle of the story. They call it a “misplaced resurrection story.”

Whether or not that is a defensible thesis, I leave to the scholars. But I think it’s a perfectly wonderful job description for the Church. “Job Number One: be a misplaced resurrection story!” The back story is that the so-called sovereigns did their worst on Friday, but on Sunday God did His best and a dead man walked out of the tomb and showed his sad, weak, and frightened friends that the real victory belonged to the real God – the God who makes everything glorious. From the first light of dawn that day they were so out of their minds with love for Jesus and so stoked with fire of His love, they just couldn’t be calmed or contained or reasoned with. They were so totally in love with Jesus, there was no other life to live; no other sovereign to serve. They had nothing to lose. They had already received everything that they needed. “You can have all this world,” they said. “Give me Jesus.” They woke up every morning and went about living Jesus’ life, doing Easter stuff and showing the world that He rules. And when the lordlets of this world came down on Jesus’ friends, they didn’t feel the nails; didn’t even see the lions. They just kept singing those Easter hymns, kept on being a misplaced resurrection appearance. They would not be changed.

There was a man, living in a poor neighborhood in a city. He pretty much kept to himself. But everyday, at 3:00 in the afternoon, he would emerge from his apartment, walk out into the street and shout, “Justice, peace, reconciliation.” Every day, like clockwork. Finally, one of his neighbors got weary of it and confronted him. “Man, you got to stop this. Are you crazy? Don’t you know, you can’t change the world?”

“Maybe you’re right,” said the man. “Maybe I can’t change the world. But I can keep the world from changing me.”

Can we keep the world from changing us, changing the agenda of our lives – given to us at baptism? Can we stay on the job, being a misplaced resurrection appearance in the middle of this story? Or will we be persuaded to tone it down, give it a rest, go back inside, close the doors of the church and play it safe?

Are we afraid? This is, indeed, a most challenging time, in which you and I are called to bear witness to Christ and to lead our churches and our Diocese in Christ’s ministry. Watching the staggering economic developments over the past several months, I was reminded of an essay by C.S. Lewis that was published during World War II and entitled, “Learning in Wartime.”  In it, he wrote,

If you have not directly lost a loved one, but rather find yourself dazed, shaken and fearful, God is saying to you: “Wake up to your need for me and up to what real security is.  No military power or technology or human factor can make you safe. Only in the very center of my will is there any safety. You don’t have the human ability to control things. You need me.”

If we had foolish hopes about human culture, they are now shattered.  If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul…, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.  In ordinary times only the wise realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows it.

Now, we are hurting, right along with the world. Our people are losing jobs and savings and homes or are worried about all of that. And poor and vulnerable people are even worse off. Our churches, schools, seminaries and outreach programs are all weakened by declines in the value of their assets. The neighborhoods where many of our people live and work and worship are in serious decline. There is a lot of fear and a world of hurt. The most natural thing in the world is to draw back and hold on to what we’ve got.

But I say to you today: this is our moment to be that misplaced resurrection appearance. We are a called people. We are to walk in the light of the resurrection. We know the end of this story. We know that, wherever the bottom is, we cannot fall beyond the reach of our Lord. He will raise us up. He makes everything glorious. That is what he does. And we belong to Him. So, what does that make us? We are the preview of coming attractions; a dress rehearsal for the coming kingdom. That is what we do.

Who we are shouts so loudly the world cannot hear what we are saying (Emerson). Biographers say that the best way to get to know – really know – their subject is to have her or his check book and appointment book. So, what do the budget and the business of this great Diocese of New Jersey tell us?

First things first: We are going right onward with sacrificial giving and leadership for the wider mission of our Church. The proposed budget calls for the funding of the full asking (21.5%) for The Episcopal Church; provides 0.7 % of our income for the Millennium Development Goals; meets the full request of the Board of Missions for funding our own mission churches; continues to port our Cathedral and has many other features that commend it. I hope that you will adopt it.

It must be said, however, that, in order to fund this budget and its outreach we propose to take a significant proportion of our audited surpluses from previous years and some accumulated earnings from one of our endowments. This is a rainy day. We are blessed to have these resources to help to get through this year. But we need the leadership of what I will call a Task Force on Restructure to examine the options of how we shall do mission together in what most people think will be the lean years ahead. I am happy to announce that Ms. Kathy O’Hagan of St. Mark and All Saints’, Galloway, and the Rev. Jack Zamboni of St. Francis’, Dunellen, have accepted my appointment to serve as Co-Chairs of this body. I will ask that they report to Diocesan Council in the fall so that their recommendations will help to shape our budgeting for 2010 and beyond.

Meanwhile, our staff and diocesan leaders are actively working to decrease our expenses. For example, this is the last Convention for which Deputies will receive materials in hard copy via surface mail. All registration and pre-Convention materials will be sent electronically. We are achieving savings in most every expense line in the budget.

Here I have the honor to recognize Reg Whitman, Senior Warden of St. George’s-by-the-River, Rumson, who has just completed his first year as diocesan Treasurer. What a year it has been. And, in case you wondered, Reg is standing for election for a second term. Well done, faithful one and thank you, on behalf of a very, very grateful Diocese and Bishop.

