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Living Hope: Our Identity and Mission in Christ

180th Synod of the Diocese of Huron: Bishop’s Charge

By Bishop Todd Townshend

In what follows, I’m not going to say anything that you don’t already know. We know who to be and what to do. I’m just trying to “remember” it, and focus it, so that it comes more alive for us.

Premise: 

The world/society needs what we do. Hope. Grace. Gospel.

I read recently that religious communities have a $67 billion economic impact per year in Canada alone. That’s incredible value. But it’s a tiny measure. What God does through is us not measurable in those terms. It is beyond-value.

The world needs us to be a peaceful community – where beauty, truth, hospitality, mutual-respect, vulnerability, trust, goodness, and the bearing of one another’s burdens are prized and are allowed to flourish. We are a community that can walk through the world with more influence than 67 billionaires. Much more. Much better.

But there is an edge to this premise. The world, including all of us, needs both God’s judgement and God healing grace. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself – we benefit and participate in this mission. And when we open ourselves, empty ourselves, to receive the gifts of God – this becomes possible.

To start: I’d like to answer the implied question in the theme for this Synod: Our Identity: in Christ; Our Mission: healing and reconciliation of world to God. We are “living hope”.

Vision/Planning:

Today, offer four areas of focus… they can be our priorities from 2020-2025. But before we make firm commitments, I’d like to hear your input and weave in your voice, your desires, your vision. We’ve set up a group to help with this and to work on strategy, resources, and implementation. The plan is to bring it back to Synod May 2021 and/or a special Synod next fall, if necessary.

Vision Advisory Group: these are the gifted people who will help keep us on track. Paul Townshend, Marilyn Malton, Paul Rathbone, Tim Dobbin, Osita Oluigbo, Paul Millward, Tanya Phibbs – Function like “Vision Guides” – consulting with the various groups and individuals in our diocese between September 2020 and May 2021.

In my view, the Diocese of Huron has the opportunity to embrace the following:

Strategic Goal: To shift the centre of gravity in the Diocese of Huron from operations to: renewal and new creation, better revealing the marks of mission by becoming: a learning church, a just church, a diverse church, a new church.

The KEY: to be open to God’s desire for us and for the world. (Phil 2) Jesus became entirely receptive to God and God’s will for him and for the world.

What do I mean by ‘shift the centre of gravity’? One definition is that the center of gravity is “the average location of the weight of an object” the object tends to rotate around that point.

In our object, the church, we tend to rotate around the work of making sure that the operation continues, is efficient, is healthy, etc. How we operate, how we function, is very important. However, we can keep this machine running effectively and efficiently… and still fail to fulfil our primary mission. Especially, where circumstances have put us in survival mode.

We spend over 80%, in some cases, 90% of our energy and resources just on keeping the operation going. And it’s getting harder and harder just to operate. Some of this operation was set up under very different circumstances. And what used to work really well, doesn’t work now. Anyone my age or older was trained to operate in a different environment. No wonder we’re working harder and getting fewer “results”.

Here is a paradox of our time: We live in a society, especially in the “Western World”, that is trained to resist most of what is proclaimed in the gospel. We also live in a society that yearns for what God offers in the gospel, more deeply than ever.

So, at the same time, no society has ever been more resistant to the truth of Jesus… and no society yearned for what it promises so much, no society has ever felt this barren in the midst of so many riches and advancements.

The church has a challenge and an opportunity. The next twenty years really matter! I have hope. I’m investing in it. This is what I’m going to spend the rest of my life working on.

However, I want to be really clear, I am NOT suggesting that we layer more and more burdens and demands on ourselves by just trying harder… and doing more of the same. No. We do NOT need to add any of what I’m proposing ON TOP OF everything else.

We will be letting go of some things. We need to keep operating, obviously, but only “essential services”. We will need to be constantly stealing time away from “operations” – the running of the organization – and spend some of that precious time on growing, adapting, embracing the new environment for mission. This will take focus and commitment, but I have some clear ideas about how to try.

So, to begin, that’s what I’m after over the next six or seven months: That together we will make a real commitment to focus on some new things… They are not really new things, they are old things… traditioned (pass on) things. Ancient attitudes, practices, and habits for a new age.

