"Searching for our humanity": Annual address by Bishop Gates to the 2021 Diocesan Convention


Following is the prepared text of the address given by Bishop Alan M. Gates at the 236th annual Diocesan Convention on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. 

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness,” said Kahlil Gibran famously.  But here we are, gathered once again with too much space in our togetherness!  We are together virtually, when we had so dearly and confidently imagined that this year we would be in person.  Yet gathered we are, nonetheless, in a very real sense – from some 180 worshipping communities, scattered across the eastern half of the Commonwealth, “members one of another.”  Gathered to work, to pray, and to celebrate our common life. I greet you, I welcome you, I am grateful for you.

Given the location of my office and my residence, I find myself for several months each year in the midst of tourists walking on Boston’s Freedom Trail.  Occasionally they will recognize some sign that I am a local resident – perhaps it is the briefcase, or the jumbo pack of bathroom tissue tucked under my arm.  At such moments they might actually ask for directions.  More often they stand forlornly staring at a map or at their cellphone GPS.  Unsolicited advice from me at such moments is – I find – less apt to be met with gratitude, and more apt to be greeted with a suspicious stare.  So I typically pass silently by as someone misidentifies Park Street Church as Old North, or the dad mansplains to his family how Old Ironsides is the ship that shot her guns at Fort Sumter, launching the Civil War.  While rarely speaking up, I think constantly as I walk amidst these visitors:  I wonder what they’re searching for?

Towards the end of her foundational book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, journalist Isabel Wilkerson describes how COVID-19 has played out across our country:

As the number of deaths climbed to the highest in the world, America had to come to terms with the untested fragilities of its social ecosystem.  ‘To a watching world,’ wrote The Guardian, ‘the absence of a fair, affordable US healthcare system, the cut-throat contest between American states for scarce medical supplies, the disproportional death toll among ethnic minorities, chaotic social distancing rules, and a lack of centralized coordination are … [not reflective of] the most powerful, influential nation on earth.’  … The pandemic forced the nation to open its eyes to what it might not have wanted to see … ‘This is a civilization searching for its humanity.’  (i)

Ours is a civilization searching for its humanity.  This assertion has, for me, the ring of deep truth.  It’s a truth reflected not only in our fitful handling of the pandemic, but in other, often intersecting battles: response to immigrants at our borders; gun violence in our schools and homes; deepening economic inequity; reaction to antiracism efforts; and the polarizing, dehumanizing, and demonizing rhetoric that has come to characterize our communal discourse.  For what are we searching?  We are searching for our humanity.  

I wonder: should not the Church be an agent in that search?  Should not this be our moment to shine as the Light of Christ, in whom humanity and divinity are made one?  In our every context, our every conundrum, our every decision – is not the search for our humanity the key?  Is that not the way we both invoke and bear witness to the God whom we proclaim, and upon whom we depend?

During this COVID pandemic we have organized ourselves around the question: How will we live?  But this is a double-entendre.  How will we live – meaning, how will we survive?  But also, how will we live – that is, what will characterize our behaviors and our priorities in this anxious and challenging time?  How will we get through this?  And how will we maintain and prioritize our humanity as we do?

The pandemic journey has challenged and strained us in ways previously unimagined.  A parish priest in Virginia wrote a heartfelt and heart-breaking essay in The Atlantic a couple of weeks ago. Describing the fatigue and anxiety in which we dwell, she concludes:

Colleagues tell me to put my faith in Jesus.  That makes me feel horrible as I struggle to find solutions to help us thrive both now and when things are ‘back to normal.’  I am sick of innovating and pivoting and wondering if St. David’s is struggling because my faith isn’t strong enough ….  Historically the Episcopal Church has embraced middle ground. … We’ve weathered controversy … and political divisions … but I worry that we won’t be able to make it through the rest of the pandemic with our differing risk tolerances and approaches to masks.  I can’t find a middle way in these times. (ii)

Some days I feel the same.  Some churches and their leaders write gratefully for what they consider wise and prudent COVID policies from your bishops.  Others call or write – sometimes with cogent appeal, other times with irate accusation – looking for more dramatically relaxed measures.  We will, in fact, have some modestly revised guidelines to issue next week.  But I urge us not to be misled by COVID practice in other types of gathering places.

