When I first arrived in the Diocese of Western Michigan, the Bishop was known already to the people at Grace as thinking of himself as an abbot, or monk as some said. This was seen variously as a way to understand him and his choices and as a character defect that explained his distance from the church. When I sat in his office the first time with the Rt. Rev. Robert Gepert he had understandable questions about this vastly under-qualified and young priest who was being nominated to work at Grace. He repeated that he saw himself this way; and it made me want to work for him and not just for this particular congregation. It has also hung around in the back of my mind for the last two years as I have prayed and sought God's vision for me and this parish.
Then this year as I studied Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (2 July 1489 – 21 March 1556) and his vision for the church when he wrote the first Books of Common Prayer and prepared to teach a class on the Rule of St. Benedict from the fourth century that something new began to form. It was a vocabulary for church leadership based in the Rule of God and articulated in our tradition's Book of Common Prayer and shaped by a strain of tradition of Benedictine formation. It is influenced by the work of Peter Block and Marvin Weisbord. It is all about being a community following Jesus. It has taken a definite solidity finally while reading Joan Chittister's reflections on the Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century.
If you have been following the sermons here, you have been listening to these ideas coalesce for the last two years - and before for those from Phoenix. I have carried a deep concern for the leadership of the church for my entire career. I strongly believe that the leadership of the Episcopal Church is, like every church, always tempted to be something primarily that is not of essential importance, but just off. We are social activists as a result of our following Jesus. We are a place of sanctuary and acceptance because of our obedience to Christ. We are moral because we are faithful. Yet everywhere I look, people get the impression that they should be activists or inclusive or morally pure and that the church agrees with them so they should be a part of the church. But that is backwards and distorts the faith. We are first and foremost followers of Jesus. The first pastor I worked for and my first spiritual director, Rev. Tom Wiles and the Rev. Gil Stafford, set that ideal deep in my vision of ministry through Eugene Peterson and Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen.
Follow Jesus. It seems like such a straightforward thing to proclaim, but anyone who has tried to do it has discovered that the nuances take a lifetime. So, I am beginning here to articulate that my job at Grace, the job of a rector in the Episcopal tradition, is to be abbot to a holy community of people under orders. In the vision of Cranmer, those orders are monastic but originate with Baptism, not with Holy Orders or Ordination. Orders are merely orders within that primary vocation.
You, O member of Grace, O Christian, are called and set aside as a holy person within a holy community, knowing that neither you nor your church ever meet that descriptor within yourselves. Your holiness is Christ's (see Romans). As an Episcopalian with Book of Common Prayer in hand with the Bible, you are to pray Morning and Evening at least, and to be shaped in communion at the table of common meal and Holy Eucharist.
I promise not to demean your vocation. I hope that other leaders in the church will take this same pledge. I promise to begin to see your vocation as the holy calling it is. As your abbot here, I will call you to him whose name is Grace, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.