Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My pastoral letter regarding Bishop Smith's Letter in The Sheaf

“This is my commandment, that you love one another
as I have loved you.
John 15.12

October 29, 2015
The feast of Bl. James Hannington and Companions

Dear Members and Friends of St. Stephen’s,

As you might know, Bishop Michael Smith, in the November issue of The Sheaf, issued a letter regarding the topic of same-sex marriage rites in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. His letter in full follows this letter. I invite you to prayerfully and respectfully read his  letter.

The reactions of the members of St. Stephen’s to his letter may no doubt vary. Some may feel anger or frustration. Others may agree with Bishop Smith’s opinion.

In the recent past, I have purposely not responded to this issue because I, like many of you, have been waiting patiently for Bishop Smith to make a comprehensive statement regarding his making provision for same-sex marriage rites in the Diocese. On at least one occasion I attempted a conversation with Bishop Smith regarding this issue; no doubt, he already assumed where I stood on this matter.

As the priest of St. Stephen’s, it is not my duty to tell the people of our congregation what they should or should not do. I can only encourage. I can only walk beside you. And I, of course, will support any decision you make as a congregation. I can also share my own insights with you.

Bishop Smith’s letter was not a surprise to me, although I will admit that I was disappointed that Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) was the only option offered to the Diocese.  

His letter does now draw a very clear and distinctive line in the sand. He makes clear (and rightfully so) that this matter is no longer an issue of polity, nor is it an issue of loyalty—either to the Diocese or to the Bishop. It is now a very clear issue of conscience. Bishop Smith’s final statement makes this clear:

Each of us one day will be called upon to give an account before God for what we have done or not done during this life, as we stand before the “great judgment seat of Christ.” At this time in our history, I am keenly aware of the scriptural warning of the letter of James: “Not many of you should become teachers … for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1)

I agree entirely with this statement. Each one of us WILL one day be called to give an account before God for what we have done or not done during this life. I, for one, am not willing to stand before “the great judgement seat of Christ” and say that I stood by quietly while people continued to be excluded and marginalized from the Church or given second (or third)-class treatment. For me, my goal as a follower of Jesus has always been to live out his command:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10.27).

As an Episcopalian, I take very seriously those vows we make from the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 305):

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?


“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

In my opinion, the issue of  full and equal acceptance of all people in this Church and to its rites is an issue of justice. This is an issue of respecting the dignity of every human being. This is an issue of living out Christ’s command to love one another as God loves us.

St. Stephen’s has, from its very beginning in 1956, been a congregation that has worked hard to be a place of radical hospitality and acceptance. That mission of all-accepting love has been vital in the lives of countless people who have found with us a place of solace and sanctuary. We have consistently welcomed the alienated, the shunned, the marginalized and the discarded. For us, this is what it means to be Christians in this day and age. For us, this is what it means to make the Kingdom of God a reality in this world. And we will continue to do this in the most radical ways.  To do less would be to be untrue to our calling as followers of Jesus.

The ball is now in our court. How we proceed will be of the utmost importance. My hope is that we will do so intentionally and prayerfully, allowing God’s Holy Spirit to be with us and guide us

Whatever our decision may be as a congregation, these next weeks and months will be a time for discernment and introspection. I ask that we proceed in a spirit of grace and humility. I pray that we will allow the Holy Spirit to continue to work in our midst, and that we allow God’s all-powerful love to reign.

With that in mind, I caution us from any temptation to demonize Bishop Smith or anyone else who shares a similar position. Our ministry of love and full-acceptance extends to our relationship with them as well. They are not our enemies; rather they are our sisters and brothers in Christ, and we must continue to see them as such. The command from Christ to love all as God loves us extends, of course, to them as well.

With all that in mind, we must now accept the fact that the line, as I previously said, has now been clearly drawn. We have been given an opportunity to weigh our options and to proceed in our following of Christ.

So, how do we proceed? First, I ask you to read Bishop Smith’s letter with an open mind and heart.

