When I was Bishop of Iowa, one of the visions we held before us was a little poem stitched together by Charles Wilson from the sermons and teachings of one of my episcopal heroes – Wesley Frensdorff, the late Bishop of Nevada. It’s called “The Dream” and, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to cite a few of my favorite verses: Wes said,
“Let us dream of a church…in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love, and each is certain that in the divine heart, we are all known by name…
A church in which…worship is lively and fun as well as reverent and holy; and we might be moved to dance and laugh; to be solemn, cry, or beat the breast…
(A church in which) The Eucharist is the centre of life and servanthood the centre of mission: the servant Lord truly known in the breaking of the bread. With service flowing from worship, and everyone understanding why a worship is called a service.
A church…without the answers, but asking the right questions; holding law and grace, freedom and authority, faith and works together in mission…So deeply rooted in gospel and tradition that, like a living tree, it can swing in the wind and continually surprise us with new blossoms.”
Well, I find myself thinking of that poem almost every Sunday I am privileged to visit among you in this fine diocese! Worship is lively and fun in most places, large and small, that I have visited. It’s clear that the Eucharist is the center of your life together, but that the old reminder at the end of the liturgy that “the worship is over…the service begins” is being made manifest in your lives. I don’t think I’ve been to any congregation not involved seriously in some kind of outreach and service in the wider community.
But it’s the last line I cited from “the Dream” I’m most impressed with: that we can be “a church so deeply rooted in gospel and tradition that, like a living tree, it can swing in the wind and continually surprise us with new blossoms.” The Diocese of Chicago has a long and venerable tradition of catholic faith and order, but a tradition open to reformation and renewal. And, whatever church is emerging as we move deeper into the 21st century will only survive and thrive if it can live in the midst of that creative tension.
We cannot remain ossified in traditional-ism, but neither can we yield to the temptation of trying to invent a new church. It’s not necessary to have all the answers. In fact, a church claiming to have all the answers will become less and less appealing as the years and decades roll on. But we must be a church asking the right questions. I see those questions being asked in this diocese in how we structure ourselves, in how we incarnate ourselves into the wider community, and how honest we are in conversation with one another, “fierce” conversation…honest conversation.
I am so very grateful to Jeff Lee and to his fine staff for welcoming us so warmly into the diocese over these last ten months. And to all of you who have made us feel so very at home as we move among you Sunday by Sunday. The best part of being a bishop is what happens on Sunday mornings and I get to do that (without all the stresses and strains that come with the office Monday through Friday!). I’ve also appreciated very much the opportunity to continue my involvement with ecumenical and inter-religious relations by representing the diocese on the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago and, occasionally, the Illinois Council of Churches.
I’ve told Jeff that I am open to whatever would be helpful over the next few years as we live into our new staffing structure, complete the amazing project around St. James Commons, and take the next steps in our exciting possibilities with the Diocese of Quincy. One of the good things about being retired is the freedom and flexibility that provides. Whether the future holds the election of a full-time Assistant Bishop or some combination of newly retired bishops working with the diocesan, it has been privilege to be part of your life in these exciting times.
And I look forward to the new church year and to whatever 2013 brings! Thank you for being so deeply rooted…that you can swing freely in the breeze…and continually surprise us with new blossoms!
C. Christopher Epting