Bishop’s Address to the 226th Diocesan Convention

The Bishop’s Address to Convention:
The Right Reverend George Edward Councell
Friday, 5 March 2010

Let us begin our celebration of the 225th anniversary of the founding of the Diocese of New Jersey with an offering of praise: Hymn 380, “From all that dwell below the skies.”

My sisters and brothers, I greet you in the name of Christ, and welcome one and all to this Annual Meeting of the Convention of The Episcopal Church of the Diocese of New Jersey. We’re 225 years old! As you know, regular Prayer Book services were offered in Perth Amboy, beginning in 1685. By 1702 the Reverend George Keith and the Reverend John Talbot, missionaries sent from England under the auspices of the newly formed Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, began their work in these parts. In 1785 we became the second diocese in The Episcopal Church to organize but we were without a bishop until John Croes was elected and consecrated in 1815.

We were never without a mission, however. We have mission in our DNA. One of the gifts of our history is the heritage of the SPG. The great seal of that great missionary society pictures an English sailing ship approaching North America. The indigenous people on the shore appeal to the missionaries with the words found in Acts 16:9: “Come over and help us.” Not only do we have that powerful image and appeal stamped on our beginnings, our second bishop, George Washington Doane, was the prime mover behind the decision of the General Convention of 1835 to name our Church the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

My fellow missionaries: We do not adopt a mission so that the Church can survive. God has a mission for which he needs a Church. God’s mission is seen in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And that mission begins in the heart of God, where God’s deepest yearning is to respond to all who are calling out, “Come over and help us.” We need to receive God’s missionary, Jesus, and to become missionaries in his name.

Jesus and the Mission of God
The late Welsh Anglican priest and poet R. S. Thomas set forth a haunting image of our God’s mission in his poem, “The Coming.”

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

“Let me go there.” The Passion and Purpose of our Lord Jesus Christ is to go there — to a world of desolation and to people holding out their thin arms to that bare tree, waiting for a vanished April to return. “Let me go there,” said our Lord; to live and to die, in order to redeem a sinful and broken world; in order to save sinful and broken people, right where we are. Jesus meets us where we are and not where we ought to be. He comes to us in our weakness, sin, disobedience and denial; in the messes that we’ve made and the messes that we have become. He wants nothing so much as to be welcomed into the places inside where we hide, hopeless and ashamed. He wants to be welcomed so that he can heal us from the inside out and share new and abundant life.

My computer broke down and I called our IT consultant. “Do this,” he said. No change. “OK, try that.” Nothing. I sank into despair. “Don’t worry,” said the consultant. “Now I will take over and fix it from the inside.” Sure enough, I surrendered my cursor and control to him. He did just what he promised. And I thought, “That’s what I need. Not someone to advise me with the outside surface of my life. I need someone whose love is strong enough to go beneath the surfaces that I pretty much manage pretty well pretty much all of the time. I need someone whose love for me is strong enough and extravagant enough to be willing to go into the deepest regions of my rebellious heart to bring light and healing and hope and fix me from the inside.” Someone like that found me. His name is Jesus and He found me in The Episcopal Church. And I love my Church!

When people who lived at the time of our founding had such an experience of Christ’s saving love they did not say, “I’ve been born again.” Instead their testimony was, “I’ve been seized by the power of a great affection.” I believe that, if all eight or nine hundred of us here today had time to tell our stories, we would hear so much about that great affection that we would never get up off of our knees, giving thanks to God.

Do we need to form a 21st-century missionary society so we live more comfortably and more confidently as people who have a personal story to share about God’s great affection for them? Maybe we do. Maybe that would help. Maybe it would be too simple a thing for people like us. Maybe we would rather go on doing the same things, hoping for a different result. Maybe we would rather die than change. Maybe I’m bugging you.

I have been privileged to take part in five General Conventions; two as a Deputy and three as a Bishop. In the thousands of resolutions that I have voted on, none is more powerful or important for me than the following, adopted in 2003, about which I wrote to you in my first communication as your bishop-elect: “Resolved, that the 74th General Convention call on every Episcopalian to be able to articulate his or her faith story; and urge dioceses and congregations to create opportunities for these stories to be told.”

