Missa Luba [From Mark Laubach]

Bishop's address to 2009 Diocesan Convention

Bishop Paul V. Marshall
St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral
Wilkes-Barre, Oct. 9

It is good to be alive, and especially good to be alive among God’s people in the 14 counties of the Diocese of Bethlehem. This address will be a bit briefer than usual because we need to hear from a number of people today.

Let me begin my 14th convention address to you by acknowledging and thanking Bishop Jack Croneberger and Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow. In addition to doing their own jobs, between them they performed the pastoral, liturgical, and administrative tasks of the diocesan bishop during the time I was recovering from heart surgery. Please thank them with me. As for me, I am not 100 per cent up to speed, and sleep a good bit, but I can put in a full day of work, although I have cut back on extra activities. I have been very deeply touched by the many hundreds of cards and dozens of gifts received during this time of sickness and recovery. I thank you with all my heart.  

General Convention –– Practically as soon as I was back to work, a group of us left for Anaheim, California, for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. It was much like many conventions, as those of you who attended the post-convention debriefings know. Certainly its focus was on doing God’s mission. That message came through loud and clear.

A few people have spread the usual rumors about the convention denying the Trinity or denying the virgin birth, or adopting socialism, but you hardly need me to tell you that this did not happen nor was it even discussed.

Convention did adopt provision for Full Communion with the Moravian Church. Their Northern and Southern Provinces will consider that proposal next summer. The Rev. Gary Harke will be our principal ecumenical guest today to help us understand what lies before us if this is adopted.

Misunderstood somewhat has been the Convention’s move into health insurance, which will cover all clergy and lay workers at lower cost to our congregations. It was adopted in principle, and we hope to see some practical plans next year. We are promised that specific provision will be made for dioceses such as ours, where considerable areas do not fall into conventional patterns.

What is particularly important about General Convention this year is that in one graceful resolution that our own Rick Cluett helped craft, the Episcopal Church reaffirmed our love for and commitment to Anglicans throughout the world and at the same time made it clear that, just as they are who they are, we are who we are, and we have no plans to disenfranchise any of our members. Many of the foreign bishops who were present were, frankly, astonished to see an Anglican deliberative body that included priests and, even more astonished to see lay people with seat, voice, and vote. They came away from Anaheim deeply impressed—and deeply aware that the Anglican Communion is a body marked by profound diversity. We continue to have much to give the Communion.

Something that has been widely quoted from Convention is a slightly inflammatory utterance in a sermon that it is a Western “heresy” to maintain that individuals must say and believe certain things to be saved. This was indeed said twice in my hearing, although the printed version only mentioned it once. I have to say that the use of the word “heresy” was incorrect –– there is a great ladder that an error must climb before it becomes a heresy, but one’s writing staff cannot always be expected to know that. What I think redeems the observation, at least in part, is the truth that after an individual accepts Christ he or she is grafted into a body that commands our loyalty and cooperation. The Church is steward of word and sacraments, guarding and maintaining their shape and content for generations to come, and it is to the Church that we look to understand how the mysteries are spelled out today. In other words, none of us is free to make up our own baptismal rites or reformulate the basic teachings of the church.

At convention we saw that the national budget has gone both down and up. Because they anticipate that dioceses will need to focus on their own work and have somewhat less money to contribute to national efforts, the budget has generally been cut incrementally over the next three years, although it was raised with $4 million extra for legal fees arising out of disputes over church property. These national budget cuts create a trickle-down deficit for dioceses. The services cut at the national level still must be performed locally. The head of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society -- to which we all belong -- said that spreading the gospel is the job of the dioceses, and closed the eleven-month old evangelism office, for one example. For another: anti-racism training is still mandated in each diocese every five years, and we are due next year, but now there are no trainers provided for us. So while we understand and congratulate the national church on balancing their budget we know that we shall have to do slightly more work on relatively slender resources, as the budget hearing this afternoon will make clear. We are not in trouble, but some economies have had to be made, pennies pinched and personnel stretched.  

Turning to the Home Front –– On the Fourth Sunday of Advent last year, Andrew Reinholz and I drove through a blizzard in the mountains to get to the Church of the Good Shepherd in Scranton. We could have filmed one heck of an SUV commercial, but we made the trip because I had promised Good Shepherd an answer, and wanted to be there to tell them the New Hope Campaign for Northeast Pennsylvania had awarded them a very major grant to convert their unused space into a shelter. There is also a certain dark pleasure when the bishop can get to the church but the priest is snowed in. Now Good Shepherd has a wonderful display of before-and-after pictures for you to see and Charlie Barebo and Fr. Gunn will have more to say about New Hope working in the diocese, but I wanted this one opportunity to thank all of you who have made this visionary ministry possible at home and abroad, and invite the rest of you to join in the ministry of New Hope.

We have had an effect on the national church. The national group, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, said: “What Bethlehem has done is certainly a model for the entire church for the global mission potential of a capital campaign. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a testament to the amazing things we can do when we step beyond the bounds of what conventional wisdom says is possible or advisable and trust a God who calls us to dream dreams bigger than even our own imagination. The leap of faith the people of Bethlehem have taken should inspire us all –- individuals, congregations, dioceses, our entire church –- to look for where God is calling us to make similar leaps of faith and compassion in our own lives … This Advent, look to Bethlehem! If you’re looking for a diocese that really gets that living the Gospel means boldly stepping out in faith, you’ve got to take a look at the Diocese of Bethlehem.”

