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The Bishop's Episcopal Address - 203rd Convention

203rd Convention of the Diocese of Ohio
November 9, 2019
Convention Address

Download an audio version of the Episcopal Address

This morning, I want to talk about politics. It feels particularly important and timely, and it is, after all, what Jesus did when he gathered in his home synagogue with those who knew him well. He started with Isaiah 61. Straight politics. Good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, liberty to those who are oppressed, the acceptable year of the Lord. It didn’t go very well for him, but he, too, thought it was important and timely. So here we go.

Wherever I am, on parish visitations and in conversations with lay leaders, clergy, colleagues, and friends, there is a common theme of alarm and despair over the current socio-political environment, and there is increasing anxiety about what awaits us in the general election year that has just commenced. People express concern about the plummeting level of civility in both national and local political discourse, and despondency about the paralyzing partisanship of our democracy. They speak of divisive vitriol and entrenched polarization in all quarters, characterized by contempt, scorn, disinformation, and demonization.

The Presiding Bishop recently described it this way:
The United States is being torn asunder within by the inability to be in deep relationship with each other and yet hold differing positions and convictions. And the test of this democratic experiment will be the capacity of this particular nation to hold differences in the context of deep and real human relationships.
In my prayer for our country and its leaders, I continually ask God, “What is the church’s responsibility in all of this, and what is my role as a Christian and a bishop?” And I am repeatedly led to this notion of relationships that are stronger than the differences we hold. It seems to me that, in the face of such deep discord, that is our business, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” And yet, in this present context we do not appear certain how to do it, either in church or elsewhere in our lives. It is, for many, depressing and scary.

Like family members approaching the Thanksgiving holiday with trepidation, worried that someone might bring up impeachment investigations at the dinner table, we fear that conversations about difficult subjects will deteriorate into hurtful mischaracterizations and stereotyped accusations. No doubt, some parishioners go to church hoping to hear a word that affirms their positions and opinions, yet others may fear or resent the possibility that someone will bring up politics in the sermon or at the coffee hour. We avoid emotionally charged topics even with some of our closest friends, so that we might be spared awkward and unpleasant results. We are afraid of causing offense or raising identity tensions that jeopardize trust and damage relationships. And yet, real relationships are what God gives us to hold those difficult challenges.

Social psychologists who study the challenges of increasingly diverse communities argue that our social, moral, religious, and political convictions are in large part a product of how our brains work. Jonathan Haidt, in his informative book The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, explains that our individual morality is formed by six basic values: Care vs. Harm; Liberty vs. Oppression; Fairness vs. Cheating; Loyalty vs. Betrayal; Authority vs. Subversion; and Sanctity vs. Degradation. Each person’s brain weights these fundamental values differently, and that weighting significantly forms our moral and political perspectives. There is no absolute right or wrong weighting. One is not better or more righteous than another; it is just how we are made. And because, for emotional security and physical survival, we are innately social beings, we tend toward group identification – birds of a feather.

Haidt’s research shows that those whose moral matrices rest principally on the foundational values of personal freedom and fairness tend politically to identify with Libertarian politics. Those whose moral matrices favor loyalty, authority, and sanctity seek stability, order, and the preservation of institutions and traditions that provide them, and they tend more toward Conservative politics. And those whose moral matrices stand predominantly on the value of care for all, even at the expense of other values, they identify most commonly with Liberal politics.

Professor Haidt contends that the human mind is designed for what he calls “groupish righteousness.” We tend to collect around common morality and politics. He explains, “We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.” Difficult, but not impossible.

All six moral foundations are essential to a healthy society and human survival. That is why we value them. And because our brains render each of us more sensitive to some values than others, we are ultimately dependent upon the diversity of moral foundations that we can offer to one another when we cross the lines of our “groupish righteousness.” In short, we need one another. We need our differences. We need to connect about the things that matter in life. Therefore, we need to have hard conversations about those things that the power of evil is using to separate us from one another. And to that end, we need to build deep and real relationships, with God and one another, because they are the vessels that can hold those hard conversations.

Certainly, one reason we retreat from hard conversations in the church is that we yearn for a safe place of respite from the constant barrage of bad news and bad behavior we learn of in the media and on the street. Sometimes we need the church to be that reliable place where we can get away from conflict and find comfort, where we can come up for air. But if what we do in church becomes detached from the realities in which we live, it will neither heal us nor empower us to heal the world.

One consequence of our mobile society is that many of us can and do drive past numerous churches of varying theological, ecclesiological, and political characteristics on our way to worshiping where we want. It accommodates our “birds of a feather” predisposition. It also makes us vulnerable to the precarious illusion that we can go to church to get our own way, find what we want as opposed to what God may want for us. In earlier times, particularly in small communities, people worshipped with those they were given, making it difficult to avoid the neighbor they were struggling to love. Because most of us can choose where and with whom we worship, the necessity and opportunity for hard conversations can be reduced.

