A Pastoral Letter from the Bishop of Atlanta
To be read and/or distributed in all of the parishes of the
Diocese of Atlanta on Sunday, August 10, 2003.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

I am writing to you on the final day of the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. For the last ten days, Episcopalians from around the world � lay persons, priests, and bishops � have prayed together, studied together, worked together on legislative committees, attended hearings on a wide variety of issues, and in our spare time enjoyed the fellowship of living together as a large, diverse, Christian community.

The theme for this General Convention was Engage Godís Mission. The theme was a powerful reminder that as servants of the Risen Christ we are a people on a mission that is not our own. It is Godís mission. It is God who is about the work of transforming the world. It is God who is changing us from the church we are into the church we are to become. It is our extraordinary privilege to stand alongside each other and watch with awe and wonder as the Risen Christ makes his way ever more deeply into the life of his church, animating our common life with his Risen Spirit, and breaking us open for the life of the world.

As faithful Episcopalians, we began each day with worship. It was a rich experience to sing and pray our liturgy in a variety of languages, hear some of the best preachers in our church, and sit together in the context of worship to study the Holy Scriptures and share our faith. The depth and power of the daily worship anchored the Convention in prayer and praise, in Scripture and song.

On the basis of the media coverage, one might be led to believe that this General Convention was totally focused on two issues: the consent process for the Bishop-elect of New Hampshire, and the debate on a liturgical rite for the blessing of same-sex unions. These were important matters and the Convention took the necessary time to hear testimony on the full-range of each issue, spend time in deliberation and debate, and a great deal of time in prayer and discernment.

The consent to the election of The Reverend Canon Gene Robinson as the Bishop-elect of the Diocese of New Hampshire included lengthy hearings in which all of the biblical, theological, canonical, and pastoral perspectives were presented fairly, respectfully, and in full awareness of the gravity of the decision. After the hearings, there were serious debates on the floor of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. When the votes were cast, Canon Robinson received a clear majority of consents among both deputies and bishops. After listening to all of the testimony and debate, and being attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit, it is clear to me that, for nearly thirty years, Canon Robinson has been a faithful priest of our church whose ministry has touched the lives of countless people in the Name of Jesus. When you spend time around him, you discover quickly that he is a priest with a profound commitment to the Gospel of Jesus, a person of deep faith, and a man of prayer. Even those members of the Convention who could not support Canon Robinsonís consent because of their concern about his personal life, quickly concede that he is one of the most talented, qualified, and experienced candidates one could hope to have for a bishop.

There were also a variety of resolutions asking for authorization to prepare liturgical rites for same-sex blessings. Several such resolutions came from the annual councils of dioceses of our church that desire to provide for homosexual persons living in faithful, monogamous, life-long partnerships, the full pastoral care and liturgical blessing of the church. Similar resolutions came from other groups within the church. As a counterbalance, the Bishops of the Fourth Province (including the Bishop of Atlanta) proposed a resolution asking that the Convention take no legislative action on the matter, on the grounds that we have not reached a satisfactory consensus among our people at the present time.† In the end, the Convention found itself comfortable with a typically Anglican via media or ìmiddle way.î The resolution, approved by both Houses of Convention, affirms the support of the Episcopal Church for all of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, recognizes that dioceses and parishes are in different places on the question of the blessing of same-sex unions, and calls the church to continued study, discernment, and prayer on this matter. The resolution stopped well short of asking that a rite be prepared for authorized use.

As your Bishop, I want you to know that I am profoundly grateful for the manner in which the General Convention came to these decisions. These decisions were not arrived at casually, but thoughtfully, prayerfully, and at moments, out of great pain. Some among us will disagree with these decisions of Convention, and I honor those persons who are in that position. I also honor those deputies and bishops who came to Convention with their minds made up, representing both sides of these issues, but faithfully listened, studied, and prayed, and in many cases changed their minds, and their votes. The Holy Spirit was palpably present.

