John Danforth calls Episcopal Church to healing ministry for America

Priest and former senator presents bishops with a plan to go beyond slogans

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Sep 16, 2016
John Danforth signs a copy of his book “The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics” for Diocese of New York Bishop Andrew Dietsche after Danforth’s Sept. 16 presentation to the House of Bishops. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

John Danforth signs a copy of his book “The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics” for Diocese of New York Bishop Andrew Dietsche after Danforth’s Sept. 16 presentation to the House of Bishops. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Detroit, Michigan] Calling for “an expansive ministry to America,” former Missouri Republican Sen. John Danforth called on the Episcopal Church Sept. 16 to combine its pastoral and prophetic voices into “a healing ministry to a nation that needs healing.”

Danforth, an Episcopal priest, lawyer and author who served in the U.S. Senate from 1976-1995, told the House of Bishops that “this longtime politician knows that America needs us; this devoted Episcopalian believes that Jesus calls us” to act boldly in the current political and civic climate.

Episcopalians “should be evangelists to all Americans, especially to the most idealistic Americans, to young people who want to change the world. We should be the voices that call them to do just that,” he said.

The call to Episcopalians to do this ministry can be seen as an opportunity created by current circumstances in the United States, or as the patriotic duty of citizens or as a God-given calling, or as all three, Danforth said.

The former senator and United Nations ambassador decried what he sees as politicians appealing to people’s fear and capitalizing on society’s trend of valuing self-interest above the common good. Danforth argued that the United States has lost sight of its founders’ commitment to what they called “virtue,” which he described as putting the common good above personal interest. The Episcopal Church must call people back to that virtue because it seems no one else is, he added.

“The model for us is the cross, and that is the opposite of egocentricity,” Danforth said.

If Jesus calls on us to love our enemies, he said, then we should surely love people with opposing ideas. “A political opponent is not an enemy, not in this country,” he said, adding that hatred is what is disturbing in politics today.

Former Sen. John Danforth (R-Missouri), an Episcopal priest, center, talks with Chicago Bishop Jeffrey D. Lee, left, and Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith before Danforth’s Sept. 16 presentation to the House of Bishops. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Former Sen. John Danforth (R-Missouri), an Episcopal priest, center, talks with Chicago Bishop Jeffrey D. Lee, left, and Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith before Danforth’s Sept. 16 presentation to the House of Bishops. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

He gave the bishops a three-pronged plan for what he said had to be a ministry of reconciliation. First, the church must adopt and announce a clear message about “what precisely we intend to be” and “create a short, clear statement of what we intend to do.” Second, the church must develop and pursue tactics to implement the message because “we will have to be more than a slogan.” Thirdly, “our presiding bishop gives us a unique opportunity to speak powerfully beyond our walls” and he should be empowered to do so.

“He is a very special talent and we should not bury this talent,” Danforth said. “I have never known anyone in the Episcopal Church who is better able to preach the gospel to the world than our presiding bishop.”

As the bishops began to applaud, Danforth added, “Let’s make him the public face of church. Every day in the office would be better spent on the road. We should free him from administrative and ‘churchy’ responsibilities and find ways to expose him to the widest audience.”

Danforth acknowledged that Episcopalians disagree over when the church must raise its prophetic voice and when it must use its pastoral voice.

He used the example of a group of clergy that confronted police officers demanding that they publicly repent in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That demand may have felt prophetic, he said, but it prejudged the facts and assumed that those individual officers were in need of repentance. A pastoral approach would have assumed that the officers were good people and would have appealed to that goodness, he said.

Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde, left; House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings; and the Rev. Kim Jackson, chaplain at the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center in Atlanta, Georgia, discuss their responses to former Sen. John Danforth’s Sept. 16 presentation to the House of Bishops. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde, left; House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings; and the Rev. Kim Jackson, chaplain at the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center in Atlanta, Georgia, discuss their responses to former Sen. John Danforth’s Sept. 16 presentation to the House of Bishops. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde; House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings; and the Rev. Kim Jackson, chaplain at the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center in Atlanta, Georgia, formed a panel to respond to Danforth’s remarks.

