Convention address by the Bishop Wallis Ohl
by the Rt. Rev. C. Wallis Ohl
Many years ago I discovered a quotation from South Africa which I hold dear, and which, I believe, is most appropriate today. The quotation is this: “The road to the future is always under construction.”
I know there are some in our diocese who do not think we can do anything until the litigation is over and our buildings are again to be used for the Episcopal Church. In other words, that would be like delaying the beginning of a wonderful, long anticipated trip until there is no road construction. I disagree fervently with this position and for the past three years have urged, pushed, cajoled, teased, and begged us not to waste any time in proclaiming our Lord Jesus where we are right now. One need only look at the first three centuries of Christian history to discover that for the majority of that era, Christian communities were worshipping in homes, rented public buildings, occasionally in underground tombs—catacombs, warehouses, and wherever else they could find space for their gatherings. If our forebears had waited until they had a proper worship space, we would not even exist today. They knew what we need to remember: WE are the Church, and our responsibility is to share the Good News of God in Christ Jesus with absolutely everyone.
For the first time ever, I have really struggled to write this address. I am not quite sure why, but I just couldn’t find a theme or overarching connection for what I want to say. I shared my list of topics with Demi on Tuesday and she immediately replied, “These are building blocks for a bridge.” And because this is my “swan song,” my “last hoorah” as it were, the metaphor of bridge is appropriate, not only as I transition out and Bishop High comes on board, but also as we The EPISCOPAL Diocese of Fort Worth continue to grow into the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13 RSV) Or as The Message says, “fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.” And for the past three years, I have had to detour on parts of I-35 because of bridge construction in a number of locations. And finally, one of the medieval expressions used for a bishop was pontifex—bridge builder—a task I have taken seriously for over 15 years.
Since before I arrived in the Fall of 2009 our chancellor Kathleen Wells and those on the Constitution and Canons committee had begun the task of bringing our Constitution and Canons into conformity with the General Canons of The Episcopal Church following years of removal of or changes to diocesan canons which took us farther and farther from The Episcopal Church. There was some early concern about not making too many innovative changes in the beginning; however, as we continued to plan and pray about how we would be “Church” together we began to discover that we needed to restructure our lives to become de jure what we want to be de facto.
At Annual Convention in the fall of 2009 a resolution was passed calling for the creation of a Committee on Diocesan Structure (CODS) which would look at other dioceses around The Episcopal Church, discovering “best practices” which could help us focus our reorganized structure. For the past 3 years CODS has prayed, studied, and discussed how we might redesign our Canons to become more nimble and more responsive to a maturing diocese.
You will have before you later today a revision of Canon 10, the canon which describes the make-up and work of the Executive Council, the body that is at work when Diocesan Convention is adjourned. Executive Council meets 5 times each year, and among other tasks works with the budget we pass at convention, making appropriate modifications as needed. EC also strives to strengthen the mission and ministry of the various congregations and the diocese itself.
The pattern of this diocese for several decades has been that the bishop initiates virtually everything, and everything must flow through the bishop. Executive Council in many ways has been a rubber stamp for whatever the bishop originates. Some time ago, I asked CODS to redesign the canon on the EC to make Executive Council both more active and more accountable, removing as much as possible the funnel of the bishop’s office, so that a more creative flow of mission and ministry might be possible. I also asked that accountability be built into the structure in order that those serving on EC know they have responsibility to go along with the honor of serving.
I am delighted to report to you that CODS has fulfilled that mission and they have presented an amendment to Canon 10 that will help us move into the future in a healthy, mature way. I am fully supportive of this amendment. One of the many positive features of new Canon 10 is that the ongoing work of structural revision is delegated to an oversight body, a group which will be populated by EC members and others who have expertise or desire to work toward completing the structural overhaul. As you heard from the chair of CODS Bill McKay yesterday, CODS as an ad hoc body will be going out of business and turning its task over to the Structure Committee of EC. I am deeply grateful for their three years of work, their willingness to gather almost monthly, forcing themselves to meet at Price Hulsey’s office and eat breakfast burritos, and their service to the diocese. Thank you CODS for your generous gift of your time and talent.
