Peace and Justice Summit Illustrates Church's Continuing Commitment to Issues

Episcopal News Service. March 7, 1997 [97-1710]

(ENS) They came by the hundreds, from 90 dioceses and several foreign countries, drawn by the opportunity to demonstrate the Episcopal Church's continuing passion on issues of peace and justice. When they gathered for the opening session on February 27 they looked like the church's own Rainbow Coalition -- blacks and Hispanics and Native Americans, young and old, urban and rural, male and female, straight and gay.

"Our presence here is a message to the church -- that the proponents of peace and justice. those with a heart for the wholeness of creation and concern for the marginalized -- are here to be heard," said Bishop Arthur Williams, Jr., of Ohio at the opening dinner of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Summit. "Together we intend to help shape the justice agenda for the Episcopal Church for the next triennium and into the 21st century."

As chair of the Executive Council's JPIC committee, Williams expressed surprise that over 550 had registered for the three-day meeting, nearly twice the number the committee had expected.

After a full day of workshops that blended knowledge with models and strategies, participants were treated to an evening that reminded them of the Episcopal Church's recent struggles over peace and justice issues. And Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning was the metaphor for that involvement.

"In a time when many in the mainline churches have settled comfortably into a Gospel which reflects society, you have challenged our Episcopal Church to step up to an uncomfortable Gospel of Jesus Christ which redeems society and says there is a higher way," Williams said to introduce the evening's theme.

Imperatives of Baptismal Covenant

After the Rev. Ted Gleeson of Forward Movement Publications presented a copy of a new book, "No Outcasts," a selection of Browning's public statements on the issues, Pamela Chinnis, president of the House of Deputies, reminded participants that "we are here because we share a common baptism and with it the imperatives of the Baptismal Covenant." She said that the summit was a time "to take stock, to build connections, to renew our faith and love and commitment, to celebrate the Good News of Jesus Christ in our day as countless hosts have done before us."

Chinnis added personal comments, stating her belief that the church has been blessed with Browning's "courageous leadership" and said that she was privileged to "share this time in his prophetic leadership."

A video based on "No Outcasts" pulled together a wide range of public statements that served as hallmarks of Browning's tenure and served as an introduction to his address.

While admitting that being presiding bishop "has been a burden at times," Browning said that the summit "is a sure sign that the issues of justice for God's earth, God's creatures, and God's human family will remain alive long after I'm gone through the ministries that you carry out in this church."

"I wonder sometimes why we have to struggle so against forces that would belittle and isolate issues of peace and justice to the sidelines of the church," Browning said. Yet he added that he would leave his office at the end of the year convinced that "there has been a shift in the life of the church that has moved the issues of peace and justice to center stage. It's just that some folks haven't figured it out yet."

Browning said that he was "a little blown away" by the video and the memories it evoked. He quickly added, however, that he "wouldn't retract anything -- or almost anything" because "bishops are called to prophecy" as well unity. There were times when he might have used his office "as a channel between opposing views."

While expressing his hope that the upcoming General Convention will be a "time of reconciliation." he said that "justice precedes reconciliation and the unity we seek may yet elude us." He called on participants to "proclaim the cause of justice" but also to "honor the unity that we seek and need as the Body of Christ." In what he called a "mixture of my pain and nostalgia over these past 11 years," he then sketched some of the encounters that had shaped his ministry -- including a visit to an AIDS ward, an Indian reservation, the refugee camps of the Middle East and the townships of South Africa, a visit to the Hiroshima peace memorial and his attendance at Integrity's national convention. He added that two events had "weighed heavily" on him during his tenure -- his decision to oppose the Gulf War and destruction caused by the Los Angeles riots.

Yet through it all he said that he clung to "my vision of a church in which there are no outcasts. I want to promise you that until my last day in office that will remain my challenge to the whole church."

The ambassador with a message

The world is going through a period of "increasing moral indifference to the plight of others," marked by a win-at-all-costs mentality, and therefore "we must assert our fundamental belief in the dignity of every human being." Ambassador Juan Somavia of Chile said in his keynote speech. As his country's representative at the United Nations, he chaired the World Summit for Social Development in 1995. He was introduced by the Rev. Earl Neil as a "distinguished champion of human rights and democracy" and a man of "deep conviction and spirituality."

"It is not possible to have stable societies based on the inequality of people," Somavia warned. "We have learned the painful lesson that the market, left to its own, excludes the weak."

Because human needs are not only material but also spiritual, he urged the churches to join in reestablishing "shared values." The spiritual traditions of the world have already provided the foundation of those values so "they don't need to be reinvented, they need to be applied," he contended. Spiritual leaders have a duty to "call attention to the discrepancy between what we say and what we do -- and press for the application of spiritual values. We will be carried forward by the strength of our convictions."

