Bishop Marc's pastoral letter on the economy

Posted on January 29, 2009

A video of Bishop Marc talking about the economic crisis Bishop Marc has written a pastoral letter to all members of the Diocese of California about the economic situation. The text of the letter is posted below. The letter is also posted in both downloadable pdf version and as a downloadable Word document, and a related video of Bishop Marc commenting on the letter is available here . Information about the letter will also be distributed in DioBytes next week, along with a link to a related video of Bishop Marc commenting on the letter. All members of the Diocese of California are asked to read this letter.

 


January 28, 2009

Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Diocese of California,

“Now is not the time for the Church to draw its neck into the protective shell, not when more and more people are suffering. Now is the time to extend ourselves,” Jim Forsyth, our finance person at the diocesan level recently told Executive Council. You know Jim; he is the one who has stood with you while you made difficult congregational decisions. I call him the resident curmudgeon because he is the (often unwanted) voice of fiscal reality.

Jim is also, like so many in our wonderful diocese, beautifully formed as a Christian in the Episcopal tradition, so to hear Jim voice his conviction about our response to the economic crisis was not surprising. It was however, heartening.

But to simply tell you that we need to extend ourselves without providing a way forward would be less than pointless, it would be disrespectful. Let me suggest some principles that I hope you will use in moving through the crisis in a way that lets us be a greater, not lesser, presence for good in the Diocese of California.

 

Sojourner Truth

When Sojourner Truth moved to New York City from upstate New York in 1829, she got two jobs in her attempt to make her way in the expensive, unfamiliar city. Soon she came to the realization that she did not need two jobs, that the second job simply made life easier, more affordable. Sojourner gave up her second job so that another person, perhaps a family, might survive.

Since I read this simple story of moral insight and courage I have gone back to it again and again in my mind as a guide for how to live in our times. As we each struggle with more limited resources, I invite our congregations to consider Sojourner’s example. Her example can be clarifying: are we clear about what we need not only as individuals, but as communities?

Guarding our Mission Resources

If your congregation takes the example of Sojourner Truth to heart, let me suggest that as you seek what is most needful, you consider giving priority to those positions and programs that connect us to the world’s needs beyond the gathered church community and that serve our most underserved populations – youth, young adults, the aged, and the poor, among others. For example, if it seems that the budget must be balanced by eliminating the youth minister’s position, this principle of guarding our mission resources would call that into question.

Across the church, and thus in the majority of congregations, the proportion of resources devoted to mission is in the decided minority. Realizing that these mission-directed resources are both the engines that drive church growth and the clearest path for a community to follow our Pioneer, Jesus, helps us re-vision our valuation of mission resources. These resources may be essential rather than discretionary.

Being the Body of Christ

One rector in our diocese, when the parish decided it needed and could afford an assistant, told the vestry and the congregation that once the assistant was part of the church community, the assistant was well and truly incorporated – made part of the body. This meant, the rector said, that it would be impossible to make budget adjustments by lopping off that part of the body. They would all have to struggle together with how this body, whole, would move forward. This priest takes seriously the theology of St. Paul, who first grasped the implications of the Spirit being spread abroad, making of formerly separated individuals an organic whole with its own indivisible integrity: “If any member of the body rejoices, all rejoice; if any suffers, all suffer.”

I recognize that approaching a severely reduced budget in a way that honors the interconnected, integrated character of a Christian community means we will have to act in ways unfamiliar to our work worlds. I have great confidence in the spiritual maturity of both the clergy and the laity of our diocese to be able to act in ways that identify us with Christ rather than the world, and faith in God to answer our prayers for direction in doing the same.

How Long?

I recently sat in a meeting and heard a report from a fund manager. Just over a year ago this same manager, who is competent and sincere, told us that the downturn, then manifesting primarily within the real estate market, would stabilize in about six months. I had my reasons for doubting this assessment, but not being an expert kept them to myself. This time we were told that within five years the overall picture of our economy would be normal. Of course, within this longer frame the chances that the fund manager will prove to be right are better. There is, however, one confounding factor that most people who are used to working squarely within traditional economic forecasting are not taking into account: the accelerated environmental crisis.

If you have not visited the marvelous new Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, I urge you to do so. Plan your visit carefully, because lots of other people are flocking to the beautiful building filled with wonders of various ecosystems. While there, go to the far west side of the building’s interior. The crowds will be less there; they will all be lined up for the exhibits in the two great globes that dominate the field of vision inside. What you will find on the west end of the building is a strong, arresting exposition on global climate change.

The single important fact that we have to take in and understand is that the changes that come with rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are self-reinforcing, and that after a certain point they are practically impossible to reverse. We are not far from the point of no return in global climate change.

While at the Lambeth Conference this past summer at Canterbury, several UK bishops reported within our small discussion group that they had just attended a climate change conference. They heard a number there that I have seen corroborated several times since then, which is that we have 100 months before the climate change is irreversible.

The relevance of this projection to our own response to the economic crisis is this: the effects of global climate change are being felt now. Because we live in a single, integrated world, we often employ different models to reduce the grand complicated reality to something manageable. But because our models are simplifications, we can be assured that all our economic models miss something of importance. The economic models being used by most market analysts do not take into account global climate change.

Let me give an example. Also at the Lambeth Conference, I learned about the exceptional-level drought in Australia, a drought that has approached a decade in length, and has affected the rice-producing region of Australia most dramatically. Australia was a major rice-producing nation in the world. The effect of this long-term drought has been to reduce Australian rice production by 97%.

