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Connecticut diocese engages parishes in collaboration by replacing deaneries with region missionaries

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 3:51pm

The Rev. Erin Flinn (left), North Central Region missionary for The Episcopal Church in Connecticut, talks to participants during a “Wild Worship” outdoor Eucharist service on Aug. 21, 2019. Photo: The Episcopal Church in Connecticut

[Episcopal News Service] For many years, reorganizing church structure and governance to be more efficient and effective has been suggested as a way to adapt to the societal changes The Episcopal Church is contending with. But the record of progress toward that goal has been mixed, at least on a church-wide level.

The Episcopal Church in Connecticut has taken its own action on structural reform by replacing its 14 outdated deaneries – which were seen as outdated – with six regions, each served by a “region missionary” who fosters collaboration and engagement in the parishes of that region.

Two years after the first missionaries were hired, their positions have gone from part-time to full-time and the program has been hailed as a success.

“The people and the parishes have faithfully chosen to realize the truth that the church and the world is changing … and there’s only going to be more change afoot,” the Rt. Rev. Ian Douglas, bishop of Connecticut, told the Episcopal News Service. “And instead of licking our wounds or wallowing in loss and decline, the people of The Episcopal Church in Connecticut have said, ‘Let’s look forward in faith and try on new ways of being the body of Christ.’”

The traditional deanery model – which hadn’t been adjusted since 1984 – had become dysfunctional, diocesan leaders said. When asked what wasn’t working about the deanery model, the Rev. Timothy Hodapp, canon for mission collaboration, couldn’t help but laugh.

“We had 28 participating members in what was then called the diocesan Executive Council, so that was two representatives from each of the 14 deaneries,” Hodapp said. “And of those 14, three were actually on the ground, active, doing a lot of really great work. The others – it would go from doing great work on one end to not participating at all on the other, and then kind of middling in between those two extremes. And so you might have your council come together and barely get a quorum, and the work of the council was oftentimes rubber-stamping what bishops and canons had already done.”

Even though it was apparent to some in the diocese that the deaneries overall were not adding to the life of the church or the communities they served, it took a fresh set of eyes to make substantive changes in the oldest organized diocese in the United States. Douglas, who became diocesan bishop in 2010, was the first to be elected from outside the state since the diocese was created in 1784.

“So the Holy Spirit was up to something here in Connecticut as far as wanting change,” Douglas said.

“There’s been a tradition, particularly in Connecticut, that the diocese is embodied in the bishop and staff and diocesan structures,” he added. “What I’ve underscored in everything that we do is the diocese is not the bishop and staff and council and standing committee, etc. The diocese is the united witness of the 160 parishes in Connecticut.”

The need for a change started to become clear during the work of the Task Force for Reimagining The Episcopal Church in 2013 and 2014. The task force, also known as TREC, eventually issued a report that recommended consolidating church governance structures. Some the most significant recommendations, such as a unicameral General Convention, still have not been adopted, but the task force’s work inspired the diocese to start its own task force in 2014.

“The good work that was begun by the general TREC initiative I think was too bold and too far-reaching for the whole church, which is why it really wasn’t picked up at General Convention,” Douglas said, “whereas we in Connecticut said, ‘Boy, sure makes sense to us. Why don’t we do it?’”

The TREC report inspired the “four C’s” that would eventually become the job description of the region missionaries: catalyze, connect, convene and build capability. Redrawing the deaneries into larger regions required the diocese to examine how each unique corner of the state has evolved over time, but it ultimately yielded a surprisingly familiar result.

“As we devised where these lines might be, to siphon off which chunks of villages are going to be in a region, we went back into the archives and we tried several different iterations,” Hodapp explained. “But following the trunk highways and the river valleys, etc., we parsed it, and it almost matched perfectly to 1843 archdeaconries; there were six of them. And here it was. So we returned to our legacy in a real sense.”

The Episcopal Church in Connecticut’s region missionaries: Dylan Mello, Erendira Jimenez, George Black, the Rev. Erin Flinn (standing), Maggie Breen and the Rev. Rachel Thomas (standing). Photo: The Episcopal Church in Connecticut

Along with consolidating the deaneries into regions and establishing the region missionaries, the diocesan task force also recommended abolishing all committees and commissions that are not canonically required. Those were replaced with “ministry networks,” but it’s not just a change in terminology; in keeping with the spirit of the task force, these new groups are organized from the bottom up, not from the top down. If any group of Episcopalians wants to act together on a particular issue, they can form a ministry network and get support from the diocese.

“There’s no application for recognition, there’s no canonical authorization; just do it,” Douglas said. “And if people say, ‘Well, how do we do the work, say, in prisons? Where’s the diocesan committee on prison ministry?’ We say, ‘go and do it. Organize yourself. You don’t have to wait for us to give you authority. You have the baptismal authority you need.’”

Two teams of about 30 people worked on the topic over the course of two years, Hodapp said, and when they put every committee and commission up on a wall, they realized what had to be done.

“What’s common to all of this?” Hodapp said. “And why do we have it established as a group that needs to be meeting with Robert’s Rules of Order and taking notes when we need to be more flexible, and we need to network differently, and we need to be in a world that has changed completely around us?”

Each region gathers for a convocation at least once a year, during which they select one lay person and one clergy member to serve on the diocesan Mission Council – which replaced the Executive Council – along with a representative from each ministry network.

The task force’s plan was adopted enthusiastically at the 2015 diocesan convention, and the region missionaries were the last piece to be implemented, with the first cohort of three priests and three lay people being hired in 2017. Their task, Douglas said, is not to be a stopgap to help keep struggling churches in business, although they do play an important role in the 67 percent of parishes without full-time clergy. Their task is to rethink how the churches operate in their communities, Hodapp says.

“Who else needs to be at the table? And that doesn’t mean just Episcopalians. But who are our allies within this village or these three villages? How do we really engage the neighborhood in a meaningful way, for what it needs for right now?” Hodapp said.

Maggie Breen, the missionary for the sparsely populated Northeast Region, spends each Sunday at one of the region’s 16 parishes, and every Sunday is different.

“I have been bringing a map of the town” in which each parish is situated, Breen told ENS. “And I’ll indicate where the parish is in the town and I’ll ask people to think about the town and tell me what things have they noticed that break their heart and what things have they noticed that really bring them joy, and we map those out, and then we brainstorm. What could we do about any of those?”

One of Breen’s accomplishments in her region is a lay preaching class, which had previously been done in the Northwest Region. She also organizes a series of “Crafting as a Spiritual Practice” days, in which participants – including members of other churches – connect over their hobbies and their faith.

The North Central Region’s missionary, the Rev. Erin Flinn, has organized a film and conversation series on racial justice and is working to connect wardens from different parishes so they can feel supported and share their experiences. She also is focusing on enabling parishioners to start mission work on their own.

“If you have a call, go do something,” Flinn said. “One of the things that I think the region [model] is great for is if you have a call to go and do something, but you don’t want to do it by yourself, contact me. Let me know what you’re doing. I guarantee there’s somebody else in the region that is doing the same thing.”

Flinn, who was ordained to the transitional diaconate in June, said the regional model has been particularly beneficial to the small parishes, helping them join forces and accomplish more together.

