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Bishop delivers Charge to Synod

Bishop Andrew Asbil delivered his Charge to Synod as part of the opening Eucharist. A transcript is below.

O God, take our lips and speak through them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and fill them with love for you. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

In August of 2019, Mary and I had the opportunity of going to Israel on a pilgrimage with 14 other bishops and archbishops and their spouses from across the Communion. We were a diverse community from east and west, north and south. We travelled by foot and we travelled by bus to pilgrimage sites. Our conversations and our time together were steeped in bible study, in prayer and in community.

One day we got on our bus very early in the morning and we headed down the highway towards Jericho. Partway down the road, the bus pulled off and we were invited to go by foot, to walk up the side of a hill. There at the top of the hill was a plateau, and on the plateau were tiered seats looking out over the valleys and hills. In the middle of that plateau was a table, around which pilgrims could gather to break bread and pour out the wine. From that vantage point, in every direction, you could see nothing but hill upon hill upon hill of barren, dry land. Not a sign of any green or foliage or life whatsoever.

We were invited to then walk into the wilderness, to take a little walk out into the middle of the space, to find a lonely spot on our own just to sit and to meditate and to pray. So we walked out into the desert, and we found a spot to sit and to be quiet and to be still. I remember in that moment, though it was early in the morning, it was so hot, and I could only imagine how hot it would be by noon. Down below where we were sitting, in the valley, was a dry river bed. And on the shore of that wadi, like a finger tracing a line in the sand, was the old road from Jericho to Jerusalem. More of a footpath than a road, but in its time a major thoroughfare for travellers, for caravans carrying trade, for pilgrims going to the city, from one to the other, 18 miles’ distance between the two. From our vantage point it became pretty evident that those who would travel that old road were very much at peril with the elements of heat, but also isolated and subject to attack by bandits.

It is particularly in this place that Jesus chooses to tell the story, to push the point with the lawyer. It’s the time and the place where Jesus pushes the point to describe the love that we’re called to have for our neighbours – in that lonely place, in the barrens, in the wilderness, betwixt and between Jerusalem and Jericho. And it’s not a bad place to set the context for this Charge to Synod, as we live out our ministry betwixt and between, in a time of pandemic. So join me in a time of reflection, a time of prayer and meditation in God’s presence.

Our story begins with the question that is posed by the lawyer: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus responds with another question: “What is it that you read in scripture?” The lawyer aptly puts two verses to together to weave them into one: Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19:8: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

The word in that text for “love” is “agape” in Greek. That word is a love that describes the need to give of self to the other; not the concern of self, but that can’t help but give love away. It’s not love that is expressed through familiarity or attraction or emotion, but is steeped in commitment, in justice and concern and sacrifice for the other. It is divine love. And we hear of this love spoken elsewhere in scripture. “Love is patient and kind, never boastful, arrogant or rude.” “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” “No greater love have we than to lay down our life for a friend.”

The lawyer responds with another question: “Then, who is my neighbour? Who do I share this love with? Who do I bestow this love upon?” And Jesus tells a simple story: A man was going down to Jericho. He fell amongst thieves. He was robbed and beaten and stripped and left for dead. And they went away.

When you and I left Synod in 2019, we had in our back pocket a two-year balanced budget, we had two years left on our Growing in Christ strategic plan, and we could imagine that the future would be pretty predictable and change would come incrementally. Were we ever wrong. None of us could have ever imagined what would happen in March of 2020, that we would be pushed out of our buildings, out of our schools, out of our places of employment. That we would join long lines going to grocery stores, that movie houses and bars and restaurants would close. We imagined that we would be back in our buildings by maybe Easter or Pentecost. Maybe that was naivete, maybe that was wishful thinking, maybe that was arrogance.

In quick order, we transformed our dining rooms and our kitchens and our flats and our apartments into office space. We shared wi-fi with children going to school and partners going to work. Our early offerings online were tentative, a little awkward, sometimes embarrassing. And yet we learned, like riding a bike, and we gained confidence. We learned new terms like “pivot” and “Zoom” and “breakout rooms.” We learned to say, “please unmute.” We learned to live apart from each other, to wear masks. We learned how to bump elbows in order to keep all of the community safe.

