[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church House of Bishops, meeting in its annual spring retreat, has agreed to write a new pastoral letter to the church on the sin of racism.
The letter, expected to be adopted at the spring 2016 meeting, will be “the most lasting response of this house to that issue,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said during a midday press conference on March 17, the final day of the bishops’ meeting.
The letter would follow on one adopted by the house in April 1994 and another one issued March 22, 2006. The 2006 letter noted the 1994 pastoral statement said a new letter was needed because the “pervasive sin” of racism “continues to plague our common life in the church and in our culture.”
The theme for the March 13-17 meeting at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina, in the Diocese of Western North Carolina, was Fostering a culture of curiosity, compassion and courage in Christ.
“We have focused our conversation around curiosity about ‘the other,’ courage in encountering ‘the other’ and compassion in encountering ‘the other,’” Jefferts Schori said. She added that member bishops challenged their colleagues with “provocative” mediations about race, culture, class and dealing with other faith traditions.
“The conversations have been deeper than I have ever experienced in this house and I am immensely gratified at the depth of the conversations and what I think will result from this meeting,” she said.
The presiding bishop praised the work of the house’s planning committee for the depth of the members’ participation. Diocese of Eastern Michigan Bishop Todd Ousley, co-chair of the House of Bishops Planning Committee, said that the meeting was structured with the filter of first considering the legacy of slavery, and then moving to the “contemporary experience of the results of racism and divisions in this country and elsewhere around race.”
The movement allowed the bishops “to build on our experiences of what it means to be the church in the midst of an increasingly pluralistic culture where the other is next to us at all times,” Ousley said.
The meeting, which Ousley said was “packed to the brim with information and deep encounters with ourselves and our role as bishops,” also energized the bishops “by having gone so deep together and discovering how we have to be as bishops as we move into an increasingly rapid, fast-changing world.”
The bishops also “considered issues of impairment among our members and others in the church,” Jefferts Schori said, “and we hope to appoint a commission that will address those issues in a broad sense and provide us some feedback about what and how we might attend to those issues.”
The bishops passed a resolution calling on the presiding bishop, in consultation with the president of the House of Deputies, to appoint an independent commission to “explore the canonical, environment, behavioral and procedural dimensions of matters involving the serious impairment of individuals serving as leaders in the church, with special attention to issues of addiction and substance abuse,” according to the March 17 daily account of the meeting.
The resolution says that appointments to the commission ought to include individuals “with professional or personal experience with varieties of impairment,” as well as members of The Episcopal Church and of the church’s full-communion partners.
“Recommendations for both action and further review, as appropriate, in order to clarify lines of authority, to ensure mutual accountability, and to promote justice, well-being, and safety within both the church and the world were included,” the account said of the resolution.
The presiding bishop said there “will be an ongoing conversation” about how such a commission would do its work.
Jefferts Schori said the goal of the commission would be for the church to understand how it “might better respond both pastorally and ecclesiastically” to its members, both lay and ordained.
Diocese of Kansas Bishop Dean Wolfe, vice president of the House of Bishops, said the commission is needed because “the church is an imperfect and dynamic institution and we’re always trying to learn how to be more faithful and find ways to better exercise our ministries.”
A member of the house, Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, is on administrative leave from the diocese while awaiting trial on charges that on Dec. 27 she allegedly was driving while intoxicated and was texting when she struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, 41.
The house also set its attention towards the 78th meeting of the church’s General Convention June 23-July 3 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Bishop Ken Price, secretary of the House of Bishops, said the bishops spent time talking about the topics that convention will consider. On March 17 the bishops began to shift their emphasis “to more of a legislative mode that we will be in at General Convention,” he said.
Twenty-two bishops have never attended convention as members of the House of Bishops, Price said. They will have a learning curve, but so will all the bishops, Price noted, as the convention moves toward a paperless operation.
“This is a new learning [experience] for bishops so we’re trying to get on board with that,” Price said.
The Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, the convention’s executive officer, met with the bishops on March 17 to introduce them to the paperless plan.
“We’ve moved from prayerful to personal and now we’re moving into practical this afternoon,” Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce said during the March 17 press conference.
Price added that the house spent very little time discussing the impending General Convention election of Jefferts Schori’s successor because the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop has not yet released its slate of nominees. That committee has two meetings slated, March 19-22 and April 19-20, and has said it will make that announcement in early May. Prior to the last presiding bishop election in 2006, the committee announced its slate in January.
During the meeting, The Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs issued daily accounts that provided a brief overview of the bishops’ discussions and activities at Kanuga. Those accounts are here.
Members of the public and the news media were not allowed to observe the sessions. Some bishops blogged and tweeted during the retreat using #hoblent2015. Those tweets can be read here.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.