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Bishop’s Address to Diocesan Convention – November 3, 2012

Good morning. As we gather for our Diocesan Convention business session, I want to begin by offering a few words of thanksgiving as a prelude to my Convention Address. So many people have been involved in the preparation and execution of this Convention that I cannot begin in any other way.  One more reason why I grow more grateful with each new year I serve as your bishop.  To name names is to run the risk of forgetting someone, so with some rare exceptions, I invite you to join me in thanking people by category and group. At the end of my acknowledgements I will invite them all to stand so you can join me in expressing your gratitude.

First on the list is the wonderful Convention Planning Team that has worked tirelessly to help organize the Ministry Fairs and the phenomenal programs in which so many of you participated yesterday. They totally embraced the theme of this Convention: “What about Jesus?” and engaged some gifted and talented members of our diocesan family to offer inspiring workshops at the Ministry Fairs, worked with Bishop Curry to plan the events held yesterday and had a hand in shaping just about every aspect of this Convention. We thank them and all the workshop leaders for the magnificent gift of their time and talent.

We also thank the Dispatch of Business Committee for their year-round oversight and planning for Diocesan Convention. And we offer a special shout out to Jim Larkin, Convention Secretary Emeritus, who has continued to guide and put the Dispatch of Business Committee through its paces. Jim, as many of you know, is at home recovering from triple by-pass surgery and he sends his best to us, even as we send our love and prayers to him.

Next on my list to thank are the host sites for our Ministry Fairs: Saint Paul’s, White River Junction; Holy Trinity, Swanton; and Saint Peter’s, Bennington and all the local parish volunteers who provided such wonderful hospitality to us. Likewise, we say thanks to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, to its remarkable staff and to the many Cathedral volunteers who always make us feel at home in “our Cathedral.” This includes the Taizé leadership team who led us in our worship last evening, as well as the Vermont Chapter of the Episcopal Church and the Visual Arts who have arranged for the stunning display of art work on the walls around us, all based on the theme of our Convention – “What about Jesus?”

Now, perhaps you’ve noticed that there is a slightly “younger” feel to our assembly this morning. That is because of the presence of young people from our diocese who are participating in a Retreat this weekend at the Bishop Booth Conference Center. I’ll have a bit more to say about their ministry in our diocese later in my Address, but for now I want to include a word of thanks for their presence among us, and for the leadership team of adults who have worked to offer this opportunity for them to gather and share in the theme of our Convention.

Next, I want to acknowledge and thank the members of the diocesan Ministry Support Team, both those in the office at Rock Point and those whose ministry is a bit more itinerant. These gifted and talented women and men with whom I have the joy and privilege of working truly give their all to support the life, work and ministry of our diocese and its congregations. Nowhere is that more felt than in the work they do to help make Convention and your experience of Convention a positive one.
And then there are the talented folks whose efforts make the technical side of our Convention run smoothly: our A/V technicians, Tony and Peter; the good folks from Channel 17; and Chris Carr from Episcopal Divinity School with whom we are in partnership for the editing and distributing of the several offerings made by Bishop Curry. We’ll send you more information about how to access that material.

I’m sure I’ve left some out in this expression of gratitude, for which I apologize, but will those whom I’ve identify by name, categories or group please stand so we can honor and thank you. (Applause)

I also want to thank you, the clergy and lay delegates to this Convention for your presence and your preparation. Thank you for caring enough about our common life as a diocese and the important connection between local and diocesan ministries to offer your time to this enterprise of our shared life and governance.

And, of course, I invite you to join me in thanking our honored guest, the eleventh bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, the Right Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, for his witness and ministry among us.

As some of you know, I’ve been working to bring Bishop Curry to Vermont for over four years. He’s a very popular guy, and now you know why, but it also took him four years to rearrange his schedule with his Diocesan Altar Guild in order to be with us. That, plus I had to convince him that we wouldn’t have a blizzard while he was here. I promised nothing about hurricanes! In any event, Michael, we are deeply grateful for the gift of your time, your teaching, your preaching and your wonderful and engaging presence among us these past two days. Please thank the good people of the Diocese of North Carolina for sharing you with us. We are indeed blessed because of it. (Applause)

For my Convention Address this year, I decided to have a little fun and, since theater is a favorite passion of mine, to frame it as a play.  As many of you know, I love theater; my undergraduate degree is in speech and theater; and before coming to Vermont I was quite often spotted on the stage of various community theatre productions in Connecticut. So, I hope you’ll grant me some license in the framing of my Convention Address as a Play in four Acts.