“We have several small parishes that are now collaborating in new ways,” Flinn said. “The mentality of regions and networks has really been a lifeline to our smaller communities that don’t have a lot of resources and only have half-time or quarter-time clergy.”

The regional missionaries have organized and facilitated mission trips, spiritual hikes, communication workshops, garden projects, paddling trips, book groups and more, and they also serve as a liaison between parishes and the diocese.

“I spend a lot of time trying to build relationships,” Breen said. “I frequently act as a sort of bridge between what’s happening at the ground level in the parish and then what’s happening at the diocesan house, bringing information from [the diocese] into the parishes, and then also bringing interesting things are happening the parishes up to [the diocese].”

Breen and Flinn were both in the original cohort of missionaries who started in 2017. After their two-year contract expired, three continued as full-time missionaries, while the other three chose not to stay and were replaced by new hires.

View this post on Instagram

The three new RMs recorded for @coffeehourpod this morning! Be on the lookout for the podcast next week. #episcopal #episcopalct #ecct #southwestecct #regionmissionary

A post shared by ECCT Southwest Region (@southwestecct) on Jul 2, 2019 at 12:07pm PDT

Above: New region missionaries Erendira Jimenez, George Black and Dylan Mello record a podcast.

Hodapp says the diocese has gotten queries from other dioceses interested in their structural reforms. He says his vision for the future of the regions and the region missionaries is “to be open-minded, and to see where God is going to take us. To fan into flame what’s working, to fan into flame experiments, trying things on, watching things happen and fall apart, figure out what worked and what didn’t.”

“What I’m learning,” Flinn said, “is that our churches are actually doing more than we realize. We just [weren’t] good at telling each other what we’re doing. … That was the biggest discovery.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.

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Presiding Bishop fields faith questions from Reddit users in ‘Ask Me Anything’ session

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 12:58pm

[Episcopal News Service] He may have preached at a royal wedding, but he’s never committed himself to answering whatever questions the users of the social network Reddit might throw at him – until now.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry spent the afternoon of Oct. 10 participating in his first “Ask Me Anything,” a popular Reddit feature that goes by the shorthand AMA. The idea behind the AMA session is for a person of some renown or import – from Bill Gates to a local TV weatherman – to mingle with the average Reddit user and take any and all questions. Curry’s AMA can be found on the r/Christianity subreddit.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry holds a sign promoting his Oct. 10 “Ask Me Anything” session on the social network Reddit.

“Looking forward to talking all things Episcopal Church, The Way of Love, Jesus Movement, and perhaps a little bit about that wedding,” Curry said in his introduction.

Attached was a photo of Curry holding a sign that read, “Hello Reddit!” In the corner of the sign was a hand-drawn depiction of Reddit’s alien mascot, Snoo, dressed in bishop garb.

Over about an hour and a half, the session generated 145 comments between Curry and his questioners. The questions touched on topics that included evangelism, devotional practices, preaching style, theological education, the Episcopal tradition and denominational decline.

“I find it helpful to remember that we are first of all not a religious institution. That we are first of all participants in the movement that Jesus began in the first century,” Curry said. “And that movement of Jesus – a movement of people that gathered around him and his movement of love – that movement has been an underground movement in the first century. … It may well be now that we have returned to being an underground movement again. And that’s okay, because our way is not the way of the world. It is the way of the crucified and risen One.”

The “Ask Me Anything” coincided with the release of new episodes in the second season of The Episcopal Church’s “Way of Love” podcast featuring Curry, according to Jeremy Tackett, Episcopal Church digital evangelist.

“We’ve been working for the past few months to find an opportunity for the presiding bishop to interact with the Reddit /r/Christianity community,” Tackett told Episcopal News Service. “They’re an active group, and we knew there would be great questions and a chance to reach beyond our normal Episcopalian audience.”

Some Reddit users asked Curry about his own spiritual growth.

“How has your relationship with Jesus changed over the years?” asked a user who goes by Ay_Theos_Meo. “How is your spiritual life different from your early days as Christian (if it is different at all)?”

“I have to admit that one of the things that really has changed is that Jesus really has a way of broadening my worldview and perspective rather than constricting and limiting it,” Curry responded, in part.

Another user asked whom Curry would like to meet to discuss faith. “Of course the answer is Jesus,” Curry said. He also added German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader in the civil rights movement.

Other questions were more lighthearted, and Curry was willing to play along.

lindsey7606: “Bishop Curry, what’s your favorite corny bible joke?”

PBCurry: “Old preachers never die, they just go out to pastor!”

And at a few points the “Ask Me Anything” session turned personal. One user mentioned being baptized and confirmed by Curry when he was bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina. Another Reddit user, Tepid_Radical_Reform, told Curry that many years ago Curry’s wife worked with the user’s mother at a bank in Cincinnati, and the mother also baby-sat Curry’s daughter.

“So, important question: Do you love Cincinnati Skyline Chili?” Tepid_Radical_Reform asked.

“I do,” Curry responded. “Especially when I’m not dieting!’

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

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RIP: Former Springfield Bishop Peter Beckwith dies at 80

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 2:27pm

The Rt. Rev. Peter Beckwith. Photo: Diocese of Springfield

[Episcopal News Service] The Rt. Rev. Peter Beckwith, who served as bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois from 1992 to 2010, died on Oct. 4 at the age of 80, according to the diocese. In addition to his ministry as bishop, Beckwith served as a chaplain for the U.S. Naval Reserve, Hillsdale College, the Illinois State Police, and a Michigan prison. In 2014, he left The Episcopal Church to join the Anglican Church in North America, becoming an assisting bishop in their Diocese of the Great Lakes.

Read the Diocese of Springfield’s obituary for Beckwith here.

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Service celebrating new saint seals bond between her congregation and church that took her name

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 1:16pm

Zora Nobles, left, and her cousin, Dwala Nobles, present relics of St. Anna Alexander at a service Oct. 6 at Saint Anna’s Episcopal Church in Antioch, California. Photo: Kazuhiro “Kaz” Tsuruta

[Episcopal News Service] A California congregation named for one of The Episcopal Church’s newest saints, St. Anna Alexander, celebrated its namesake at a Sunday worship service that included a visit from two members of the church that Alexander helped establish in Pennick, Georgia.

Dwala Nobles, 59, and Zora Nobles, 65, cousins and longtime members of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Pennick, brought with them century-old relics from Alexander’s work at the church and its school, including Alexander’s Book of Common Prayer. On Oct. 6, Saint Anna’s Episcopal Church in Antioch, California, welcomed them as the congregation celebrated Alexander’s legacy as the only black Episcopal deaconess.

“It was almost like coming home,” Dwala Nobles told Episcopal News Service in a phone interview the day after the service. “We felt like we were home among family and friends.”

Saint Anna’s, the first Episcopal church to be named after an African American woman, was formed in March through the merger of two former congregations, St. George’s in Antioch and St. Alban’s in Brentwood in the Diocese of California. Alexander had only a year earlier been confirmed as a saint in The Episcopal Church, when General Convention in July 2018 voted to add her and her feast day, Sept. 24, to the church’s calendar of saints.

