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Becoming a Gracious Community: A Pastoral Letter to the Diocese

posted February 8, 2017

Written by The Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley

The following Pastoral Letter was charged to the clergy and leaders of the diocese to be read in the congregations on the Sixth Sunday of the Epiphany, being February 12, 2017.


“[The Lord] created humankind in the beginning, and . . . left them in the power of their own free choice. If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”

— Ecclesiasticus 15:14-15

Beloved in Christ,

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I greet you as one whose heart is filled with the joy that comes from being “. . . convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). I also greet you as one whose heart is heavy in the midst of national division, increasing rhetoric of hate, profound misunderstandings of one another, and our inability to sustain levels of civil discourse that are fundamental to both Christian community and the continuing experiment of American democracy.

In 2017, we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis in our national life built on the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These civic values reflect the common themes of the life of faith: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives, recovery of sight for the blind and letting the oppressed go free (see Luke 4:18). As people of faith, we are bound by covenants between one another and with God. As citizens, we are bound by the rule of law and respect for our most fundamental covenantal agreements: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The challenge as Christians, Episcopalians, and U.S. citizens, is to maintain our faithfulness to multiple allegiances with a clear understanding that our primary allegiance is to God through faithfulness to the promises we made in our baptism and an openness to the sometimes inconvenient challenges of the Holy Spirit.

Over the course of our most recent election season and in the three weeks of this presidency, the political and religious landscape has been marred by politics of fear, rhetoric of hate, callous disregard for entire groups of people and unbridled disregard for truth. In the depths of our own frustration, fear, and blindness, we have been unable to love our neighbor without reservation. All in leadership in this diocese and all who claim this part of the Episcopal Church as their spiritual home, are duty-bound to engage in self-examination and to ask forgiveness for their transgressions of disrespect and disregard for the dignity of every human being through their words and/or their actions. Our collective disregard for the other is at the heart of the sin and the separation that we all share in this Church and, I daresay, it is at the heart of the sin of our nation.

In order to rise from the fear and the despair, the anger and the frustration, the hate and the widening civic and church divisions, we must offer a word of hope.

In order to rise from the fear and the despair, the anger and the frustration, the hate and the widening civic and church divisions, we must offer a word of hope. For without hope, we cannot truly call ourselves Christian. Indeed, it is impossible to fully claim our heritage without dwelling in faith, hope and love (see I Corinthians 13:13). For assistance in claiming our heritage, let us turn to that classic Anglican formulation of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as the sources of our authority.

The entirety of Holy Scripture can be summarized as an ongoing revelation of a God who loves, creates, and both invites and restores relationship. It is a story of a God who promises to be faithful and invites our faithfulness in return. From the covenant with Abraham, to the Sinai covenant during the Exodus wanderings, through the time of the Prophets and ultimately to the time of Jesus and the Apostles, God has given us love and faithfulness and asks nothing but love and faithfulness in return. This love and faithfulness is repeatedly demonstrated through the demand to love our neighbor, welcome the stranger, and care for the widows, orphans and aliens among us.

Our Tradition is manifest most clearly in our sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist. In baptism we promise to continue in the faith, repent or return when we have strayed from faithfulness, to share the Good News in word and deed, to seek Christ in all persons, love our neighbors as ourselves, strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being. As our Presiding Bishop is known to say, “All means All.”

As our Presiding Bishop is known to say, ‘All means All.’

This is no easy life. We all stray like lost sheep and yet the Shepherd calls us all back.

In Holy Eucharist we are continually invited to share in the heavenly banquet that has been prepared for us. It is a partaking in Christ’s Body and Blood in order that we might be strengthened to live the seemingly impossible baptismal life — a life of gracious hospitality as we gather around the table as both stranger and friend.

Reason accounts for the rich diversity of opinion in our Anglican tradition. It both enriches and challenges our common life. It allows us to enter into holy paradox — a sacred space of holding two seemingly contradictory understandings in tension — while not allowing the tension to break our unity and respect for one another. It allows us to be flexible and not break, to include and not exclude while maintaining the integrity of our apostolic faith.

There are clear issues within our national life that deserve attention by people of faith: government transparency, national security, responses to domestic and international terrorism, healthcare provision and/or access, women’s rights to self-determination about their bodies, financial regulation and reform, environmental protection, the role of a free press, judicial independence, and many others. None of these issues have clear answers upon which we will all agree. Not all require significant attention by the Church but all have dimensions of faith.

Ecclesiasticus reminds us that we have been gifted by God with the power of free choice. May we choose to be a gracious community of listening hearts and welcoming tables.

The Right Reverend Todd Ousley
II Bishop
Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan
 
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 12, 2017