President Jennings delivered these remarks to the opening session of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council, meeting in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, from January 22-24.
Good morning. Welcome back to the Maritime Center, and welcome back to Executive Council. I’m glad to be here with you all in this home stretch of the triennium. As one deputy posted recently on the House of Deputies Facebook page, I can’t believe it will all be over in six months!
As I think back over the 12 General Conventions I’ve attended, I can often remember one key issue that became the hallmark of a particular convention. Some of you have heard my story of visiting the 1976 General Convention in Minneapolis for the vote on women’s ordination. That’s what we remember about that year. In 2003—those Minneapolis conventions do tend to be memorable, don’t they?—we remember consenting to the election of Bishop Gene Robinson. Last convention, of course, we’ll remember for the historic and joyous election of my friend Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the decision to make marriage available to all couples who wish to be married. We also remember now how unbelievably hot it was, but I’m betting after two weeks in Texas in July, the heat in Salt Lake City won’t seem worth remarking on.
I don’t know what our upcoming convention in Austin will be known for in future years, but I think what’s shaping up as the hallmark of this convention is how we’re preparing to have hard conversations in the best possible ways.
Late in 2016, all of us on Executive Council came together via video with the House of Bishops and House of Deputies to talk about changing the culture of the church—to talk about inviting people into a system that encourages transparency, accountability, kindness, and embodies the values of Jesus. This is hard work. As Presiding Bishop Curry said at the time, “Christianity is dysfunctional. That’s just the name of the game. I mean, it’s called being human. How do we get from where we are to where Jesus the Christ is actually calling us to be?”
Since then, I think we’ve made some progress getting from where we were. We’re not yet where Jesus wants us to be, but I think that the work we have done together is bearing fruit. And I think—I pray—that our efforts to rebuild trust, to share perspectives and ideas without fear or recrimination, and to reach across artificial divides will make this convention productive and unifying even—especially—in the face of hard issues.
Here are a few hopeful indicators:
- The Israel and Palestine Working Group that the Presiding Bishop and I appointed last summer is actively exploring how to foster open and respectful consideration within our church of issues relating to Israel and Palestine. Their job isn’t to solve peace in the Middle East, but rather to give careful consideration to how such issues should be presented and discussed at General Convention so that we may arrive at conclusions that truly represent the mind of the church and, we pray, the leadings of the Holy Spirit. I am grateful to all the bishops and deputies in the group for agreeing to serve.
- Our own Executive Council Joint Standing Committee on Finances for Mission has been listening carefully to voices from across the church as it has developed the final draft budget that, after this meeting, will be given to General Convention’s Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance. We are wrestling with a budget that has big dreams and limited resources, and a good deal hinges on our ability to have holy, respectful, and civil conversations about how we allocate our resources for God’s work in the world.
- The Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons has been hard at work after being reconstituted and receiving a new mandate at the last General Convention, and in Austin, deputies and bishops are being asked to consider changes that will bring more clarity, flexibility and accountability to our structures and our leaders as we stretch into God’s future.
- And, as you know, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music—hold on to your hats—is asking us to have a straightforward, rational conversation about prayer book revision, and is providing us with an enormous amount of research, data, and resources for doing so.
Today the Presiding Bishop and I are introducing one additional hard, but essential, conversation to our plans for General Convention. Later today, we are releasing a letter to the church calling all of us to examine the church’s history and come to a fuller understanding of how it has handled or mishandled cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse through the years.
“When facts dictate,” we write, “we must confess and repent of those times when the church, its ministers or its members have been antagonistic or unresponsive to people—women, children and men—who have been sexually exploited or abused. And we must acknowledge that in our church and in our culture, the sexual exploitation of women is part of the same unjust system that also causes gender gaps in pay, promotion, health and empowerment.”
To me, one of the most difficult elements of discussing #metoo in the church is our reflexive desire to decry the kind of abuse and harassment that’s in the headlines as un-Christian. “That’s a problem in Hollywood,” we might think, “or in business or industry, but not in the holy work we do.” But, as the Presiding Bishop and I discuss in our letter, stories like the rape of Tamar in the Bible, in the book of 2 Samuel, are a part of our tradition as people of faith. #Metoo is woven into our sacred stories and patriarchal religious practices stretching back for millennia. We cannot distance ourselves from the culture of exploitation that so many women are coming together to resist, because those problems have been endemic in our culture in the church for far longer than Hollywood, or tech culture, or corporate journalism have existed.
Neither the Presiding Bishop nor I profess to have all of the wisdom necessary to change the culture of our church and the society in which it ministers. That’s why, at this summer’s General Convention, we want to hear the voice of the wider church as we determine how to proceed in both atoning for the church’s past and shaping a more just future.
As we discuss this painful issue and all of the other difficult topics that will come before us, may we find in our deliberations opportunities to listen to one another, to be honest about our own failings and brokenness, and to discern prayerfully how we can answer God’s call to us in these strange and shifting times in which we find ourselves.
Let us pray.
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us,
in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront
one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work
together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 824)