Bishop’s Address to Synod, 2015

Bishop Martins @ Synod AddressThis is now my fifth address to Synod as the 11th Bishop of Springfield, and the sixth Synod I have attended. If I can hijack and repurpose some of the language from the blessing of the water in the baptismal liturgy, I do this as a matter of “joyful obedience.” It is a burden that I bear out of obedience, but it is a burden that I bear joyfully, with a song in my heart.

It’s good to be with you here in Jacksonville, home of the oldest continuously-extant Episcopal parish in the state of Illinois, in whose beautiful church we will celebrate the Eucharist later this afternoon. I’m sure we will in due course have a resolution of courtesy for Father Ashmore and the crew from Trinity Church for all they’re doing to make this Synod possible. And even though I do this every year, they, in fact, deserve it every year, so I express my heartfelt thanks to the staff of the diocesan office: Archdeacon Shawn Denney, Administrator Sue Spring, and Treasurer Jim Donkin … plus, even though he’s not a staff member per se, he’s still pretty much at my beck and call, Chancellor Kevin Babb.

One of the more important items we will be taking up at this Synod is a proposed revision to our diocesan constitution. This is the first step in a larger and longer effort, and really only gets us a few yards down the field. The really long-yardage carries will happen during the coming year, when the same task force that prepared the constitutional revisions will turn its attention to the canons. As you probably know, it takes a majority vote by orders at two consecutive annual Synods to amend the constitution, but the canons can be amended in one sitting. So, presuming we pass a revised constitution on first reading tomorrow–and I certainly hope and expect we will–when we meet in Edwardsville a year from now, we will both adopt the new constitution on second reading, and also amend our canons.

This process is driven by a need to have our structures of administration and polity conform to the imperatives of mission in a changing society and world. Over the last four years, we have been moving consistently, even if too slowly, in the direction of a quite revolutionary–at least in the context of Episcopalian standard operating procedure–a quite revolutionary approach to mission and ministry. The workshop we held last month on “moving into the neighborhood” is a sign of that new commitment. The clergy conference we will hold next month on the evangelization of adults and their formation for baptism through the ancient process of the catechumenate is another such sign. Last year at this time, I invited you all to consider funding a new staff person at a diocesan level who would give our efforts a steroid shot. That did not materialize, but God has nonetheless been faithful, and I am more encouraged now about our common life and our common future than I have been since the day I was elected to this office.

I will be candid with you, and say that, in my opinion, not everything in the proposed revised constitution is of equal importance. I personally have three “dogs in the hunt,” so to speak, and they are these:

  1. The adoption of the term “Eucharistic Communities” as a universal expression to denote all of our organized and established congregations, whether currently known now as parishes or missions. The reason for this is in order to repurpose the word “parish” in a more traditional sense than it has come to be understood in the U.S. in recent decades–that is, as a piece of real estate, a geographical region with defined boundaries. A geographic parish may have one or more than one Eucharistic Community within its borders, but, whether alone or together, those Eucharistic Communities are charged with the responsibility of prosecuting the mission of the diocese within their Parish. They will be required to develop a MIssion Plan, to which the rest of the “one church of the Diocese of Springfield” will both hold them accountable, and offer assistance according to the gifts that the Holy Spirit has distributed among us. Now, I am aware that there is some concern over the fact that, using the more familiar terminology, “parishes” and “missions” have distinctly different prerogatives and relationships with the Bishop, and that “parish” is a technical term in the context of Episcopal Church canons. I get that, and can assure this Synod that, to the extent I have any influence, these concerns will be taken into account as we work on revising the canons, such that no no Eucharistic Community will lose prerogatives or privileges that they currently enjoy, and if, by chance, it doesn’t, then you’ll have next year to reject both the constitution and canons.
  2. Second, I think it’s vital that we apportion lay representation at Synod according to Average Sunday Attendance rather than number of communicants. Any statistic can be fudged, and, I’m sorry to say, clergy have been known to fudge on both counts. But ASA is generally both a more accurate number and a better metric of congregational vitality and health than the total number of members. I will say, however, that the precise thresholds for each number of delegates are plausibly the subject of conversation and amendment, if there is energy for that.
  3. Third, I’m enthusiastic about the proposal to give every Eucharistic Community at least two delegates. I’ll be honest; my reason for this is mostly emotional! I get sad when I see someone who drove a good distance to come to Synod, and is here alone–within nobody to lean over and make snide comments to during the debate, or sit with at the banquet. Maybe I’m just looking out for my fellow introverts!

A few words now about mission and mission strategy, which, this year, is going to pretty much take the form of a state-of-the-diocese report.

Numerically and financially, we collectively continue a long, slow slide, paralleling what most of your experience in your local situations. From 2013 going into 2014, our total Average Sunday Attendance was essentially flat, for which I give some measure of thanks, since it’s gone down every other year that I’ve been in the diocese, and growth is always preceded by the flattening out of decline. Of course, we’re still down about 30% from that historic benchmark year of 2003. But our collective stewardship–plate and pledge–was down about 5% from one year to the next. On the whole, there are fewer and fewer of us; our median age is rising. This is not a current emergency, but it’s a very serious long-term challenge that will potentially bring life-altering consequences for us.

