"By this they will know you": Address by Bishop Gates to the 2022 Diocesan Convention

Following is the prepared text of the address given by Bishop Alan M. Gates at the 237th annual Diocesan Convention on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022.

On the Sunday morning after my mother’s recent death, I slipped quietly into a back pew at one of our churches.  I had the need to pray.  The Processional began: Hymn 400, All creatures of our God and King.  At the fifth verse, the voices around me sang:  “All you that pain and sorrow bear, praise God, and cast on him your care: O praise him, Alleluia.”  I knew I was where I needed to be.  The liturgy of the church went on to have its way with me that morning:  prayers; hymns; a baptism to highlight the promise of God’s grace to another generation; strength received in the Eucharist; and a gentle word from the clergy as I departed.  

Bishop Alan Gates gives annual address to 2022 Diocesan Convention Tracy J. Sukraw Bishop Alan M. Gates gives his annual address at the 237th annual Diocesan Convention on Oct. 29, 2022.

“By this they will know you: The Call of Love in Our Time and Place”  This is the watchword of our convention this year. “By this they will know you.”  Diocese of Massachusetts:  by this I have known you these past weeks – by your love. Cards on the mantle; condolences in word and e-mail; support from colleagues enabling my time away with family. The loss of a parent is a singular moment. In the midst of that loss, you have been Church for me.  I thank you.  And I uphold that experience as but one of literally thousands of ways that members and congregations are manifesting the Call of Love:  in your churches, in your communities, in your families, in your workplaces, and even around the globe. “By this they will know you.”

Along about the time I was moving through my loss – another ritual was playing out nearby.  It is a strange ceremony that surfaces in Boston every year.  I am speaking of the phenomenon known as “getting Storrowed.”  You know the scene: a U-Haul or delivery truck gets onto Storrow Drive and in short order the top has been ripped off the truck, or it is wedged hopelessly under a 10-foot overpass, scores of furiously honking cars lined up behind.  So common is it that “Storrowing” has entered the vernacular – even when it happens somewhere else. 

What is striking to me are the manifestations of amusement and derision that surface among local residents.  Social media posts howl in delight at video clips of topless trucks. Hysterical laughter emojis abound.  Comments proclaim the drivers to be idiots, deserving of their fate.  One resident sets up his lawn chair at a strategic spot just to wait for the fun of seeing it happen again!  Now, there may well have been some cluelessness on the part of a driver.  Honestly, I’ve made some similar, if less disastrous, miscalculations myself when driving overseas – so I do try to be forbearing.  But it’s easy to get drawn into that perverse local reaction.  

I wonder what it is that evokes such derision when someone gets Storrowed.  Maybe it’s the classic “Resident vs. From Away” dynamic.  Maybe it’s the natural yearning to be among those ‘in the know.’  Maybe it’s a momentary outlet for the existential frustration we’re all feeling these days.  Whatever it is, there is a deep lack of compassion in the response.  “That idiot just got his top knocked off, and I find that hysterical!”  By this they will know you, Boston!  By this?  Let’s hope not.  

Well, here we are, friends – gathered in person for Diocesan Convention for the first time since November 2019. Thirty-one months ago, we were wending along the river of life when we all got Storrowed!  We got our tops knocked off by the pandemic.  For two years the box trucks of our lives were slammed, and stuck!  And people were short-tempered all around us.  And some of the decisions we made were derided as really stupid, or unnecessary.  And we had to back up.  Or maybe we let the air out of our tires and kept going.  Or maybe we found a new route.  Or maybe we still haven’t found it.  Maybe the adequacy of whatever forms of existential GPS we had always relied upon – political systems, health officials, church leaders – just haven’t seemed as trustworthy as we’d thought.  Or maybe we have come seriously to question our own navigational skills.

I’ll quit this metaphor!  But this is what I want to say:  Here in the Diocese of Massachusetts, you have navigated this pandemic in ways that have been careful, and creative, and faithful.  In the midst of our human foibles and frustration, there have been flashes of Storrow-esque derision or impatience.  We have not always agreed about the best way forward.  But worship has been led, and sacraments offered, and prayers raised, and pledges paid, and commitments kept, and the dead have been buried, and lonely people have been called upon, and hungry people fed, and missions budgets honored, and even new initiatives undertaken.  In this altogether unprecedented time, you have been the Church.  With compassion and grace, the Storrow hecklers have been kept at bay.  By this they will know you: by your Christian love and hopeful endurance.  God bless you.

Around our diocese in the past few months, my visitations have revealed a renewed sense of energy – right alongside continued uncertainties.  Attendance is crawling back up – though for most not yet at its pre-pandemic levels.  The continuation of virtual platforms for worship and formation is proving a blessing for many – but still inadequate for ministries that thrive by extending the embodied presence at the heart of an Incarnational faith.  

