Bishop Lee's 2013 Convention Address
November 23, 2013
Behold, I make all things new.
The theme for this 176th convention is that we are doing a new thing. Actually, I think that's not quite the title I want to use. I think I'd rather say, and I'll proclaim it here right now: God is doing a new thing. God is always doing new things. Our scriptures, the vast sweep of the contemplative tradition, the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection itself and the sending of the Holy Spirit -- they all testify to the truth of it. God is always doing a new thing, in creation and its ongoing renewal, in the evolution of human culture, in the community of faith, in our own individual lives. God is the prime mover, the creator and sustainer of all that is or every will be, and God's mission is the repair, the restoration, the re-newing of that creation into a right relationship with himself. The new thing is God's project and we who have been redeemed by God's unexpected action in Jesus, we have the staggering invitation to join in God's mission of making all things new. That's what we're for, that's what all of this is all about. There's a phrase ascribed to everyone from Abraham Lincoln to the management guru Peter Drucker, "The best way to predict the future is to create it." The Christian faith proclaims that God invites us to be nothing less than co-creators.
It's important to take care in identifying too easily all the new things happening in this world with the activity of God. Not all that is merely new is aligned with God's purposes. I would point to the introduction of Apple's latest operating system as proof of that! But with some humility I hope I can say that in this diocese I believe we are experiencing several signs of God's renewing activity. When the outcome of something new shows evidence of the fruits of the Spirit -- peace, joy, love, kindness, gentleness -- the Letter to the Galatians tells us we can rest easy that God is involved. God is doing many new things in and among and through us. I want to point to some of them now.
The Peoria Deanery
The first is the cause of great thanksgiving here today, the welcoming of our newest congregations in the Peoria Deanery. While every question has not been answered, we have begun to live into an expanded understanding of ourselves as a diocese and I want to say again that the fruits of the spirit are present in abundance among the clergy and people of our newest deanery. I and members of my staff, leaders of Episcopal Charities and Community Services have already spent some time working with leaders in that part of our diocese and I am looking forward to focusing my formal visitation schedule in 2014 on getting to know the congregations there in a much fuller way -- they have much to teach us about faithfulness and passion for the mission God has entrusted to us. I am grateful to Bishop Epting and now our newest assisting bishop, Bishop John Buchanan in helping to make that possible. I ask you to welcome Bishop Buchanan and his wife Peggy in particular over the next couple of days and certainly as Bishop Buchanan begins making visitations in the northern part of the diocese. Listen to his stories of God's grace.
Here's a new thing for you: we are growing. While I reported to this convention a couple of years ago that the membership and attendance figures in the Diocese of Chicago were flat (against the prevailing trends in the church of decline) and the "flat might well be the new 'up,'" I am happy to tell you that the latest figures drawn from parochial reports through 2012 show that our diocese is one of thirty three showing an increase in membership figures. Up makes a much better up than flat. I agree with several commentators that numbers like baptized membership and average Sunday attendance only tell part of the story -- why can't we figure out a way to count the number of lives our congregations touch in a given week? -- but nevertheless, it's surely a sign of vitality that we are reporting an increase in baptized membership and a 2.7% increase in average Sunday attendance, the largest numerical increase in attendance of the thirteen dioceses reporting such growth. I rejoice in particular at the growth of our Hispanic congregations, the vitality of the Julian Year and our campus chaplaincies, new support and initiatives of Episcopal Charities and Community Services like Waukegan to College and the East Bank Center in Peoria, the revitalization of long-established congregations. I firmly expect this trend towards growth to continue in our diocese. Thank you and thanks be to God.