There are those who are predicting that these decisions will cause irreparable division in the Episcopal Church. I do not believe that because what I know, that most of the media does not, is how much Episcopalians love their church. We are a church that was born in conflict and we have stayed together when nearly all of our sister churches have split apart. It is of the nature of our Anglican heritage to hold together Catholic and Protestant, high church and low church, conservative and liberal, young and old, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight, saint and sinner, red and yellow, black, brown, and white. We are a tough bunch we Episcopalians. In the House of Bishops, especially after the vote on the consent to Canon Robinsonís consecration as bishop, there were some angry words, emotional speeches, and declarations of doom. The next morning when we gathered for the next legislative session, the bishops were there, sleeves rolled up, and back to the business of engaging Godís mission for the church.† Your bishops � even in their disagreement on important matters � are committed to staying together and keeping our church focused on what God is doing among and through us.

Every three years, the General Convention establishes the mission priorities of the Episcopal Church for the next triennium. These mission priorities become the standard by which decisions are made at all levels of the church: they drive the deployment of staff, they drive the budget, they drive every aspect of our common life. For the next triennium our mission priorities will be:

1. Young Adults and Youth: Reaching out to young adults and youth through intentional inclusion and full incorporation in the thinking, work, worship and structure of the Church.

2. Reconciliation and Evangelism: †Reconciling and engaging those who do not know Christ by participating in Godís mission of reconciling all things to Christ and proclaiming the Gospel to those who are not yet members of the Church.

3. Congregational Transformation: †Revitalizing and transforming congregations through commitment to leadership development, spiritual growth, dynamic and inclusive worship, greater diversity, and mission.

4. Justice and Peace: †Promoting justice and peace for all of Godís creation and reaching out to the dispossessed, imprisoned and otherwise voiceless needy.

5. Partnerships: †Reaffirming the importance of our partnerships with provinces of the Anglican Communion and beyond and our relationships with ecumenical and interfaith partners.

Under each of these mission priorities, the Convention established a variety of new program initiatives. I am particularly excited about the renewed emphasis on young adults and youth, and church growth and evangelism. Many folks will be grateful for the new initiatives in justice and peace ministries, long a special emphasis in the work of the Diocese of Atlanta. †All of us will benefit from the new initiatives in the area of congregational transformation. As part of our growing ecumenical involvement, the General Convention approved a period of ìinterim Eucharistic sharingî and ministry development with the Moravian Church as we move toward the goal of full communion. This fall the parishes in the Northeast Atlanta Convocation will begin to enjoy a new relationship with the good people of the First Moravian Church of Georgia in Stone Mountain.

There are two groups who were present at General Convention that deserve special mention. Running concurrently with General Convention was the Triennial Meeting of the Episcopal Church Women, bringing together delegates from all across the church. They had their own speakers, workshops, and business sessions, but joined the General Convention for worship each morning. Their presence was a great gift. Their faithful ministry is such an important part of our churchís life! Also this year we had a large, expanded youth presence. Senior high and college age young people from across the church attended many of the events of General Convention as well as engaging in their own program. Their presence was also a joy and delight. It was very clear that these young people are not the church of tomorrow; they are the church now! I thank God for them.

The Scriptures teach us that we have only just begun to see the greatness of the Lord. I believe that with all my heart! And after almost two weeks of eighteen hour days at General Convention, I am convinced that our church is poised, like never before, to see and experience a fresh outpouring of the greatness of the Lord. I believe that the Lord of the Church is blessing us with a renewed sense of mission, a passion for the Gospel, and a breath of Spirit-filled fresh air. To God be the glory!† I believe that we have turned a corner. I am excited about Godís call to our church. Letís get up and get going!

As I close this letter to you, I want to share with you a final image that was for me the high point of the entire General Convention. One evening, the bishops and their spouses gathered to bid farewell to the bishops who are retiring before our next meeting. As the Presiding Bishop was leading our table prayers, I looked across the room and saw one of the Florida bishops and one of the California bishops, standing with their arms around each other, leaning in toward each other, and deeply engaged with each other in the work of prayer. It was not lost on me that I was seeing two bishops who are about as different from each other as any two bishops could be: different in style, different in convictions, different by almost any measure. Yet despite all of there differences, they were holding tightly to each other, committed to living together, praying together, and building up the church together. Tears came to my eyes as I watched them. It was a moment that made me deeply grateful to be an Episcopalian.† They were a living symbol for me of the kind of church we are when we are at our best.

I am blessed to be the Bishop of Atlanta. I covet your continued prayers for my life and ministry among you.

Faithfully, in Christ,

The Right Reverend J. Neil Alexander

Bishop of Atlanta

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5/7/04 -j