I was a young woman of 23 when I went to see the Bishop of Central New York to tell him I was going to seminary. It was August of 1974 and I had already been accepted at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was going on my own self-devised trial year, but the rector of my parish said I should let the bishop know of my plans. So I met with Bishop Ned Cole, who looked like Methuselah, and I told him what I was doing.
I met with the bishop two weeks after the ordination of the Philadelphia 11, one of whom was resident in Central New York. Bishop Cole, although in favor of the ordination of women, was not amused.
He said, “Young lady, why exactly are you here? What do you want from me?”
I responded, “I came because my rector told me I had to come see you. And so here I am. And I don’t want anything from you. ” He replied, “You are the first person in a long time to come to see me who doesn’t want anything.”
He then looked at me over the bridge of his bifocals, and asked me a question that I somehow knew was important to him. He asked, “Gay, what will you do if you aren’t ordained?”
I looked him square in the eye and said without hesitation, “Something else!” He burst out laughing and told me he hoped he would be the first to know if I decided I wanted to be ordained. I didn’t tell him that I was still a member of the Presbyterian Church; that seemed irrelevant since I had been attending the Episcopal Church off and on for a couple of years when I was home from college. But that’s another story.
General Convention adjourned just three months ago. This is the first meeting of Executive Council. The new triennium begins in a few short months, but we are in many ways acting as if it has already begun. The staff is already in high gear. Most appointments have been made, and a joint meeting of many of the committees, commissions, and board takes place next month in St. Louis.
Hopes and expectations are high. People are dreaming. People are longing for something new and brilliant and real. People are counting on the Structure Task Force to propose new ways of being the Episcopal Church in order to deepen our commitment to Jesus and strengthen our capacity for mission.
Three years is a long time to wait for a report, and there is no reason why we can’t begin reforming and renewing and refreshing not only our structures, but our very lives, to be witnesses to the living God who created us, sent his beloved Son to redeem us, and guides and consoles and cajoles us through the Holy Spirit. Given all this, I propose we might think of the next three years as the “Something Else Triennium.”
At every level of the Episcopal Church – individual, congregational, diocesan, provincial, and churchwide – we can look at how we live our lives and structure our communities and ministries and consider if we could do something else. Something else that might just bring us closer to the heart of God and those we are called to serve – the last, the least, the lost, and the left behind.
Today we remember Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, bishops who were martyred in 1555 for their beliefs about the need for reform in the Church. Bishops, take note! They lived lives guided by the notion of “something else,” which is exactly why we remember them 457 years later.
Hugh Latimer was the Bishop of Worcester. He gave up his episcopacy because he believed King Henry VIII was impeding the progress of the Reformation by enacting reactionary royal policies. Latimer never resumed his see, and was later executed during the reign of Queen Mary (who incidentally sought protection and was besieged while hiding in my family’s ancestral castle south of Edinburgh).
Nicholas Ridley was the Bishop of Rochester. He aligned himself with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s ideas to reform the Church and he worked with Cranmer in the development of the first Book of Common Prayer. He later became the Bishop of London where he continued to advocate for and implement the principles of the Reformation. With Latimer, he was executed when Mary became queen.
They gave their lives for holding strong to a vision of something else – that the Church could be something else – something else that would bring ecclesiastical structures and governance more and more into the service of God’s mission. While you and I won’t be called upon to give up our physical lives for the cause of structural reform, we have given our lives to Jesus Christ and committed to serve his Church. This is the first step.
Because the 65th General Convention in 1976 made the canons governing ordination equally applicable to men and women, I have served the Church as an ordained person for nearly 35 years. The Church we all love did “something else” when it passed that canon.
The Episcopal Church did “something else” when it stated at its informal Convention meeting in Philadelphia in 1784 that “to make canons there be no other authority than a representative body of clergy and laity conjointly.” Bishops arrived on the scene, and the bicameral gatherings we know as General Convention were formalized by the Constitution adopted by the General Convention in 1789. Shared decision-making and distributed authority has been characteristic of the governance of our Church for the 223 years since.
At the 62nd General Convention held in Seattle in 1967, Presiding Bishop John Hines called the Episcopal Church to do something else; specifically “to take its place humbly and boldly alongside of, and in support of, the dispossessed and oppressed peoples of this country for the healing of our national life.” General Convention adopted what was called the Special Program, and allocated 9 million dollars to be spent during the 1968-1970 triennium specifically to address poverty and racism. It was a radical move not greeted warmly by some Episcopalians.
The Episcopal Church did something else when it decided to embrace the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Episcopalians at all levels of the Church’s governance and ministry. Bishop Browning’s clarion call that there will be no outcasts has reverberated throughout the Church in a variety of ways ever since, and we are moving ever closer to full inclusion.
What will “something else” look like in this triennium? We don’t know yet, but I am ready and willing to be part of creating something else, something new. I believe you are as well. Let’s go there. Let’s be bold and visionary disciples of Jesus. We are called to do no less.
October 16, 2012
Meeting of Executive Council at the Episcopal Church Center
The Rev. Gay C. Jennings, President of the House of Deputies