I call it The Life and Times of the Episcopal Church in Vermont. I’m not going to act out the scenes of this play, but rather use the four acts of this potential Tony Award winning masterpiece as an outline and let your imaginations consider what it might look like as a Broadway production, or maybe even a musical extravaganza. To help introduce each act, I ask you to join in the singing of one stanza from a familiar hymn that I think sets the tone for each act. And so, without further ado, on with the show!

Act One: I call this act Stormy Weather, and invite you to sing one stanza of Hymn #665.

The plot for this act centers on the literal and figurative storms that have been part of our life as a diocese these past several years. Most obvious among them is Tropical Storm Irene and the incredible response this diocese has made in the face of that disaster.

With the help of Episcopal Relief and Development, our Diocesan Irene Response Team, and the generous outpouring of human and financial resources of the people of our diocese, we have been and continue to be witnesses to the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus in the face of challenging circumstances. We have stood by neighbors and strangers in need in so many important and helpful ways. While we have not done it for any reward of recognition, the truth is that our ministries have not gone unnoticed and as your bishop I am extremely proud.

Irene is not the only storm affecting the life of our diocese these past several years. The economic crisis our country is experiencing has had its impact on our congregations and many of our members. This has meant reductions in some parish revenues, as well as less money available for diocesan ministries.  As a result, we have seen changes in the composition of diocesan Ministry Support Team and in our capacity to fund certain ministries. Mindful that we are called to be servants, congregations have nonetheless continued their generous efforts at local and global outreach. This is to your great credit!

We have also experienced the storms of transition in our life as a diocese as congregations face new challenges of faithfulness to the Gospel in difficult times. Some of you engaged this reality in the process of calling of new clergy leadership, and we thank you for calling the wonderful new clergy who have come among us.

Some of you are engaging these challenges as you face changing demographics in your local communities and in your church family. Some of you are struggling right now with the prospect of calling new clergy leadership for a changing church. Some of you are exploring new models for shared leadership. Some of you are just trying to keep going. Wherever you are in those struggles, take heart you are not alone. You are part of a larger church community.

I take heart and rejoice in the voices who have come among us, like Anthony Robinson and Tom Bracket, and your embrace of their teaching and the way they engage in serious reflection upon the “sea changes” we are experiencing in this time of “post-everything.” I am grateful for the thoughtful and direct way in which so many in our congregations have grappled with these new realities and have resisted the temptation to fall back upon conventional answers and patterns to the challenges we face. It is not easy living in the “already, but not yet” of all this as we seek to discover what it means and looks like to be disciples of Jesus Christ in a new era. I want to acknowledge the struggle of that reality and encourage you keep faith as we make our way across rough and unchartered seas.

There is one other theme I want to name in relation to our struggle to face the reality of the stormy weather that we have experienced these past few years in the Diocese of Vermont.  That is the huge issue of connection.

At one level, Irene taught us everything we need to know about this subject in terms of how effective we are as a diocese when we are connected and committed to a common cause. On the other side of the ledger we have the report of the Capital Campaign Discernment process presented at the Special – “pre-Irene” Convention in June of 2011, where we heard of a deep sense of disconnect throughout our diocese.

Later in this Convention you will hear how Diocesan Council, and the diocesan Ministry Support Team, have responded to that sense of disconnect. The point I want to make here is that both realities are true. We are at one level deeply connected and at another not so much. The personal commitment of every one of us in this room will be required in order for the people of our congregations to experience this diocese as a family, connected and sharing a common ministry. I know from experience that when we join hands in that fashion we are a powerful witness for God’s mission in the world. 

One area in which we are working hard to deepen this sense of connection is in our ministry of communication. From one angle, the retirement of Anne Brown as our diocesan Minister of Communications left a huge hole. I am most grateful for her years of devoted service to our diocese and for her support to me personally. We’ll have an opportunity to thank her more formally for her ministry later in the day. From a different perspective, however, Anne’s retirement opens up for us the possibility of reimagining our communications ministry, a process begun under her tenure, but now of even more urgency.

I have assembled a great group of folks to help shape and re-imagine the direction of our communications ministry going forward, and would welcome others with interest in this area to join us. This working group is already planning some good things, among them opportunities to hear from you about your thoughts, hopes, ideas and inspirations for this area of our common life and ministry. So please be patient and please stay tuned. You’ll hear about one initiative later today.

Whenever I think about stormy seas or stormy weather, I take comfort in the Gospel narratives and their presentation of Jesus as our steady companion during such rough and uncertain voyages. And so with that reminder I bring the curtain down on Act One, “Stormy Weather,” in “The Life and Times of the Episcopal Church in Vermont

The working title for Act Two is “Let the Sun/Son Shine In.” We begin by singing the first stanza of hymn #511.  