For the rest of the afternoon, I’m going to outline a renewed understanding of mission. And then I will suggest four priorities for us to consider over the next 6-12 months.  My hope is that by next May or in the fall at the latest, we can commit to some new way of being. Some way to shift that centre of gravity, that centre of balance, in our life together.

Mission: 

The focus on mission will continue: To build on your existing Mission and Ministry Plans, but to also become more aware of the shifts underneath your ongoing life together, locally.

Take a look at your plan: where do these four priorities already show up? How can you “double down” and strengthen your commitment? Can you release some time and energy you spend on other things for this? What else may be a local priority? So, mission and ministry plans will continue and they will get a second look: trying to see if they can gain more focus, and depth. They seem to have helped about 50% of you, which is pretty good! They are about “who we are” and “what we do”; our identity and mission.

Mission is still a very important word for us in this time.

Meaning of Mission: Mission is not primarily a human activity. God is carrying out God’s mission among us, with us, for us and for the world. Our mission is found in God’s mission—by understanding what God has done, is doing, and will do in the world. Our first task to is come to know and love this God.

The Marks of Mission: are signs that we might be on the right track as participants in God’s mission. I’ve reworded the marks of mission a bit here to emphasize that it’s God’s mission alive among us:

  • as we proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, God does x, y, z,(what fruit have you seen?)
  • as we teach, baptize, and nurturing new believers, God does x, y, z,(tell what happens!)
  • as we respond to human need by loving service, (God does… )
  • as we seek to transform unjust structures of society, and challenge violence of every kind, and pursue peace and reconciliation, God… acts… in these ways… 
  • as we strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, God sustains and renews the life of the earth

(Five Marks of Mission, adapted)

God doesn’t do these things “if we” do them. God is free to accomplish whatever God wants. But God still seems to want to work through OUR lives.

Mission during COVID: Our strategic work has only been intensified, clarified, and accelerated by the pandemic. The pandemic have been revelatory; some elements of this time have elevated the sense of urgency. This has been a period of church-building outside of the church building. This can continue: in Small groups for formation and prayer; in Larger gatherings for worship in new configurations and on adapted schedules. Goal: Much more meaningful impact in our surrounding neighbourhoods and communities.

In order to be more open to God’s desire for us and for the world, I’m asking that we shift the centre of gravity in every congregation of the Diocese of Huron from operations to renewal and new creation, better revealing the marks of mission by becoming a (1) learning church, (2) a just church, (3) a diverse church, (4) a new church.

With the time remaining, I’ll speak a bit about “Four Overarching Priorities” two at a time

Two concepts are important to me in this: 1. “To see the whole enterprise as a continuing conversion to the fullness of the Gospel”; 2. A “habitus” can be understood as the modus operandi at the heart of participation in the “thing of God”.

Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu describes the notion of habitus as, “…a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions and makes possible the achievement of infinitely diversified tasks.”

To be open to God’s desire, we aspire to be (1) a learning church (a disciple is a pupil of Jesus, Rowan Williams). Discipleship is: learning him and living in him, Jesus. A Learning Church is about formation more than information (also necessary). A Learning Church seeks spiritual formation that leads to changes in life that bear fruit in action. This involves us in the joy of discovery. It deepens our fascination with the scriptures and Christian traditions. It leads us to embrace of the way of Jesus. A learning church that focuses its learning on Jesus.

Image: God the potter. Possible ways to strengthen this: invest strongly in patterns and pathways for life-long learning, “edu” – drawing out. Life-long education has drawn more out of me than I could have asked or imagined. It has also been a place of renewal – renewal of faith, in the midst of new knowledge. Clergy leaders model this by being learners first, then teachers. Every person, from toddler to octogenarian, can be introduced to Jesus again.

He is such a good teacher.

So, I’d like to see us commit more deeply of our time and resources – perhaps including an investment in using online content and small gatherings as the core and basis for weekly formation activity. We cannot rely on Sunday morning to do it all! Christian formation is first priority, to become a learning church.

A LEARNING CHURCH AND A JUST CHURCH

A just church, justice, in our religious tradition, is “to make right”, to put right. We seek to be a church that makes wrongs right, and avoids injustice in the first place.

Focus on identity and mission in Christ: Getting ready to start the 180th Synod session, September 26, 2020

How?