With many vestries I have discussed how we move forward from this pandemic.  Holding up each dimension of our church life one by one – those adaptations we’ve made, and those things that have been set aside – holding up each, one at a time, we ask:  Keep it up?  Change it up? Bring it back? Or let it go?  In the wake of COVID-19, “reimagining church” is no longer an abstract goal; it is an urgent calling.  In each and every decision in our congregations, the “Call of Love in our Time and Place” is the ultimate criterion by which we are guided.  “By this they will know us.”

We gather here today to select and thank leaders; to approve a budget; to celebrate certain milestones in our common life; to respond to proposals set forth by constituent groups.  I want to focus on one element of this convention which will have a significant impact on our life together, and that is the resolution put forth by our Racial Justice Commission for establishment of a Reparations Fund.  I’d like to place this resolution in the context of the wider church and its theology, as well as the context of our own diocesan process and timetable.

Last fall, the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops issued a report on reparations and the Beloved Community. The report had this to say:

“[F]aith communities are essentially compelled to sustain a program of reparations that denounces the realities of a sinful past and acknowledges the impact and effects on the present, while transforming present systems and structures, so to construct an equitable and just future.  In the end, reparations are nothing less than an act of repentance, for they entail looking back in order to turn around and do something different. …[R]eparations are fundamental to the very Jesus Movement to which we have been called – as seen in Jesus’ call to ‘repent,’ for those who would follow him. (Mt 4:17)  Reparations, therefore, are for us a theological imperative.” (i)

Reparations are being recognized by institutions across the country – religious and secular – as one way to confront and redress the history of white supremacy, which not only traces its historic path through transatlantic slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and red-lining, but also remains a current reality in efforts at voter suppression, banning books on anti-racism in schools and libraries, and a whole host of deep and abiding economic and social inequities.

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, theologian-in-residence at the National Cathedral, has outlined three key aspects of the work a faith community must do toward reparations.  She suggests that it goes beyond fund allocations, extending to the whole enterprise of repairing relationships and systems.  She says that the work demands, first, truth-telling “that confronts the ways in which the past remains alive in the present.”  Second, it demands fostering a moral identity that acknowledges what it means to benefit from the history and legacy of white supremacy.  And third, it calls for the transformation of institutions and spaces so each might become “a sanctuary for all people.” (ii) 

I have been reading the new book by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, perhaps one of the wisest and clearest of religious commentators in our day.  Her book is On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World.  She suggests that we are impeded in our work of healing by the natural defensive impulse that kicks in when – as individuals or as part of a group – we are told that we have caused harm.  Rabbi Ruttenberg writes:

“If someone interprets the statement ‘You said something racist’ to mean ‘You are an irredeemably racist person,’ they might well resist the critique, seeing it as a condemnation of their whole self.  But walking the path of antiracism is riddled with mistakes and new learning ….  Doubling down and getting defensive makes it much more likely that you’ll just keep doing the thing. … And we miss the chance to work on becoming the kind of person who does not cause pain in the future – not because we have been silenced or shamed, but because we care, … because we don’t want to be the kind of person who causes pain.”(iii)

Rabbi Rutenberg thus presents a positive, but no less demanding understanding of the work of repentance and repair. It is, she says, “an opportunity to open my heart wider than it has been, to let in more empathy, more curiosity … to look at another person – or a community … – and say: How might I have (even unwittingly) brought you pain or difficulty?  And to care about making that as right as I can. … [F]acing the harm that I [or a historical legacy of which I am a part] caused is an act of profound optimism.” (iv)

All of this is precisely the work in which our diocesan Racial Justice Commission has been leading us these past two years.  I remind you that today’s resolution is in the context of others the past two years, and others yet to come.  At our convention of 2020, we passed a resolution supporting the formation of the Reparations Subcommittee as part of our wider work of repentance and accountability.  At our convention of 2021, we adopted a resolution committing ourselves to the establishment of a Reparations Fund, with a year of listening and discernment about its development. This year’s resolution takes the concrete action of directing the creation of that fund, detailing mechanism and scope. 

The second Resolved of today’s resolution emphasizes that the Reparations Subcommittee’s work in the year ahead will be to propose membership in the body with authority for disbursement, and to develop criteria and guiding principles for such disbursements.  The resolution is clear that those two vital details “will be presented by the Racial Justice Commission for approval at the Diocesan Convention of 2023,” and that no allocations would be made from the fund before that further step.  