My dear friends, there is no program that will save The Episcopal Church. No earthly power can do that. But bearing witness, through our story, in our own words, to the Good News that Jesus Christ is alive and at work, changing lives – that is an act of faith. You don’t need to join anything. You don’t need permission. Just share that good news and stay out of the way. Give Jesus a chance.

I note that the theme of this Convention is “Go forth for God…” and I earnestly hope that we will go to the world in peace, in love, in strength and in joy (Hymn 347). But before we go forth for God, I pray that we will accept the Good News that Jesus Christ went forth from God for us. Before we did anything for him, he accomplished everything for us. If we have never been astonished at what he did for us on the Cross, stretching out his loving arms in a saving embrace for us, the lost, the lonely and the unworthy, then we need to pay more careful attention this Holy Week and Easter and seek a new and more deeply authentic relationship with our Savior, Lord, Lover and Friend and to rediscover his extravagant affection.

Jesus and the Mission of the Church
From the Gospel According to Matthew, 14:22-33, hear the story of our Lord, walking on water. “And [the disciples] cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (14: 26-27).

Jesus sends his Church into places of overwhelming challenge where we may bear witness to the overpowering victory of life. Overwhelmedness is one of the key conditions of our age. This is a story for frightened and discouraged people; people who are worn out and hungry for hope; people trying to deal with upheaval, disruption and disarray in their lives; people overwhelmed by the hand that they’ve been dealt; people who are under water. They form what Archbishop Williams calls, “the community in front of the text.” They are the Church of Matthew’s day and they are us.

We know what it means to be in a fragile and vulnerable vessel, caught in the storm. That is our Church out there, miles from shore, harassed by the wind and beaten by the waves. There is so much that is against us: a growing secularism that is indifferent, skeptical or hostile to all religious claims; the injustices and exclusions and daily disrespect directed at our brothers and sisters of color, at the disabled and at our gay brothers and lesbian sisters and other sexual minorities; those whose lives have been devastated by the ongoing economic turbulence, having lost jobs and homes; those caught up in violent conflicts and those cast down by earthquakes and other disasters; the poor and homeless and hungry and the least of those whom our Lord called members of his family (Matthew 25:31-46).

The institutional life and financial future of our congregations are also facing high seas and strong winds. Smaller and poorer churches are awash with life-threatening challenges of declining attendance, deteriorating buildings and diminished resources. The combination of clergy compensation and the expense of maintaining physical plants leaves little funding for education and outreach. In too many cases, even in more comfortable communities, vestries have found it necessary to reduce clergy compensation to part-time. Retrenchment is all around us. These are fearful days.

And here is another wave: we are a diocese in decline, in a denomination in decline. A recent report noted that, of 110 dioceses in The Episcopal Church, only four are growing; none of them in our Province. (One of the dioceses that is growing is our new companion – Ecuador Central – which reported a 28.2% increase in membership!) Our losses in membership and in attendance are less precipitous than those in other parts of the Church, but decline is decline. Our work is to feed the sheep, not count them; but let us not live in denial. As Charles Fulton has written, “Resurrection follows death – it does not follow denial.”

There is a term for the fate that many fear: being underwater. It comes to us from the mortgage industry. It means that the balance due on a mortgage exceeds the value of the property. What you own is worth less than what you owe. To be under water easily leads to being counted as worthless. Like the disciples in the storm, we have a deficit of trust!

But here is the Word of the Lord: “Take heart, it is I; don’t be afraid.” It’s the most frequently occurring command in the Bible. Not love, peace or justice. Not forgive or be reconciled. Certainly not, “Be nice,” or “Don’t touch that.” But, “Do not be afraid.” It’s an Easter greeting and, ever since the moment of the discovery of the empty tomb, Christians have found in it the freedom to live in a Good Friday world with confidence and trust that Easter is real and Jesus is Lord. “Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.” Jesus wins. Jesus is Lord.

You see, being underwater has another meaning for us. In baptism we were plunged into the water set aside for God’s purposes: for flourishing, not for destruction; for radiance, not for darkness; for abundant life and not for death. We’ve been under water and we were not alone: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (The Book of Common Prayer, page 306.)