Looking beyond the budget, what does our diocesan program tell us about who we are? Well, to borrow a title from the Rev. Greg Bezilla, our Chaplain to Rutgers University and a leader in the movement to invite more young people to consider a vocation to ordained ministry, we are a Church of passion and purpose. We need both, of course. We see plenty of passion around us, but to no apparent purpose; or to purposes that are not worthy of the Gospel. But in the Church we see much that is purposeful (or dutiful, at least), but lacking the passion that makes the Church’s mission lively and engaging.

But look at what’s new in New Jersey, a Diocese of passion and purpose.

A “Passion and Purpose” Sunday is proposed, to be observed on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2009. On that day I urge all the clergy to offer preaching, teaching, testimony and theological reflection on the subject of vocation, to the end that youth and young adults are invited to consider a vocation to ordained ministry and everyone is put in mind that their vocation is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC).

Lord, grant us passion and purpose.

A new effort to reach out to young adults is underway. I know that you will join me in refusing to surrender to the notion that we simply have nothing to hold the attention of young adults from the day after their Confirmation until they are married with children. Fr. Bezilla and others have better ideas. port them. Better yet, join them.

Lord, grant us passion and purpose.

What passion and purpose may be seen in the ongoing life of our Cathedral. They continue to serve our Diocese with grace and strength and deep faith in the provision of our God. I thank Dean Rene John for his leadership, along with that of the Wardens, Chapter and staff. Miracles are happening there.

Lord, thank you for passion and purpose.

I call upon us to rejoice in the growth of so many other congregations across our Diocese, including our ministries among Latino people and two churches that will be recognized by this meeting: St. Peter’s Igbo Church, Trenton and Christ the King, Willingboro. We are a growing Church, in many places. We are trying to grow, in most places.

Lord, thank you for passion and purpose.

Someone who has helped us to grow and helped us to recruit, port and retain healthy clergy leadership over the past eight and a half years is the Rev. Canon Elizabeth R. Geitz. Canon Geitz has resigned her position, effective in May, in order to relocate and to explore new ministries. We can all be very grateful for the countless ways she has enriched and strengthened the ministries of this Diocese. We thank you, dear Elizabeth.

Lord, thank you for her passion and purpose.

We have a new Companion Diocese. The Rev. Canon Servio Moscoso and the Companion Diocese Committee oversaw a gracious conclusion to our nine-year relationship with the Diocese of El Salvador and have helped us to enter into a new companionship with the Diocese of Ecuador Central. That diocese will soon receive a new bishop, to be elected by our House of Bishops next month. One of the nominees is our own Canon Moscoso. I ask your prayers for the Diocese, facing many difficult challenges, and for Servio and Angela.

Lord, grant them passion and purpose.

Among other new programs initiated in the past year are the formation of a Committee, led by the Rev. Dr. Hugh Brown, Rector of All Saints’, Princeton, to help our Diocese respond to the needs of the victims of genocide in Darfur; a Committee, led by the Rev. Deacon Johnine Byrer, to coordinate and expand our ministries among the incarcerated; a new campus ministry at The College of New Jersey, established through the efforts of the Rev. Lisa Caton; and a reconstituted and revitalized Stewardship Commission, under the direction of Charles Perfater, Treasurer of our Cathedral and Executive Coordinator of Province II.

Faithful financial stewardship remains a challenge for us in this Diocese. I know of many faithful and effective clergy and lay leaders who are often feel profoundly discouraged that there is not more sacrificial giving of money for the mission of our churches. I remind us that the tithe is the minimum standard of giving in this Church. Ruth and I have been tithers for 35 years or more. We have never claimed that it makes better than anyone else, only that it makes us more grateful for all that we have been given by God. Stewardship is all that we are and all that we have all of the time. There is no spiritual renewal without a new joy in giving. I challenge us all to discover the joy of sacrificial giving, not because the Church has needs but because we need to give.

And for this, dear Lord, grant us passion and purpose.

All this and Canon Cynthia McFarland is back! We give thanks for her restored health and for her renewed ministry as Communications Director. I regret that this position was reduced to part-time. Canon McFarland will focus on our website and electronic communications. See our redesigned web page at

Thank you, Lord, for her passion and purpose.

Bishop Romero has arranged for us to receive some help in understanding how our churches and our Diocese can best respond to the needs of undocumented workers, many of whom worship and serve our Lord Jesus Christ in this Diocese. You are welcome to attend “The Episcopal Church and Immigration Issues,” led by Ana G. White, Immigration & Refugee Policy Analyst at The Episcopal Church Office of Governmental Relations, at Cristo Rey Church in Trenton, on March 7, 2009, from 10:00 am to Noon.

Lord, grant us passion and purpose.

I affirm and port the ministry of Oasis in this Diocese. We have worked very hard to respect each other and maintain our bonds of affection with those with whom we disagree on issues of human sexuality. No one in this Diocese has been persecuted or excluded because of their views on these matters. Let me be clear, however: I have the deepest gratitude for the Rev. Deacon Terry Suruda and the Rev. Deacon Cy Deavours and those who work with them in Oasis, reaching out to welcome gay and lesbian people into this Church. You belong here. This is your Church.