Many businesses and restaurants have relaxed COVID precautions.  But such venues do not typically have people in proximity to one another singing - consistently a top priority for our worshippers, and for which masking is still deemed vital.  At concert and performance venues, which are apt to have seating more akin to churches than do restaurants, Massachusetts COVID guidelines continue to require audience members at indoor performances to wear face coverings.  Such venues also currently have 50 percent capacity limits, and most performance venues require documentation of vaccination or negative test results.  We have been loathe to organize worship in ways that would exclude vulnerable persons, including families with young children (who until now have not had access to vaccination - and for whom the very youngest still don't).  Thus, our worship services have not required proof of vaccination.   That means other precautions remain essential.

Many communities in our diocese remain areas of high transmission, areas in which the CDC recommends continued indoor masking.  While many trends are hopeful, we know that this past week a Boston Public School had to be closed for ten days in response to a surge.  Renewed and highly worrisome surges, even among the vaccinated, are plaguing us, from Massachusetts to Europe and around the world.

All of this warrants continued caution.  But here is what I most want to say about our COVID guidelines.  The epidemiological realities are only one part of the story.  For us as Christians, theological and spiritual realities are equally important.  The question framed in our heated national discourse is: “Does this mask or this vaccination impinge upon my personal freedom?”  That is not the operative question for a Christian.  The operative question for us is: “What is the most loving course of action here?”  Individualism is an esteemed value in our country, and individualism is foremost in current political debate.  But individualism is not the right framework for decisions about communal Christian gatherings.  

My favorite restaurant or yours will not expect its patrons to sacrifice individual comfort for the common good.  A church expects precisely that.  Sacrificial love is at the heart of the Gospel.  If my sacrifice of comfort and convenience keeps others safer, and enables more of God’s children to gather in communal worship – as it does – then that is surely the criterion called for by the Way of Love.  In this matter, we are not searching for personal convenience.  We are searching for our humanity.

A vital aspect of this Convention will be the report of the Racial Justice Commission, newly structured and revitalized last year.  The work to which we have committed ourselves in our Mission Strategy is multi-faceted.  It includes continued, theologically-grounded conversation and formation; open and honest historical reflection; concrete, transformative actions in our life together; accountable and transparent structures in leadership bodies and financial resource allocation; shared concern for the well-being of communities of color in our diocese, and their leaders; and equipping the saints for the work of antiracism and all the Gospel work in the world.

As you know, a resolution passed at last November’s diocesan convention calling for deeper engagement with anti-racism, the prayerful and purposeful exploration of our history, and the review of models and best practices for the creation of a Reparations Fund.  That vote was definitive though not unanimous: 380 to 39.  A resolution before this body later today seeks to affirm and advance that work.

I remind you that this work is not new.  The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2006 called upon every diocese to document its own historical engagement with the institution of slavery and any economic benefits it derived.  In 2007, Bishop Tom Shaw testified in the U.S. Congress on the importance of such historical honesty.  Bishop Shaw said, “The history that we are researching is essential to understanding our Church’s role in the institution of slavery and its perpetuation.  With fuller knowledge will come true repentance that will then open us to reconciliation and remedies that are yet to be revealed.”  In 2008, a resolution passed our diocesan convention calling for such historical review; however, we have failed collectively to follow through on that commitment.  We are determined now to translate good intentions into actions.

As noted in the explanation section of today’s resolution, there are wheels we do not have to re-invent.  Many institutions, with the participation and wisdom of those with various perspectives, have developed a variety of models for reparations.  

Fundamental to this effort:  We cannot right a wrong we do not admit exists.  As Albert Einstein said in an address to the National Urban League, “We must make every effort [to ensure] that past injustice, violence and economic discrimination will be made known to people.  The taboo, the ‘let’s-not-talk-about-it’ must be broken.” (iii)  The point is not to be held hostage to a past history not of our personal making; we are talking precisely about ways to free ourselves from history which even now imposes burdens and degradation upon people of African and Indigenous descent, a legacy which continues to divide and poison our nation, our communities, and even our churches.

Earlier this year I read the memoirs of my predecessor William Lawrence, Bishop of Massachusetts from 1893 to 1927 – the longest serving bishop of our diocese.  Bishop Lawrence was a man of significant personal and familial privilege.  But he labored again and again for a church which went beyond noblesse oblige charity.  He understood that not just episodic kindness but attention to systems and structures was demanded.  In 1912, Bishop Lawrence chose the parish church of St. Paul’s on Tremont Street to become the cathedral church of the diocese.  He determined to shift its model from one of proprietors and pew ownership to the vision you have heard cited: “a house of prayer for all people.”  

