[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs] The following opening remarks were presented July 4 by President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson at the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, through July 12.
Happy Fourth of July. I am a big fan of parades and picnics and fireworks. I especially love it when the day can include a baseball game. In fact there is one tonight right across the street in Victory Field. A great thing about a baseball game is that you can arrive late. The game between Indianapolis and the Louisville Bats begins at 6:05 so if you want to come over after the legislative committee meetings, you can buy tickets at Victory Field.
Independence Day in the U.S. — which is the day on which the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence that made the United States independent from Great Britain — this day has particular significance for all Episcopalians. Many Episcopalians gathered here enjoy a rich legacy of fighting for independence in other countries and those other countries that are members of the Episcopal Church, and the flags you see behind me on the monitor pay tribute to those noble struggles. By accident of history, however, our church and its polity came about because the American Revolution severed what James Dator, historian, called “the flimsy ties of ecclesiastical government” (Dator 13) that bound the Anglican churches in the colonies to the Church of England. And by accident and the good fortune of the General Convention Office (getting a better rate on the convention center because of the holiday) we’ve gathered on the national day of the United States. So I want to reflect on that just for a few minutes.
Now it’s not true, as some of us may have learned in confirmation class, that the Founding Fathers of the United States finished with the Constitution and walked across the street to establish the Episcopal Church. But historians have shown us that as you’d expect, because our church and the United States were formed at the same time they were influenced by a “cross-fertilization of ideas” (Dator 15).
In fact, the conditions of the American Revolution are in many ways responsible for the leadership of the laity that is one of the Episcopal Church’s particular gifts. Deputy Tobias Haller writes about this in his essay called “To Govern and to Lead” in the collection Shared Governance. Deputies and diocesan bishops received a copy of it in the mail.
Independence from England meant a break with the authority of the Bishop of London. What’s more, many existing priests were loyal to England and new priests had to travel to England to be ordained. Ordained authority was hard to come by in the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the laity exercised significant leadership. Our first Presiding Bishop, William White, who like Thomas Jefferson was a student of John Locke, became a champion of shared governance by all orders — laypeople, clergy and bishops. His feast day happens to be July 17, after we’ve finished our business and gone home again, so be sure to remember him then.
So it seems auspicious to me that we are beginning this 77th General Convention — in which the structure of the Episcopal Church promises to be one of our principal concerns — that we are beginning on July 4. Just as we celebrate the distinctive democracy of the United States on Independence Day, we should celebrate the distinctive polity of the Episcopal Church that became part of our DNA because of the circumstances of the American Revolution in which our church was born.
But, as many of you may be thinking right now, celebrating July 4 isn’t that straightforward. You don’t have to scratch the surface of July 4 very hard to expose the horrors of colonialism that the United States inherited from Great Britain and continues to impose on so much of the world. You’ll also find in the Declaration of Independence itself evidence of the bigotry and ignorance that led to the Native American genocide for which we have yet to atone or make restitution. And it is impossible to reflect on Independence Day without reflecting on the institution of slavery that so many of our Founding Fathers and their descendants defended to the death.
On July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York, Fredrick Douglass delivered a fiery Fourth of July address that lasted more than an hour. Don’t worry — I’m not going to emulate him, at least in length.
Frederick Douglass, as you may know, was born a slave and escaped to freedom. He became one of this country’s leading abolitionists — the most prominent African American leader of the 19th century—and his writing and oratory served as the conscience of the nation for many years during the struggle to end slavery.
In his famous speech, Douglass spoke for those who were not made independent by Independence Day:
“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
The scourge of African American slavery that Douglass struggled against has ended in this country, but the plagues of racism, oppression, discrimination, violence and poverty have not—not in the United States, and not in any of the other fifteen countries of the Episcopal Church. What we celebrate on July 4th in the United States is an ideal that we have not yet achieved. Douglass’s words still ring true: The blessings in which we, this day, rejoice, are still not enjoyed in common.
As we set about discussing how to restructure the church, we need to remember that the blessings of independence earned through struggle in many countries of the Episcopal Church are not yet enjoyed in common in the church either. We have not yet realized the ideal of shared leadership of laity, clergy and bishops. Too many potential leaders in our church are excluded because people who already have power and access to money, technology, and education enjoy the privileges not available to all of us.
We are a great and diverse body gathered here today, but I know — we all know — that too many voices are still missing. Too few of us gathered here today are poor, or young or people of color. In our idealistic yet imperfect polity, too many voices remain unheard in the councils of the church.