Lord, grant us passion and purpose.

Not to be forgotten here are these outstanding achievements of the past year. Canon Kep Short and Deacon Debi Clarke, working with the Youth Council, led our young people to participate in the triennial gathering of the young people of The Episcopal Church known as the Episcopal Youth Event (EYE), in San Antonio. And a group of our youth also returned to Mississippi to work on Katrina relief projects on the Coast.

It is also important to recognize that this Diocese not only ported its two bishops and their wives to attend the Lambeth Conference but also provided additional assistance for bishops from other poorer parts of the Communion to attend. A full report was given through this bishop’s blog and through our reports at Convocation meetings last fall.

Did someone say “Right Onward?”

“Right Onward: Revive Us Again,” is the theme for our Convention. It draws to our attention the Right Onward Vision, adopted two years ago. A continuing body, led by Annette Buchanan of St. Augustine’s, Asbury Park, has met and dreamed and challenged our Diocese to live by that vision. They proposed that we concentrate on five initiatives, one each year for five years. In 2008 they promoted a variety of programs to help and inspire congregations to embrace the first initiative: “growth through welcoming and inclusion.” This year we are being asked to focus on spiritual renewal, where our vision is to “see people of all ages being transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ into His disciples. . .”

How will you and I be transformed by grace in the year ahead? If for no other reason than because this is a year that will require many difficult decisions, we need to seek the transforming grace of our Lord Jesus Christ through prayer and other avenues of personal spiritual renewal. Revival is not about being “Happy Clappy” in a shallow way; and it is not at all about denial of the very real forces that affect our lives and our churches.

Wherever I have gone in recent years I have tried to mention John 10:10 and the abundant life that Jesus points to as the very heart of His mission. That is why He came.

But more recently I have been drawn to another text from John:

Listen carefully. Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.

John 12: 24-25, in The Message, by Eugene Peterson.

I am persuaded that we, as a Church, have a lot of letting go and burying to do in order to bear fruit and to come to experience the real, eternal and abundant life of Jesus Christ.  Of course we have genuine worries about not just our diocesan assets but those of our churches; particularly the smaller churches set in poorer communities. One lay leader asked me just last week, “Bishop, are you going to close our church?” I said, “No, but I promise to continue to raise these questions with every congregation.”

For what purpose do you want to keep the church open and what are you prepared to do in order to port continuing ministry?

What shall we as a Diocese do together with you to advance the mission of your church in your community? Is God calling you to consolidation, reconfiguration, merger and/or new, bold, creative arrangements with neighboring churches?

Will you consider that, in order to port the mission, it may be necessary to close and sell buildings and use those assets in some new ways for the sake of the Gospel?

I would venture to guess that as many as one-third of our congregations need to look at these and other important questions right now. The financial turmoil in our nation has accelerated the urgency of these questions and added to the numbers of congregations that are vulnerable; i.e., no longer able to afford full-time clergy leadership and/or no longer able to maintain safe facilities. And, my friends, there is no bail out in the offing.

But, wait: here’s a glimpse of the resurrection for you. This week’s mail brought two letters: one from the Senior Warden of Christ Church, Magnolia; the other from Christ Church, Collingswood. Each letter reports that, after an extended period of shared worship, program and fellowship, the two Vestries voted unanimously to proceed with consolidation of these two congregations. “We recognize the strength to be found in the sharing of our gifts and common life,” wrote one. These are my heroes. I thank them for their faithfulness and that of the Rev. Robert J. Critelli, who gently guided this process. Yes, we can.

I am committed to work together with staff, with our congregational development committee and other resource persons and with all the leaders of all these churches to ask the hard questions in the light of John 12:24-25 and seek outcomes like this one.

My friends, we are here to do the business of the Diocese of New Jersey. And we will do it, in good order, to the best of our ability and then go home. But let us recognize that the most important thing that we will do in these two days is just this:  to celebrate and share the abundant life of Jesus Christ. For in the Eucharist we receive all the nourishment we need to live Christ’s life together and go about changing the world for His sake. No smaller plans are worthy of Him. Yes, we are so God-intoxicated as not to be intimidated. We know that, in the end, Jesus wins.  Life wins. Justice, peace and reconciliation win. This is the victory banquet. Then we go forth to fight the battles. The outcome is secure. God’s promises are sure and certain.

And when we “feebly struggle,” there is a great cloud of witnesses cheering on us on, from another shore and a greater light, where the resurrection is not misplaced, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but only life everlasting. All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave (and even in Lent!) we make our song: Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

Last summer at the Episcopal Youth Event I heard for the first time the song with which I would like to close this address. Will all you who can stand please join me and sing withthis recording by the David Crowder Band. Sing with passion and purpose:

You make all things glorious
You make all things glorious
You make all things glorious
And I am yours.
What does that make me?


The Right Reverend George E. Councell
XI Bishop of New Jersey