Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Missional Moment (AKA "Dessert with a side of Evangelism")

SCLM Task Force Team: Patrick Malloy, Susan Russell, Thad Bennett, Ruth Meyers (chair), Jay Johnson

Morning came early today. A four o’clock wake up call to get a 4:30 a.m. cab to the airport to check in for a 6:00 a.m. flight back to L.A. from Phoenix where I had the extraordinary honor of standing with my SCLM (Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music) Task Force colleagues to address the House of Bishops yesterday about our work implementing Resolution C056.

We had forty-five minutes yesterday morning to present an overview of how we propose to move forward with our charge to “collect and develop theological and liturgical resources” for the blessing of same sex relationships. An additional part of that charge is to do that work in “consultation with the House of Bishops” and to “devise an open process” bringing dioceses, congregations individuals engaged in that work.

There’s much to write and reflect about the content of our work … and I will link up the resources I know will shortly be posted to the SCLM website. But as I’m waiting to fly home I wanted to capture not the data and details but the tone and timbre of the meeting.

It was “most an amazing day.”

We met for breakfast with the bishops on the SCLM to go over the details of our presentations and to just all get to know each other a little better. I think it’s fair to say we were all a little anxious.

Now we were three seminary professors and two not-unaccustomed-to-public-speaking priests – and between us we probably knew 90% of the bishops in the room down the hall. But the importance of the work we have been given to do for the church combined with the time pressure of “launching” a process of this depth and complexity ALONG with worrying about the technical details in an unfamiliar space -- (Will the PowerPoint work? Do we have enough copies of the handouts? Who’s going to hand OUT the handouts?) – all as we stepped into the moving sidewalk that is the House of Bishops meeting in progress … suffice to say there was some nibbling at the bread of anxiety in the morning over breakfast.

At the appointed hour we headed down to the HoB meeting room where they had just finished Morning Prayer & Bible Study. First the house heard from two bishops reflecting on the question “What is God up to in our midst concerning same sex blessings?” Those bishops were Tom Ely (Vermont) and John Bauerschmidt (Tennessee) -- +Ely in a state where blessings and civil unions pre-date his consecration and +Bauerschmidt from what he called “the buckle of the Bible belt.” And both bishops stressed the commitment of their dioceses to working together through differences.

Then Ruth Meyers (the SCLM chair) presented an introduction to our project and process was clear, concise and (as I told her afterwards) “professorial without being condescending.” Key to that introduction was reiterating that what we’ve been charged to do by General Convention in this resolution is to resource the church in those contexts where the blessing of same-sex relationships are – or will be – happening; not to debate whether the blessing of same sex relationships should happen.

Jay Johnson and Patrick Malloy presented the overview of the principles undergirding the work their theology and liturgy task forces are engaged in and Thad Bennett and I introduced our work on the pastoral care and teaching resources. Then we turned it over to the bishops for 40 minutes of “table discussions” on five questions looking for feedback on both the content and process of the work going forward.

The conversation in the room was lively and energetic – and at the end of the session Bishop Kee Sloan (Bishop Suffragan, Alabama and a member of the SCLM) invited those who wanted to continue the conversation with us to grab some lunch after Eucharist and come back to the plenary room. About a dozen folks chose to do that and we had a great opportunity to clarify some questions, engage in some very interesting dialogue and get feedback on both process and content.

One comment that really stood out for me was a bishop’s challenge to us to add “Missional” to the list of opportunities the blessing of same sex relationships offers the church – a list that already included “Sacramental” and “Eschatological.” And of course I agree. This work isn’t just about the couples whose relationships will be blessed. It’s also about the mission of the church that will be blessed by a more expansive opportunity to incarnate God’s inclusive love.

I had no idea how soon we would get a chance to experience one of those missional opportunities in action.

So – having concluded the presentation part of the day we had a late lunch and then took some time out (AKA “naps!") and then reconvened to debrief our work over dinner in the hotel dining room. There was a lot to talk about – and we settled into a long, lively dinner that included a dessert course with a side order of evangelism as three young hotel staff members came up to the table and individually engaged with us about the work the Episcopal Church is doing.

The first one was a waiter – “Michael” – who said as a gay man it had never occurred to him that there were churches that would welcome him rather than condemn him. He thanked us for giving him hope that he hadn’t imagined he’d ever have with an earnestness that was deeply moving.

A few minutes later “Amanda” … our waitress … came up to the table to say that she’d encouraged Michael to come talk to us because she’d found him crying in the kitchen after listening to our conversations. She was raised Catholic but it “didn’t fit” anymore and she wanted to know where she should go to find an Episcopal Church. I gave her my card and told her to email me and I’d hook her up with folks in Phoenix.

The third was “Vanessa” … their supervisor … who thanked us for connecting with them and told us about her experience of finally finding a church home that helped her claim a relationship with God … and then being devastated when that church family rejected her gay friend. She’s going to email me, too.

It blew us away.

While we were obsessing about perfecting PowerPoint slides and refining our messaging about the SCLM project, these earnest young people responded to the few crumbs of conversation they overheard at our dinner table like they were starving for hope. And if those crumbs gave them that hope and energy – and gave them the courage to come up to a table full of “church people” and say, “Wow … we want to know more about what you’re talking about!” then imagine how they and countless others like them are yearning for the banquet we set every time we gather to witness to God’s inclusive love.

It is about mission.

It is about the building of the Body.

And it is about the vocation of the Episcopal Church to be the voice of love, justice and compassion to ALL those yearning for what Michael and Amanda and Vanessa came looking for at our dinner table last night.