Pray! Then, by emptying ourselves of the desire to BE right, and renouncing our desire to turn everything to our own advantage. Then, by turning to God to see what kind of justice God desires… and acting on it. What does God’s justice look like? What does it look like in the lives of faithful people? A just church prioritizes relationships — and lives in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural creation.

What we are interested in is God’s justice. First, this involves God’s judgement. We recoil a bit from this – rightly, rightly, we do not like “judgementalism”. But to judge is to form an opinion of something or someone, to conclude something. We don’t like unjust, unfair, unwarranted judgement. Judgementalism. This is why justice can be tricky, difficult, elusive. Whose justice do we seek? What criteria do we use for judgement? Who gets to decide what is “just”?

We WANT God’s judgement. God’s justice. And recognizing that takes a lot of interpretation, a lot of listening, a lot of prayer. But we do seek it. It will be good for ALL of us.

Jesus teaches us that God judges us to be worth loving, saving, keeping – unlovely as we are! And God considers that justice!

This judgement saves us. Because the judge is just. So, we cherish and seek God’s justice for all. We WANT God to judge us—“search me, LORD”! Find what’s “off” and correct it, and heal it, and make me an agent of your justice.

The work is before us. There are so many different kinds of injustice: racial injustice; economic injustice; climate injustice. So, we ask, What kind of God do we see revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? What does Jesus teach us about justice? Why is this so good!?

This is our mission:

What has he has told you, O mortal, what is good?
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

We seek to be a more just church. Possible ways to strengthen this: focus strongly on marks of mission 4 and 5.

  • respond to human need by loving service,
  • seek to transform unjust structures of society, and challenge violence of every kind, and pursue peace and reconciliation,

AND strive to safeguard the integrity of creation. This last one is really the one that undergirds the others – and the most overlooked in these generations: But there is a LOT we can do, with tangible involvement of youth members and measurable goals. (eg. Carbon-reduction goals, etc) It can serve as an example of the kind of work we’d do over the next six months, to ask questions like: What goal should we set for going carbon-neutral? 2045? 2030? Church of England has done this, we can do it. HOW, do you do that? We’ll need a plan. We’ll decide together on these things…

Another example of our ongoing work towards God’s justice is in the area of healing and reconciliation with the Indigenous people of this land. Indigenous Anglicans have sought this healing and reconciliation for hundreds of years. It is part of the most important and fruitful work we can be doing. And the benefits will be for ALL.

It is time to take the work of LAIC and Bridge-Building to the next level. We need Indigenous voices woven into every key decision we make. In order to help with that, I’m appointing the Rev. Rosalyn Elm as Archdeacon for Reconciliation and Indigenous Ministry.

Like our two other “Bishop’s Archdeacons” (Archdeacon of Huron and Archdeacon for Congregational Development) the Archdeacon for Reconciliation and Indigenous Ministry will be around the table with the territorial Archdeacons as ones who share prominently in the episcopal ministry of the Bishop.

We are grateful to all Indigenous Anglicans in Huron, (and to all Archdeacons!), and to Ros for the work that you are doing and that you are willing to do to fulfil this role.

There is no need to be overwhelmed by the many injustices of the world. God will reconcile all thing in Christ. In the meantime, we do what we can, with what we have, all of the time.

Another reason to have hope is that we already have great leadership and so many human resources in our churches to make it possible.

A DIVERSE CHURCH AND A ‘NEW CHURCH’

To be open to God’s desire, we aspire to be a (1) learning church, (2) a just church, (3) a diverse church, (4) a new church.

(3) A diverse church. “We seem to be living in a world at war with its own diversity” – this is foolishness at it most destructive. Want to see a beauty that we’ve never seen before in our churches? Then embrace: multi-traditioned, multi-cultured, multi-lingual, multi-racial… Unity only in diversity!

When I was a kid, there was no internet, no video games. I had wonderful two sisters who didn’t always want to play road hockey with me, and a neighbourhood full of kids who were mostly older than me, so, sometimes I just sat on the ground and looked at whatever came along.

Blades of grass, dirt of different kinds, stones, rocks, sticks, and bugs. There are a lot of different kinds of bugs, and crawling things, and I was amazed by this. All right under our feet. Right under our noses.