A man was going down to Jericho, and he fell amongst thieves, and he was robbed and he was stripped bare and left for dead, and they went away. The longer that we have been living in this space between and betwixt what we have known and where we are going, living in this time of pandemic has encouraged us to see that we are dwelling in a time of liminality. Our guest speaking for our clergy conference in 2021 was Susan Beaumont, and she reminded us that “liminal” comes from the Latin “limen,” which is literally the threshold stone at the base of a doorway that one has to traverse in order to move inside and outside. That limen or liminal space is that place between what we have known, what we have experienced, and where we are going. In a time such as this, where we are going is fuzzy, not clear, not planned out entirely. We have a sense in this liminal time that going back is not an option, and we know living in this liminal space means that it is not for the faint of heart.

We are a people who love to plan out our journey, every aspect of it. When we plot out a course on a journey, we usually plug in the coordinates on a GPS or Waze to find the simplest way from one point to the next. But in this time of liminality, we are in fact given a compass that bears magnetic north and gives us bearings in the direction we go, not with precision but with the invitation to move in new directions. In this liminal space, God calls us to settle and to understand that going back to what we knew is not an option, but we live into the present in ways that we have never lived before, in hybrid. Somehow in time and beyond time. In person and online. Local and yet global.

A man went down to Jericho, and he fell into the hands of thieves, and he was beaten and he was stripped, and they left him for dead. In the last 19 months, the Church of God, the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Toronto, has stepped into this wilderness with a sense of enthusiasm, on adrenaline and on instinct, to serve. We have at times planned and not planned, we have moved outside of our comfort zones, outside the box, to be present to a community around us.

The Church of the Nativity, Malvern spent a Sunday celebrating frontline workers in their own congregation who every day serve agape love to the wider community. A postal worker. Nurses. A police officer. Thirty members who were honoured on a Sunday morning, given a certificate by their local MP, a certificate by the parish and a keychain with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

Grace Church, Markham, through their creative ways, developed a website where seniors could sign up for vaccination and a ride to the vaccination appointment and a ride home, helping hundreds of community members get the care that they need.

The Anglican Outreach Network, which was formed during pandemic, gathered all of the outreach ministries that serve the poor and the underprivileged together from east and west, north and south in the Diocese to source PPE and source food, and to be able to create protocols to keep people safe while honouring and upholding those who are most vulnerable.

Our Refugee Network created an opportunity for parishes to be able to serve together and to plan how to reach out across the world to welcome newcomers to Canada.

The South Etobicoke Cluster was formed, with primary leadership from St. Margaret, New Toronto to gather 28 agencies to coordinate care and help to the community.

None of us could have imagined on March 20, and 19 months later, that we would be living through a time where we, like the man at the side of the road, have been robbed of so much. That we have experienced the pain and suffering of being stripped of our health and our security. That so many have been left by the side of the road. In the early part of the pandemic, it was our elderly in long-term care homes who were so vulnerable. Those who live in congregant settings, especially the homeless, who chose to live outside in tents, and those who live with precarious housing and food insecurity. And the Church has swept in to be able to honour and to help. But it has also come at a cost. Nineteen months later – one wave, two waves, three waves, four waves and perhaps counting – we know how tired the Church is in being able to step into that space. How brittle many of our leaders in our communities feel in this time of deep anxiety and change.

I’d like to share a word to our clergy, to our priests and deacons in parishes and ministries in the Diocese of Toronto. I know how tired you are, and I know the weight of the office that you have been living over the last 19 months. Whether you are newly ordained or you have been practising this ministry for 40 years, nothing has prepared you for this time. And yet you have embodied this ministry in this time and space with such grace and with such patience and with such love. I am deeply grateful as your bishop for the sacrifice that you have made over these last 19 months. Together we take encouragement through the words of Paul: “And we boast in our suffering, because suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. Because the love of God has been poured out into us through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

A word to our lay leaders: To our music directors, to office administrators, to outreach workers, to youth workers, to wardens and members of councils, and all of the volunteers that make up the life of your parish in this community. I am so deeply grateful for your witness to the gospel in this time of upset and change, for the tireless nature with which you lead and gather and hold the community together, mustering one step in front of the other. I am grateful for all of the hours it has taken you to open and close and open again and close again, to put into place protocols and vaccination policies. As those who have gone before you in your parish, you are encompassed by such a great cloud of witnesses, and a reminder in Hebrews that we put away every weight and every sin, and we run the race that is set before us, and we keep our eyes fixed on the finisher of our race, who is Jesus Christ.