Along with the work CODS has done, the leadership of the Diocese—including the Executive Council, the Standing Committee, and the Trustees of the Corporation—has met together to wrestle out a mission/vision statement, a copy of which you have on your table. We also have begun the task of strategic planning including specific goals and objectives on which the Standing Committee has taken the lead. Members of the Executive Council, Standing Committee and Corporation Trustees will meet together, as we did last December, to listen and pray with Bishop High in retreat, and again gather in January for a continuation of strategizing and planning, leading to some creative ideas and plans. You will be hearing more about this in the months to come.
We still have a good bit of re-structuring which will come out of the planning and strategizing sessions, tasks which will be led by the structure committee of Executive Council as designed in new Canon 10. We have only begun to discuss the work of reorganizing the deaneries. I cannot tell you what that will look like, but I am certain that there will be some shift in making our large parishes more central as resources as that planning moves forward. You will have the opportunity of discussing the deanery reorganization at your next deanery meetings, and I trust you will enter into that conversation prayerfully and with an open mind. We have also heard ideas about how congregational delegations to convention might be computed. That too will be discussed and decided, probably by resolution at next year’s convention. This diocese is on the cutting edge of creativity in The Episcopal Church, and much of the rest of the Church is watching with great anticipation to see how they might pattern their diocesan structures following our example.
Of course an area that everyone is concerned about is litigation and how much longer it will drag on. As you heard yesterday from Chancellor Wells, no one knows. Our focus must be on the mission and ministry to which God is calling us now, not passively waiting for the buildings to return so that we can be a “real church” with real buildings. We must be about proclaiming Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and the life we share with Him NOW.
Closely related to the litigation is the plan for reunification once the property is returned. We have a group—called the InReach Committee—which has been diligently working for a year and a half on detailed plans for reunion. Each of the “14”, congregations which are not worshipping in their own buildings, has completed a projected plan for returning to their facility, including reuniting with those who have remained in the pews. Many of those who have stayed with the ACNA group have been awaiting our return for almost four years. Certainly these plans are tentative and will be modified as the reunion becomes a reality, since we cannot know all of the current data of budgets, needed repairs, and various unknown exigencies. The InReach group is just beginning work on plans for the “33”, those congregations where we not only do not have the facility, but we also do not have a worshipping community meeting in another location. Those plans will, of necessity, be much more tentative, but better to have a beginning plan that none at all.
The strategies I have described deal primarily with real property and “things” inside. Far more important, however is our attitude toward those Christians who will be with us into the future. Some of those reunions will be tearful, weeping by members of both those who were forced to leave the property and those who remained. Many of our relationships have been fractured, hearts ripped apart by years of separation, and even families separated from worshipping together. We must be willing to enter into the reunion prepared to hear the stories of those from whom we have been separated, suspending judgment and not imputing motives to our brothers and sisters who did not join us over these years.
I encourage you to read the story of the reunion of Jacob and Esau in Genesis Chapters 32 and 33. It would be easy to identify ourselves with Jacob who fears his twin brother who comes to meet him with 400 men. But switch places for a moment and see Jacob representing those who have stayed in the buildings, fearing us as we come back. As we read the story, Esau comes to Jacob, falls on his neck kisses him and THEY weep. Remember this is Esau who had plenty of reason to exact retribution on his brother: whose blessing was stolen from him by Jacob, whose inheritance was bought for a bowl of soup when the hunter was starving. Esau’s concern is not for retribution for being duped, Esau is so delighted to be reunited with Jacob that he provides protection and care for his brother, his brother’s wives and children as they journey back to their home. God has much to teach us out of that story, and I encourage your study and prayer for how we might rejoin our brothers and sisters in Christ in that same spirit of familial love.
I also want to report to you that the leadership team, composed of the bishop, administrative officer, president of the Standing Committee, the president of the Corporation, the chair of the Finance Committee, the Chancellor, and the Chair of Communications have discussed calling a “special Diocesan Convention” to be held 30 days after the final judicial ruling takes place. We expect the final ruling will give the ACNA congregations 60 days to turn over the keys to the buildings, the records, and the other financial resources. The special convention will allow us two advantages: 1) We will be able to invite those congregations from whom we have been separated to join us in continuing to make plans for re-unification; and 2) to enact any last minute legislation necessary to make our transition joyful for all. We cannot see at this moment what these details might be but we know we will have needs that can only be addressed once we arrive at that moment in time.