The plot for this act is built around some of the amazing ways I think God is at work in our midst. One powerful symbol of this for me is the Solar Farm Installation on Rock Point, through which the Sun is literally being harvested for good, and offering in our midst a steady reminder of the importance of new ways of thinking and acting as people of faith. I think Jesus, the Son, is likewise inviting us into new ways of thinking and acting as people of faith in our day and time.

To my way of thinking, that invitation is nowhere more profoundly before us than in the presence and witness of the young people who have gathered this weekend at Rock Point to engage the theme of this Convention – “What about Jesus?” One of the great joys and privileges of being your bishop is that I get to spend time each summer with the young people who attend the Rock Point Summer Camps. We’ll hear from Camp Director, Jenny Ogelby, a little later in the day. This year, with General Convention underway, those times at camp were somewhat limited for me, and I really missed being there as often as I wished. Thankfully, I was able to be there several times and in particular for two visits with the Senior High Camps at which some of the young people here today were present. During those visits (apart from their favorite game of “Stump the Bishop”) I was deeply moved by the depth of their conversations with one another and with me.
On one occasion they were struggling with the whole issue of bullying. On another occasion they wanted to talk about ways they could put their faith into action. Some of them acted on that interest and with the help of some caring adults in our diocese they have begun EAT – Episcopal Action Teens, their latest project being to assist the Vermont Food Bank by “gleaning” the fields of a farm in Craftsbury, Vermont.  I’m very proud of these young people and the faith example they set for us. They are not looking back on what the church was, or might have been. They are looking to what the church is and is becoming in the changing reality of the world in which they will be called to lead.

It is in that same spirit that this Convention has before it a bold initiative called “Stirrings of the Spirit.” Behind this effort lies the recognition, both written about and publically spoken about by folks like Anthony Robinson, Phyllis Tickle, Tom Brackett, Diana Butler-Bass, Rick Warren and so many others, that we are in a period of “sea change” in the life of the Christian church, indeed in the life of all religions. This new period calls us to re-imagine how we bring the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in fresh ways into a very different cultural context and reality than most of us have ever known.

We are reminded by these engaging authors that it is not “our fault” that we are where we are, but that it is our “problem” in the sense that we are being called to rethink, to re-envision, and to reshape the way we think about being church. That doesn’t mean throwing out the treasures of our faith, but it does means clearing out some of the clutter to make way for new possibilities.

“Stirrings of the Spirit” seeks to engage us in exploring some of those possibilities and, in the tradition of history’s great explorers and experimenters, to risk trying new things for the sake of what is imagined, but not yet fully known. The Bible is full of stories of such people of faith, beginning with Abraham and Sarah and continuing right through the witness of the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul and other New Testament exemplars of the hope and possibility that God’s “new thing” is always on the verge of springing forth, inviting us to perceive it and to claim it in the service of God’s own mission.

Later in this Convention, we will be invited to consider more fully this proposal in a resolution Diocesan Council is bringing before us. I ask you to give this proposal your support, not because I think it is the answer to all our struggles, but because I think it is a faithful response to where God is calling us to sail in the midst of the present stormy seas of our day and time.

There are ways, I am convinced, to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the un-churched, the de-churched, the seeker and the so called “spiritual but not religious” of our day. I don’t know all those ways, or even any of them with certainty, but I do know that among us are those with imagination and the willingness to try new ways of offering fresh expressions to the Christian life and faith, and that we do well to support them in their efforts.

With that, let me move us to Act Three, which I have titled “If I were a Rich Man.” I invite you to open Act Three by singing one stanza of Hymn #397, “Now thank we all our God.”

This act in “The Life and Times of the Episcopal Church in Vermont” is about our stewardship and generous response to all that God has given us. Human and financial resources are essential to our effectiveness as a diocese and to our faithful participation in God’s own mission. Our stewardship theology always begins from the perspective of abundance and gratitude:

Abundance: witnessed in God’s love most     fully manifest in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and continually being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit at work in and through us;

Gratitude: evidenced in the gifts and skills with which God has blessed each of us and in the other resources over which we exercise stewardship in service to God’s Mission.

I have witnessed this generous spirit in countless ways during my 12 years as your bishop. Nowhere was that spirit more evident than in our response to Irene and the ingathering for Haiti at last year’s Convention. I have witnessed this generous and thankful heart of the people of our diocese in response to the Annual Appeal these past two years, an appeal for which we continue to invite your financial support through the end of this calendar year. I have witnessed this generous love in your many ministries of outreach at the local and global level. And I say thank you for that witness.