A word to our staff at 135 Adelaide: I am in awe of how hard you have worked over the last 19 months, in interfacing with communities on the ground, with government officials, in creating protocols and policies, answering questions and containing anxiety for leaders in the Diocese. You have done it with such grace and such love and purpose, and for the last 19 months you have led with such love and joy. I am so grateful for every one of you, and a deep pride that I serve alongside you every day.

A word to our bishops: When we left Synod in 2019 there were five of us and now, Bishop Riscylla and Bishop Kevin, there are just three. You have taken on more than you could ever ask or imagine, and you have done it with such love and patience, too. I admire the way you lead with presence and humility in being able to cajole and to lead and to follow and to encourage the Church of God in the Diocese of Toronto. It is a joy to work alongside you every single day.

To Mary and Jennifer Bolender King: I am deeply grateful for your leadership, Canon Mary Conliffe and Jennifer Bolender King, for the way you help and guide my everyday work as the diocesan bishop. I could not do that without your encouragement and your direction.

I am grateful to our vice chancellors, Brian Armstrong and Paul Baston, who have taken on a deeper load of encouragement and giving of advice as we have moved through this time. But deeper still, I am so grateful to our chancellor, Clare Burns. You need to know that I am on the phone with Clare at least once a week, sometimes two times a week or more. Clare, you have been a presence of stillness and calm and giving of wisdom in a time of change and upset. For all of the hours of carrying the anxiety of the Church, I am so grateful.

And finally to my wife, Mary. Thank you for the love and the encouragement that you give to me every day.

Let’s go back to the road. At that point in the story, there happened to be a priest walking down the road, and he saw the man and passed by. And then a Levite happened to walk down the road, and he passed by too. I find that the most challenging part of the story. I know that biblical scholars over time have given good reasons why they might have done that. Perhaps they thought the man was dead, and to touch a corpse would mean that they would not be able to serve in the temple. Maybe. Or perhaps they thought that the man wasn’t dead, it was a trap, that he would suffer a similar fate. Or maybe that he was half dead and stripped, and that the bandits were still in the proximity. It’s better to keep moving and phone 911 from a distance.

But to be honest, I’ve never found those reasons persuasive, in the same way that the reasons that I’ve given on my own journey when I’ve missed an opportunity to stop and to serve have not been persuasive either. If we’re honest as a Church, there have been times when we have passed by and not taken the time to act and to serve, and missed an opportunity to be the eyes and the hands and the feet and the heart of God. While it’s tempting to race through this pandemic like the priest and the Levite to get to our destination, God is calling us to live in the midst of this time of liminality, to be God’s people and to share God’s love. And so there are three pieces that we need to learn, I think, from the example of the Samaritan that help guide us into 2022, 2023 and 2024 and beyond.

First is this: He came near to him, he saw him and he had compassion. Come near, see and have compassion. On May 25, 2020, we witnessed the brutal murder of George Floyd, the lifeless body of a man in the streets. The whole world watched that moment, and the whole world summoned change, to open our eyes to anti-black racism and bias. The Diocese of Toronto stepped into that moment and created a program of training, of anti-bias and anti-racism training for clergy and for lay leaders in the Diocese, which is being lived out in the moment. We will in 2022 continue to systemically change racism in our Church, to dismantle and to put into place new ways of helping us move as a community, including conducting a racial diversity survey of our congregations.

In the summer of 2021, we witnessed the moment when the unmarked graves of so many children were revealed on the sites of former residential schools in this country, awakening and opening our eyes once again to the long road of reconciliation that we have been on as Anglicans since the apology of our Archbishop Michael Peers in 1993 – but a renewed call to be agents of reconciliation and change. At this Synod, we entertain and consider Motion 12, which invites us to give 10 per cent or the tithe of our Ministry Allocation Fund, which is sourced by selling properties in the Diocese of Toronto, and for the next year to commit that amount to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Draw near, and see, and have compassion for creation. As Anglicans in this Diocese, as individuals, as families, as congregations, we must do our very best to lower our carbon footprint, to do the very best that we can to save the planet. It is our time to act and to be protective, to use our properties in such a way as to promote healing of the world, and to be agents of reconciliation with creation.