I am supportive of today’s proposed action to create this fund.  No one is more aware than I am that this allocation will require significant change to other aspects of our diocesan budget.  As you know if you have read the future-year budget forecasts, the set-aside for reparations is but one part – approximately a quarter – of the total shortfall with which we will need to deal for 2024.  No one is more aware than I am that we do not yet know what sacrifices will need to be made in order to keep the commitment if we act today.  The 2024 and 2025 budgets are not yet shaped.

From my perspective, that is precisely the point. The commitment we are invited to make today names the enterprise of racial justice and repair as a non-negotiable priority – as something we are committed to fund “off the top” and not just with whatever is left over after we do everything else we’re already doing.  It places this work in the highest tier of our mission priorities – even before we get into the detail of budgetary line items which could pit it against any specific grant or program.  It asserts, simply, that this is a generational obligation, and that the time is now.

Speaking about our commitment to seemingly unreachable goals, another word from Rabbi Ruttenberg:

“There [must be] movement.  Is it enough, is it fast enough?  No.  Can whole-scale systemic change be effected, the kind that comes in time to make a difference?  It’s already too late, far too late, except insofar as tomorrow has not yet been written, and can yet be written for more wholeness, more justice, more integrity, more truth. … And if done properly, our … transformation will be a very ongoing process indeed.” (v) 

May God guide us in that ongoing transformation.  “By this they will know us.”

Finally: a short word about the bishop transition getting underway.  Bishop Gayle Harris will end her 20-year tenure as our Bishop Suffragan on March 31.  With her final three months taken largely as a well-deserved sabbatical, her active service as bishop in this diocese will conclude at New Year’s.  We will have words of gratitude to offer later in our time today.  In the context of this report, I want to say something about my decision not to call for the election of a Bishop Suffragan, but rather at this time to ask Convention to authorize the creation of an Assistant Bishop position to which I can make an appointment, in accordance with Episcopal Church canons.  Such an Assistant Bishop will engage in the full range of leadership offered by our past bishops suffragan with a portfolio very similar to that of Bishop Harris.

It has been some 30 years since the last time we had an Assistant Bishop here, in the person of Bishop David Birney, who served us from 1989-93.  There are a couple of converging reasons that I believe this is the best path for us at this time.  The single most compelling one is stewardship of resources.  The process for search, nomination, election, and consecration of a new bishop – whether diocesan or suffragan – is extraordinarily consuming of both financial and human resources.  The  most recent process for search, election, and consecration of a bishop here in Massachusetts in 2013 and 2014 cost the diocese just shy of $450,000.  I simply do not believe that, at our present moment in time, this would be the best allocation of diocesan funds, nor the best focus for the massive human energy also required. 

A lesser but not insignificant consideration is that of timing.  The electoral process for a bishop typically requires 15 to 18 months.  It would not serve us well to go for that period of time with a single bishop. 

In my consultation with the officers of Standing Committee, they affirmed this decision, and the Standing Committee has provided its canonically-required consent to bring to Convention the request for creation of an Assistant Bishop position, to which I would hope to make an appointment early in the new year.  The requested resolution will come to you at the Report of the Resolutions Committee this afternoon.  I am grateful in advance for the trust which your approval would signify.

Oh, Diocese of Massachusetts!  There is so much grace, and so much generosity, and so much creativity, and so much commitment manifest in the congregations and people of this diocese.  Behind the organizational business of this day is the mission of God and the ministry of Christ which is enabled by this business, and enacted by those around you – and all those who are partners in our life together.  

By this they will know you:

By the love that welcomes the stranger to your houses of worship, and into your fellowship;

By the love that nurtures the joy and wonder of our children, and honors the wisdom of our elders;

By the love that sings its heart out in praise of God, in our every musical vernacular.

By the love that cries its heart out, in communion with those who grieve.

By the love that welcomes the migrant pawns of political perfidy into the shelter of your island sanctuary, and beyond.

By the love that admits the truth of the past, for the sake of healing the future.

By the love that eschews point-scoring, in favor of listening; 

eschews cynicism, in favor of hope.

eschews derision of those Storrowed by life, in favor of compassion to all the people of God.

By this love you are known.  

By this, beloved, let us be known.

(i) Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Larry R. Benfield, et al.  “Reparations and Beloved Community: a report from the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops for its September 2021 gathering.”  Mailed to members of the HOB on September 10, 2021.

(ii) Kelly Brown Douglas, “A Christian Call for Reparations,” Sojourners, July 2020, https://sojo.net/magazine/july-2020/christian-call-case-slavery-reparations-kelly-brown-douglas.

(iii) Danya Ruttenberg, On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World (Boston: Beacon Press, 2022), 52.

(iv) Ruttenberg, On Repentance and Repair, 58.

(v) Ruttenberg, On Repentance and Repair, 140-141.