The Episcopal Address 2016 focused on humility. St. Bernard of Clairvaux once summarized the four Cardinal virtues as, “Humility, humility, humility, humility”. This is a pleasant hook with which to begin a sermon/Episcopal Address.
Examples of humility were related back to liturgical formulations that presuppose a community’s virtue to be held by each individual within it and that an individual’s humility is sufficient within a larger community that defines certain people out, regardless of their humbleness.
First, a collect for purity: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Any number of people can say these words and remain desiring and subversive of communal values that they might have the community reflect only their desires. Humility aspired to is not humility in deed. The limit of this intention comes when we get to the details of life, not its theory. As code language we can claim anyone as prideful if they experience and complain that the community has cleansed them from presence at the table (on either or both sides of it).
Second, a prayer of confession: Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As noted in the sermon, the focus here is communal. Unfortunately a communal confession needs a communal repentance. Our usual process is to confess and confess for decades or a century before actually doing something about the pain inflicted on those who were powerless to effect an earlier change. The injured and their allies, not the community, are the humble. The application of communal confession to humility is very dangerous in allowing the community to be righteously blind about their doing harm. Confession does not do away with a need to change divisive legislation.
Confession does not protect from “mutually assured destruction” when it covers the harm being done by intentionally denying God an ability to distribute gifts and graces to the youngest and the furthest outcast as God sees fit. Legislatively limiting God is certainly not a humble act and continuing it because the limits were repeated and hardened is no act of humility.
Third, a Commendation and Welcome in the Order for Baptism and Reception: Do all in your power to: Increase their faith, Confirm their hope, and Perfect them in love.
Who is being spoken to here? If it is General Conference in regard to current church members or a parent/sponsor in regard to an infant, there is no way to increase, confirm, and perfect without acknowledging that the mystery of spiritual gifts and personal identity is not in anyone’s control. They cannot be constrained to a desired outcome. It takes much humility to know the limits of what can be increased, confirmed, and perfected before these become requirements for one more closet.
The address ended with a hymn, “God forth with God”. In addition to going forth in peace, love, strength, and joy. There is a question left about how humbly we will leave this General Conference. This question extends to what increase in peace, love, strength, and joy others will have as a result of our actual humility and not the use of humility as a further constraint on those without power to offer their gifts in a larger community of United Methodism or the use of humility as an accusation to make against those who would offer their gifts to transform the land, beginning with the church.
What then is a legislative expression of humility at this General Conference regarding those lives have been injured through previous legislations? In particular, how might the presumption behind “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” finally be brought to its knees at this late date of 2016?