The mission of God is calling us outside of our church buildings. The hurt and the woundedness of the world is summoning us to do our part to engage in the mission of God. And this is a time when we look beyond ourselves to find how we can respond to the emerging need.

The second thing we learn from the Samaritan: He bandaged his wounds, he poured wine and water, he put him on his animal, brought him to the inn, and he took care of him. The wounded are not just outside the Church; the wounded are within the Church walls too. In this time of living in liminal space, many of us are tired and wounded. It is important for us in this time to reflect, to pray and to be reminded that our healer, who is Jesus the Lord, is in our midst, and that we as a community take every opportunity to share in sacrament, in bible study, in reflection and in prayer, to seek the wisdom of God’s presence in our midst. This is a time as communities when we know that recovery and pulling the people of God back to worship will take time. It’s important to be patient with each other, to be kind to each other, to seek after the lost, to leave the 99 and to go out into the wilderness to find the one to bring them in.

It’s a time when congregations need to take account of where we are and how God is calling us into the future. Some parishes will be ready to plant new ideas and new ministries, while others need to consolidate and to imagine a new future, whether that’s with a neighbouring parish or in a regionalized ministry, or to be able to re-imagine ministry in a new way in that same place.

There is opportunity for us to do the same. As we have come to the end of our Growing in Christ strategic plan, it’s tempting for us to quickly come up with a new plan. But I believe that God is calling us into that same space of discernment, to be able to form listening circles throughout our Diocese, in very much the same way the national church has done, and to listen for the calling of God, who is urging us to be the Church in the future as we build and understand our call tomorrow.

In the same way, at this Synod we will entertain a change in our governance pattern, an opportunity to be more nimble as we keep moving in these uncertain times. And also that episcopal leadership in this Diocese will now move forward with three bishops and further support.

The third thing that we learn from the Samaritan: He gave the innkeeper two denarii and said, “Take care of him. When I come back, I will settle whatever I owe you.” Two denarii is two days’ wages. That was a tremendous sum of money that speaks of the generosity and magnanimity of God’s love. We are called to that same generosity, especially in a time of pandemic and especially in a time of wilderness between here and there. It is tempting to hold, to keep, to believe that we live in scarcity, and yet by faith we know that God calls us to abundance.

In 2020, Diocesan Council passed a motion to sell two pieces of property to provide wages for three months for every cleric in the Diocese and three months of relief from allotment. In 2022, we offer one month of relief from allotment, and also build into our budget an opportunity for parishes that are suffering financially to apply for more relief. We recognize that it is difficult to move through this time, and more support needs to be given.

We also know that this is a call to the Church to speak about stewardship, to pray about stewardship, to offer opportunities for Anglicans to be generous. In 2020, I asked a member of this Diocese to consider offering $100,000 as a matching grant for FaithWorks. She thought about it, and she said, “I would like to do that, but I’d like to match only new donations to the FaithWorks program.” We took that challenge, and in 2020 we raised the second largest amount towards our annual appeal in the history of FaithWorks. That same donor is offering the same challenge in 2021, our 25th year, and I hope and I pray God that we as Anglicans in this Diocese may respond with the same generosity. Fourteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart once said that the soul grows not by addition but by subtraction. It is when we let go and offer that our souls grow too.

Here we are in the midst of a pandemic as Synod 2021, as a Diocese of Toronto, and God calls us to bear witness in this time, because God is in this time with us. It is God that is calling us as a Diocese to have the strength, the fortitude, the confidence and the will to persist and to keep going. And with God’s strong presence we serve. Theologian Karoline Lewis once said that the Samaritan draws near to the man trusting that the Kingdom of God draws near. And the Kingdom draws near to us when we respond in the same way. God is calling us to be present in this time of disruption and change, to be signs of love and compassion for our neighbours. And we heed the call that Jesus has given as a last word the lawyer: go and do likewise. Amen.