Following is the text of the address given by Bishop Alan M. Gates at the 238th annual Diocesan Convention on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me,
and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling; …
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to [the One]
who is the help of my countenance, and my God. (Psalm 43:3,5-6)
Last Friday morning I passed by Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, and was struck by two signs on the large old doorways of that church. One says, “Central Reform Temple of Boston, a Progressive Jewish Congregation, meets here. Welcome!” And right next to it hangs a parallel sign which says, “Emmanuel Episcopal Church, a progressive Christian congregation, meets here. Welcome!” My heart was filled with gratitude for that witness, in this moment of all moments.
A few hours later on that same day I was at our Cathedral [Church] of St. Paul, where for 23 years hospitality has been extended for Friday Jummah prayers, a gathering of typically two-to-three hundred Muslim men and women who work downtown and spend their lunch break at prayer. Last Friday they had called for Community Prayers for Peace, inviting both civic and religious leaders. The Mayor of Boston said a word. I was invited to offer greetings and a prayer. We are always mindful that Christians and Muslims are killing each other around the globe. And occasionally people have said to me: Why do you have that group meeting in your church? Don't you know that Muslims are killing Christians around the globe? And, of course, the answer is, yes, we do know that. Muslims and Christians are killing one another all over the world, and it is precisely that knowledge which impels us to model a different way, a peaceful respect across difference. I am grateful at all times that our cathedral makes that witness, and never more than in such tense times as these.
Finally, on that same Friday in the afternoon, driving to an installation service, I had the car radio on and I heard an interview with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie [i], who was offering pastoral care on a hillside outside Jerusalem. The rabbi was holding a roll of stickers that he had grabbed off of his desk as he left New York. The stickers said, “Fragile. Please handle with care.” He had been handing them to grieving family members. After further discussing his pastoral role, the rabbi said this.
“I'm a peace activist and way on the left. I've been fighting for humanitarian solutions to this conflict throughout my life, and that will never change…”
The interviewer asked, “Do you feel like the peace activist part of you has to sort of stuff itself into a box in this moment?” Rabbi Lau-Lavie replied:
“I am trying very hard not to lose the both/and position that, yes, I stand with Israel at this moment of hurt and will do everything I can to ensure that we defend ourselves against terror. At the same time, I stand with my Palestinian friends who want freedom. I abhor and decry Hamas as a terrorist organization that has hijacked the Palestinians ... It's a both/and, and the both/and is tricky and very unpopular these days. And yet I think that is the only way to make any headway out of this mess, the humanitarian approach, … not revenge, not blaming.”
As I drove along thinking about Christians and Jews in a church on Newbury Street, and Muslims and Christians in a cathedral on Tremont Street; and as I listened to an anguished peace-activist rabbi ministering outside of Jerusalem, I could only weep quietly in the car. In the last two weeks I have, as you probably have too, heard from some friends that to condemn Hamas atrocities is to ignore the legacy of injustice and violence experienced by Palestinians and the plight of thousands now being killed in the death trap which is Gaza. I’ve heard from others that in this moment voicing any support for Palestinians, including though not limited to our Christian partners throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, is failing to honor innocent Israeli victims.
In the Gospel passage we heard last Sunday, Jesus said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” [Matt. 22:21] In citing that duality, Jesus simultaneously debunks it. It was a false and deceitful dichotomy, because of course everything is God’s. And in the Middle East, all the land is God’s, and all the children are God’s, and all the cruelty and suffering and so-called “collateral damage” is an abomination to God.
I do not know the solution to the intractable hostilities in the Middle East. I don’t think you do either. But I am certain that we must reject the easy dualities and reductionist platitudes of blame and blamelessness; of good and bad; of the primacy of ancient history versus recent history. Our task, I think, is to condemn indiscriminate violence and cruelty wherever we see it; to extend compassionate care wherever we can support it; to join calls for an immediate ceasefire; to demand humanitarian action on the part of our own government and others; and to pray fervently for people of all faiths who are acting as agents of justice and peace. That, I think, is our task.
Turning from matters of justice around the globe to those closer at hand, let me say a word about our diocesan work towards racial equity. Later this morning the Racial Justice Commission will present a report on the work of its five subcommittees, each focusing on a different aspect of our commitment to being a more anti-racist institution and a more genuinely reconciled people of God. The work is hard. Our progress is uneven and imperfect. But I am grateful for the commitment of so many to keep it up, in congregations, in our individual lives, and in our life together as a diocese.
Recently in response to an open invitation, some 175 persons around the diocese participated in a survey on experiences of racial dynamics in our diocese. Conclusions are necessarily limited by scope and sampling size. It’s a snapshot. However, two general observations seem clear. One is that those of us who are white have the impression that there has been considerably more progress in the work of racial equity than is reported by People of Color in their lived experience. If we accept such a difference of perception as unsurprising and inevitable, then I think we have already accommodated ourselves to a racist paradigm.
