I remember, in seminary, the running joke was that if we didn’t know the answer to a professor’s question, the right response nearly always was this: “It’s all about relationship.” If we just said the R-word, we’d be OK – at least for that class session.
I was blessed to hear the R-word many times yesterday, at the opening session of the annual conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes in Denver. Several times, it came from the inspired and inspiring lips of our presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry.
If you’ve heard Bishop Curry preach, you know what I mean. He could read recipes and leave you reeling. But what struck me today was his weaving of relationship into nearly everything he had to say.
Some of it, you’d expect. Bishop Curry describes himself as the CEO, the “chief evangelism officer,” of The Episcopal Church – which is fitting, given that evangelism is one of the Church’s top two priorities from last year’s General Convention. In a session with rectors and deans today, someone asked how Bishop Curry would recommend we help people in the pews claim their high calling to the ministry of proclaiming the Good News. Of course, it’s not about standing on street corners. Nor is it about parroting Bible verses or dispensing the “four spiritual laws” on command. None of those activities involves relationship, and evangelism fundamentally is relationship. When you have an authentic relationship with someone, Bishop Curry said, you simply find a moment when it makes sense to say, “I know a place you might want to come, a place where people are trying to get closer to God and to each other. Plus, I’ll pick you up.” When you actually care about someone, you want to help her or him know love better and deeper. “We each have a voice, a voice that comes from who we authentically are,” Bishop Curry said. “Do not be ashamed to be people of love. Do not be ashamed to follow Jesus.”
Relationship is also the heart of the other priority coming from the 2015 General Convention – racial reconciliation. As you hear those words, you might be tempted to think of mandatory hours of diversity training. As Bishop Curry described the work, he said it begins not with obligatory exercises or official pronouncements but with narrative, with entering into another person’s story. (For you St. Andrew's people, think about how we've been getting together with the people of United Missionary Baptist Church.) He described a conversation among the bishops about how they might spur the movement toward racial reconciliation – maybe issue another pastoral letter of admonition and guidance? Instead, they decided to tell each other their stories of race. In worldly terms, that might not seem likely to accomplish much. Bishop Curry would disagree. “We need real and authentic efforts to build real and authentic relationships across race and let those relationships lead us,” he said. “Knowing each other on that level is, in the long run, how we transform culture. A community of faith willing to be authentic about our sinfulness and our blessedness – being that community may be some of our most important evangelistic work.”
But surprisingly, relationship was also Bishop Curry’s answer to the conflict among the primates (leaders of provincial churches) of the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church’s action to open the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples led the primates recently to recommend restrictions on Episcopal members’ participation as Anglican representatives in work with other faith traditions, as well as restrictions on voting related to doctrine and polity. (For more information, see Bishop Martin Field’s detailed discussion of these issues.) Meeting for a week with the other primates, spending hours together in the midst of deep disagreement and conflict, Bishop Curry said he felt “kind of alone” at times. In such a situation, the temptation might have been to retaliate, to find a way to exercise power and use The Episcopal Church’s leverage (financial or otherwise) to play realpolitik. Instead, Bishop Curry said, the answer for now is to live in the ambiguity of our disagreement because “part of the vocation of The Episcopal Church is to help the Anglican Communion figure out what it means to be a house of prayer for all people.” But it also means following Jesus by fiercely staying in relationship even when it’s strained. The primates were “surgical” in their precision about expressing their disagreement and displeasure with General Convention’s actions related to marriage, and The Episcopal Church “was very clear about who we are as a church,” Bishop Curry explained. But all the primates of the Anglican Communion agreed the top priority is to hang in there together. “Expressing oneself clearly while staying in relationship is a marker of maturity,” he said.
Little did we know just how right we were in seminary as we deflected the professors’ questions with bromides about relationship – and little did we understand the cost of the commitment when times get tough. But such are the steps of the Jesus movement. “Jesus never stayed where it was comfortable,” Bishop Curry said. “We’ve got to follow him out, crossing bridges for relationship.”