Bishop’s Charge to Synod

Diocese of the South.  April 26, 2018

The late Poet Laureate of England, Sir John Betjeman, wrote many years ago a biographical poem called Summoned by Bells, with which some of you will be familiar.  In this poem Betjeman writes, of his conversion to the Anglo-Catholic faith during his university days at Oxford, as follows:

I learned at Pusey House the Catholic faith.

Friends of those days, now patient parish priests,

By worldly standards you have not ‘got on’

Who knelt with me as Oxford sunlight streamed

On some colonial bishop’s broidered cope.

Some know for all their lives that Christ is God,

Some start upon that arduous love affair

In clouds of doubt and argument; and some

(My closest friends) seem not to want His love –

And why this is I wish to God I knew.

I too wish to God I knew.  In some cases, of course, we do know or can make a reasonable guess.  We know that some people have been turned from God – or what may or may not be a different matter – turned from God’s Church by us and by our own failure:  by misbehaving clergy or an unkind fellow parishioner or an evident disconnection between our proclamation and our practice or by simple inattention.  For others the problem is some trauma or suffering which has convinced them of God’s unconcern for them or theirs.  Sometime perhaps there has simply been a lack of opportunity, a failure of anyone ever to present the gospel in a sensible and attractive manner.  In these cases, we can only try to stop being an obstacle ourselves and pray that God will untie the knots that otherwise seem beyond our skill or ability to loosen.

But while we sometimes can see at least some of the roots of unbelief, in many other cases it is difficult to discern any ‘why’, any reason for the indifference of the world.  In purely pragmatic terms, there is very ample sociological and social science data showing that church-going helps.  Church-goers do better in school, do better in their jobs, and are happier than those who are detached from organized religion.  Moreover, the evidence strongly suggests that there is a causal relationship between being churched and doing well:  that is, it is not that people who are successful or succeeding are more likely to go to church, but rather that going to church helps people succeed, again, in pragmatic, worldly terms.

This contention, of course, will not surprise you or me.  We can see how church provides ‘social capital’ – a network of formal and informal mutual care and support.  In a society that beyond the family unit is increasingly segregated by age, churches tend to be the rare multi-generational communities that extend beyond the family:  where folks in assisted living can hold a baby and smile at toddlers; where teenaged boys can find wholesome male models; where people can sing and cook together; where a single mother can find some respite and support; and, of course, where we all can learn something about patience and forgiveness and generosity and kindness.  I hope we see many of these good things in our congregations.  We understand this.   So quite often we still are left with Betjeman’s ‘why’:  why are so many even of our own friends and family members so indifferent?

Let us consider T.S. Eliot’s warning against doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  In the end, fundamentally, the world’s indifference cannot be overcome by the pragmatic, utilitarian value of Church and church community.  All of the good things I’ve just mentioned are in general true, though of course some individuals always will have a different experience and will fall outside the general tendencies.  But even if many people much of the time come to church for such practical reasons, these reasons are not enough.  God tells us that he is a jealous God, and he calls for our fundamental loyalty and love above all other things.  He does not say, ‘Love me a little, because it is good for you.’  Rather he says, ‘I am the one great good without whom nothing else is good; I am the one love without whom all other loves are transitory and inadequate; I am that I am, your king and your God.’  Church is not a club that is good for us.  Church is the place where we are meant to encounter the love that moves the stars and the heavens, the Sacred Heart that is the source and goal of everything that we are.

On the pulpit at Saint Hilda’s, Atlanta, Father Hoger used to have a card directed at the preacher which quoted St. John’s Gospel:  ‘Sir, we would see Jesus.’  Our churches do not succeed as they should because we have failed to show Jesus.  I do not say because we have obscured Jesus, though sometimes we have, but because we have failed to proclaim and persuade, to teach and to cajole and to love, in a way that firmly converts souls and makes Christians.  That is our task.  We are supposed to make Christians.  Our Church is not called to save the United States or correct the social system or make the world safe for democracy or to cure malaria or improve American food or do a million other things, many of which are perfectly admirable.  Our particular vocation is simply to make Christians:  to convert people, baptize them, care for them with the sacramental system, teach them, help them as they seek to live according to what the faith has taught them.  One by one, we are supposed to be doing this for individuals through our churches.  If our parishes and missions are growing, we are succeeding.  If our parishes and missions are not growing, then we are not succeeding.  And if we are not succeeding, then we should ask ourselves – I should ask myself – do I love God enough myself?  Is my heart converted as it should be?  How can I be a better Christian, priest, deacon, or parishioner so as to be an attractive model to those around me?