Deaconess Anna Ellison Butler Alexander was born in 1985 to recently freed slaves and died in 1947. She ministered in rural Georgia, focusing on the education of poor black children. Photo: Diocese of Georgia

Alexander was born in 1865 and died in 1947, and she spent much of her adult life ministering to poor black residents of Glynn and McIntosh counties, particularly through education. She became a deaconess in 1907 in an era before the church allowed women as priests or deacons. Among those she taught at Good Shepherd were Dwala Nobles’ father and her cousin’s father.

Among the items they brought with them to California were Alexander’s hymnal from 1878 and a Sunday school ledger from the early 20th century. Some of the materials include Alexander’s handwritten notes on teaching methods.

“St. Anna was indeed the persistent force encouraging and urging her students to aim high,” the Rev. Jennifer Nelson, a deacon in the Diocese of California, said in her sermon for the Oct. 6 service. She is originally from Guyana and said Alexander reminded her of the caring teachers who encouraged her in her education.

“She had God’s blessing as she continued to forge onward, blazing a path that gives us a window that now shows us the courage and tenacity she would need to overcome the bigotry and discrimination in her time.”

During the service, Alexander’s Book of Common Prayer and other relics were placed on the altar. The cousins from Alexander’s Georgia church presented the congregation at Saint Anna’s with a framed picture of Alexander that was propped against the altar. Saint Anna’s reciprocated by giving Dwala Nobles and Zora Nobles a silver chalice that had been used by one of the two congregations that merged to form the new church.

St. Anna Alexander’s relics, including her Book of Common Prayer and hymnal, are placed on the altar during a service Oct. 6 at Saint Anna’s Episcopal Church. Photo: Kazuhiro “Kaz” Tsuruta

A video of the service was shared on the church’s Facebook page.

Alexander was “imbuing us with her spirit,” the Rev. Jill Honodel, the congregation’s long-term supply priest, told ENS. She described it as an emotional and joyous day, centered around highlighting the life and works of an Episcopal saint who is only beginning to receive the full recognition she deserves.

“It felt like together, from coast to coast, we are taking what has been hidden and invisible all these years and we have the privilege and the honor of revealing it,” Honodel said.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who visited Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in January 2018, also addressed those gathered at Saint Anna’s, through a brief video he recorded for the service. He alluded to a resource center established by Saint Anna’s.

“I rejoice in the fact that you, Saint Anna’s Episcopal Church, have focused on the needs of children and families in your community with a resource center for children and families,” Curry said. “That indeed is God’s work. That indeed is the work of Anna Alexander, deaconess of The Episcopal Church.”

Honodel and other local leaders spent the following day showing their two visitors from Georgia around the San Francisco Bay area, including a sightseeing stop at the Golden Gate Bridge. They were scheduled to return home with Alexander’s relics on Oct. 8.

“It was just really critical that we come for this. We know this is just the beginning of the relationship,” Dwala Nobles said.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

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California Bishop Marc Andrus recovering from stroke

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 10:44am

Diocese of California Bishop Marc Andrus participates in the People’s Climate March on April 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Marc Andrus via Twitter

[Episcopal News Service] The Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, bishop of the Diocese of California, is recovering after suffering a stroke at his office in San Francisco office on Oct. 7, according to the diocese.

Andrus, 62, had an ischemic stroke, in which a clot blocks blood flow in the brain, and received acute stroke therapies, the Rev. Abbott Bailey, the diocese’s canon to the ordinary, wrote in an email.

“He is now awake, alert, communicating well, and the news is encouraging,” Bailey wrote.

To allow Andrus’s family to focus on his health, Bailey requested that any communication be directed through her. Bailey also asked for prayers for Andrus; his wife, Sheila; their daughters, Chloé and Pilar; and the medical personnel.

“The family is immensely grateful for your love and support,” Bailey wrote. “As Sheila said, ‘He’s a tough Tennessee boy.’”

Andrus, a Tennessee native, was consecrated in 2006 as bishop of the Diocese of California, which encompasses the San Francisco Bay Area.

Andrus is a leading Episcopal voice on creation care issues and the fight against climate change. He has led several Episcopal delegations representing Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at global climate summits, and last month he was one of the bishops who organized a demonstration at the House of Bishops meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in solidarity with the youth-led climate strikes around the world on Sept. 20.

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Video: Presiding Bishop brings the Way of Love to London audience

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 12:29pm

[Episcopal News Service – London, U.K.] Punctuated by laughter and rousing applause, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry addressed a capacity crowd of 2,200 people at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on Oct. 3, bringing a message of how love is the only thing that has the power to change the world.

Hosted by Paula Gooder, chancellor of St. Paul’s, Curry spoke for 90 minutes as part of the cathedral’s adult learning series about the importance of the Jesus Movement and God’s dream for the world and humankind.

Earlier, the presiding bishop joined a conversation with the Ven. Liz Adekunle, archdeacon of Hackney and chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II, about issues of racial justice in the U.K. and the U.S.

The event launched an initiative by St. Paul’s Institute – a forum for reflection, debate and education – that will investigate themes of justice, power and race in 21st century Britain, listening to the experiences of those directly affected by asymmetrical race dynamics. The project will convene a 24-month task force that will produce a report proposing concrete policy recommendations for improving the access of black Britons into positions of leadership and power in all sectors of U.K. society.

On Oct. 2, Curry addressed an audience at Canterbury Cathedral about the power of music and how the songs his grandmother sang sowed a seed that influenced his faith journey and paved his pathway toward ordination. Full coverage here.

– Matthew MacDonald is associate editor of the Episcopal News Service.

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Archbishop Welby expresses vision for Anglican Communion at East Asian Anglican meeting

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 12:13pm

Archbishop Justin Welby addresses the Council of the Church in East Asia. Photo: ACNS

[Anglican Communion News Service] Anglican primates, bishops, clergy and laity from provinces in East Asia heard the archbishop of Canterbury give a powerful vision for the ministry of the Anglican Communion on Oct. 4. Archbishop Justin Welby made the comments during an address at the triennial Full Assembly meeting of the Council of the Church in East Asia (CCEA), which is taking place in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia. In his address, Welby spoke of the potential and capacity of the Anglican Communion to work for transformation in the world.

The CCEA brings together Anglican churches in Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam, as well as Australia and Japan.

Read the full article here.

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Neil Gorsuch’s ‘hero’ uncle was a progressive Episcopal priest on a winding spiritual path

Mon, 10/07/2019 - 11:55am

The Rev. Jack Gorsuch, shown at left in a photo from a 2017 memorial service bulletin, was called “a hero of mine” by his nephew, Neil Gorsuch, at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Justice Gorsuch is shown in a Reuters photo.

[Episcopal News Service] Facing the 20 U.S. senators who stood between him and a seat on the nation’s highest court, the nominee introduced himself by reading a statement that identified five men as his personal heroes. Four of those men were sitting or former Supreme Court justices. The fifth was an Episcopal priest – the Rev. John Gorsuch, the nominee’s late uncle.

“We recently lost my Uncle Jack, a hero of mine,” Judge Neil Gorsuch said in the 16-minute opening statement of his confirmation hearing on March 20, 2017. Before continuing, he paused to look over his right shoulder at Meg Hopkins, his cousin and Jack Gorsuch’s daughter, who was seated behind him with other family members.