Budde agreed that people hunger for the prophetic voice. She added that many if not most of those people live on society’s margins, not at the privileged center. She said she struggles to discern when the prophetic voice is needed and when the pastoral voice is called for. “I do know that the prophetic voice is usually what gets us off the dime because no one gives up privilege when it’s asked for,” she said. “It usually has to be demanded, and it has to be demanded in such a way that initially will always be offensive.”

Jackson agreed, saying that many times “the common good has not included a lot of people.” Thus, she said, she sees a large part of her ministry as advocating in the Georgia Legislature and elsewhere because, as a young seminarian and priest, she was inspired and received an example of advocacy from the work of the church. And she learned that advocacy is about relationships.

“I think that’s what we do as a church,” she said. “We figure out how to talk to people who are different from us, how to compromise, but also how to come together even though we may sit in very different camps.”

Jennings said that the Episcopal Church’s presence in 17 countries means that Danforth’s call could be lived out in many different political systems.

She also countered one of the senator’s suggestions that the church spends too much time passing resolutions that he said don’t amount to much in the end. “We can help to change the tone [of political debate] and we can also advocate,” she said.

“We probably sometimes get into issues that maybe would be best left to others but, when we choose certain advocacy positions to take, my experience has been that it has been to be able to fulfill our baptismal covenant to seek and serve Christ in all people and to respect the dignity of every human being,” Jennings said.

The House of Bishops is meeting at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit. Some bishops and others are tweeting about the meeting using the hashtag #hobfall16.

Other ENS coverage is here.

The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


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Comments (16)

  1. John Paddock says:

    John Danforth gave us Clarence Thomas and helped trash Anita Hill. What does he know about prophetic ministry?

    1. Perhaps he felt Clarence Thomas was a good choice for the SCOTUS. BTW, Thomas did far less to trash Ms Hill than Hillary and Bill did to trash Monica and half dozen other women whom predator Bill harassed in his powerful possession while those same women were subordinate to him. Typical positioning for all slick predators. To get an answer for your snarky question, do some bio reading..

    2. Valleri Callahan says:

      Thank you for what you have said. I had thought more of John Danforth prior to his instrumental role in Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court appointment. He encouraged the persecution of a brave woman, Anita Hill, so that his protege would get the job. More than two decades on, this man is still damaging this country. It was shameful. That the Rev. Danforth is a priest in our church does not make any difference. Rather, it seems hypocritical.

  2. Terry Francis says:

    John Paddock, enough of the self-righteous and judgmental platitudes! Funny how whenever someone who is republican/conservative speaks up and tries to make a contribution to this church, you can always count on people like Mr. Paddock to attack that individual. Sad.

    1. MARTHA j Tressler says:

      Thank you!

  3. Doug Desper says:

    “He used the example of a group of clergy that confronted police officers demanding that they publicly repent in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That demand may have felt prophetic, he said, but it prejudged the facts…”

    That really needed saying. Loudly and clearly. The facts (confirmed by the police and independently by the Justice Department) about Michael Brown and his violent acts were wholly ignored by a segment of activists who wanted their own facts regardless of the truth. The investigations concluded that the whole Black Lives Matter story of Michael Brown being executed was a total lie – but it was repeated enough to have credibility with those who wanted it to be so. The leap to ride along with George Soros’ paid agitation groups/rioters like BLM has been a mistake that destroyed the lives of people, not the least of which was Officer Darrin Wilson. Well-meaning but very misled church activists contributed to his resignation and subsequent exodus from larger society as he continues to fear for his life to this day. While there is eagerly available energy for the Church to be called to repent for sins of generations ago I hope that someone prophetic will speak up about the sins of misplaced activism.