Righteousness is justice lived

Participants were divided into five "assemblies," and charged to "explore relationships among the concerns and begin to articulate a vision for the church."

A jolt of energy was supplied each morning by the summit chaplain, Bishop Steve Charleston, former bishop of Alaska and now at Trinity College in Hartford. "The presence of the Spirit of God is with us," he said, but added that "if what we do is not based on the word of God then what happens at General Convention in Philadelphia will be nothing but politics." He is convinced that "what is in store for the Episcopal Church is so strong, loving and righteous that the angels in heaven will sing.... Your children will see a new community rising. the dawn of the new community is waiting in Philadelphia."

Using the fifth chapter of Matthew, he said that "one of the great battlefields of the church is tradition." People are accusing each other of "messing with tradition." He urged participants to "move tradition back into the reality of human lives." In a phrase that would echo through the small group discussions, he contended that "righteousness is justice lived."

Making connections clearer

When the small groups brought their reports into a concluding "town meeting" plenary session, frustrations with the process erupted. Participants complained that their voices were not included in the documents emerging, that some found the process enabling while others found it too restrictive, according to Williams who presided at the session.

Consultants working with each group said that it was difficult to make the linkage between passionate individual concerns and a group consensus that might lead to a strategy for action. One said that the group was almost derailed by the tension between wanting to come together and share those passionate concerns and the fear that the final results would be so watered down that the individual concerns would get lost.

"We need a new way to pull together people whose stories are different," said one consultant. "How do we bridge the fears? People are tired of talk, they need leaders who will act."

Another consultant said that there was "blood on the floor" when people didn't see their specific issues included. Some participants called for the church to "look to communal values that define us as Christians," especially as the church heads into a potentially divisive General Convention.

"If you pull the string of any single issue, you will find it connected to all others," said Mike Scott of Olympia. He asked others to join him in a pledge to "make those connections clearer."

Williams closed the plenary while many still sought to speak, increasing the frustration level. Browning urged those who had not been heard to put their concerns in writing so that they could be included in the final document. Judy Conley of Iowa, who chairs the program committee of Executive Council, assured the group that she would include the concerns in the council's presentation at General Convention. "We will be your messengers," she said.

Definition of justice expanded

The frustration did not surprise some participants. The Rev. Luis Uzueta of Alaska said in an interview that many were "used to working against oppressive structures" so there was "rebellion and resistance" when they felt left out by the process. Yet for him sharing stories and finding affirmation from others was crucial. "It is too easy for us to be isolated where we are." He found the combination of speakers and small groups "a potent mix." And he was encouraged by the variety of people and issues, especially signs of "a whole new impassioned generation."

"The church is not going to back away from tough issues," observed the Rev. Ted Karpf of Washington, D.C., executive director of the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition. "People are now awake enough to know that we must hold the center." He is convinced that "Browning's legacy of a Gospel-centered concern for peace and justice is well planted in this church."

"This conference is an example of church ecology in the way we can work together because now we are talking across our individual concerns with like-minded people who may have different interests but who share a common vision," added Holly McAlpen, coordinator of social ministries in the Diocese of California.

Neill, who co-chaired the summit with Peggy Welch of West Texas, said that "an awakening to other people's passions and concerns" was bound to have a long-term effect on the church's peace and justice ministries. "The definition of justice was expanded."

"The structure was a functional necessity," Welch added. While some issues were not specifically included in the original scope of JPIC, she is convinced that they will "now be included in the vision." While expressing some apprehension about unrealistic expectations of the final document, "the energy and spirit of this summit will carry the message." According to the Rev. Brian Grieves, staff officer for peace and justice, a preliminary report will go to the Executive Council's April meeting and a more complete report will be available, perhaps in May. The JPIC committee will meet in June to discuss how to implement the recommendations from the summit.

You are a peculiar people

"You are a peculiar people," Verna Dozier of Washington, D.C., said in her sermon at the closing Eucharist, "and by the grace of God may we always remain so."

Reminding participants that they are "change agents," she said, "Let the word go forth -- you have set your sights on General Convention, not as politicians but as people of the Spirit. Too often "we make statues of justice, honor them, and then consider our duties discharged," she added. "We distance ourselves from those for whom we do mercy.... justice is love in action."

Dozier, who is struggling with Parkinson's disease, rose from her wheelchair and said in a clear, strong voice, "The Christian Church has the possibility of being the new thing that can haul the whole world into God's vision for God's creation. Our choice is to be the ones who see the new way. and to follow it, or to be the ones the new creation leaves behind."

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