“He gave the benediction when I took an oath as a judge 11 years ago. I confess I was hoping he might offer a similar prayer soon.”

Judge Neil Gorsuch reads an opening statement on March 20, 2017, during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Photo: White House via video

News articles at the time of Gorsuch’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court noted that he, his wife and their two daughters regularly attended services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado, which The Washington Post described as “a notably liberal church.” Since his confirmation as an associate justice on April 7, 2017, Gorsuch has earned a reputation as a reliable member of the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc.

Gorsuch begins his third full term on the Supreme Court on Oct. 7, but since his nomination, little has been reported about the uncle he remembered fondly at his confirmation hearing. The nephew’s high-profile shoutout only hinted at the breadth of the uncle’s winding 85-year spiritual journey.

“My father was a big, expansive thinker, so within that there was room for a lot,” Hopkins, who lives in Mequon, Wisconsin, said in an interview with Episcopal News Service about her father. “He was a progressive person,” she said, but that created no distance between him and Hopkins’ more conservative cousin.

“Neil and my dad loved each other very much, and it didn’t make any difference what their political views were,” she said.

Jack Gorsuch, who died just a month before his nephew’s confirmation hearing, was a Yale Divinity School graduate and runner-up in 1975 for bishop of the Diocese of Olympia. He led his congregation in Seattle, Washington, through the city’s racial upheaval in the 1970s, championed the ordination of women and later quit parish life to open a spirituality and meditation center with his wife, Beverly Gorsuch, a psychotherapist.

The Rev. Jana Troutman Miller and the Rev. Jack Gorsuch pose for a photo at an event at St. John’s on the Lake, a retirement community where the two Episcopal priests collaborated on a spirituality group for residents. Photo courtesy of Jana Troutman Miller

Even in his final years, Jack Gorsuch remained active in religious ministry. Living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at an Episcopal retirement community, Gorsuch partnered with the staff chaplain to start a spirituality group for residents.

“He was just a great guy. He was just very sweet and gentle, had a really great sense of humor,” the Rev. Jana Troutman Miller, chaplain at St. John’s on the Lake, told ENS. Gorsuch made many friends there in just over two years, she said. “He was just one of those personalities that attracted a lot of people. A lot of those folks went to him for spiritual advice.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who declined an interview for this story, recently published a book, “A Republic, If You Can Keep it,” about his judicial philosophy and the importance of civil discourse in American public life. He has avoided speaking publicly about his faith and spiritual background.

“People would view that as me tacitly admitting it has something to do with my day job, and I reject that,” Gorsuch said in an interview with a Wall Street Journal editorial board member. He acknowledged, though, that faith is “a great reservoir of strength for me. I need it, as a person.”

His uncle, on the other hand, left little written record of his political views but spoke openly of his faith – from the pulpit, during contemplative prayer gatherings, at the spiritual development center he co-founded, in written messages to fellow Yale Divinity alumni and in his 1990 book, “An Invitation to the Spiritual Journey.”

The book was a primer on looking inward for God’s presence, but Gorsuch briefly turned his focus outward.

“At our best in contemporary America we are attuned to a spirit of warm generosity and openness of spirit that makes room for great diversity and welcomes the best efforts of all citizens to better themselves. At our worst attunement is wolfish,” Gorsuch wrote. “Each part of the larger whole undertakes only its own gain.”

Parish priest in a time of change

The Rev. Jack Gorsuch is seen in an undated photo from his 17 years as rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington. Photo: Epiphany Episcopal Church

A news article in 1985 described Gorsuch as “a lanky, relaxed father of two.” In portraits at various ages, his appearance is virtually unchanged: round glasses, white clergy collar, his hair parted loosely into a wave, a welcoming smile bubbling from a reservoir of optimism.

Neil Gorsuch, a native of Denver, Colorado, says in the introduction to his book that his life’s story “has its roots in the American West.” The same could be said for his uncle.

Jack Gorsuch was born Feb. 1, 1932, in Denver, the oldest of four children. Their father, the elder John Gorsuch, drove a trolley to pay his way through college before opening a law firm. “He cared deeply about his community and he showed it,” Neil Gorsuch wrote of his grandfather. “By his example, he taught me to care about my community, work hard, and make the time we have here count – and to be sure to laugh a lot along the way.”

Jack Gorsuch, older brother of Neil Gorsuch’s father, attended public schools in Denver before moving to Connecticut to attend Wesleyan University. He was president of his fraternity and in 1953 earned a bachelor’s degree in intellectual history. In 1956, he graduated from Yale Divinity and was ordained a priest by Washington Bishop Angus Dun at Washington National Cathedral. Parish work followed, in Washington, D.C., and Kansas.

A Diocese of Olympia newsletter features an article about the Rev. Jack Gorsuch being called as rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Seattle in 1968. Photo: Diocese of Olympia

In 1963, he was called to serve as rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Yakima, Washington, a midsize city southeast of Seattle in the mostly rural Diocese of Spokane, and within a few years he was one of 55 candidates vying for rector at the larger Epiphany Episcopal Church in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood bordering Lake Washington.

“This is a time when the foundations are shaking all about us,” Gorsuch wrote in a brief essay submitted to Epiphany along with his biographical details, yet parish ministry remained to him an “indispensable tool of God,” specifically for worship, formation, pastoral care and outreach. He added that congregations may need to rethink their claims to a mere “spectator” role in society.

“What about the role of the parish church in revolutionary times like ours?” he continued. “The job of the parish clergyman today, as I see it, is neither to be a milquetoast nor a brash martyr, but, wherever possible, a prophetic spokesman for God and a sensitive servant of people.”

Epiphany welcomed Gorsuch as its new rector at a ceremony in October 1968. The church and priest “were soon venturing into new liturgical, theological and cultural territory,” Barbara Stenson Spaeth, a longtime member of Epiphany, wrote in her 2007 centennial history of the parish. A decade later, she wrote of his influence in a memorial tribute for the church’s newsletter. “The Rev. John P. Gorsuch, witty, innovative and progressive, undoubtedly transformed Madrona’s Epiphany Church, and in significant ways, the wider Episcopal Church in our city and region.”

Epiphany in 1968 lay on the fault line of redlined housing segregation in Seattle, Spaeth told ENS. That divide fueled increasing tensions in the late 1960s and early 1970s between the racially diverse Madrona neighborhood to the south and the primarily white Denny-Blaine neighborhood to the north.

Gorsuch “was, in this community, a leader in civil rights advocacy and racial integration,” Spaeth said. He visited with residents at their homes, listening to white neighbors who felt wary of integration and listening to black neighbors who said they didn’t feel welcomed at Epiphany.

He invited them all to the church.

Gorsuch also oversaw the congregation’s decision to separate from its adjoining private school, which had become a magnet for children from affluent white families who weren’t Epiphany members. He developed connections with the interreligious faith community in Seattle. He rallied the congregation together in the wake of a 1975 arson attack on the church, which luckily sustained little more than smoke damage in the fire.

And on Feb. 3, 1977, he preached at Epiphany during the ordination of the Rev. Laura Fraser, the first female priest in the Diocese of Olympia. The service drew intense media coverage and was remembered as “one of the ‘happenings of the 1970s’” in Seattle, according to the Post-Intelligencer. Fraser had “created a sensation.”