The second observation, broadly shared, is that the general progress that we are making is not always translated into specific forms of implementation. Which brings me to this year’s resolution on reparations. Last year’s vote by this body provided the mechanisms to create a Reparations Fund. This year we are presented with guiding principles by which future allocations would be made from that fund. A church member recently, in a tone not so much of belligerence as curiosity, said to me, “If I understand reparations, it is about taking money from people who never owned slaves, and giving it to people who never were slaves.” And I said, “Please let me reframe that narrative.”
There are varieties of intention and methodology that are attached to the term reparations. In the resolution which you have before you today, I draw your attention to the first Resolved, which articulates carefully the intent and purpose for the Reparations Fund in our context in this diocese. It reads, in part:
“Focused on systemic solutions to present-day racial disparities whose origins lie in the sin of American slavery, the Fund’s mission is to counteract and redress ongoing social, economic, educational, judicial, medical, political, and other harm caused to African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans. The purpose of the Fund is to provide a vehicle for our diocese to come together in acknowledgement of our communal responsibility as followers of Jesus Christ for repairing the legacies of American slavery. These legacies [have] harmed many Black people through several centuries, and they continue to harm people of all races in the form of persistent fractures within the Beloved Community….”
[Convention Handbook, p. H-41]
While there are other approaches to reparations, in our context the intent is to address these legacies in ways that are not so much individual as communal, not so much transactional as relational. I believe that the principles and structures in the proposed resolution will enable us to do that, and I am grateful.
Concern was expressed last year that support for creation of the Reparations Fund which I voiced in my Annual Address at that time was a breach of episcopal neutrality at Convention. And here, my friends, I want to distinguish between the role of bishop when seated in the legislative chair and the wider role of bishop as leader. I take seriously, of course, the question of legislative fairness; but I do not believe that that negates the call for a bishop, outside of the parliamentary context, to give voice to convictions according to the promptings of conscience and the Sprit. On this matter, and on any other that comes before this convention, you should vote your conscience. I hope, I trust, that after nine years there is no question of relational rupture or retribution by this bishop if we disagree. Your own discernment of what is right and good must prompt you, just as mine must prompt me. On this, let us trust one another.
In so many arenas of our life these days we are challenged, including sometimes in trust, we are challenged by the pervasive anxiety in the midst of which we dwell. Economic uncertainty; poisonous and paralyzing political polarization; COVID fatigue; more and yet more gun massacres; warfare in both Europe and the Middle East, threatening to expand. How could we not be anxious? And in the church, so many of our old models are creaking and groaning, no longer quite serving us the way they once did. There is surely no way to face into these challenges and anxieties except to face them together.
Yesterday our keynote speaker, Katie Nakamura Rengers, said, “We need to lend one another courage.” I was really struck by that statement. We need to lend one another courage. Or to put it differently, we need to extend one another grace. I've found myself occasionally, in conversations reflecting with others about our life together as a diocese, saying, “The Diocese of Massachusetts is not always a kind place to be.” It breaks my heart to say that. There was a time when I was a curate in this diocese in the 1980s when, as some of you have heard me say, it was a whole lot worse. So there's that. It really is better, by God's grace and the work of many of you. Our fractures, I would say, in the 80s tended to be more ideological and theological, and our pressure points now seem to come around events, and liturgies, and who did what how, and we're just not always very patient or kind with each other around those things. And grouchiness and blaming and uncharitableness – we just need each other too much, and the world needs us too much, for us in our own house and family to be that way with each other.
Last year I appealed for a moratorium on “Storrowing” – it was a call for charity and patience with one another; listening without our debate-engines running, as somebody says; responding without reacting. It's about grace. We’ve got to manifest grace. And there have been moments in the past year when others have had to remind me to heed my own call not to let our fatigue and tensions overwhelm our patience and our better angels. We are all feeling a little worn thin. And in such a moment, we need to hold space for one another. Please, let's hold space for one another.
And in so doing, we will not only leave space for the Holy Spirit to come in, we will also create space for that “reimagination” that we've been talking about for a number of years now and with some focus yesterday, that reimagination which has been our watchword, that reimagination which requires some space. New forms of collaboration – the focus of our conversation and celebration yesterday – are beginning to take hold. New models of leadership; new shapes of liturgical expression; new forms of partnership in our communities. Your regional canons, especially, and others are unceasing in their efforts with you to spark creative solutions to changing realities.
Sometimes, "reimagining" actually leads to a bittersweet conclusion. And here I offer a word of tribute and thanksgiving for the ministry of Grace Church, Everett. After 140 years of faithful worship and service, the vestry and people of Grace Church took the decision this fall to close. We honor those who through the generations have glorified God in that place. And I wonder if there are few of the clergy who have served Grace Church in these years as well as lay leaders in our midst who might stand up? To you and to all those who have been part of Grace Church through the generations, we give our heartfelt thanks. I am grateful to say that the South Sudanese congregation which has worshiped at Grace Church for more than a decade will continue elsewhere, for now enjoying the hospitality of St. Paul’s, Malden, as that Dinka congregation determines its best, long-term location. Thanks be to God.