Worse yet, in recent months, it’s even become fashionable in some circles to celebrate the exclusive nature of the church in the name of efficiency — to treat our governance as a lifeboat in which there is precious little room for laypeople and clergy, to question the value of our shared authority to the future of The Episcopal Church, to assert that the diversity of voices in our governance is just much, too loud, too messy, too expensive, and way too big.
It’s been, frankly, a bruising triennium in the councils of the church. But as I read and reflected on Frederick Douglass’s speech, I found that his words steered me toward liberation:
“This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day.”
Now, what Douglass is winding up to say to the people assembled before him in 1852 in Rochester is that their emancipation was not his. The Passover doesn’t really happen for some of us until it happens for all of us. And he was right in his fiery eloquence about the evils of slavery and white privilege. I urge you to read his speech.
But also in his righteous fury, Douglass calls us back to the story of Israel’s liberation. Our true identity, I remembered as I read his speech, is not in being the children of the Founding Fathers, as much good as their Declaration of Independence brought to some of us in this world and in the church. Our identity is that we are the liberated children of God. All of us, all together, are being led toward the Promised Land of God’s reign.
If you’ve followed the conversation about church politics recently, you’ll recognize us in the stories of our forebears who were led out of slavery in Egypt. They went toward the Promised Land, those Israelites, but a lot of the time they went kicking and screaming. “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” “What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14: 11-12)
Let’s be honest. We in the Episcopal Church have been forced to get on the road toward the Promised Land. Some of us are happy about that, because being the institutional church of power and privilege, which we used to be, seemed a lot like being slaves in Egypt. Others of us were doing just fine in Egypt, and we’d be happier going back there. We’re wandering in a wilderness of declining membership and budget reductions and we’re pretty sure that we’re going to die out here.
But there’s no going back to Egypt. We’re on the Promised Land highway, and we’re spending a lot of time acting like the Israelites. We whine, we don’t trust each other, and we try to hoard what we have been given even though it won’t keep. Even though when we take more than we need, it breeds worms and becomes foul. And I’m pretty sure that we can all name some golden calves that we’ve been worshiping.
We need to cut it out. All of us. If we’re going to reach the Promised Land together, in one piece, we need the God-given gifts of everyone who’s on this journey. We need the folks who were slaves in Egypt and the folks who were rulers in Egypt and the folks who weren’t born yet when we left Egypt and the folks who came from other places to be on this road with us.
I am a bit concerned that this recent round of wandering in the wilderness has put at risk our central identity as a people whose democratic decision-making has led us time and time again to take prophetic actions on issues of justice and peace and build strong mission relationships with one another and with our sisters and brothers across the Anglican Communion. I am worried that a false choice between mission and governance will keep us from hearing the voices of all the baptized as we restructure the church and create a budget for it.
It is my prayer that the process of restructuring The Episcopal Church and developing its budget will allow us to listen more closely to people who do not carry important titles or sit in the councils of the church, but who know a great deal — perhaps even more than we do — about how to find our way in the wilderness and how to be the kind of church that God is calling into being.
The great Verna Dozier reminded us that we, the church, are a sleeping giant, and the way to wake ourselves up is to know the Biblical story as our own story and start wrestling with what it has to say about our lives and our path as Christian disciples. “A funny thing happened on the way to the kingdom,” she wrote in The Authority of the Laity. “The church, the people of God, became the church, the institution.”
Here’s what I’m going to do at this General Convention, and I invite you to join me. I’m going to regard the next nine days as one long Bible study in how we, the institutional church, can be more like the people-of-God-church. As we journey in this wilderness — through restructuring and budgets and hearings and resolutions — I am going to keep my face pointed toward the Promised Land where God is calling us, toward the church of the future in which everyone’s voices are heard and everyone’s leadership is valued.
I want to close with a passage from We Are Theologians, a seminal work by Deputy Fredrica Harris Thompsett. Listen carefully — she has wise words for us:
“If our vision of the church is meager or even modest, we have missed the mighty acts of God. If we think of Christians as hopelessly embattled, we have lost our ancestors’ experience of the expansion of God’s reign. If we reject biblical wisdom because we see the Bible used as a tool for legalistic oppression, we have forgotten the gospel’s response to Pharisees, the way in which Jesus’ liberating ministry threatened the religious establishment of his own day. If we think religious complacency and indifference are modern habits, we have overlooked the complaints of the biblical prophets. And if we think the question ‘What does the Bible have to do with my life?’ sheds more light on heaven than on our work on earth, we have lost the creative essence of God’ work.”
In the next nine days, let us be humbled by God’s mighty acts and inspired by God’s creative Spirit. Let us be the people-of-God church, united in our shared leadership and the love and liberation of Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 291)