We know that we are not alone, but hard times bring huge waves that threaten to drown us. Sarah Dylan Breuer, a member of Executive Council and one of the wiser voices in our Church, writes brilliantly on our text in her blog,

“Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that we’ll be ‘successful’ (however we define that!) in a particular enterprise if it was Jesus calling us to do it, and having faith IN Jesus doesn’t imply signing off on a list of statements ABOUT Jesus. Having faith in Jesus means, in my view, a willingness to follow Jesus — not because we believe that we’ve already got the rest of the story plotted out once we’ve made that decision, but because we take seriously that Jesus is Lord …”

“A faithful person eventually gets to the point at which s/he can say to God, ‘I don’t know where you’re going, but I know that wherever it is, I’d rather be drowning with you than be crowned by somebody else.’”

“I’d rather be drowning with you than be crowned by somebody else.” I believe that it is that passionate commitment to love and follow Jesus Christ and that alone that, by grace, will renew our Church. Not another program, not a fund-raising method, not new governance structures; not anything that even the wisest of us can dream up. We will only be the Church if we fall in love with Jesus, put our whole trust in him and drown with him, if need be, rather than be crowned by a lesser god.

Let’s look again at Matthew’s account of Peter’s response to Jesus, walking on the water: “But when [Peter] noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ (14:30-31)

Peter had a good moment or two, didn’t he? But then, as countless sermons have pointed out, he got that sinking feeling the minute he paid more attention to the strength of the winds than the company of our Lord. Get out of the boat, just as long as you keep your eyes on Jesus. Again, we might ask, “Why are you telling me this?”

To hearken back to the 1960’s that so many of us remember (sort of), the singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen got it right in his song, Suzanne:

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said, “All men shall be sailors then until the sea shall free them.”

Only when we put our faith into action do we see the true face of Jesus, our true love. Could our present crises open our eyes to see Jesus in new ways that call us to get out of the boat?

Jesus and Jersey
Let me bring this around to New Jersey. The Reverend Dr. Frank Wade, former Rector of St. Alban’s Parish in Washington, D.C. and sometime Chaplain to the House of Deputies brought both comfort and challenge to our Diocese in a sermon that he gave at a special gathering last fall. He spoke about the maps we find when we publish a profile or describe a diocese on a web site. They all have this is common: they locate and identify property sites. This is not how God looks at us.

  • But suppose God’s map of New Jersey shows not property centers but power centers.  Suppose God was behind Paul’s statement that the Kingdom of God is not about talk but power. Suppose God is expecting changed lives, spiritual discoveries and healing actions. 
  • Suppose God’s map of New Jersey has circled the centers of change, places where newness is being forged. We often resist change in the name of tradition, conveniently forgetting that our oldest tradition is change. Our story begins with God telling Abraham to go to a land he had never been to and leads up to the Holy Spirit’s promise to lead us into truths we have not known. Where are people being changed, where are institutions full of becoming, where are ideas reaching for lights in places that are still dark? 
  • Suppose God’s eye is on the risk centers in the diocese; the communities where modern disciples are stepping out into the wind on unthinkable journeys to impossible places. 
  • Suppose God is monitoring the deep centers where faithful people are pausing in the presence of mystery and holding the lamp of wonder up to their own and others faces.

Dr. Wade is right – God’s ways are not our ways. God maps our Diocese based on sites where power and change and risk and mystery are happening – none of which are captured on the annual Parochial Report! On God’s map, after all, Calvary is at the center. Calvary is the most hopeful place in the world. It reminds us that our salvation was accomplished in a place of weakness and vulnerability and dispossession. God redeemed the world God loves. At Calvary, Christ stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross and died, amid the mockery of his enemies, the derision of the crowds, the cowardice of his friends, and abandonment by his God. And yet, at the place where sin and death did their worst, God’s purpose was not undone. God won the victory, not by power, not by coercion, but by sacrificial love. Calvary will always be remembered in the light of our Easter hope. The victory is ours. Astonishing.