As well, we hesitate to bring up difficult issues in church because they feel so dangerous. We fear that they may result in other people getting angry and leaving, or in our getting angry and leaving. In the last 40 years, we in the Episcopal Church have learned about that the hard way. I have undying admiration for all of those, on every side of difficult of social, theological, and liturgical issues, who have remained committed to this church. They have modeled a confidence in God and a generosity with others that is inspiring. But like our spiritual forbearers in every age, we are sometimes reluctant to bring to God and one another, in an open and trusting way, the issues that most threaten us. Like those to whom Isaiah prophesied, we sing praises, say prayers, and make sacrificial offerings, just yet continue to shy away from God’s invitation in Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, let us argue it out.” Our fear of the potentially divisive consequences undermines our trust that God will get us through. As well, it compromises the trust God is asking us to risk with one another.

When we avoid difficult conversations in church, we withdraw from the very challenges that need our best selves and our deepest surrender to God. The most important conversations are not about who is right and who is wrong; those never go very far. But conversations in which we learn from one another about how we got to the perspectives we hold, in which we hear the personal stories upon which our convictions are built, those can take us to novel and more secure ground. I believe that God cares much more about how we get to common-ground solutions for the long term, than about who will win and who will lose in the short term.

Our polity in The Episcopal Church and our governance in the United States of America are based on the same premise and expectation that we come together not to exercise power one over another, but to offer our best selves in the collaborative service of the greater good. E Pluribus Unum. No individual or group has all the answers or knows the only way. Indeed, “out of many” is essential to the achievement of being one. Equally essential is the other claim we make as Americans, “In God we trust.” It is our trust that God can and will see us through every challenge that undergirds our ability to work together in a democratic society.

The cost of democracy, like the cost of Christian discipleship, is humility, generosity, and personal sacrifice. It is not being right and getting our way; it is belonging to God and to one another, and being so genuinely connected that together we can find solutions that serve beyond our individual capacity to imagine. A generation ago, congressional legislators moved their families to Washington and shared their lives with one another more fully, in tangible and intimate ways. They came to know one another at a personal level and to understand how each had come to the perspectives they held. It provided a foundation for the collegiality required for a democratic system to work. It inspired them to seek the common ground necessary to fulfilling the super-majority requirements of some of their most important legislative responsibilities. Now they invoke the “nuclear option,” and they commute when Congress is in session, some sleeping in their offices three nights a week then going back to their districts, like fighters going back to their corners in winner-take-all battles.

I listen to people of opposing perspectives talk about Republican and Democratic leadership in Washington, Columbus, and elsewhere, and as the conversations increase in heat and decrease in light, it becomes clear that they are talking less about their elected leaders and more about each other. And I watch people – good, caring, passionate people – square off against each other at rallies and public events, hurling insults and sometimes fists at each other, as if that can come to any possible good. Over the years, we have witnessed similar engagements in church meetings – parochial, diocesan, and church-wide.

I don’t believe that God calls us together in this church or this country to agree with one another. I have no doubt, however, that God calls us together in the church to make a difference in the world. To heal its brokenness. To bring it out of darkness and into light. To work through together what we cannot work through alone. To help one another see with new eyes, and to see through God’s eyes. To surrender ourselves to Jesus that we might become his very body, becoming one with him and in him, that the world might do the same. I think we are here to build deep relationships that can hold the rich and challenging differences we embody and handle the hard conversations that they will inevitably present. That is a big part of why I think we are here and what we have to offer in this particular moment.

And I believe that, with God’s help, we can do this.

Is this anywhere close to why you think we are here? Does this ring at all true with your understanding of our common vocation? If so, when people come to your church, how do you let them know that? And how do you remind one another? I know that some of you and your congregations have taken the Golden Rule 2020 pledge, as I have. It is a good place to start in committing to a more civil discourse. Perhaps during the break you can go to and consider making that commitment.

But what if we were even more overt about all of this? What if we told people every Sunday why we are here, not just by printing a mission statement in the service bulletin, but with words spoken in worship and other gatherings that confess our intention, and in actions that demonstrate our commitment? What if we told people that we are concerned about our common life, that we are here to make a difference in some very specific ways, and that we need their help. What if we told people that we gather every Sunday to learn and model how to live together with difference; that we are genuinely interested in how each person comes to hold such differing perspectives; that we want God to take those very differences that the power of evil relentlessly employs to separate us from one another, and to use them in knitting us together into a more holy and healthy community? What if we told them that, as disciples of Jesus, we are trying in practical ways to exercise the humility and generosity that build trusting relationships so that we all will feel secure and safe in having the hard conversations that we believe will make a difference in these divisive times? What if we assured them that they will not be judged here, but, by entering into thoughtful, listening dialogue with one another and with God, we will help each other take our own measure, in the illuminating love of Christ Jesus?

And so, I wonder, have we the courage, or simply enough confidence in God, to engage at this level of trust and honesty? We can’t expect others to do it if we are not doing it ourselves. And if we don’t, who will? If not here, then where? Common ground. That is what the church provides. Wherever two or three are gathered together in Jesus’s name, he has promised to be in their midst, that that place will be common and holy ground. Is this ground on which we ought to stand? I believe it is, and I believe that we have the capacity to make a difference.

After a short break and the election of the Officers of Convention, we will have table discussion about whether and how we might be a healing force in this contentious time, to report back briefly, and to pray. So, I encourage you in the moments in between to think about how we might do this; to think about what would be hard about it for you; to think about practical things we can do within our congregations and with other congregations to help the world understand that Jesus’s prayer that we might be one is one we are ready to live into.

Thank you.

The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
XI Bishop of Ohio

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