As a general rule, and reflecting trends in the surrounding society, the parishes located in the four population clusters of the diocese–Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, and the Metro East–churches in these areas enjoy a healthier prognosis than those in county seat towns and smaller communities. This is consistent with trends across the Episcopal Church, which is becoming increasingly urban–especially in major metropolitan areas, of which we have none–well, as slice of one if you count the Darrow Deanery–and also increasingly educated. The Episcopal Church continues to be an “elite” church that wants to do “working class/blue collar” ministry, but doesn’t really know how. As one of the attendees at our mission strategy workshop observed rather poignantly, what are you going to do when you visit a church and get persuaded to come to coffee hour and one person you talk to is a school teacher, and another a college administrator, and other a banker, and you spend your working hours behind the counter at Taco Bell? No matter how warmly you’re welcomed, you’re probably not going to come back. We don’t want to be elitist; we literally don’t know how not to be.

So, what is our call in this environment? As far as I’m concerned, our call is to double down on our mission strategy. Our call, at the level of each Eucharistic Community, each geographic Parish, is to incarnate ourselves in our neighborhoods (and I use that term at least as much figuratively as I do literally), build relationships with people who are unchurched, dechurched, and generally unevangelized, connect with them at the level of their perceived need, earn the privilege of introducing them to Jesus, trust the Holy Spirit to connect us with those who are ready to hear the Good News, begin to make disciples of them, and lead them eventually to the waters of baptism. As an afterthought, when all else is said and done, we will introduce them to the Eucharist. This is the grand vision. In the meantime, there are baby steps, there are points of light. I hesitate to name these points of light individually, because I might overlook one or two, but I’ll take the risk. The Church of the Redeemer in Cairo has been the location of a minor miracle, and this should be a source of encouragement to the entire diocese. The clergy and lay leadership of McLean County Parish–aka St Matthew’s, Bloomington and Christ the King, Normal–are endeavoring to lay aside old suspicions and rivalries and take collective responsibility for the mission of the diocese in their area. St Paul’s Cathedral in Springfield is giving evidence of light and life of a sort I have not seen since coming to the diocese. Our two parishes in Champaign–Emmanuel and St John’s Chapel–are simmering with vitality and spiritual growth. Our two Eucharistic Communities in St Clair County–St Michael’s, O’Fallon and St George’s, Belleville–which share joint missionary custody of Scott Air Force Base–are cooperating rather than competing. to the glory of God and the building up of his kingdom. The last couple of times I’ve gone to St Andrew’s, Carbondale, there have been truckloads of baptisms and confirmations. Trinity, Mattoon actually has youth serving as acolytes now, something that had virtually disappeared from their collective memory. Have I missed anything? I would love nothing better than to be accosted at the banquet and severely scolded for overlooking a place where the Holy Spirit is doing something amazing.

These points of light will grow brighter and multiply to the extent that we are faithful in the work of making disciples who will engage in apostolic ministry–disciples who make disciples. To that end, I want to give a shout-out to something called Renewal Works, which is an instrument that assesses spiritual vitality among members of a congregation and then offers guidance on strategies for moving the needle when the same assessment instrument is used three or four years later. We have a cluster of four Eucharistic Communities in the northern part of the diocese that are working with Renewal Works this fall, and I hope to expand that number in the spring cycle. And let me make a brief plug for the St Michael’s Youth Conference. This past June, we gathered fifteen teenagers from around the diocese, along with six clergy, including YFNB, at an Assemblies of God campground, for five days of rather intense instruction in the faith, rather intense worship, recreation and community-building activities. It was a grand success, and we intend on making it an annual event for many years to come. If you know any young people between the ages of 13 and 19, you will want to get this on their radar.

Wrapping up now: I continue to love my job, which I count an enormous blessing. I turned 64 years of age last month–and 64, of course, is the new 50! I can retire in four more years, at 68, and I must retire in eight more years, at 72. Most of the time, the vast majority of the time, I hope and plan on it being a lot closer to eight than to four. There are days when I might opt for four, but not very many! So, to the end of lengthening the time that I am with you, a three-month sabbatical was built into my Letter of Agreement at the time of my election in 2010, to be available after five years of service. The five year mark will arrive on March 19, 2016. So, combining sabbatical time with my regular period of vacation, I expect to be substantially out of action from mid-June until a week or so before the 2016 annual synod. You might anticipate, then, that this address may be a lot shorter next year! I will, of course, be delegating much of what I would ordinarily attend to personally, and simply deferring other things. My cycle of parish visitations seems to have been successfully squeezed into the remaining Sundays, with some extra lubricant.

My plan, if the various details come together, is to walk about 500 miles across northern Spain, as a pilgrim on the ancient Camino de Compostela. Go to Netflix and look for a movie called The Way, and you’ll get the general picture. I also hope to spend some time, along with Brenda, in Italy–particularly Rome, where there is a small but important Anglican Centre just outside the walls of the Vatican, and in Venice, where St Mark’s Cathedral has a musical tradition that stirred my heart while I was in college and continues to provide exemplary liturgy. I’ll give you more details as plans develop.

I recently read the text of an address by the Bishop of London–a quite remarkable leader who, over the course of twenty years, has breathed incredible new life into that gargantuan diocese–in which he has this to say about the ministry of bishops: “Some of the best bishops are no great loss to the parochial ministry, where many saints are to be found. Bishops are more like conductors of the orchestra, who may not be the most gifted instrumental players but who are charged to keep close to the score and to fashion a new interpretation of a symphony out of talented soloists.” Having been a mediocre ensemble musician in my youth, but always aspiring to be a conductor, this resonated with me. We have some very talented “soloists” among the clergy and faithful of this diocese. If, by being intimately familiar with the “score,” I can lead this orchestra in turning it into compelling music in central and southern Illinois, the obedience I aspire to offer will be made that much more joyful.

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