Regarding the day of the final Chapter vote, Bishop Lawrence writes:  “In order that the Diocese and the City might know that the parish church, which had stood back from the crowded sidewalks and was owned by proprietors, was now a free and open Cathedral, I had carpenters ready at the close of the meeting to take off the doors from the pews, and caused that fact to be featured in the daily press.” (iv)  Bishop Lawrence was not seeking architectural improvement; he was making not an aesthetic statement.  He was making a theological statement about gospel wholeness.  He was not repairing the pews; he was repairing the Body.  And that’s what “Reparations” must be about.  In striving to repair the Body, we are searching for our humanity.

Right alongside anti-racism is the urgent crisis of climate change.  Two related resolutions will come before you today.  We have been praying earnestly this week for representatives from around the world gathered in Glasgow for the United Nations climate change conference.  How foundational to our faith is that song we sang in church school: “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”  Yet if Genesis is to be believed, you and I have been made stewards of the created order.  So it would be theologically accurate to sing, “We’ve got the whole world in our hands.”  Perhaps never in the history of God’s people has such a simple song represented such a moral imperative.

The Rev. Dr Margaret Bullitt-Jonas – now serving as Creation Care advisor in our Diocese – said this in a recent interview: 

“Our vocation is always the same. It’s to follow Jesus. But the only way that we can do that authentically in the midst of climate emergency is to weave care of creation into every aspect of our life as a congregation — preaching, prayers, outreach, children’s education, adult education — so that it equips us to face this emergency. ... Faith communities can push back against helplessness.” (v)   

Our commitment to push back against feelings of helplessness – to do all we can, as we can – is how we fulfill our commitment to God, to one another, and to the generations who come after us.  It is yet another way of searching for our humanity.

Finally, I want to give thanks for the countless ways that congregations in our diocese, even while wrestling with adaptations demanded by the pandemic, have maintained ministries which honor the humanity of those around them.  Sustained by your continuing worship, you have maintained commitment to feeding ministries, after-school programs, pastoral ministries of companionship, advocacy for equitable immigration, engagement with anti-racism, and so much more – you have continued to be the church.

Even during COVID, new mission endeavors have been undertaken.  In the Southern Region, a new campus ministry at UMass Dartmouth is underway; and a ministry with Veterans – launched by our siblings in Western Massachusetts – has now been established in Swansea.  In the Central Region, our Life Together service corps relocated its central cohort of young adult interns to an underutilized rectory at St. Mark’s, Dorchester, in growing partnership with that congregation.  In Allston, the campus of the former St. Luke’s and St Margaret’s Church is being refurbished and equipped for multiple streams of ministry – along with its co-housing community there will be new mission with its diverse neighborhood; a start-up ministry with LGBTQ persons of color throughout the region; and space for our collaboration with the emerging Episcopal Community of Learning at the B.U. School of Theology.  In the North and Western Region a weekday kids club is underway in Chelmsford, and ESL classes are offered for Brazilian immigrants in Framingham.

All of these – and so much more – represent ways that, even in COVID, we are searching for our humanity.

The theme of this Convention is “Members One of Another.”  This affirmation is as old as Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” [12:5]   This affirmation is also as fresh and new as any way in which we defy our illusions of separateness, and bind ourselves together in community.  We are members one of another:

… when we gather, even virtually;
… when we offer our common prayers, even in our separate churches;
… when we expand collaboration with our Western Massachusetts companions;
… when we wear those infernal masks; 
… when we sacrifice our comfort for the security of another;
… when we commit to our common-share assessments;
… when together we face our past, for the sake of our future;
… when together we are agents in the search for our humanity.

Dear friends, go forth and be the Church.  Anxious and tired, yes.  Still grieving and impatient, yes.  But loved, and capable; blessed to be a blessing; serving those who need us; hopeful, sometimes by disposition; hopeful, sometimes as an act of will; empowered always by the Holy Spirit.  

Let sacrificial love and not individualism be our foundation. Let us be searchers for humanity. Be the Body of Christ, and members one of another.

(i) Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (NY: Random House, 2020), p. 357.

(ii) Elizabeth Felicetti, "My Church Doesn't Know What to Do Anymore," The Atlantic, 10/27/2021, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/church-pandemic/620496/

(iii) Albert Einstein, as quoted in Wilkerson (ibid.), p. 385.

(iv) William Lawrence, Memories of a Happy Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926), p. 318.

(v) Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, interview posted by Episcopal News Service, 10/07/2021; See the whole interview at https://www.diocesewma.org/qa-margaret-bullitt-jonas-on-living-into-the-climate-crisis-with-resilience/