Opponents of women’s ordination held a rival service across town on the same day. At General Convention the previous year, Olympia Bishop Robert Cochrane had voted against the resolution that paved the way for women to become priests,  but he still agreed to preside at Fraser’s ordination. More than 50 clergy members from around the country attended, and the service was seen as “a real victory,” one of those priests recalled in 2002.

In championing such issues, Spaeth suggested Gorsuch was ahead of his time. “In his day, in that era, which was so transformative and so full of change for the city, he was definitely on what anyone would call a progressive track,” she said. “The character of the church today, at least in our part of the world, matches what Jack would have wanted.”

‘I took an inward turn’

Later in life, Gorsuch looked back on that time and noted he was growing disillusioned with career ambitions within the church – a “good midlife crisis” brought on by a lost bishop election.

A diocesan publication includes the Rev. Jack Gorsuch’s responses to a questionnaire in 1975 when he was a candidate for bishop of the diocese. Photo: Diocese of Olympia

“Moving into the episcopacy seemed to me like the outcome of a fairly fast run up the church chairs,” he wrote in “Invitation to the Spiritual Journey.” In 1975, he and Cochrane were finalists to lead the Diocese of Olympia, but Cochrane, then rector of Christ Church in Tacoma and chaplain to the city’s police department, was seen as a more conservative candidate. Cochrane won on the eighth ballot.

The loss was a humbling blow to Gorsuch. His parish, though sympathetic, was glad to have him for a few more years.

“He should have been our bishop, but we are grateful he stayed our rector,” Spaeth told ENS.

Just six months later he again was a finalist for bishop, this time in the Diocese of Indianapolis, but Gorsuch never made it to the ballot there. One night he dreamed he was being vested in a cope and miter, but they suddenly went up in smoke, revealing a baby bathed in light. He called up the search committee the next day and withdrew from consideration.

“I took an inward turn, and I’ve been on an inner journey ever since,” Gorsuch said years later in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer story. In his book, Gorsuch gave a longer explanation for his inward turn, saying he felt guilty that he was letting his daily routine and personal ambitions distract him from cultivating a deeper relationship with God.

“I was someone who had gotten too busy for God,” he said. “I had taught courses on the spiritual life and prayer in adult education classes with some success, but my own spiritual life was underdeveloped,” he said. He began reading and rereading books by those “who had taken the spiritual journey another step,” from St. Teresa of Avila to Thomas Merton.

By 1981, his spiritual exploration was reflected in a biographical message he wrote for the 25th anniversary of his Yale class. “I’ve gone much deeper into prayer and meditation, and have increasingly found that God is much more than a theological premise or ‘sometime reality,’” he said. “At the same time exciting things are going on in this parish.”

He concluded, “I’m not terribly optimistic about everything that’s happening in the American scene right now, but I am increasingly aware of the grace of God. It’s a tough and glorious time to be alive.”

President Ronald Reagan had just taken office and appointed Gorsuch’s sister-in-law, Anne Gorsuch, as EPA administrator. The job required her to move her family, including her 13-year-old son, Neil Gorsuch, from Colorado to Washington, D.C. The teen’s parents divorced a year later. Anne Gorsuch, shortly after remarrying, resigned from the EPA in 1983 amid a scandal related to her ties to chemical companies.

The year 1983 was pivotal for Jack Gorsuch. He was granted a sabbatical, during which he visited a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico, studied deep meditation at a spiritual community in California and trained as a spiritual director at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C.

In his final two years at Epiphany, he was leading two contemplative prayer groups, as well as a “God 202” class for new and returning church members. In 1985, he resigned as rector, and he and Beverly Gorsuch opened the Center for Spiritual Development in rented space on the St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral’s campus.

The Rev. Jack Gorsuch participates in the October 2014 ordination ceremony for the Rev. Jana Troutman Miller at St. John’s on the Lake in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Jana Troutman Miller

“I think they always defined themselves as Episcopalians,” Hopkins said of her parents, but they became more interested in “helping others in the inner journey” than in their own professional advancement.

The ecumenical, nonprofit spiritual center was “designed to help people explore, deepen and affirm the place of God in their lives without underestimating the challenges along the way,” according to the center’s introductory brochure. For more than five years, the Gorsuches led classes and retreats at the center. In 1991, they handed over the reins to a new executive director, the Rev. Jerry Hanna, a fellow Episcopal priest.

Hanna, now 80, is vicar of St. David Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Shoreline, Washington. In an interview, he said, the center rode the waves of broader trends in American spirituality.

“We were in kind of a descending peak of the New Age movement, which involved a lot of esoteric, and what we could say, semimystical experiences and teachings, so it was really a hotbed of those kinds of spiritualities which were proliferating all over the country,” Hanna said. He remained at the center for nearly three decades, until it closed this year.

Hanna told ENS he had been trained in the transcendental meditation tradition, while “Jack was a traditionalist, in the sense that he attached himself first to centering prayer and teaching spiritual direction.”

In his forward to Gorsuch’s 1990 book, Gerald May wrote Gorsuch was grounded his spiritual teachings in theology, scripture, psychology and “a realistic appraisal of the graces and confusions of modern daily life.” Gorsuch had studied with May at the Shalem Institute, where May served as spiritual director.

“His journey has inspired mine as I have seen him claim and act upon his desire to seek a deeper and more direct conscious relationship with God, and to help others do the same,” wrote May.

‘More to learn, more to grow’

Gorusch’s 17 years at Epiphany spanned nearly the entire childhood of his nephew, the future Supreme Court justice, and Neil Gorsuch’s subsequent college years and professional life coincided with his uncle’s spiritual journey beyond The Episcopal Church.

Neil Gorsuch, who was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, earned his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 1988 and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. He worked as a law clerk to a federal appeals court judge just as Jack Gorsuch was stepping away from the Center for Spiritual Development.

In 1996, he married Marie Louise Burleston, a British graduate student he had met while working on his doctorate at Oxford University. Louise, as she is known, grew up in the Church of England, and when the Gorsuches returned to the United States together, they became members of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Vienna, Virginia, according to a CNN report on Gorsuch’s faith background.

While Neil Gorsuch lived in Virginia and clerked for  Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy before venturing into private law practice, Jack and Beverly Gorsuch spent eight years living at an ashram in California focused on East-West spirituality.

Both of Neil Gorsuch’s parents died in the early years of the new century, before he began working for the Department of Justice in 2005. With his parents gone, Gorsuch’s bond with his uncle strengthened, Hopkins said. “Neil and my dad were just personally super close, had just a really sweet, personal relationship,” she said.

Appellate Court Judge Neil Gorsuch reacts to comments made by speakers at a swearing-in ceremony Nov. 20, 2006 in Denver. Also pictured are his daughter, Emma; his wife, Louise, and his uncle, the Rev. Jack Gorsuch. Photo: Ken Papaleo/Rocky Mountain News via Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

On Nov. 20, 2006, when Jack Gorsuch spoke at the swearing-in ceremony in Denver for newly confirmed 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch, the Denver Post reported the event was “a family affair.”