Next, I ask you to share your opinions with me, or with our Senior Warden, Leo Wilking, Junior Warden, Catherine McMullen or with any of our vestry members.  Your opinion is vital in how we proceed as a congregation.

Most of all, I ask for your prayers. Pray for the grace and wisdom to move forward. Pray for those individuals in our congregation who are most directly affected by these issues and who are, in this moment, feeling pain and discouragement as a result of this division. Pray that we can, in all integrity, make wise decisions, avoiding all malice and ill-will as we do so.

I ask that you pray for Bishop Smith and for all our sisters and brothers in Christ in the Diocese of North Dakota at this time. Please pray also for Bishop Michael Curry, who will be consecrated as the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church on November 1. Pray for the leadership of our Church.  

But especially pray for our congregation of St. Stephen’s. We ask that the Holy Spirit will be present with each of us as we discern our future together, as we strive to continue to do the ministry we have been called to do, and as we follow Jesus where he leads. Please pray for our Senior and Junior Wardens, as well as our Vestry as they weigh the option placed before them and proceed accordingly.

And please do pray for me. Know each of you remain, as always, in my prayers as well. It is a true joy for me to be your priest.



Bishop Michael Smith’s Letter from the November issue of The Sheaf:

Dear Friends in Christ:

My letter in the July-August issue of The Sheaf included the reasons why I cannot in good conscience authorize the trial rite of Same Sex Marriage for the Diocese.

Although the enabling resolution for the rite gave authority to the Diocesan Bishop to make such a decision, it also included the directive that the Diocesan Bishop “will make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to have access to these liturgies.”

I have concluded a process of consultation seeking the advice of those clergy who are responsible for solemnizing marriages about what course of action I should take. As one might imagine, our clergy are quite a diverse lot in terms of their views on same sex marriage: some are conscience-bound to uphold the traditional teaching of the church on marriage between a man and a woman; others hope to solemnize same sex marriages; still others do not believe the new rites are biblical marriage, but think a blessing of some kind is in order. (This last option is no longer possible, according to General Convention, for those who live in civil jurisdictions where same sex marriage is legal.) It is good for us to remember that theological diversity is honored in the Episcopal Church and “no bishop, priest, deacon or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities, as a result of his or her theological objection to or support for [same sex marriage.]”

After consulting widely with the diocesan priests-in-charge, I have decided to offer Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO)4 to those congregations requesting it. According to the provisions of DEPO, if the priest-in-charge and two-thirds of the members of a vestry ask me, I will appoint another bishop to provide oversight for the three-yea rperiod between General Conventions.

Contrary to what some have understood, DEPO has nothing to do with a congregation’s relationship with the other congregations of the diocese. Rather, it has to do with the congregation’s relationship with the bishop. A congregation receiving delegated episcopal pastoral oversight would still remain active in the life of the diocese. My office would pay for an annual visit by the DEPO bishop.

In the course of these months of consultation, I have been reminded by some that the traditional view of marriage I hold is a “minority” one in the Episcopal Church. This may be true, as it is for other declining churches of Western secular cultures, but the fact remains that the traditional view of marriage between one man and one woman for life remains the teaching of our own Book of Common Prayer, as well as the teaching of the
vast majority of the Anglican Communion, and global Christianity in general. Just weeks ago, the primates of the Global South, representing the majority of Anglicans wrote:

We grieved one more time at the unilateral decisions taken by the last General Convention of the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA to redefine marriage and to accept same-sex marriages (Resolutions A036 and A054). We see these latest resolutions as a clear departure from not only the accepted traditional teaching of the Anglican Communion, but also from that of the one Holy, Universal, and Apostolic
Church, which upholds the scriptural view of marriage between one man and one woman. (Lambeth Resolution 1:10, 1998.)6

Each of us one day will be called upon to give an account before God for what we have done or not done during this life, as we stand before the “great judgment seat of Christ.” At this time in our history, I am keenly aware of the scriptural warning of the letter of James: “Not many of you should become teachers … for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). May the Lord have mercy on all of us whose responsibility it is to teach the Christian faith.

+ Michael Smith

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