The following are the opening remarks of President of the House of Deputies the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings given at the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, currently meeting through Feb. 28 at the American Airlines Training & Conference Center, Fort Worth, Texas.
The last time we met, just over three months ago, I said some things. I said some things about standing on the threshold and about longing for change and about embracing our elastic identity.
I said — I looked this up to be sure — that “The world might swirl around us, but we know who we are, and we can stretch our identity to accommodate the changes we need to make.” And I said, “I’m pretty passionate about these huge changes fermenting below the surface of our common life.” “I’m feeling pretty elastic this triennium,” I said, “and I’m ready to get started.”
So, it’s entirely possible that this three-month roller coaster ride we’ve been on was a result of me tempting fate. I said that I was up for some huge changes and a chance to stretch, and apparently the universe heard me. We’ve certainly have had a chance to stretch since November, haven’t we?
First of all, I want to give abundant thanks to God and the doctors and nurses and physical therapists and occupational therapists and Sharon Curry and everyone else responsible for our presiding bishop’s swift return to health after his little mishap. Michael, we are so grateful for your swift and sure recovery and the calm reassurance you gave us, with able assistance from Michael Hunn, all the way along.
Second, I want to commend you all, and especially the staff members here with us and those at home, for the grace and forbearance you have shown during the ongoing investigation into matters that led to three staff members being placed on administrative leave. I’ve been very fortunate to be with staff at several meetings recently, and I am grateful for the considerate ways that you are working with each other and with volunteer leaders of the church to advance our common mission. Thank you for standing on the threshold with such courage.
And third, I want to thank you, Michael, for the wisdom and steadiness with which you guided us all through the recent primates meeting and its aftermath. While confusion reigned and rumors swirled, you helped us understand, to renew, that we are still full members of the Anglican Communion, that our mission relationships with Anglicans across the world are strong, and that what binds us together is far stronger than what threatens to separate us. I will take your spirit with me when I travel to Zambia in April as the Episcopal Church’s clergy representative to the Anglican Consultative Council, where you can be assured that I will participate fully with a glad heart, a strong spirit and pride that the Episcopal Church fully affirms the dignity and worth of all of God’s children, including our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers.
Now, the roller coaster has come to a stop and the full moon is over, and in the next few days together, we’ve got some work to do to bring about those huge changes that we’ve been talking about. Thanks to many of you who have been working very hard since our last meeting, we will be ready at the end of this meeting to approve the budget for 2016 and, by doing so, take concrete steps toward remaking our commitment to evangelism, racial justice and reconciliation, and church planting, and toward supporting more effectively our Latino and Hispanic congregations.
Earlier this month, Bishop Michael and I were part of a meeting that included the officers of both houses of General Convention, several staff members, and several leaders from across the church. Our task was to begin to work on General Convention Resolution C019, titled “Establish Response to Systemic Racial Injustice.” For two days, we prayed, we told our stories to each other, and we reflected on the Episcopal Church’s efforts at racial reconciliation over the past several decades. We have much to be proud of, and much to be ashamed of, and a great deal of reason to change. You’ll hear more about that work tomorrow when Stephanie Spellers, our new canon for evangelism and reconciliation, facilitates a conversation about these initiatives.
I want to emphasize just one thing: At that meeting, those of us gathered got really clear that the church’s work in racial justice and reconciliation is to play our part in creating the Beloved Community. That’s a phrase we’ve all heard around the church, but this hard, hard work of racial justice and reconciliation gives us a chance to dig deep in what it really means, and how a vision of the Beloved Community can transform us. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the person who first brought the term “Beloved Community” into popular use, and the King Center’s website provides some context for what he meant when he offered it to us not just as a vision, but as a very real goal:
“For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony,” writes the King Center. “Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.”
I’ve been thinking about the Beloved Community, and I know that many of you have been thinking about it even more and for longer than I have, although I will tell you that my senior thesis at Colgate University in 1974 was about the impact of Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology on the theology, witness, and ministry of Dr. King.
It almost certainly will have occurred to you, as it has to me, that this is going to take some work. The world we live in does not shower us with examples of practices that will help us to become the Beloved Community, and it does not reward generously attempts to cultivate it in our midst. We don’t entirely know how to begin, even here and now. Our own world here at Executive Council is not settled. We are unsure about the future. Some of us are fearful, some of us are wounded, and I suspect that all of us know that the institutional church that we have been elected to lead does not have all of the answers we need or all of the resources that are required. And I’m not just talking about money.
But God calls us to be the Beloved Community anyway. We’re called to listen to each other—in ways that maybe we’ve forgotten how to listen—and we’re called to act on our belief that the Beloved Community can be brought closer by the way we make decisions, by the way we spend money, by the way we extend trust to one another and practice forgiveness with one another. Even when—especially when—it is hard.
We don’t have the luxury of waiting until the roller coaster ride ends to make the changes we need to make. Dr. King said this: “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.” We have an enormous opportunity to be agents of justice and reconciliation. We had the mountaintop moments we needed to get going last summer at General Convention. And now we have the sacred responsibility to carry out that commitment into the everyday work of leading the Episcopal Church. And we should know going into this work, that it will not always come naturally and will surely be a growing edge, especially for those who have lived and enjoyed white privilege.
Listen to what Howard Thurman said about growing edges:
Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge. It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men and women have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. Such is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge.
I look forward to being edgy with you and count it an honor to work alongside you.