The obvious effects of such a deep, almost total drop in a staple like rice on both the daily lives of the most vulnerable in the world, but also on world markets, are easily grasped. There are more subtle effects that add to the global economic picture. For instance, rice production in Australia as a whole did not stop as the drought continued to hit the region where rice is best produced. Production shifted to areas less well suited to rice growing, raising production costs and adding to the total economic effects of the drought.

Global climate change brings longer and more severe droughts, and also more violent storms, at greater frequency of occurrence. The tragedies of Australia and New Orleans will be repeated, and repeated in a rising cadence.

God, not horsepower

A symbol used in the Old Testament for strength and power that transcended that of a single human is that of the horse. Human communities were warned by prophets and psalmists to put their trust in God, not the horse. This is on the face of it a simple message, but with a little reflection becomes bewildering; how in practical terms do we put our trust in God rather than various powerful strength-multiplying tools (military weapons, computers, and financial investments all could be seen as symbolized by the horse in our world)?

When the horse (and the bow and spear) is used in the Old Testament, it often means more than the simple message, “Rely on God not your technology.” The horse symbolizes alliances between Israel and well-armed nations, nations that did not worship the God of Israel.

As Israel lived with the God they worshipped, they learned the ways of this God. Israel’s God taught them an ethical code that they experienced as radically different from that of surrounding nations. Israel was taught that the God they worshipped not only did not desire human sacrifice as the gods of other nations demanded, but that the sacrifice desired by God was transformed life.

Israel’s God pointed the people to respect for the most vulnerable in their society: widows, orphans, the poor, strangers, and the earth itself. This respect for the vulnerable distinguished Israel from other cultures. Thus, when Israel is warned about alliances with other nations (do not put your trust in the horse meaning in this sense to not trust to nations that promise to save you with their armies), at root the admonition is this: Remember that you are called by God to live in a way consonant with what you know about God. You must not compromise this for comfort or security.

We believe this message of the prophets and the psalmists is brought to its complete expression in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. All the deepest teachings of respect for the vulnerable, solidarity with all the earth, love as the animating principle of life – these principles are confirmed, refined, and manifested in Jesus the Christ.

It is necessary that, as we confront the economic crisis twinned with the environmental crisis, we deepen our understanding of what it means to be Christian. The two great sacraments of the Church, Baptism and Eucharist, are the mysteries to which our communities must resort again and again for inexhaustible meaning in facing life.

Baptism teaches us, over and over, the necessity of recognizing death in our lives – dead dreams, strategies, habits, cultural patterns – and from that devastated position of disillusionment to receive the new life that God is always offering us. Eucharist teaches us the central value of koinonia, communion. In the sacrament of the Eucharist we are reformed as an interdependent community rather than a collection of isolated individuals whose relationships are marked by self-interest and enmity.

So, simply, my message for the Church as we meet this economic crisis is one that many Americans now grasp – go to church. Immerse yourselves in the baptismal and eucharistic realities, learn anew within those sacraments how God would have us live.

Area Ministry

All of the above – the example of Sojourner, the focus on mission, and the solidarity of the Christian community – point to the engagement of your congregation in Area Ministry. Some introduction to Area Ministry has been made, perhaps in great depth and perhaps over a series of conversations – to nearly every congregation in the Diocese of California. A guiding principle of Area Ministry is that the basic unit of mission in the Diocese is the diocese, with the derivative principle being that all are invited into area ministry, not just the weak parishes or missions who patently need to consider resource and personnel sharing, but all.

At this point in time, I ask you all to consider what holds you back from embracing Area Ministry. If you do not experience either the sheer budgetary needs many congregations are facing, or other attendant lacks (such as bare-bones youth and young adult programs), I would ask you to hold this perception up against the spiritual reality of the Body of Christ we affirm: Is it really possible that we are removed from the sufferings of the more fragile congregations; and are not those fragile congregations related by right, by Baptism, to your abundance?

If your congregation, “strong” or “weak,” values its autonomy, I would ask you to consider what the true value of that seeming autonomy is. Is there fear that by becoming interdependent our congregational character may be erased or subsumed into a lowest common denominator? Does our theology support such a fear? I think that to the contrary, our faith teaches us that we become more truly ourselves as we move into intimate, loving relationships with others, and that this is as true for communities as for individual people.

At this very moment your congregation could make a radical step in faith and join with your neighbors in area ministry. You could share resources, finding budgetary solutions not possible at the congregational level. You could reposition yourselves for mission, which leads to church growth and is deeply satisfying for us as people made in the image of God. You could better serve this world of sharply increased need.


I am the son of parents who lived through the Great Depression. My parents were pious Christians from families that farmed and taught school. I heard stories of how they lived as young people in the Depression many times. These stories have helped shape who I am. One theme of these stories was that as people lost jobs and became poor and hungry, my parents’ families learned to share. At my mother’s family farm in North Carolina the Sunday meal was often a gathering of thirty people. This sharing of food was something a farm family could do to help their neighbors.

Area Ministry is a set of resources to help us live koinonia, to be the Beloved Community. It does not prescribe particular responses to how you might do that in your area, or even what the shape of your area is. Rather, Area Ministry helps you determine these things for yourselves.

I, as your bishop, and all your diocesan staff are prepared to help you. We pray for you, and we offer you our energies, experience, and ability. Please also read carefully the Area Ministry resources available on the website, www.diocal.org.

We are a people whose hope is unquenchable, fueled as it is by the Message of God (Love) made flesh, Jesus the Christ. The Spirit is always with us, to comfort and guide us. Turn always to our God who remains always with us.

Yours in Christ,

 
The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Bishop of California