Another "reimagining" underway is that of episcopal leadership in this diocese. Because I have been asked numerous times, I want publicly to dispel any notion that there was any unspoken health concern behind my announcement. I am fine, thank you! The timing, rather, reflects the level of energy that it takes to fulfill this role, and my clear sense that a decade as bishop and nearly 40 years in ordained leadership will mark the time for me and my family, and this diocese, to be ready for another chapter. As I have also noted, this diocese has not had a smooth episcopal transition, unmarked by deep tragedy or grief, since 1985. I so earnestly desire, for all of us, a healthy and joyful transition, in the context of gratitude for one another and eagerness for what’s next. Let’s have that!
Here are a couple of quick things to underscore, in light of confusion that I have been hearing. First, what I called for was the election of a new bishop diocesan, not a bishop coadjutor. So there are two different models about in the church and you may be seeing in other dioceses a different model playing out. A bishop coadjutor is consecrated to work alongside of the incumbent diocesan for some period – typically 6-12 months, occasionally years. My expectation is that your bishop diocesan-elect will be able to arrive a couple of months after the May election so that that person and I will have some time to serve together. But when the consecration happens on October 19, the new bishop will be your bishop diocesan, and I will not! That's the way that works.
A second reminder pertains to the canonical status of an assistant bishop. You will recall that unlike a bishop suffragan, an assistant bishop’s tenure is linked to the diocesan bishop who appointed that assistant, and concludes when the diocesan bishop’s tenure concludes. The canons, however, do allow for an extension or reappointment upon mutual agreement of the Standing Committee, the new diocesan bishop, and the assistant bishop. So that will be a discernment for those three parties when the time comes. For now here let me thank you once more for concurring a year ago with my request to appoint an assistant bishop. It has been and continues to be a true joy to work alongside Bishop Carol Gallagher as colleague, companion and friend. As a bishop she is a gift to me and she a gift to you!
In this transition time, I remain more grateful than ever for all my colleagues on the diocesan staff. They are, as you can imagine, living with a certain element of uncertainty inevitable in an episcopal transition. Their work has also been disrupted by consolidation and renovations in the diocesan offices. And there was an IT provider shift, with inevitable, shall we say, hiccups. So what you're hearing is that the vocational, physical, and virtual spaces of your diocesan staff are all in flux – and yet they remain committed, hardworking, even sacrificial on your behalf. We are in their debt!
Finally, this. Some of you know the beloved saint who is Enoch Woodhouse II, a pillar at Trinity Church in Boston, and once a member of the legendary unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen. At age 96, Mr. Woodhouse has had a storied career in law and public service. Among many honors bestowed upon him, the Daughters of the American Revolution just before the pandemic presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. As reported, “He thanked them for the recognition, and said based on what he had seen that day, he was more excited for the future of the DAR than he was about their past. They loved it.” [ii]
Well, now, as the Bishop of Massachusetts and something of a history buff myself, I know a few things about the history of the Diocese of Massachusetts, and I appreciate a great deal of it. Maybe most of it. I’m the guy who each week posts on Instagram [@massbishopxvi] a #throwbackthursday photo from my collection of antique post cards featuring your churches, with a little historic squib about each one. (Judging by the number of ‘Likes’ that they get, you're not as excited about church history or deltiology as I am!) I am excited about our history! But I am even more excited about our future as a diocese than I am about its past. Because it is the future – not the past – to which God calls us; it is the future – not the past – where unimagined blessings are yet to be revealed; it is the future – not the past – where lies our hope.
I am excited for that future in which worshiping communities of new and varied sorts will be encouraged, as embodied in canonical changes proposed today.
I am excited for that future in which we bring ever-more creativity to models of leadership and ways of being church.
I am excited for that future in which collaboration is embraced not as the solution to a problem, but as a way to be more fully members of one Body.
I am excited for that future in which we reckon honestly with our past, so as to heal divisions of race and class that continue to harm all of us.
I am excited for that future in which we rejoice at the richness of language and culture which characterizes this diocese, and welcome everyone to the fullness of belonging.
I am excited for that future in which the words of our opening hymn today, “Cure thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to thy control,” become not just an aspirational prayer, but a fuller reality – because we will have gained the courage by God's grace to be agents of God's grace and peace and justice.
Dear people of the Diocese of Massachusetts: By God’s grace, may we labor together for such a future, full of gratitude and hope.
And for the 10th and final time, may I conclude an annual address with the scriptural words of encouragement: "Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus."
[ii] Yale Alumni Magazine, July/August 2022, p. 32