A road sign on the way to the home where I’ve been staying here in Salt Lake City points the way to This is the Place Heritage Park. Mormon tradition says that while still in Illinois, Brigham Young had a vision of a homeland for his people, where they would “make the desert blossom like a rose.” He and a group of about 150 people in 73 wagons headed 1000 miles west. Young became ill on the journey, so he rode in the back of a covered wagon. After exiting a canyon pass (now called Emigration Canyon), Brigham Young peered out from the wagon. He saw the empty desert valley, and the other mountains ahead. He said, “This is the right place. Drive on.” Shouts of “This is the place” echoed through the caravan. By December 1847 more than two thousand made the journey and settled in the Salt Basin. The park marks the place where he told his people they had arrived.
The Episcopal Church has been on a journey for many years. Some say it began in 1976 with the first Integrity Eucharist. I like to think it began in earnest with the adoption of our baptismal covenant, in which we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Regardless, it’s been a long road.
In some ways, it feels like on Wednesday we finally arrived. The House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops and approved more marriage liturgies for same sex couples (A054). Then Deputies also approved a change in our canons (or church laws) to recognize same sex marriage (A036). I had warned my congregation that I didn’t think the change in canons would pass in the House of Bishops, so I was pleasantly surprised.
There were no visible celebrations. Deputies had been told not to react, out of respect for those who disagreed with the majority. The vote was announced, and the next item of business was called. “This is the right place. Drive on.”
But one deputy rose for a point of personal privilege and expressed what this meant to him. He said that he had always known he was welcome for Baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, and all other sacramental rites of the church, but he had not been allowed to take part in one rite – the rite of marriage. Now, with the actions of this convention, he plans to marry this weekend.
At the Integrity Eucharist on Monday night, we sang a marvelous text by Ruth Duck –
When God restored our common life, our hope, our liberty,
At first is seemed a passing dream, a waking fantasy.
A shock of joy swept over us, for we had wept so long;
The seeds we watered once with tears sprang up into a song.
That’s what Wednesday felt like to many.
But as nice as this place is, there is more work to do. Brigham Young and his companions may have settled here, but they didn’t stay put. They still send people out on mission to all the world. At the April 2014 General Conference, the LDS Church announced that there were 83,035 full-time missionaries serving as of December 31, 2013, an all-time high. (I know, I know, the Mormon Church professes some odd things, does not respect the leadership of women and condemns homosexuality. This is a metaphor, not an endorsement.)
Technically, we are also a missionary people. The official name of The Episcopal Church is still The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Every Episcopalian is a missionary. We are all on a missionary journey together to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Jesus Christ. Thankfully, we have, finally, managed to achieve equal access to the sacramental rites of the church for all people. But there are so many other injustices to face. The mountains lie ahead. We have other places to go.
Our discussions about sexuality over the previous years claimed a lot of our energy. Now let’s channel that energy in new ways and keep pressing on. Here are just a few suggestions –
- Serious work of racial reconciliation. I’m pleased that the budget for the next triennium includes $2 million for racial reconciliation grants. (A link to the budget is here). That’s a start. Hats off, too, to Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis for establishing a fund to rebuild black churches. Let’s follow this example and work toward racial reconciliation in our own communities. I hope the Episcopal Church soon becomes as newsworthy for our work on racial reconciliation as we have been for our work on sexuality.
- True diversity. We have celebrated the diversity of sexual orientation in many of our congregations, and that’s been an important witness. But how many of our congregations are truly diverse racially, ethnically, economically, educationally? Some are, and they are blessed, but most of us are missing out on this gift. If Kirk Hadaway and our office of research and statistics are listening, I’d like to see some measure of diversity added to the parochial report, and I’d like us all to work on increasing it.
- Adult baptisms and professions. I love baptizing babies – it means a new generation is growing among us. And I’m always delighted to welcome new members who were previously baptized and living out their faith in another community. But an adult profession of faith in baptism or confirmation means we have reached people who did not claim Christian faith before. A life has been changed. This is one of the most important things we need to count as a measure of congregational vitality and faithfulness. I hope adult baptisms and professions of faith increase substantially over the next three years.
- More new churches. Friends, the world needs us. The “nones and dones” have voted with their feet and left Christianity in huge numbers. We’re a good option for many of them, but we are leaving this generation unharvested on the vine. And we REALLY need more Hispanic/Latino congregations. I’m saddened that we only approved $3 million in the next budget for Mission Enterprise Zones and New Church starts. That’s a $1 million increase from the 2012-15 budget, but many had hoped for more. However, we did lower what dioceses are asked to pay to the larger church over the next three years (currently 19%, 18% in 2016, 16.5% in 2017, 15% in 2018). So here’s a thought – every deputy and guest here, start petitioning your bishop and diocesan council now to set aside those savings for starting and revitalizing communities of faith in your diocese. The diocesan assessment was lowered to encourage dioceses to do more work at home. Don’t squander this opportunity.
What might you add to the list?
Here’s the final verse of Ruth Duck’s hymn
Great liberating God, we pray for all who are oppressed.
May those who long for what is right with justice now be blessed.
We pray for those who mourn this day, and all who suffer wrong.
May seeds they water now with tears spring up into a song.
Yesterday was a great day for us. It was the place many had barely dared to hope they would see in their lifetimes. But we can’t stop here. The work continues. This is the right place. Drive on.