Later, I studied Science, biology mainly, because the diversity of the natural world was endlessly fascinating. Then when I started learning more about human beings, and social dynamics, and psychology, and philosophy, and theology… I saw that there are thousands of thousands of “species” of everything. And that’s just on our planet. Look up at the stars at night and your imagination has to be stretched beyond its current shape to even take a bit of it in.

And God made all of this. And loves all of this. The whole creation is almost endlessly diverse. God loves that, apparently. But some of us seem to hate it. I know that all this difference can seem overwhelming.

But why don’t we love it, like God does? Sin. That’s one of the words we have for it. There are places in our tradition where you can look to find something that will seem to hate diversity with us – like the story of the Tower of Babel. But there is another story that goes with that one, the Day of Pentecost. Which one of those two stories makes the angels in heaven rejoice? Pentecost, when all of the languages sounded together in harmony. And each one understood the language of each other. And it was beautiful.

Faith in the possibility of a new creation: Bishop Todd in Cronyn Hall, St. Paul’s Cathedral during the virtual Zoom Synod

We have not loved diversity enough, in our churches. We are missing out. Missing out on something good. I am a person who grew up comfortably in some forms of diversity. But in other ways, I have been swimming in a sea of same-ness.   It gives some predictability to my life, even if it’s a bit boring. It gives me an incredible amount of security. However, if we want more beauty and if we are going to live more fully as a “just church”, people like me will need to be more hospitable, radically hospitable, to difference and diversity. I believe that it will be good for us, and good for others who may be willing to be our siblings in the gospel.

So, among so many other things that we could do to become more diverse, one thing we could aim for would be to: to reorder the whiteness and englishness (without belittling) of our church in order to bring it closer to the diversity of the Anglican Communion as a whole, and closer to the demographic of our neighbourhoods.  We can ALL enjoy a more full expression of Anglican Christianity.

This one is more difficult than it sounds at first. So, we’ll need to have our eyes and ears open to people who are not currently in our church and those who are not currently being heard within it. I suggest that we measure progress carefully and to “reward” only those actions that bring us closer to the local-regional demographic measures.

That’s three… to dive further into being a learning church, a just church, a diverse church…

And finally, (4) a “new” church. 

I’ve got “new” in quotation marks here. This is not the kind of “new and improved” product that you’d find for sale in a store. This is not some “value-added” item that will make you feel better about yourself for a few minutes. This is the deepest, truest, form of “new” possible.

It is the kind of “new” that we hear described in the book of Genesis. God said… “let”… God said, “let… there… be light…” And there was light. Before that, light didn’t even exist. Before that, no one had even thought of light. It was new.

This is the new I’m talking about. “God speaks and creates something out of nothing.”

This kind of new was also seen, in a new way, on the third day. Jesus was dead. Really dead. Sealed up in a cave. Three days dead. When all hope is gone. And God said,  “Let… ” God said, “let there be life… in the face of this death.” Get up Jesus! You are the Risen One and there is a new creation.

That is what our church is built upon. Faith in the possibility of a new creation. When Jesus was raised up, they wanted to embrace him, to cling to him. But he says to them, go… Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them… There is a new creation stretching out before you. Church life is Resurrection life. And Resurrection life is a new creation. That’s the kind of “new” we are going to see. God will do this.

We are in a time of transformation and a certain dying and rising will be the mystery and joyride of our generation. This is our opportunity to be faithful to God, who is faithful to us.

So, in every decision, every grief, every opportunity, we will ask, “could this newness be the work of God? It looks like death, but maybe it’s something new, “is this a possible place where God’s new creation may take root?”

Friends of ours have two sons. They are in their late twenties now. But when they were little, the five-year old loved to sit on the floor in the middle of the family room floor and build castles out of blocks. The two-year old loved to toddle over and knock the buildings down.

This would happen repeatedly, and of course of was a great frustration for the older boy. He would try to stop him, but it was no use. His creations – architectural masterpieces – were just too vulnerable, too easily knocked down, too fleeting. The younger boy earned his nickname: “Kid Destructo”.

Jesus, looking at the Jerusalem Temple taught us this. The buildings never stand for long. Ultimately, not one stone is left upon another. It’s the same thing when you built roads and houses in the sandbox. The castles would stay for a while there, but the nights and rains would ultimately wash them away. The same thing happens at the beach in the summer time. Great sand castles are washed away by the waves. Is that like the work of “Kid Destructo”? Is this an evil? Or is it like the work of God? — creating “new heavens and a new earth.”

