A retired priest once summarized for me the sermons she heard as a girl growing up in a very proper old Virginia Episcopal parish. “There was a lot of talk about God, of course. Sometimes you would hear about Christ, as a sort of general principle. But Jesus? Never. That would have been too Baptist.”
Times have changed, if Wednesday was any indication. At the walkabout of the four nominees for presiding bishop, there was an awful lot of talk about Jesus. There was even an evocation of the old fire-breathing, altar-calling evangelist Billy Sunday. Candidates were asked questions like: How does the resurrection of Jesus factor into your vision for the church’s future? What’s the good news of Easter, and why does it matter? Do we as a church believe in the great commission?
Apparently, the church wants to ask. And the candidates answered. Bishop Dabney Smith spoke movingly of how his lifelong faith in the resurrection of Jesus became the bedrock of his life as he buried his first wife several years ago during Holy Week. Bishop Ian Douglas spoke with clarity and conviction about the Easter gospel in the sweep of Scripture’s story of God’s work of salvation. Bishop Thomas Breidenthal explained that open communion runs roughshod over our doctrine of baptism, since it makes our own hospitality more fundamental than the call of Jesus. And Bishop Michael Curry — well, he gave old Billy Sunday a run for his money.
Why such basic questions? Is it any news that a church’s presiding bishop would believe in Jesus? Why does the church want to ask?
It seems clear enough that the church is responding to something real. The Rev. Tim Schenck tweeted during the walkabout: “For PB we need an Inspirer in Chief who speaks boldly & passionately about the transforming power of Jesus.” Though no one said it out loud, it would seem that the implicit judgment of the room is that we have not had that for some time.
The priest and blogger Fr. Robert Hendrickson said it out loud a couple of years back. “I continue to struggle to understand the Presiding Bishop’s reluctance to mention Jesus in her feast day messages,” he wrote. “Whether it is time to consider the Incarnation or the Resurrection, the Presiding Bishop is consistent in her unwillingness to mention the person in whom our whole faith and hope rests. It takes some effort to avoid using the name of Jesus in an Easter or Christmas message — multiple times.”
As Queen Elizabeth is said to have said, I do not want to make windows into men’s souls. The Presiding Bishop’s commitment to and understanding of Jesus is not something on which I want to pronounce judgment. But it seems clear enough that the church now wants to be led by someone who is bold and forthright in communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. One should not have to wonder where the Episcopal Church stands on this. Yesterday afternoon, the candidates we have chosen left no room for doubt.
That is not to say, of course, that there were no other questions for the candidates that highlighted differing emphases and gifts. It is clear that Dabney Smith is a pastor at heart who believes in building relationships and trust one person at a time. Most questions, for him, came back around to that theme. In his closing remarks, he painted a picture of the church as a place of safety and security in the midst of crisis.
Ian Douglas believes that the church is called to go out into the world on mission and join up with what God is already doing there, leaving safe havens and traditions behind. In his opening video, he stood proudly outside of the converted ball-bearing factory that now serves as the new headquarters for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, after the sale of its old mansion. “Let’s create some space and try some experiments” was his watchword for a church following a surprising missional God out into the neighborhoods where we live our daily lives.
Thomas Breidenthal pushed back: genuine mission requires strong formation, he insisted. “We can’t always be charging into the world,” he cautioned. We need to spend time listening to Jesus in our midst, so as to learn how to recognize and follow him in the wide world around us.
Michael Curry — well, he just found ways to talk about Jesus. Curry was an Episcopal Billy Sunday, and one could often feel the emotional effort in the room expended by people trying their hardest not to clap and cheer after he spoke. He was wise enough to respond head-on to the clearest question people have about him: “Can an orator be an organizer?” His basic answer is that he staffs his weakness by hiring talented people who know how to make the trains run on time, and he pointed to specific administrative accomplishments in his diocese.
But that is not to say that Curry’s oratory answered all questions. Fr. Jesse Zink recently read through his most recent sermon collection, and summed up the basic message: “Jesus of Nazareth shows us a new way of life based on God’s love that we are called to witness to and follow in.” It’s a compelling vision, all the more so when Curry preaches it. But Zink wondered: “When was Bishop Curry going to move beyond outlining the what (the compelling vision) and on to the how? The Christian tradition offers more than just a vision. It offers the means of achieving that vision through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Curry’s answers were always the most stirring, but Breidenthal’s were often the most substantive and clear on specific points of theological and church-political controversy. That is perhaps not surprising. They are men of different gifts. Which gifts does the church need more now?
Many of the questions, as one would expect, had to do with difficult issues to which no clear answers exist: marriage equality and the place of conservatives in the church, repairing relations with the Global South, the reorganization of the church’s governance and structure, and so on. Those issues will not go away without being worked through with care for both charity and truth.
Curry was asked: What sacrifices might you be willing to make to mend relationships with the Global South? He answered by pointing to his approach to conservatives in his diocese. He always starts, he says, by putting out front that Michael Curry believes in Jesus and the resurrection: “That brother was down for the count and he got up for real!” And he makes clear that he’s not the pope; that he doesn’t have all the answers. You start there: humility and shared faith in Jesus, and then you talk to each other and you pray.
But that’s not to say it will take us all the way to where we need to go. Bishop Dorsey McConnell said in last night’s marriage committee meeting that marriage is a “core doctrine” that affects the whole church, not just a pastoral issue that can change with time and place. As this committee continues its work, there will be difficult theological and canonical issues to consider. Telling our stories and sharing our hearts is important, but it does not make truth and doctrine unimportant.
Nevertheless, Jesus isn’t a bad place to start, along with a good dose of humble conversation and prayer. In fact, it’s the only place. For it’s only when we focus on Jesus that church politics can be theological and not just political. Will we?
The featured image, Billy Sunday preaches (postcard 1908), was uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Leszek Jańczuk. It is public domain.