It’s something some of us have been preaching for years. But it never hurts to have a little more empirical evidence to affirm the truth we hold in our hearts. And yesterday we got it. In a hotel dining room in Phoenix at a meeting of the House of Bishops. Go figure. And thanks be to God!



Susan, your experience with those three people in the dining room of the hotel resonates with my recent experience with an ex-church member. Out of the depths of loneliness, she called me as someone she remembered from several years ago as being trustworthy, and it was hearing about the open and welcoming congregations in our diocese that gave this newly out lesbian mother and ex-wife hope. It IS missional. I told a church group a few days ago that what we do isn't only for existing church members. It's also very importantly for the lost and lonely who are waiting for us to find them. ~~Lelanda

LouieCrew said...

This reads like one of Saint Paul's missionary epistles! Save it that
those to come may know!

As Barney Warren's Pentecostal hymn puts it: "Joy unspeakable and full of

Terri said...

I can just hear Ruth speaking those words and how well she would say what had to be said. I was a page in the HoB the day they debated and then passed this resolution. I sat there drop-jawed at the awesomeness of it all. I look forward to hearing more. I'm working on moving the "Words Matter" conversation initiated by the NCC Justice 4 Women Working Group's Expansiv Language committee, into and through TEC. In some ways what I am doing (along with Kim Robey and Jason Sierra) dovetails with this.

Missional. Absolutely. Love the story of the young people in the restaurant. Says it all. Or as Brian McLaren has said, this is the time for the Episcopal Church, will we claim it? I hope so.

IT said...

Just goes to show, you never know who's listening. I think it illustrates "missional" perfectly. May quote...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

You give me hope! The great Mission of bringing folks together is not ended. Alleluia!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Susan, I've expressed further thanks here.

Nigel said...

I give thanks to God that I have survived long enough to see the changes that are occurring--and to know Susan, Ruth, Thad, & Louie, as friends, and to have communicated with Jay Johnson--and with expectation of meeting Patrick before I fade away.

Nigel the Nitpicker

nycjoe said...

This warms my heart in a way nothing I've read in a while has.

What is encouraging is that a lot of us have had the similar experiences. Being accepted as a gay man by my parish, and its accepting and celebrating my relationship with my husband, has resulted in several people we know of all sexual orientations being led to the Episcopal Church and finding renewed hope.

Thanks be to God!


Thanks for the link, Tobias. The story TOTALLY "preached" at noon Eucharist today ... what with the story of Lazarus-at-the-gate being Sunday's gospel and all!

JCF said...

(Was just biretta-tipped to this by Episcopal Cafe)


Will the PowerPoint work?

Um, I don't suppose you could make that available for us download, Susan? (Loves me a good PowerPoint!)

Muthah+ said...

EieeeeHaw! as they say in TX! I am wearing my rainbow earings with clerics all the time here in FTW. The message IS getting out and the love of God is being preached in each encounter. Thank you!

Raisin said...

Susan - Thank you for sharing this part of your journey, for your work, for the bread of anxiety you allowed us to taste before sharing your story about the kitchen staff. We'll look forward to hearing more, because there's LOTS more kitchen staff out there. Blessings!


JCF ... I believe the intent is to post our presentations to the SCLM blog ... which may be being updated as we speak because I can't get it to come up.

The project manager for the SCLM work is Keri Aubert and you can reach her for questions about resources at

June Butler said...

Susan, what a lovely story and so full of grace. As I said at The Lead, we never know who will be nourished by the crumbs.

Daniel said...

Susan, the story about the young people who were hotel staff at dinner is nothing short of amazing and and wonderful. Ruth (my spouse) told me about this that night--and she was so very moved by the way God worked. Your narrative is compelling and I'm glad that it is being shared

Rich Angelo said...

What wonderful news from HoB! The stories from the restaurant are clear indications of the Spirit's movement in our midst. So many need to hear that message. From here in the Diocese of Albany, where we never hear that message, we thank you for the work of mission and Gospel!

Unknown said...

As I've continued to ponder and pray about this, I've been awed by God's grace in new ways. Saturday morning, just before we went in to the meeting with the bishops, I prayed to the "God of wisdom and surprises," asking "surprise us with your grace." The answer to that prayer came with the restaurant staff, more than with anything that happened with the bishops (which was also a grace-filled encounter). I've also realized that I, too, was fed, much more than the food and drink they served us that night: as the staff spoke of their experience of our unplanned evangelism, they gave me new strength for our work -- Christ was there, in them, feeding me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

As I said to you privately, Susan, this gives me hope and inspiration and makes my eyes sweat.

Thank you for the missional work you do in the name of Jesus and for us all.


From Malcolm via email:

Thank you for sharing this...I hope and pray that there's a way that the those Bishops in the wider Anglican Church can read about here, the harm they do to struggling young people and the wedge these men put between parents torn between the love they want to have with their gay child and the love being dangled with threats of losing God/Church.

Ron, BSG said...

So very proud to know you, Ruth & Jay. Great work.

Clay Morris said...

This reminds me of dinner shortly after Gene Robinson's confirmation at GC. Four of us were at a table wearing GC ID tags and had a procession of people asking us about the Episcopal Church. Some gay, some straight. All interested in a church that would give them a place to be.

Elaine C. said...

When I used to work as a seminary librarian, the workings of the Episcopal Church -- especially through Bishop Robinson, and recent legislation -- the UMC seminarians were so moved and delighted by what was possible in the Episcopal Church ... some decided to become Episcopalians, other's found hope to continue the struggle for change in their own denomination ... very much clear that hope is generated for many through the direction of the Episcopal Church.