Reflection on the Opening Addresses

The Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies Address the Opening Joint Session of General Convention

Early in the afternoon of July 4, both the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies addressed an opening joint session of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops at the 79th General Convention. Apparent at the start of both addresses is the tremendous respect and collegiality shared between these two leaders of The Episcopal Church. They both also highlighted challenges the church faces and gave the gathered deputations and bishops a strong reminder that Christ must lie at the heart of all that we do.

The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry spoke first in his usual style, which more closely resembles a sermon than an official address. Most assuredly, no one minded because his words were stirring and inspiring. He opened by reading from 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:
 "When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God."

He followed these words with lines from the hymn traditionally known as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," particularly the following stanza:
"In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die* to make men free,
While God is marching on."

As to be expected, he emphasized that we are not just The Episcopal Church, but are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. The importance of this differentiation lies in how we identify ourselves and the work we do. It also effects our loyalties and motivations. The Jesus Movement began when Jesus of Nazareth called his first disciples and his following expanded from there. It was, and is, a movement focused on justice and mercy for all of God's children and one that sees God in even the most contentious and divisive of situations. "The more we are who we are, more will be possible beyond all we ask or imagine," Curry stated.

Curry pointed out that Julia Ward Howe wrote her words at the beginning of the Civil War when the country was deeply divided, not unlike today. It was in the face of strife and division that Howe wrote of continuing to see God at work, His truth marching on in the face of human conflict and war. So, too, Curry said he has seen God's truth marching on in the myriad of ways Episcopalians have been witnesses to the power of the Gospel in our own time of conflict. He proudly listed his encounters with and observations of Episcopalians working with immigrants, protesting at Standing Rock, ministering in Charlottesville during the violent race riot, responding to natural disasters across the nation and beyond, and in our work to combat racism and work toward better care of God's creation.

Curry said we are called to stand "with others no one else would stand with...in the name of Jesus Christ, in the name of love." He also challenged General Convention to "reclaim a Christianity that actually looks something like Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, who says, 'By this they will know you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.'"

The Presiding Bishop was clear on what, or rather who, must be at the heart of all we do: Jesus of Nazareth. It is the model of "unconditional, unselfish, and sacrificial love" as evidenced in the cross of Christ that ever should be before us as we seek to be the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement in the world.

In closing, he brought in a lesser sung stanza of Howe's hymn:
"I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on."

The President of the House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, opened by pointing out she had the unenviable challenge of following the Presiding Bishop, probably the least desirable speaking slot in all of Christendom. That said, her address was equally challenging and profound. She spoke on the behalf of nearly all Episcopalians when she thanked the Presiding Bishop for drawing attention to The Episcopal Church by his, now famous, sermon at the Royal Wedding earlier this year. In particular, she thanked him for using his moment of fame to promote God's mercy, love, and justice.

Jennings pointed out the juxtaposition of the secular significance of July 4th with the lectionary readings that happened to have been assigned for today, all of which speak to the importance of welcoming the foreigner. She pointed out that, "The Bible tells us not to get comfortable because we were once strangers and could be again." Therefore, we are commanded to love the stranger, "even when it disrupts our comfortable relationships with temporal powers." Of course, she connected this to the injustice of separating immigrant families who have entered the United States at the Mexico-US border.

Jennings called on General Convention to commit to being uncomfortable in our work and to use the structures of our governance as a tool through which "the voices of all baptized" might be heard. The House of Deputies and the House of Bishops can choose "how to inhabit (our) legislative process" to fulfill the call of the Spirit and do the work God is calling us to do.

She named the conflict that likely will come in the committee hearings and on the floors of the different houses. She said that the "lack of unanimity will not negate the command to love the stranger." There can be no doubt that the conversations on immigration, prayer book revision, race relations, and more, may grow contentious. But through this work, we must continue to strive for God's justice.

Jennings reminded the joint session of the Gospel reading for the day, "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:44-45) She said that General Convention is, "Embarking on hard and holy work...Issues will cut close to our heart. As we debate, let us listen. As we vote, let us do so with charity fro those with whom we disagree."

The joint session of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops gave both speakers much-deserved standing ovations. Neither the Presiding Bishop nor the President of the House of Bishops shied away from the reality of conflict or the challenges the church faces today. Both quoted holy scripture as they held the love and ministry of Jesus as Nazareth as the goal to which The Episcopal Church should always strive. The two addresses combined for a powerful and inspiring start to the 79th General Convention.

Most of the Atlanta deputation arrived yesterday, July 3, though a few were in Austin earlier for committee meetings. Our deputies hit the ground running this morning, attending or leading open hearings for various committees.

The exhibitors set up and welcomed passersby with buttons, pamphlets, and more. The number of organizations and business is overwhelming! Deputies and guests can connect with new nonprofits and mission opportunities, find their next set of liturgical linens, or decide what seminary they might like to visit or attend.

We have familiar faces among the exhibitors. The Rev. Grace Burton-Edwards is sharing the mission of the Global Episcopal Mission Network (GEMN) with passersby. She invites all of us to share our experiences with global mission and outreach work and tag #GEMNstories. They want to hear your stories of ministry.

Dr. Catherine Meeks and others share the good news of the founding of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing at their booth. We are proud to have her presence and wisdom at General Convention as the founding Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center.

You've likely heard of  "Tiny Houses", but how about a "Tiny Chapel?" The Episcopal Diocese of Texas has parked their tiny chapel inside the exhibit hall. According to their brochure, this small chapel on wheels is used "to provide a place of hospitality, prayer, or simply quiet rest at festival and community events." Imagine if one of these had been along the Peachtree Road Race route? Or maybe along the tailgaters at a Tech or UGA game?

The staff at the communications center kiosk in the convention center hallway knows what lies ahead for the deputies. They have a "The psychiatrist is in" sign a la Lucy from the Peanuts cartoon. For just a nickel, deputies can have their mental needs tended.

Everyone is all smiles and excitement. Deputies, staff, and visitors greet each other in the vast hallways, connecting with old friends and making new ones. The legislative sessions haven't yet begun and the energy of hundreds of Episcopalians bounces off the concrete walls.

This afternoon, both the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies addressed a joint session of General Convention. They had challenging and encouraging words about the immediate work ahead of us as well as our long-term commitment to the work of Christ as the church. What may have been most apparent was the abiding respect and affection they have for one another.

Next, the joint session heard words of welcome from the Rt. Rev. Andy Doyle, Bishop of the Diocese of Texas. The President of the Episcopal Church Women spoke on the challenge of change, a sentiment echoed by the President and CEO of the Church Pension Fund.

The joint session came to a close but not before the House of Bishops made good on a bet. Two years ago, the President of the House of Deputies, a Syracuse fan, and the Presiding Bishop, a Carolina fan, placed a wager on which house could raise the most money for Episcopal Relief and Development. The success of the House of Deputies meant the House of Bishops had to serenade the President of the House of Deputies with the Alma Mater for Syracuse. And with that, the first session came to a close.