What does that look like in the Diocese of New Jersey today? Three years ago the Convention affirmed a vision of our Diocese as one family of diverse and unique congregations, belonging to Jesus Christ and belonging to one another… We said that we are a missionary community, celebrating and sharing the abundant life that Jesus promised. We said that we want to build up the Body of Christ so that we can reach out to the world. We identified five initiatives that would help bring us closer to the vision of our Diocese, flourishing. In the past two years we offered programs and shared resources that would address the Diocese’s desire to grow our congregations through welcome and inclusion and an initiative to focus our attention on spiritual renewal.

This year we invite every church, its clergy and lay leaders to give attention to liturgical revival. I believe it would be advantageous to every congregation to review its patterns and practices in worship. Consider whether the liturgy is too esoteric or too chaotic or too boring to honor our God and to empower our people to offer fresh expressions of praise and adoration. Is the liturgy focused on our Lord? Is it reverent? Does it help us to experience the presence and power of God? Are we able to honor the best of our traditions while still finding the means to incorporate the creative offerings of the faithful today? May we continue to be the Church that worships the Lord in the beauty of holiness? Let me catch you celebrating!

Our 225th year, while challenging, was a very fruitful year. We sent a faithful, strong and hard-working deputation, led by the Reverend Joan Anders, to the 76th General Convention of The Episcopal Church. Among the achievements of the Convention were the adoption of resolutions C056 (“Liturgies for Blessings”) and D025 (“Commitment and Witness to Anglican Communion”). I voted in favor of both of these resolutions. In so doing I acted consistent with the position I have taken since coming to New Jersey in 2003; namely, that everyone in this Diocese has a place to stand.

I will continue to provide a “generous pastoral response” (C056) to members of this Church living in same-sex, lifelong, committed relationships characterized by the qualities listed in Resolution 2000-D039. I will continue to support those clergy and congregations that welcome such couples and provide prayerful pastoral care, including services of celebration and thanksgiving for the grace and holiness of these unions. Consistent with the call in C056 to honor the theological diversity of this Church as we struggle with these issues, I will continue to provide a generous pastoral response to those who disagree with me. And every cleric shall have the discretion to decline to officiate at a service of celebration and thanksgiving for a same-sex couple, consistent with Canon I.18.4.

Further, in matters of discernment of God’s call to ministry in The Episcopal Church, in this Diocese of New Jersey and beyond, I shall continue to affirm and uphold the view (as found in DO25) that God has called and may call gay and lesbian persons who are living in same-sex relationships to any ordained ministry in this Church. Again, I shall continue to respect the dignity and honor the views of those who disagree with me on these matters. I believe that our Diocese is to be commended for our record of dealing with each other in the turbulence of these contentious times.

In our 225th year we stayed on track with our vision, adopted by the Convention of 2007. Thanks to the Right Onward Visioning Committee, chaired by Annette Buchanan, we offered a wide variety of opportunities for spiritual renewal. With the leadership of Canon Servio Moscoso and the Companion Diocese Committee, we entered into a new companion relationship with Ecuador Central and I was able to attend the Consecration of their Bishop, Luis Fernando Ruiz. Our youth programs continued to grow and flourish, including a third trip to provide Katrina relief in Mississippi. In a courageous act of faith in resurrection, Holy Communion, Fair Haven, voted to close rather than continue to decline; while, at the same time, Bishop Romero received an entire congregation and welcomed them into Grace Church in Elizabeth. Millennium Development Goal funds were directed by Diocesan Council to help support an Anglican school in Nazareth. Canon Lee Powers had a good sabbatical and, thanks be to God, he returned! Our staff successfully managed their way through three resignations, without replacements. Expectations have not diminished and the work has been redistributed. The restructure has begun.

Speaking of restructure, a task force on the subject, led by Kathy O’Hagan and Father Jack Zamboni, did our Diocese a great service last year by exploring the challenging questions that we are facing about our mission, finances, fund-raising, staffing and program. You will hear from them in this Convention. We must follow through on the work they have begun. I will charge the Diocesan Council to make this their highest priority in 2010.

Looking ahead, I salute all those congregations that have made a commitment of financial support to support the mission of the Diocese of New Jersey through their Fair Share pledge. We are especially grateful to all those churches that give 100% of the asking, according to our diocesan formula. Thanks to all those who accepted the challenge to reach 75%, at least, of the asking. And thanks to all for trying; for, to try to please God does, in fact, please God. We need to review the patterns of giving from the churches to our Diocese and engage the question of accountability, for our own health’s sake.

