House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings gave the commencement address at Episcopal Divinity School on May 22, 2014. At the ceremony, she was awarded the Doctor of Divinity honoris causa.
President Ragsdale, Bishop Tengatenga, Malcolm, Janet, Julia, and all of you students, alums, family, and friends who have gathered today, it is an honor to address you on this happy occasion.
Forty years ago, 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. I had already been accepted at EDS and I was going on my own self-devised trial year. I didn’t really see what the bishop had to do with it, but the rector of my parish said I should let him know. So I met with Bishop Ned Cole, also a graduate of ETS, who looked like Methuselah, and I told him what I was doing.
It was two weeks after the ordination of the Philadelphia 11—one of whom was his—the brave women who defied the canons of the Episcopal Church to be ordained to the priesthood by Bishops Daniel Corrigan, Robert DeWitt and Edward Welles. Although he was in favor of the ordination of women, Bishop Cole was not amused.
He said, “Young lady, why exactly are you here? What do you want from me?”
I said, “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 very 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 very important to him. He asked, “Gay, what will you do if you’re not 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 one of the first to know if I decided I wanted to be ordained.
What I didn’t know at the time, but learned a few months later, is that while I was busy restructuring my life—with or without the bishop’s permission—Episcopal Divinity School was restructuring its life as well. I was a member of the first class admitted to this institution that resulted from the merger of the Philadelphia Divinity School and the Episcopal Theological School. And in ways that formed me then and continue to shape me today, I have inherited the vision of social justice and inclusion that those two institutions embraced in the 19th century and continue to advance today.
These values are still a hallmark of EDS students and alums. And today, forty years after the merger that formed our school and the fateful ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, our beloved Episcopal Church is much in need of these values.
Like EDS did forty years ago, today the Episcopal Church is restructuring for mission. There’s no doubt that, to be a new church in a new economy, we have to change and we’re going to have to let go of some things. Our passions about restructuring the church are evidence that we know the church many of us once knew is coming to an end. Some of us are grieving that loss, and some of us feel quite liberated by it.
- Around the church, I hear people talking about how to support relationships and networks around the church without a large, unsustainable corporate hierarchy.
- We’re talking about how to conserve our treasures—buildings, fabric and fine arts, and the remarkable work of the Archives of the Episcopal Church—without becoming overseers of museums.
- We’re talking about how to restructure, reorganize and consolidate dioceses for local mission.
- We’re talking about the future of lay and ordained ministry and how to educate people to answer God’s call to transform the church and the world.
- We’re talking about the justice issues of living wages and health care and how to compensate people for ministry in the new economy.
- We’re talking about how to broaden and deepen our long, hard struggle to eliminate canonical discrimination against women, people of color, and LGBT people so that our energy and vigilance for securing and maintaining rights within the institution is matched by our passion for justice in the world.
And we’re talking about how to restructure our governance.
Sometimes in these discussions, I hear a false choice—an assertion that in order to do mission, we have to get rid of much of our participatory governance.
“It’s too big, it’s too bloated, it’s too expensive, it’s too messy.” “If only we could concentrate authority in a CEO, or in a primate, we’d be nimble enough for church of the 21st century.”
By the way, in case anyone asks you, General Convention costs 1.1% of the churchwide budget.
Let me be clear: While our governance can certainly benefit from updating and new ways of collaborating, our governance does not hamper our mission. In fact, our fundamental value of shared governance makes God’s mission possible. In her seminal book We Are Theologians, your beloved Professor Fredrica Harris Thompsett, who is also a deputy to General Convention, writes:
Historically, laity have brought essential gifts to Christian societies and institutions. They have been successful organizers, pushing the frontiers of Christian mission beyond the confines of parochialism and denominationalism. They have identified pragmatic needs for reform and social welfare, shaping institutions and occupations accordingly. Lay people have broadened our social understanding, expressing diversity as a fact of life, not a problem to be solved.
This is the DNA of our Episcopal identity, and it is at the center of the EDS education you have received.
Most senior deputies can tell you, with little or no prompting, that the House of Deputies is the senior house, founded in 1785, and that the House of Bishops did not join the General Convention until the third convention convened in 1789. When deputies refer to the House of Bishops as the junior house, it can sound like hidebound attachment to ancient history or refusal to compromise.
But too often in the structure debate, we forget our church’s long history of clergy and lay people who have urged, cajoled, and sometimes forced the church to move ever closer to God’s kingdom of justice and mercy.
As my friend and colleague Michael Barlowe, the executive officer of General Convention says, “We are not a church in which bishops sat around debating whether to include clergy and laypeople in the governance of the church. We are a church in which clergy and laypeople sat around debating whether or not to include bishops.”
Let me assure Bishop Tengatenga, Bishop Grew, who I served as Canon to the Ordinary, Bishop Ely and Bishop Ananis that I believe the right decision was made. With shared, churchwide governance, we have progressed—sometimes haltingly, sometimes kicking and screaming—toward equality for women, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians. Without the shared leadership of bishops and deputies, we might not have achieved our prophetic stands on the death penalty, racism, gun control and poverty or been able to carry out as effectively our churchwide work toward justice and peace.
When we talk about structure as if it will save us or kill us, we are not really talking about structure. We are talking about how our identity and our vision of the Beloved Community could become impoverished and imperiled if we lose sight of the gifts that all orders of ministry offer. We are asking who we are as the people of God if we are not the church we have been. We are getting clear about what is unnecessary bloat, and what is the inevitable messiness of our democracy—democracy that makes possible not just our essential ministries of social justice and advocacy, but the very mission of the church.
I believe that the restructuring debate has given us Episcopalians a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine—to reassert—what our tradition of shared governance and distributed authority offers to our world and to God’s mission in it. I believe that our only way forward is together – lay people, deacons, priests and bishops.
And I believe that your education here at EDS has formed you to be exactly the leaders we need to go forward, to be the people of God in the 21st century Episcopal Church. Lay and ordained, you are steeped in our seminary’s love for justice, in its longing for the Beloved Community, and in its willingness—indeed, its eagerness—to do “something else” in the service of the Risen Christ.
For those of you graduating, these final words are for you. As you leave this place:
- Always tell the truth. Some may not want to hear, but do it anyway.
- Live as the baptized and redeemed children of God.
- Baptism is your ticket to change the world. So go do it.
- Keep it all in perspective – no vocation in the Church is worth the sacrifice of your family.
- Make sure to keep your sense of humor because you’ll need it.
- Be honorable. Act with integrity.
- Have compassion and be merciful. Always be kind.
- Think globally. I know you will not just remember the poor, you will work for economic justice and change the system that keeps people in poverty in all its forms.
- You are in this for the long haul. Stay well and strong.
- Don’t do things half-way or half-baked. Shoot for the moon.
- Know that God is with you – every day in every way. Trust God with your future.
I am honored to be here with you today, and I look forward to working with you.