Growth is God's gift. But I trust that it is a result too of our faithfulness to the work God calls us to undertake. What we focus on grows. I try to live on the basis of that wisdom. I believe it's true. And it is the foundation of our work around congregational development in the program we call Thrive. I believe with all my heart and soul that the purpose of the church is to offer people a life-changing encounter with the dying and rising of The Lord Jesus Christ, to teach people how to do and rise with him, in him. And the primary place of that encounter for us is the local congregation. The Diocese of Chicago is nothing more and nothing less than a network, an organism, a body of living cells, every local church fully and completely capable of manifesting the Body of Christ. The congregation is where people are baptized and formed in Christ, where God's word is broken open in scripture and preaching, where the hungry are fed and the needs of the marginalized are prayed over and met, where the bodies of those who have died are honored at the last and where the hope of resurrection is proclaimed. The privilege I share with the people on my staff is the joy of supporting the mission and ministry of our congregations. The bishop and staff serve as a kind of connective tissue, linking each cell into a healthy, growing body we call diocese. Congregational support, serving the needs of each congregation is the most important thing we do. It is job one and trumps every other concern.
What we focus on grows. The first cohort of twenty congregations in Thrive have met together intensively over the past year to focus on what is right in the church, not on what's wrong, but what's right and how to strengthen it, how to build on it. The feedback from the participants is overwhelmingly positive and the results are bearing fruit. The next cohort of 13 congregations will begin the Thrive journey in January. My dream is that over time a majority of all our congregations will be part of this new thing called Thrive.
St. James Commons and the Nicholas Center
What we focus on grows. New life, new health, new possibilities for meeting the needs of this hurting world, that's what we are to be about. And a significant tool we have been given for that work has occupied much of my attention over the past couple of years. It has been the renewal of our diocesan center, St. James Commons as a place of grace and gladness, a highly visible sign of the hospitality of the whole Episcopal Church in the heart of a great city. The capital campaign supporting the renewal of the plaza and the diocesan center has been a wonderful success, raising nine million dollars to date. The campaign continues, and every dollar we raise beyond our original eight million dollar goal goes to funds that are used to directly support congregations throughout the diocese. You'll hear more about the campaign a little later. The new things I want to highlight for you illustrates, I believe once again, the truth that what we focus on grows. As a result of our commitment to redevelop this asset, in the face of an uncertain economy and the constant temptation to play it safe, very generous donors have made it possible to finish the fifth floor of the diocesan center, since the 1960s surely one of the most underutilized assets of our diocese. The Nicholas Center will be a place of grace, full of programs, all focused on leading well. It will be a retreat center, 14 guest rooms with individual bathrooms and wonderful meeting facilities. We hope the construction will be completed by early spring and that it will be used constantly, as the headquarters for the Living Compass wellness ministry, for vestry retreats, for gatherings of leaders from across the diocese and from all over the larger church. I think it's going to be a kind of engine for new kinds of growth and vitality we have not begun to imagine yet.
The Legacy of Slavery
In a meeting recently somebody joked that our diocesan conventions were a little like Amway conventions. All cheering and good will. Well, I don't apologize for that. I think these kinds of gatherings should be primarily occasions for celebrating the unending goodness of God whose generosity knows no bounds. But among the new things God wants to bring about among us are matters which do not lend themselves to any measure of easy good cheer. Justice and repentance, truthfulness and fierce mercy also belong to God. The path to resurrection can never avoid the cross. And so another new thing we will begin to engage at this convention with a new focus is actually something as old as humankind. Over the past couple of years, at the request of this convention and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the Task Force on the Legacy of Slavery has been working diligently on its study of the ways in which our diocese has been and continues to be complicit in this sinful inheritance which drains the life out of us all. As the Presiding Bishop pointed out in a speech last week at the cathedral in Jackson, Mississippi, the concept of race is a human construct, often designed to quickly identify the other as a threat or worse, an object. And while progress has been made at dismantling the dehumanizing power of institutional racism, the work of doing so must go on as fearful attempts arise to reinstitute barriers to voting, the removal of affirmative action as a way to level the road, in racially targeted denial of benefits to the poor. The questions we will begin to wrestle with at this convention with renewed urgency I hope will include the ways we have participated and continue to benefit from structures of privilege and prejudice that keep us from realizing the promise we make at every baptism: "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being."
A friend of this diocese, the author Diana Butler Bass said to me once that out of all sins nostalgia may be one of the most pernicious. Nostalgia says that the best has already happened. But the God we worship, the God made known to us in Christ, the God who has not and never will leave us, that God is the one who makes all things eternally new. The best is always yet to be. I give thanks to serve with you as a people who are daring to believe that the future belongs to God and so do we.