With that said, the year past in our diocese has been mixed.  The parish reports to the diocese are extremely muddled, as we will see later today, but the general impression is that membership has been static.  Some places have grown a bit, some have shrunk, but the net result is roughly flat.

The main event in the past year was certainly the October Joint Synods in Atlanta which marked an exciting step towards unity with the Anglican Church in America, the Anglican Province of America, the Diocese of the Holy Cross, and our own ACC.  To get an idea of what full communion with these four groups means, consider northern and middle Georgia.  Our diocese has congregations in Macon, Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Marietta, and Gainesville.  To these six, the ACA brings S. George’s in Columbus and the APA brings Douglasville, Jonesboro, Alto, and Dunwoody, with S. Barnabas’s in Dunwoody being probably the largest Continuing Church congregation in the United States.  The additions are even more dramatic in Florida and the Carolinas.  I do hope that by January 2020, when we plan to hold our next Provincial Synod, we will be able at least to begin the process of turning four Churches in full communion into one united Church.  Meanwhile ACA and APA clergy are assisting us in New Smyrna Beach, Aiken, and elsewhere.

In Ocala we closed after Christmas our small congregation called the Church of the Resurrection.  Ocala had three Continuing Churches and one or two neo-Anglican congregations, and Resurrection was the smallest.  Our people went to Saint Martin’s, which has a building – which Resurrection never did – and a priest who is an attentive pastor.  Saint Martin’s has new members, including several teenagers.  It’s a win-win.  Apart from this change, our diocese has no major congregational changes since our last synod.

As always the past year has brought changes in the clergy.  Two new deacons, David Currie and Daniel Henderson, have been ordained since our 2017 Synod.  Earlier this year I received Father Paul Andreasen from the Russian Orthodox Church, who is now the priest-in-charge at Saint Timothy’s Church.  I have licensed several other p-i-cs:  Father Patrick Malone in Tallahassee, Father Daniel Trout in Augusta, and Father Beau Davis in Marietta.  I left Provincial Synod in October immediately for Canon Dale Mekeel’s requiem in Tallahassee.  Canon Mekeel was the only clergy death since Synod 2017.

There have been major improvements to the building at Our Redeemer, Marietta.  As you have heard, Saint Stephen’s has three lovely new bells.  I will let Father Davis and Father Athanaelos tell you move about these major projects.  Many other parishes have had building projects and improvements.  In general our congregations seem fairly happy with each other and with their clergy.  While we certainly have congregations with clergy who would love to have an idea about who will replace them, we have made successful clerical transitions in the last few years in Augusta, Charleston, Marietta, Orange Park, Soddy Daisy, and Tallahassee.  Again speaking in general, I am pleased with our clergy – with their education, their dedication, and their piety.

I wish I could report a year of blazing growth.  At this point I believe the future growth of the diocese will be tied closely to improving relations with our fellow Continuing Anglicans.  If this is so, then we need to look not only inward, to developments within the Diocese of the South and the Anglican Catholic Church, but also outward to our sister Churches.  With that in mind I can report that after attending a Lenten clergy retreat with men from all four Churches as well as the APA’s annual winter diocesan conference and clergy retreat, all of us have promising young leaders coming along.  Our future, I believe, is hopeful, but it will be a future that reaches out beyond our own little kingdom towards a united Continuing Church.

As always, I conclude my Charge by calling you to do the work of this Synod with courtesy, fidelity, and dispatch, so that we may once again say, with our late and much missed Secretary, Colonel Morris:  ‘Thank God for another boring Synod!’

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