By then, Jack and Beverly Gorsuch had settled in Bellingham, Washington, to be near their older daughter, Anne Gorsuch, who lived in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The best way to sum up what’s going on for me at this point is to say I seem to be a guy who is getting clearer about what it means to wake up,” the former parish priest wrote in 2006 for his 50th Yale class anniversary, and he praised his wife as “an incredible partner, insightful and as spiritually intentional as anybody I know.”

In 2014, with Beverly Gorsuch suffering from dementia, she and her husband moved to Milwaukee, where she still lives, just a few miles south of her daughter.

Hopkins said being at St. John’s on the Lake in his final years boosted her father’s spirits. He became fast friends with Miller, the chaplain, and participated in her ordination ceremony that October. In 2016, during his final year, they collaborated on a “saging” group, in which 10 or so people gathered to discuss spiritual questions related to aging.

Miller said Gorsuch was personally exploring the same questions for himself.

“Being in his 80s, he was very much looking at what comes next and the experience of continual learning and growth that happens after death,” Miller said. “He was convinced that it doesn’t just stop, the learning and growth doesn’t just stop with death, but there’s more to learn, more to grow.”

Beverly and Jack Gorsuch are all smiles during a gathering at St. John’s on the Lake, a retirement community where they moved in 2014. Photo: Jana Troutman Miller

When President Donald Trump announced on Jan. 31, 2017, he was nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the family greeted the news with pride, and on a group call with family members, “the pastor joked that some of the people on the line were Democrats,” according to CNN.

The nomination became a topic of conversation around St. John’s on the Lake only because residents made the connection between the name making headlines and their friend, the Episcopal priest, Miller said. He would hint that his politics didn’t neatly align with his nephew’s politics, but “he was gracious to his nephew,” she said.

The service bulletin from a May 20, 2017, memorial service at Epiphany Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington, features this undated photo of the Rev. Jack Gorsuch.

Jack Gorsuch, 85, died on Feb. 15, 2017, two weeks after his nephew’s nomination to the Supreme Court. A funeral service was held at St. John’s on the Lake’s chapel, and three months later, in Seattle, Epiphany celebrated Gorsuch’s life in a memorial service. His two daughters and a former clergy colleague gave eulogies.

One of the readings was from Gorsuch’s own book: “The place to start with the spiritual journey, when with the help of trust we move beyond our stuck places, is with ourselves before a God who takes us where and as we are. There is no other place to begin. We are who we are. We are no less and no more farther along the path than at this moment. This is great ‘good news.’”

Hopkins, 57, said her father’s death likely was still fresh on the mind of Neil Gorsuch as he sat one month later for his confirmation hearing, one reason he gave a nod to the uncle in his opening statement.

Jack Gorsuch may not be alive to speak at his nephew’s swearing-in ceremony for the Supreme Court, but “as it is, I know he is smiling,” his nephew said.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

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Grandma’s songs set overture to Presiding Bishop’s faith journey

Fri, 10/04/2019 - 12:47pm

[Episcopal News Service – Canterbury, U.K.] As a child, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry would listen intently as his grandma sang hymns at the kitchen sink.

Familiar tunes gave meaning to holy words. Even in her darkest moments of despair, as her daughter lay dying in hospital following a brain hemorrhage at 44, Grandma Nellie Strayhorn would sing.

As she prepared dinner for the family, those melodious interludes would sow an important seed for the 14-year-old Curry, feeding his love of music and ultimately influencing his journey along the Jesus Movement.

“That memory of her singing those songs imprinted itself profoundly on me,” Curry told an audience gathered at Canterbury Cathedral’s Clagett Auditorium on Oct. 2. “Thinking about it now, I realize she was singing those songs, cooking food for her grandchildren and her son-in-law, while her own daughter was in a coma … [I thought] any woman who has figured out how to do that in that set of circumstances knows something that I want to know about this Gospel, this Jesus, about this God.”

Curry later told ENS that the power of music is multilayered, and these particular songs in the midst of sorrow were clearly meditative. They brought healing and strength, not just for grandma, but for the whole family.

The Very Rev. Robert Willis, dean of Canterbury Cathedral, hosts Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry for an Oct. 2 conversation about the importance of music and the songs his grandma sang. Photo: Adrian Smith/Canterbury Cathedral

Invoking a West African saying, “Without a song, the Gods will not descend,” Curry told his Canterbury audience, “There’s something about song that speaks on multivalent levels in us. And sometimes the song, the hymn, can reach down in crevasses deep down inside of us, that words by themselves don’t necessarily reach … It has the power to evoke something. It is like some music can speak to the soul.”

The Very Rev. Robert Willis, dean of Canterbury Cathedral and a music composer, hosted the conversation with Curry. He pointed out that the sermons you remember “are few and far between, but the hymns are actually embedded in your head and heart.”

Following the success of Curry’s book Crazy Christians, Church Publishing Inc. encouraged the presiding bishop to write another book. CPI’s Vice President for Editorial Nancy Bryan told Curry she had noticed that whenever he preached he would often quote a hymn. “When I looked back at my sermons, I realized there was a pattern to them and many of the hymns I was quoting were actually the hymns that grandma used to sing,” he said.

This realization led to the 2015 publication of Songs My Grandma Sang, which provided the theme for the Canterbury event.

Many of the hymns Curry references in his book – such as Just As I Am Without A Plea; Amazing Grace; Just As I Feel Discouraged; I’m So Glad Jesus Lifted Me; I Come To the Garden Alone – had been an integral part of U.S. culture, particularly in the southern states.

Curry’s father was an Episcopal priest and his grandma was a “rock-ribbed” Baptist, “so I grew up with those two very different worlds in one sense, but at their deeper level very similar, and that has formed me as much as anything.”

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Curry said that his father was active in the civil rights movement and remembers a series of meetings with black preachers of various denominations that he later realized had been the planning for the buses that would transport them to join the March on Washington in 1963.

“So I grew up in this world that was really about making the world and life something closer to God’s vision and God’s dream for all of us,” he said.

The songs and sayings that pervaded the lives of Curry’s grandma and her generation – who lived through the Jim Crow years of enforced racial segregation – “reflected a deep faith and profound wisdom that taught them how to shout ‘glory’ while cooking in ‘sorrow’s kitchen,’ as they used to say,” Curry writes in the first chapter. “In this there was a hidden treasure that saw many of them through, and that is now a spiritual inheritance for those of us who have come after them. That treasure was a sung faith expressing a way of being in relationship with the living God of Jesus that was real, energizing, sustaining, loving, liberating, and life-giving.”

Curry recalled hearing Andrew Young Jr., a leader in the civil rights movement and a close confidant to Martin Luther King Jr., say that there would have been no movement had they not had songs. “What I think he was saying was that something had to keep people marching when they were scared to death,” Curry said. “It’s sort of like a mantra, something that you can keep singing that can keep you focused and then you can handle whatever is coming at you … When cultures stop singing, something is missing.”

Willis acknowledged that Amazing Grace, with text by English priest and abolitionist John Newton, is one of the few hymns or songs that is widely known throughout the Anglican Communion. But he recently learned that the text of the final verse, which begins “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining like the sun” actually came from the southern U.S. around the time of the American Civil War. According to sources, the verse was written by American abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe. “It was written as a verse of hope…but it’s a nice thing to think that the two cultures came together in that one hymn,” Willis said.

Even in the most tragic circumstances, music has the power to uplift and regenerate.