Surely, tithing will help. Please, adopt the resolution submitted by the Stewardship Commission. Sign the form that says that you are or have a plan to become a tither. It will be a blessing to you, a source of great joy and of spiritual health and maturity.

Other encouraging signs of growth and reasons for rejoicing in New Jersey in the coming year include the following: the expansion of ministries on college campuses, including The College of New Jersey and Rowan University; ministry with the incarcerated (remembering that this Diocese is home to 13 of the 14 state prisons in New Jersey); a youth trip to Ecuador Central; continued art exhibits and programs sponsored by our chapter of The Episcopal Church and the Visual Arts (ECVA); greater assistance to Haiti; the expansion of Hispanic ministries; and the development of new programs in congregational development and evangelism.

I hope we will engage the question of how our Diocese might provide for a second bishop. We have been blessed by the ministry of Bishop Romero. Shall we rally and raise the funding for another bishop? I love Jesus, Jersey, and you and I will happily continue to serve. I don’t have anything in mind that I would rather do. I love to serve, but, given the size of this jurisdiction, you would be better served if we had two bishops, at least.

We are here today, 225 years later, because our ancestors propagated the Gospel. They accepted the Good News of God’s missionary, Jesus Christ and went forth for God. They answered the plea, “Come over and help us.” My friends, we are standing on their shoulders. It is our great gift and our holy work to proclaim, by word and deed, the Good News today in Haiti, in Chile and in Darfur; in the streets of Camden, Trenton, Elizabeth and Atlantic City; in the hearts and minds of anxious young people and frantic parents; among the sick and elderly; and with the seekers, questers and the curious. Listen! They’re all saying, in their own way, “Come over and help us.”

There are many things to discuss and many tough decisions to make. It has to be said, however, that simple maintenance of traditional structures and conventional arrangements is not enough. This boat is sinking. It is long past time to get out of the boat. That is a risk. We may sink. But if we keep our eyes on Jesus, with even a little faith, we may venture a little ways onward. Even if we do sink, that is more faithful than doing the same things over again, expecting different results.

This is our holy work and our sacred pilgrimage. Let us embrace this mission, rejoicing that we have been embraced by those arms of love that he stretched out upon the hard wood of the Cross. Even a little faith and a few steps in his direction please him. Brothers and sisters, everybody: out of the boat! Keep your eyes on Jesus. Better to drown with him than to be crowned by anybody else.

Most of you are aware that I am a baseball fan, but I am not a fan of all baseball teams. While living in the Midwest, I became familiar with the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers and their respective radio broadcasters, Harry Caray and Bob Uecker. When the Cubs played at home in Wrigley Field, Harry Caray would always lead the crowd in singing the song, “Take me out to the ball game,” during the traditional seventh inning stretch. His singing was pretty terrible, but I loved what came next. If the visiting team were ahead, Caray would always add the rallying cry, “Let’s get some runs!”

My friends, we know that the victory over sin and death was won by Jesus on Good Friday. Thanks be to God. But we and the Church in our day are behind. With all due respect for all that has been accomplished in 225 years, I am ambitious for us to do more. I’d love us to hit some home runs in our time together. Let’s not only and always play defense, reacting to things that happen around us. Let’s play offense and get some runs.

I like the tradition at Miller Park in Milwaukee even better. Every time one of the Brewers’ batters hits a long drive that looks like a home run, Bob Uecker and the Milwaukee fans all shout together, “Get up. Get up. Get outta here. Gone!”

“Get up. Get up. Get outta here” has always seemed to me a form of liturgical dismissal worthy of consideration by the Standing Liturgical Commission and authorization by the General Convention. So, as you leave this Convention tomorrow, remember our theme, taken from the words of Hymn 347: “Go forth for God, go to the world in peace … in love … in strength … in joy.”

And, if you need a reminder of our mission, I hereby give permission for the following dismissal to be used in the Diocese of New Jersey: “Get up. Get up. Get outta here!”


The Right Reverend George E. Councell