We seem to enjoy talk about things being made new. We love the psalm that says, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” “All things are being made new,” Isaiah proclaims in another place.

The phrases conjure up images of freshness and vitality. But, generally, in the Church we do not like new things!

It would be fine if we stuck with simply repairing or replacing things that we’ve always had – make new ones, just the same! We want new server’s robes or new curtains or new windows. Get the same kind as before! We want the preacher to preach about something new. But make sure it doesn’t look and sound too different! We want new people. But new ideas? A new way of praying? New song? No, no, the old ones suit us just fine.

“Nothing new is easy”: “Command Central” at St. Paul’s Cathedral, September 26

Nothing new is easy. In fact, “all things made new” is one of the most unsettling and downright controversial themes in Christian life. Inwardly, most of us long for another experience of “whateveritwas” that was so good in the past. But more often than not, “whateveritwas” prevents us from experiencing God… anew.

You can’t go back. And if you could, it wouldn’t be the same. You’ve changed. God has moved you to a new place. And God isn’t done with you yet.

A writer put it well. He asked, “Do you know what prevents you from experiencing God the most? The biggest obstacle in the way of your experiencing God is whatever your last experience of God was.”

Your last experience, whatever it was, was so wonderful and refreshing and renewing,

that you inevitably believe that every future experience will have to be exactly like that. And it won’t be.

God’s promise of a “new heavens and a new earth” desn’t seem so great when we admire what we’ve already accomplished – We want to keep what we’ve built . . . the large stones of the huge temples we build around us.

What is the temple for us? What is your holy temple that cannot be changed? It might be a literal church building. . . but I bet you don’t dream about that at night.

What did you build that you cherish? It might be those forts and dams of sand that you fashioned as a child. It might be that special place we escape to for refuge and respite.

Your temple might also be our own job, or your business. It might be your family, that you’ve built up – and are rightly proud of. Every one of those temples is one day made new, and it doesn’t mean that it will simply “fall”. It doesn’t mean that it will be destroyed.

But it is going to be made new – Someday, it will turn into exactly what God wants it to be. Which means – we lose something, and we gain everything.

That might be what Jesus was saying when his disciples were admiring the grandeur of the great temple in first-century Jerusalem. It was, indeed, a tremendous structure, and a suitable symbol of God’s greatness and glory. But Jesus knew that, one day, it would fall. He could not say for sure when it would be; but he knew that there are forces at work in the world that can sweep away even something so good as this. And when it happens, it would seem like the end of the world. It would seem like everything his people had ever worked for would be gone.

However, Jesus also knew that the temple’s destruction would not mean the end of God’s creation; it would not mean the end of salvation – God’s creative work. So, he urged people to bear suffering and newness with hope and patience. His life showed that all of us suffer, even the Son of God, and all of us go through destruction and tearing down.

All of us even go through death, but that is not the end. He died himself, but it was not the end. He was raised from the dead by God’s creative power. That’s newness!

Both of the little boys, both the Builder and Kid Destructo, are now engineers. Both of them creative and cooperative and unafraid of an open living room floor.

The great joy is in the work of building, in the layout and construction, in the realization of a completed project. For me, the real joy of church, is seeing God go to work among us. Visiting us with newness, taking some things away, providing other things. And our efforts are joined with the action of God.

Jesus was clear. The temple was destroyed, and he did build it up in three days. But it was not another Temple. It was himself, his body – this same Jesus who was crucified. And now he continually raises up for himself a body in the world. The church. So when we gather at the table and take communion, when we say, “the body of Christ”, we are not just referring to the bread. It is placed into the open, empty, hand of a human being… A person who has been made part of the body of Christ. The body of Christ. Newness.

So, I say to you, as St. Augustine said in his time,

“If then you are Christ’s body and his members,

it is your symbol that lies on the Lord’s altar –

what you receive is a symbol of yourselves.

When you say, ‘Amen’… You are saying amen to what you are.”

“The body of Christ”. Say Amen to what you are. And rejoice in the newness given!

Let us pray.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal life,

look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery.

By the effectual working of your providence,

carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation.

Let the whole world see and know

that things which were cast down are being raised up,

and things which had grown old are being made new,

and that all things are being brought to their perfection

by Him through whom all things were made,

your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.