Curry remembers reading a speech from the director of the New England Conservatory of Music, who told his freshman students not to think about music as a frivolous add on to life. The music director was in New York when 9/11 happened, and said he saw a city silenced. “The first sign of life was when the symphony [orchestra] played music and people sang,” Curry quoted him as saying. “Don’t think music is a frivolous thing. It speaks to the soul.”

Similarly, Willis said he was moved by seeing people singing and lighting candles in Paris as Notre Dame was ablaze.

The Canterbury event marked the first time Curry had been invited to speak publicly about his book, Songs My Grandma Sang. He told ENS that it was a special moment to be able to reflect on her indomitable faith and profound influence that paved his pathway towards ordination.

The Very Rev. Robert Willis, dean of Canterbury Cathedral, hosts Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry for an Oct. 2 conversation about the importance of music and the songs his grandma sang. Photo: Adrian Smith/Canterbury Cathedral

Following his royal wedding sermon that was watched by 1.9 billion people, Curry confessed that his grandma had been in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. “She was there in the room singing hymns. I could hear her voice in the back. She was saying: “I gotta see this, I gotta see this.”’

As he reflected further on her life, Curry shared that during a very difficult time in college when he was pursuing a path towards political advocacy, his grandma’s face appeared and that started his discernment for the priesthood. He started to read some of the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and “that’s when it all began to crystallize,” he said. “Well, if you want to have an impact on the world where we live, maybe your way is to become a priest.”

Although Curry’s grandma didn’t live to see him ordained, she knew he was in seminary. Curry said that when she found out, she joked, “Now Baptist preachers ain’t get the call; they start preaching. How come you’ve got to go to school?”

— Matthew MacDonald is associate editor of the Episcopal News Service.

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South American bishops call on governments to stop deforestation

Wed, 10/02/2019 - 3:50pm

Fires burn in the Amazon rainforest. Photo: NASA via ACNS

[Anglican Communion News Service] A group of eight Anglican bishops from five South American countries have issued a joint statement calling for governments to urgently implement zero deforestation following devastation from fires in the Amazon.

The bishops, representing indigenous people in churches in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Perú and Uruguay, described the fires as evidence of “human pride and disobedience against God’s command to be stewards of His creation.”

Read the full article here.

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Former Anglican Communion UN rep will be Archbishop Welby’s reconciliation adviser

Wed, 10/02/2019 - 3:46pm

[Anglican Communion News Service] A former Anglican Communion staff member has been appointed as the archbishop of Canterbury’s new adviser for reconciliation.

The Rev. Canon Flora Winfield will lead the archbishop’s reconciliation work, which is a core aspect of his ministry. Winfield had worked in Geneva as the Anglican Communion permanent representative to the U.N. for a number of years, before becoming the archbishop’s special representative to the Commonwealth last year.

Read the full article here.

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Diocese of Oklahoma names three nominees for bishop

Wed, 10/02/2019 - 1:56pm

[Diocese of Oklahoma] The Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma is excited to announce the nominees for the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Oklahoma. Following a yearlong search and discernment process, the Search Committee announces that the nominees are the Rev. Scott Gunn, the Rev. Greg Methvin and the Rev. Poulson C. Reed.

Gunn is currently the executive director of Forward Movement, based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Methvin is currently the rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Frisco, Texas. And the Reed is currently the rector of All Saint’s Episcopal Church and Day School in Phoenix, Arizona.

The candidates will participate in “walkabouts” from Dec 6-8 to engage with diocesan clergy and community members.  The election will take place on Dec. 14 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City, and the bishop consecration will follow on April 18.

The Rt. Rev. Edward J. Konieczny, bbishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, announced in November his intention to retire on January 1, 2021. Konieczny was elected and consecrated as the fifth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma in 2007, and at the time of his retirement will be in his 15th year as bishop.

To find more information on the candidates including CVs, essays and videos please visit the diocesan website at epiok.org/candidates and follow our Facebook and Instagram accounts to stay up on the latest news on the bishop of Oklahoma search process.

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Bishop of Barbados asks churches to address the age gap

Wed, 10/02/2019 - 1:43pm

[Anglican Communion News Service] Churches need to do things differently, using social networks and technology to draw the younger generation back to church, according to the Bishop of Barbados, Michael Maxwell, who said there was a significant age gap in many congregations.

Speaking at a lunchtime lecture in St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Bridgetown, the bishop said he had seen the demographic in the church change over the years with many more mature people now attending and a gap of those aged between 15 to 25.

Read the full article here.

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Houston church’s mental health ministry now serves 800 people a week for free

Tue, 10/01/2019 - 5:16pm

Director of Clinical Services Madeline Stiers discusses one-on-one dynamics during a training event at the Hope and Healing Center and Institute on the campus of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. Photo: HHCI

[Episcopal News Service] It’s a scene familiar to many clergy: Someone walks into the church office wanting to speak to a priest, clearly in distress. Within a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear that the person is suffering from a mental illness.

For many priests who want to help a person seeking healing but simply aren’t equipped to deal with mental illness, this experience can be agonizing – and can end with the mentally ill person feeling more dejected than before.

But at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, the scene has been rewritten.

The Hope and Healing Center and Institute is now an independent nonprofit housed on the campus of St. Martin’s. Photo: HHCI

When someone walks in needing mental health care, a priest can simply walk them next door to the Hope and Healing Center and Institute, where the person can be evaluated and receive a comprehensive array of services, all for free. And the center’s training programs are now helping clergy and church leaders around the country identify and respond to mental illness in their communities.

Since it was established by St. Martin’s in 2012, the Hope and Healing Center and Institute has grown rapidly to fill a significant portion of the unmet need for psychiatric and addiction treatment in Harris County, where the county prison is the largest mental health facility in Texas. Today, the center on the St. Martin’s campus serves over 800 people a week at no cost, in addition to the patients it refers for treatment to its network of external providers.

How did a church start such a successful and complex operation?

For starters, St. Martin’s isn’t your typical church. With over 9,500 members – including Barbara and George H.W. Bush, whose funerals were held there – it’s the largest parish in The Episcopal Church and has abundant financial resources. When the Rev. Russ Levenson became rector in 2007, he was drawn to a line in the parish profile: “We want to be known as a church that increasingly helps those broken by life’s circumstances.”

The Rev. Russ Levenson, rector of St. Martin’s. Photo: St. Martin’s Episcopal Church

“And I looked at my wife and said, ‘Now that’s something that interests me,’” Levenson told the Episcopal News Service.

St. Martin’s already had long-running mission programs serving the hungry and needy of Houston, in partnership with other Episcopal churches. But its location in a wealthy enclave of the city didn’t make sense for, say, an on-site soup kitchen. Soon after Levenson took the helm, the church bought the property next door and thought about how they might use it to serve the community.

“It doesn’t take long to be in a church to realize those issues that every church deals with: family dysfunction, aging parents, addiction, mental and emotional health care, depression,” Levenson said. “We already had several support and recovery groups on campus. … So we said, have we ever kind of put all those things together under the umbrella of the church? … What would it look like if we developed a healing agency that would bring together the facets of emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health?”