Looking to the future, I see enormous possibilities before us. God has called us to be here today in order that we might proclaim Jesus Christ to all that we meet. We cannot and will not be visible representatives of Christ if all we are doing is looking inward, “navel gazing” as some call it. Our heads must be held high and our joy of being in God’s presence expressed openly for the world to see. We have been given the most precious gift of all—the gift of HOPE. Even though anxiety and fear are a part of our daily lives—and God knows there are myriads of reasons for anxiety and fear—nonetheless Hope will prevail. Should we lose in the court system, God has given us everything we need to be the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. No matter what dire outcome anyone can imagine, God still reigns and we are still members of the Body of Christ.
About a year ago Katie Sherrod gave me a pin which I wear frequently on my jacket lapel which reads, “We will not be ruled by fear.” That pin has become my motto and will remain with me throughout this life. St. Paul puts it this way in Romans chapter 8. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Today we both elect and invest with a Bible and a crozier our next Provisional Bishop. The Rt. Rev. Rayford High has agreed to take on this task for a time to continue moving us forward. This is not a stop-gap measure; we are progressing toward the time when we will be able to elect and consecrate our next diocesan bishop. The process of searching for, electing, and consecrating a bishop takes about two years. It is a time of concentrated prayer and hard work for the entire diocese. There will be self-study of who we are today and what gifts we desire in our Bishop Diocesan. Receiving names for nomination, exploring which of the nominees should be put forward, and completing various background checks will be vital as the process moves forward. I exhort you to insure that no “short cuts” are taken during the preparation, nomination, or election of that person as diocesan bishop.
Therefore, I call this day for the election of a Bishop Diocesan for the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. The Standing Committee of this diocese will have a significant role in overseeing the nomination process, and Bishop High can give outstanding insight and advice for the process itself. Some of you will be tapped to serve on the Nominating Committee, and I entreat you to take this task as seriously as you have ever taken any task. Serving on the Nominating Committee will test your good will, your time, and your patience; but I believe you will find the work to be among the most rewarding work you have ever done.
The electing process for a bishop requires a substantial expense. There are costs involved with gathering the committee, making visits to prospective nominees, and bringing the nominees to Fort Worth for what is lovingly called either the “Dog and Pony Show” or the “Penguin Parade.” Then there are additional costs for the consecration itself. Over the past 3 years, through the diligence of the Finance Committee, ably led by Floyd McNeely and Treasurer Bob Hicks, we have been able to set aside enough money from year end reserves to fund the election and consecration of a Bishop Diocesan. Those funds are in a designated account under the oversight of the Executive Council, to be used for no other purpose.
There is, however, not enough in our operating budget to fully fund a Bishop Diocesan at current assessment levels. Cheri Shipp, a member of the Board of Trustees for the Diocesan Corporation came to the Trustees about 3 months ago with the concern for lack of funding and a means to fill that need. This afternoon you will have before you a resolution to begin a fund drive that will underwrite the compensation, insurance, pension, and travel for a full time bishop for three years. The fund will not be an endowment, per se, because the intent is to use all of the proceeds from this fund drive for the costs associated with a full time bishop during the first 3 years of a bishop diocesan’s episcopate. Should we oversubscribe the necessary amount, the overage will be added to the Endowment for the Episcopate to insure its growth and security for decades to come. I trust that you have been praying about these developments and will continue to do so in the months ahead. As the Stewardship Chair said to a parish I served (and the statement wasn’t original then but serves the purpose now) “We have good news and we have bad news. The good news is that we have all the money we need. The bad news is that it is still in your pockets.”
I am convinced that the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth is on the verge of taking greater strides forward than have been ever been possible. This is indeed a bridge time between where we were four years ago and where we want to be in the future. We have not simply stood still, marking time, until everything is just the way we wished it were. We are looking toward the horizon to see where God is calling us to live, and move, and have our being. Not everything will be easy once we get the property back; or have a full time bishop; or whatever. Remember “The road to the future is always under construction.” You know about road construction; after all most of us live in the Metroplex and the rest come to the city regularly. There are detours, pot-holes, sometimes dead-ends, and various barriers and unexpected surprises. But please remember, God reigns and as St. Julian of Norwich says, “All shall be well.”
It has been a great pleasure and privilege to serve with you and to see the face of Jesus in each and every one of you. As Woodrow Call says at the end of Lonesome Dove, “It’s been a helluva ride, a helluva ride.”
May God continue to bless you from the riches of God’s grace.