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Bishop’s Address to the 22nd Convention

posted November 12, 2016

Written by Katie Forsyth

The following was delivered to the 22nd Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan on November 11, 2016 in Gaylord, Michigan.

A little over ten years ago I was consecrated as Bishop Coadjutor of this diocese with the responsibility to continue learning and growing in preparation for fulfilling the office of Bishop Diocesan on January 1, 2007. Immediately following the consecration, I began a promised Listening Tour of the diocese with weekday and weekend stops at 54 congregations, 4 Convocation Councils and 4 Clericus gatherings. The purpose, as I had promised, was deep and holy listening. An opportunity to hear your hopes and dreams, your deepest longings, your hurts, your frustrations and your desires to live more fully into the promises of our Baptismal Covenant. That process took more than the anticipated 100 days to complete but I came away with a more profound understanding of who is the Diocese of Eastern Michigan and what you stand for. I saw a people:

  • Committed to your faith with amazing resilience in very tough places to be Church
  • Surviving, if not flourishing, in the midst of economic scarcity and demographic decline
  • Committed to local, grassroots, self-determination and suspicious of centralized authority
  • Trapped in perspectives of scarcity over abundance
  • Seeking leadership that could point us all in a new direction and toward renewed hope

Ten years ago, George W. Bush was in the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the Senate, Bernie Sanders was a little-known Senator from Vermont, and Donald J. Trump was a self-proclaimed billionaire real estate mogul hosting a reality TV show. Few, if any of us, had heard of Senator Barack Obama and the Tea Party was something that happened in Boston a long time ago. The Great Recession was an unanticipated economic collapse two years in our future and the near-death of the U.S. automotive industry was unimaginable. Within the Episcopal Church, we had just witnessed the installation of the first woman as Presiding Bishop and Primate. Persons of the same gender were not allowed to marry. The Chicago Cubs hadn’t won a World Series in 98 years.

What a difference ten years makes.

What a difference ten years makes.

Over these past ten years, this nation elected Barack Obama as the first black President, we’ve survived the Great Recession if not completely recovered, we’ve elected the first Presiding Bishop who is African-American, and marriage is now legal in all 50 states for two persons regardless of gender and all marriages may be blessed in the Episcopal Church. The Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series in 9 days. And Donald J. Trump is now our President-elect.

Within the Diocese of Eastern Michigan, these past ten years have seen a decline in membership and Average Sunday Attendance. We are now 45 congregations on our way very quickly to 43. Annual congregational giving has declined making financial viability increasingly difficult for an increasing number of congregations. Our population continues to decline and Michigan demographics show us growing older while losing our young to opportunities in other parts of the country. The reality of our communities and our churches is one that ought make all of us pause.

The reality of our communities and our churches is one that ought make all of us pause.

So let’s do that. Let’s pause and take stock.

Who are we today compared to who we were ten years ago?

A few years ago, I floated the idea — based on my observations from that long-ago Listening Tour and from conversations and interactions in the interim — that we are a “People of Hope in a Culture of Fear.” That notion resonated with many of you and it has been and remains a way for me to understand the complexities, paradoxes and challenges of being the Diocese of Eastern Michigan. The notion that we are “in a culture of fear” is even clearer to me today than it was just four days ago. Much of what drove the US electorate and what informs us within this diocese is fear — fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of change, fear of financial instability, and fear that the Church may not be there for us at the most important moments of our lives. Yet, in the midst of all this fear we remain a people of hope.

Yes, we are a people of hope. And we are a people whose lives are nourished by a relationship with a God who is, in the words of our Presiding Bishop, “loving, liberating and life-giving.” It is this God on whom all our hope is founded.

It is this God on whom all our hope is founded.

We live that hope by:

  • Risking experimentation with models of ministry that move us beyond the safety and certainty of traditional models. Whether an embrace of Baptismal Ministry in the form of congregationally-formed teams of lay and clergy, shared ministry with locally-formed clergy through the Coppage-Gordon School for Ministry and its tri-diocesan collaboration in the Academy for Vocational Leadership , or a willingness to explore beyond canonical boundaries in eucharistic communities with only occasional clergy leadership, we explore and we stretch in order to be both viable and vital in our local contexts.
  • Striving to overcome seemingly impossible financial hurdles to offer life-changing summer camp experiences to our young people. Participation in the multiple offerings for children, youth, families and groups at Camp Chickagami are at historic highs while financial viability remains a very real concern.
  • Growing our capacity and willingness to confront issues of justice. The Social Ministries Justice Network and the Lower Peninsula Diversity Task Force continue to work faithfully to lead us into fulfilling our baptismal promises to “strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.”
  • Engaging individual and group study of holy scriptures. Over the course of the past two years individuals and groups from across this diocese, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion have joined in a weekly encounter with Holy Scripture, The Biblical Wild, designed to make connections between God’s narrative and the narrative of our own lives.
  • Loving our neighbors through partnerships and creative response during the ongoing Flint Water Crisis. With leadership from St. Paul’s Flint, St. Andrew’s Flint, Christ Enrichment Center and Crossover Downtown Ministries, we have partnered with the Flint community and Episcopal Relief and Development to respond not only with stop-gap measures of bottled-water provision and water filtration devices, but also initiated programs of food literacy and community organizing that have drawn national attention to the devastating effects of environmental racism and systemic injustice.
  • Recognizing that we are stronger together than we are apart. Conversations began almost two years ago inviting congregations in the Blue Water area to imagine possibilities for collaborative ministries. Those conversations have led to a surprising and creative decision by All Saints’ Marysville, St. Paul’s St. Clair and St. Mark’s Marine City to acknowledge that the future of their separate ministries would be immeasurably enhanced by combining resources and taking the bold initiative to close their individual congregations and become one Episcopal presence in southern St. Clair County. This Blue Water Initiative holds much promise for other parts of the diocese where we can indeed by stronger together than we are apart.

We are indeed a people of hope in a culture of fear.

But what can we say about our future?

Maintaining and building on our hope will serve us well. But more is required of us. 1 John 4:18 says “perfect love casts out all fear.” And 1 Corinthians 13:13 reminds us that “faith, hope and love abide but the greatest of these is love.” Love is indeed the answer.

Love is indeed the answer.

I began this address by reminding us of our beginnings together — a period of deep and holy listening to one another. It was a time of setting aside preconceptions and misconceptions. It was a time of gathering together in our various neighborhoods all across this great Diocese of Eastern Michigan to discover possibilities and hopes and dreams. It was a time to reassure you that together we could chart new territory and explore new possibilities. It was a time to renew our covenant with one another to walk faithfully in challenging and sometimes alien territory. It was a time to lay aside our fears and to risk a deeper relationship with one another and imagine a brighter future as a diocese.

Today, we live and move and have our being in a world characterized by division, destructive rhetoric, demonizing of the other and callous disregard for those whose opinions differ. This is not the Christian way, the Episcopal way or the American way. Let us once again be so bold and be so faithful as to set aside our fear and go into our neighborhoods to listen to one another, honor one another and love one another. Our attendance may not increase, our finances may not increase, our challenges will not go away, but by truly listening to one another, we are seeking and serving Christ in one another and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We are a people of hope in a culture of fear and we know that love is the answer.

We are a people of hope in a culture of fear and we know that love is the answer.

May God continue to bless us in all our ways.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Todd Ousley
II Bishop of Eastern Michigan