We can all be grateful to have that kind of influence and to have gotten that message across. You are a model for the Church. 

Other Hopeful Signs  –– You know, churches do turn corners to new life. Some years ago we saw that at St. Mark’s in Milford, in the last year or so we have seen it at St. Andrew’s in Allentown. St. Paul’s, Montrose, has become of powerhouse of outreach ministry with its area partners. Last Sunday at Trinity, Athens, a very small congregation, they reported how their monthly outreach ministry has built their spirits, coincidentally finding them in the best financial shape they’d been in for a long time. With just these few examples I say what I always say: where there is heart-felt commitment to mission and ministry, not as a gimmick but as discipleship of Christ, parishes thrive.

Now that the cultural props that have supported churches for 1500 years are gone, and now that our ancestors’ money is no longer enough to run our churches, we have an opportunity such as we have not had for generations to recapture the mission, to recapture the identity, to recapture the joy of functioning as mission outposts for the gospel of Christ.

That determined joy was witnessed this winter when the churches of Bethlehem and Allentown took on the frigid weather and the less-than-enthusiastic support of the government to save homeless people from death. The beauty is that, in addition to saving bodies, leaders of these churches touched the hearts of more than one elected official, with ongoing results. 

All of that said, there have been some terrible blows struck by the economy and by demographics to some churches, and other parishes have gone too long without revealing their need or asking for help. The Standing Committee and I are nonetheless determined that we will work with troubled parishes where there is the will to go forward with ministry that is even a faint possibility.

The problem with help from the outside is that it can look and feel imposed. Therefore, to help less endangered parishes reclaim their vitality I have been meeting with the congregational development committee in order to reorganize their activities. They will essentially be broken down into three groups. One you know. It makes grants to parishes in support of ministry; requirements remain the same: assessments must be paid up and a realistic plan for specific ministry must be in place.

What will be new are two other subcommittees. One will focus on parishes north of Route 80 and one will focus on parishes to the south. Each of these committees will be led by a Dean or Canon and have the responsibility of insuring that all the programmatic resources of the diocese are brought into play wherever they are needed. It is very important to me that parishes in similar situations talk with each other and as far as possible, work together. The Standing Committee has studied in detail the statistics on every parish in the diocese, and will be turning that data over to the new Congregational Development Committee later this month.  

The Tools –– The resources of this diocese are incredible for any diocese, especially so for one so small in numbers. In a year’s time there are eight diocesan youth events, including two mission trips. We are preparing new programs for the 18-25 age group. We have three people from the diocese on the faculty of Episcopal Seminaries. As we live into General Convention’s new Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation, more spiritual resources will emerge.

Our stewardship and evangelism programs are second to none, and our development office has been restored. I mention these three topics together because when one aspect is taken seriously they all seem to come into play.

Research tells us that in our diocese, parishes with a year-round stewardship program have an average pledge that is 75.6% higher than those without one, and their average giving is 69% higher as well. Please allow us to help you.

Incidentally the Stewardship Commissin reports that one of the causes of poor giving habits is personal debt, and they are preparing resources to help people face that challenge to discipleship in the coming year.  

Futures ––  The generation of “Seekers” is looking for God, community, and mystery, but not particularly a denominational label. We have to market our identity in a way that says when you see this label you have a shot at finding God, community, and mystery. It isn’t enough to say you’re welcome. You have to say you’ll find God here.

We are grateful to have an example of just this kind of communication in the spots our northern parishes have been running on TV and in print media. This convention invites the south to join in this successful program. I hope you will give this serious discussion in the hearings.

You will notice that a resolution regarding another Share the Bread festival has been withdrawn. The good news is that the Evangelism Commission has already been charged with moving us toward another festival in 2010. Please stay tuned for further news, and please be prepared to help and celebrate.

We will be the recipients of a visit by the Presiding Bishop in November. You will have the opportunity to hear her speak and to bring forward your questions and comments on the evening of November 9th at Nativity, 10th at St. Luke’s in Lebanon, or the 11th here at St. Stephen’s. Please plan to be present and bring your friends. All events start at six o’clock with evensong at which the Presiding Bishop will preach.

Finally, a word needs to be said about the economic times in which we live. I have shared with you the anxiety at the national church level and some of you have shared with me your own anxiety at the parochial level as it takes time for the economy to level off. I believe that times of distress are times of great opportunity to assist others. Having lived with you through one recession already and having some idea of modern history, I want to say something fairly simple. Jesus’ call to us to is to follow him, regardless of the circumstances. I believe with all my heart that as we endeavor to follow his call calmly and devotedly, he will see us through. The path of self-emptying service continues to be the one he lays before us. It is the one I believe he will continue to bless. It is the one I believe leads us to joy, and I am sure that we will continue to work together to serve the world in Christ’s name, joyfully, confidently, and expecting God to use our efforts. Thank you.        


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