  4. Richmond Parker says:

    People are so polarized about everything these days that it is difficult for many to engage in rational discussion of the issues . ” Come , let us reason together . ” Rich

  5. Jerry Emerson says:

    Sign me up!!
    Right on, and we need more thoughful comments like this. Another recent example, in my opinion, was our Episcopal reluctance (perhaps) to support the Franklin Graham crusade praying for our Nation in every State Capital. Praying for our Nation seems overwhelmingly the right thing to do, even if the advocate is of course with all of us, a sinner. So even if Graham is intolerant of us because of our stand on excepting everyone, shouldn’t we be tolerant of his intolerance. IAW if we call him less than Christian, because of his intolerance, aren’t we also quilty of sinning in our judgement of him? Perhaps, or even factually, the Good Samartian even would have disagreed with our Lord’s divinity.

  6. Rachel Weldon says:

    If he truly wants to heal this country why not encourage Episcopalians to stop supporting abortion on demand. There will be no true healing of this nation until the mass murder of pre born children is ended. . The prophetic voice is right in scripture. The problem is not the lack of the prophetic voice. The problem is ignoring it and twisting it to serve sinful human inclinations.

  7. Joel Morris says:

    Tolerate intolerance? Indeed! Yes, we should pray for our nation, but not through the medium of a “hate-filled” organization as the Franklin Graham Crusade. We are fully capable, as Episcopalians, of doing our own praying. This prayers should include praying for increased tolerance of those different than ourselves, the poor and marginalized in our society, and those who would continue to promote racism,intolerance and division in our society. We should pray that the needs of all people in need be met through our institutions with the help of our churches and all people of faith.

  8. Terry Francis says:

    Joel Morris, do you seriously believe that Franklin Graham (along with his father Billy) doesn’t pray for the poor, the marginalized, and the end of racism and intolerance? Calling the Graham organization hate- filled is asinine but not surprising coming from someone like yourself. Evangelists like Graham believe homosexuality is a sin and that scripture supports that. TEC doesn’t agree with that scriptural interpretation. You don’t agree with it. Many others don’t agree with it. Fine. But to call those that do hate mongers doesn’t show a whole lot of Christian virtue on your part my friend. Our Lord and Savior doesn’t love Graham and like-minded people any less because of this issue and he doesn’t love you and like-minded people any more because of the issue. You said that we should pray for, among other things, those that would continue to promote division in our society. Agreed. And I would suggest that you start with yourself. Because calling another group of Christians hate-filled is hardly conducive to ending division. Your kind of rhetoric only promotes more division. “Judge not least ye be judged” doesn’t only apply to fundamentalists and conservative Christians Joel, it also applies to, God forbid, progressives like yourself.

    1. Jerry Emerson says:

      Right on Terry. Calling Graham any kind of name is just like the guy carrying the sign outside Sunday morning calling us names.

  9. Robert M. Hubbard says:

    It’s a shame that apparently you all have missed the most important message contained in his remarks. Giving Bishop Curry the freedom to bring the Episcopal Church to the world is an inspired idea. What a gift we would give to the world.
    Let’s not let our political views get in the way of sound reasoning and our call to bring Christ to the world.

  10. Hugh Hansen, Ph.D. says:

    I am surprised that so much politics has been brought into the Reverend Danfort’s call for a healing ministry for America. The Reverend Danforth is a priest of God. As with any minister he will never please everybody. But he has appealed to us to enter into a national healing ministry. Can we not forget all bitterness of the past and heed this holy challenge? Although I was not of the same party, I have always considered former Senator John Danforth to be a national statesman. I am delighted to be a member of the same church as Reverend John.

  11. Kenneth Knapp says:

    Given that Episcopalians can’t even get along on this thread, I’m not confident of the success of “a healing ministry” to the nation.

  12. Christine Merritt says:

    Excellent. Let us unite to let our voice be heard. Let us spread the gospel of nonviolent resistance and envourage speaking truth to power. I’m rereading Walter Winks’ book: Engaging the Powers and recommend it.

Comments are closed.