With support from big names like the Bushes, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and actor Sam Waterston of “Law & Order,” St. Martin’s raised enough money to build the Hope and Healing Center and Institute, which features treatment rooms, lecture halls, teaching laboratories and meeting spaces. Under CEO Matt Stanford – an expert in the intersection of faith and mental health – the center has expanded and is now an independent nonprofit with a staff of about 25 people, though it is still housed on the St. Martin’s campus.

With his understanding of the intertwined nature of mental, physical, spiritual and relational health, Stanford relies on an ethos of holistic healing drawn from Scripture: “And Jesus grew in wisdom [mental] and stature [physical], and in favor with God [spiritual] and man [relational].” (Luke 2:52)

“It’s exciting to see a faith community say, here’s a problem that society is desperately, desperately looking for an answer to. And we can start something and allow it to grow, and it can engage the culture and the society, both for the faith and also to relieve suffering,” Stanford told ENS.

The Hope and Healing Center and Institute offers individual treatment for severely ill patients, mental health coaching, tele-psychiatry, case management and 38 weekly support groups. People with less serious concerns can be evaluated and referred to one of the nearly 1,000 pre-screened partner providers within the Houston area. Treatment is designed to be as holistic as possible, in order to get the patient on a path to sustainable wellness; therapists, case workers and psychiatrists collaborate on the course of a patient’s treatment. And clients are encouraged to talk about their spiritual health as much as they want to.

“We’re engaging them at a level beyond just the fact that they are a set of messed-up symptoms or an illness. We’re engaging them as people. And we recognize that people have spiritual issues and they often want to talk about those,” Stanford said. “Our therapists all work with the individual from a faith perspective. The spiritual discussions and the discussions in therapy are part of the same integrated curriculum. … And so, for instance, recognizing that you have a purpose and developing a purpose in your life, along the lines of what God has for you, is just an important part of the therapeutic process.”

Too often, Levenson says, churches offer spiritual help to those suffering from mental illness without connecting them with the substantive treatment they need to get better.

“There are churches that think that all people need is spiritual health,” Levenson said. “All they need is somebody to hold their hand and pray with them. Well, that doesn’t help a person who’s seriously addicted or has a serious mental or emotional diagnosis. Yes, they need the hand of God, but, yes, they need therapeutic care! We’ve got clergy out there who are acting like they’re therapists, and they’re not. They’re not trained to do that. Frankly, I’m happy to give people Bible verses and pray with them, but that alone is not going to help somebody and sending somebody away with only that is, in my mind, irresponsible.”

CEO Matt Stanford discusses a mental health continuum of care during a training event at the Hope and Healing Center and Institute. Photo: HHCI

Aside from treating patients, the center at St. Martin’s also focuses on training and educating mental health professionals and faith leaders. Its Gateway to Hope training program addresses the problem of clergy and parishioners being unequipped to identify and address cases of mental health in their congregations.

According to the National Comorbidity Survey, nearly one-quarter of people who are looking for help with a mental health condition will go to a clergy member first, more often than psychiatrists or general practitioners. Gateway to Hope trains clergy and parishioners to recognize and respond appropriately, embracing their role as the front lines of the mental health treatment system.

People in faith communities need “to know how to properly introduce that person into the mental health system,” says center board chairman Lee Hogan, “to recognize whether or not this is someone who’s a danger to themselves that day or whether it’s someone who needs counseling or whether it’s someone who needs a support group. And so where do you send them? The overwhelming majority of priests and ministers and rabbis and imams and so forth simply don’t have the ability and the training to recognize the symptoms.”

But now many in the Houston area and beyond do. In 2018, 950 people received the Gateway to Hope training. Demand has grown for the program. Recently, Stanford traveled to Hawaii and trained 350 people across 40 different churches, and previously he trained 400 Lutheran pastors in Indiana. The Hope and Healing Center and Institute is making many of the materials available online and hopes to spread the curriculum even further, but for now, it is primarily focused on improving access to care in the Houston area.

“When you stand in our building,” Stanford said, “and you face the sanctuary, which is to the west, we’re a ministry of St. Martin’s. And when you turn around, and you face out to the city, we are a mental health and training center that impacts all of Harris County.”

“This is an opportunity for the church to be, as it was in its beginning days – you know, the church was the hospital in the early days,” Levenson said. “And this is a chance for the church to fulfill part of its initial mission, to be a healing agent.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.

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Shannon MacVean-Brown ordained and consecrated as bishop of Vermont

Tue, 10/01/2019 - 2:44pm

Shannon MacVean-Brown, the eleventh bishop of Vermont, receives the crozier from Thomas C. Ely, the tenth bishop of Vermont. Photo: Greg Merhar

[Episcopal Diocese of Vermont] The Rt. Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown is now the 1,122nd bishop of The Episcopal Church and the first African-American to serve as Bishop of Vermont. Her Sept. 28 ordination and consecration was witnessed live by approximately 900 people at Ira Allen Chapel and overflow seating areas on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, not including those who watched live online.

Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry served as chief consecrator. Among the co-consecrating bishops were the Rt. Rev. Thomas C. Ely, tenth bishop of Vermont; the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, bishop of Indianapolis; the Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, bishop suffragan of Massachusetts; the Rt. Rev. Chilton Knudsen, eighth bishop of Maine and assisting bishop of Washington; and the Rt. Rev. Stewart Wood, ninth bishop of Michigan.

MacVean-Brown was accompanied by her husband Phil, daughters Annalise and Indira, and family and friends from all over the country.

The guest preacher was MacVean-Brown’s father, the Rev. Canon Ronald Spann, a retired priest who serves as assisting priest and director of the Spirituality Center at Christ Episcopal Church in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. In his sermon, Spann expounded on the biblical passage Romans 8:30, declaring, “Those whom God called, God also justified; and those whom God justified, God also glorified.”

“The designer turned ceramicist was a married grad student in art education who didn’t believe she was qualified for a seminary career,” he said, as he explained how MacVean-Brown’s lived experiences culminated in her faith becoming her full-time work.

Spann also mentioned the historical significance of MacVean-Brown’s election as an African-American bishop in Vermont, referring to the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hopkins, the first Episcopal bishop of Vermont, who in 1861 authored a book defending slavery and criticizing abolitionists.

“And in walks number 11,” he said matter-of-factly, garnering cheers and a standing ovation.

“And isn’t it marvelous that number 11 follows number 10, whose own presiding bishop calls him a man of courage and a man of wisdom,” Spann said of the now retired bishop Thomas C. Ely, eliciting more cheers and another standing ovation.

The three-and-a-half-hour service featured a mix of hymns, classical music, and gospel selections performed by Inora Brass, the Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir, Cameo Baroque, Church of the Messiah Gospel Choir, and a Diocesan Massed Choir composed of singers from around the diocese.

The hymn at the retiring procession, “God Beyond All Human Praises,” held special significance as a selection commissioned for the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Mary Adelia McLeod in 1993 as the ninth bishop of Vermont and the first woman to serve as bishop of the Vermont diocese.

MacVean-Brown was formally seated at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Burlington on Sept. 29. The guest preacher was the Very Rev. Miguelina Howell, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut. The service was recorded and will be made available on the diocese’s website.

The Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, also known locally as The Episcopal Church in Vermont, is made up of more than 6,100 members in 45 congregations across Vermont.

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