Beginning in 2013, we propose to make a major shift in how we approach the funding of our diocesan budget and mission priorities. You have heard about the Alleluia Fund and later today you will be asked to vote for its creation as we adopt the 2013 Diocesan Budget. This is one of several ways in which Diocesan Council has responded to the recommendation from the Special June 2011 Convention to establish a more collaborative approach to fund raising. The Alleluia Fund will be a partnership with all our congregations, as well as other individuals interested in supporting certain ministry priorities that are best done on a diocesan-wide basis.

You have seen the brochure and the description of the Alleluia Fund in the Narrative Budget, and so you know that the priorities for this Fund in 2013 are Rock Point Summer Camp, the Rock Point Property, the Cathedral Chapter, the Stirrings of the Spirit proposal (if adopted), various Earth Stewards initiatives, Youth Ministry, and increased support for local and global outreach and social justice ministries. The goal for 2013 is $60,000 and I believe that our collaborative support for the Alleluia Fund means that we can raise far more than that and increase our support for these and other ministries even more.

The question before this Convention today is will you embrace this collaborative approach to funding our mission? Will we be an Easter people proclaiming “Alleluia” in response to these important ministries? Will you take this initiative back to your congregations and be champions for it?

Our whole budget process this year has been one of increased collaboration in which many of you have participated. The priorities established reflect what we heard from you. I hope you hear your voice in this work. Moving particular diocesan-wide ministries into the Alleluia Fund, not only increases the potential for increased revenue for these ministries, but it enables us to stabilize the other components of the Diocesan Budget and avoid further reductions in the diocesan Ministry Support Team and our support of congregations.

I hope you have reviewed the document sent to you outlining how the diocesan Ministry Support Team supports the mission priorities established by Council. I think it is an informative and helpful document to share with your Vestries and congregations in order for them to gain a better understanding of the work of the diocesan Ministry Support Team. I commend it to you.

Other collaborative efforts underway in the area of financial stewardship include work on establishing a planned giving program for the diocese that will encourage and support legacy giving to congregations, as well as to the diocese at large. We are also continuing the work begun by the Capital Campaign Discernment Committee and our Special Convention in June 2011 to try and address some of the long term capital needs of our diocese and congregations. You received a written report from Diocesan Council about that work and later you will hear from Council members directly.

Most of these efforts are aimed at our ongoing institutional efforts to support and fund the work we believe God is calling us to do as the Episcopal Church in Vermont and beyond. However, the economic realities of the larger world and God’s call to us to be champions of God’s justice in the world compel us to think and plan not only for our own institutional life, but also for the needs of God’s world and all its people, and to be good stewards of God’s creation.

Clearly environmental justice and stewardship concerns are an important dimension of that call, and I like to think we have this as a high priority, both locally and as a diocese. I am grateful for that witness. I am also grateful for our witness here in Vermont and the wider Episcopal Church as champions of the dignity and equal rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons.

Many among us believe that witness needs to extend into other realms of our common life. Issues of economic justice, income inequality, just immigration laws, food production and the future of family farms are among the many arenas in which I believe Jesus is calling us to exercise our discipleship for the well-being of all. Yesterday afternoon’s Forum raised our awareness of the realities of income inequality in our country and the need for people of faith to work for change. I hope you will take up the invitation issued yesterday to help realize God’s dream and to seek for more and deeper ways of engaging in God’s reconciling justice work as people of faith. (End of Act Three)

I have titled the final act in my play, The Life and Times of the Episcopal Church in Vermont, “Tomorrow.” It is the act not yet written, but much anticipated. It is the act that will unfold as we move forward together in faith and in response to God’s invitation to participate in God’s own mission for and to the world.

We are called not just to think about Jesus, not just listen to Jesus, and not just to worship Jesus. We are called to follow Jesus. The very Paschal Mystery of his living, dying and rising is the very pattern we enact in our Eucharistic celebration and are called to live as the baptized Body of Christ. Our narrative budget refers to this life as VERVE, Vermont Episcopalians Responding Via Engagement, and that same Narrative Budget proclaims, Together, we are the Episcopal Church in Vermont.

My commitment is to walk with you, together, into and beyond the horizon of what our eyes can now see, our ears can now hear, our minds can now think and our hearts can now feel. Jesus is leading the way. The Holy Spirit is our companion. We are indeed Christ’s Body, Christ’s hands and feet and eyes in the world. May God consecrate and bless our walking together in the power of that love.

The Hymn for this final and unfolding act and the note upon which this Address ends is Hymn #707.

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