I spent the last week at the House of Bishops meeting in Navasota, TX at Camp Allen. Navasota, TX is close to pretty much nothing (Houston is 1.5 hours away) and so, when one is at Camp Allen, one is… at Camp Allen. It’s been years and years since my last visit to the camp. In the time since I last visited, the camp has added a chapel, multiple camping sites, several cabins, a couple of pools, basketball courts and they’ve dug out a lake. I was there for a children’s ministry conference in the early 1990s when the camp was in the process of an overhaul and a giant renovation. (Everything in TX is giant, isn’t it?) Wow, they’ve done good. It is a gorgeous facility.
The House of Bishops gathers twice per year. In a non-convention year, the meetings are in September and March. In convention years, the September meeting yields to the work of General Convention, held in the summer.
This was my first House of Bishops meeting. There were about 150 of us present, including me, Bishop # 1089 (that’s my number in the succession of Bishops in the Episcopal Church beginning with Samuel Seabury, #1, consecrated in the year 1784).
It used to be (in the good old days?) that the bishops sat in straight rows at their meetings, in order of consecration. The old boys (and boys, they were) were in the front rows (referred to, in a macabre fashion, in sotto voce as the “Valley of the Shadow of Death”) and the newly ordained brought up the rear. A change in leadership and the need for reconciliation and broader conversation brought change to the seating chart in the 1990s. Today, the bishops are seated at round tables and assigned carefully chosen table partners to reflect the diversity of the House. These seating assignments “stick” for a triennium, until the next General Convention. I was delighted to have table companions from the American Midwest and South and Haiti. One of our table members was kept away by illness; we look forward to greeting him the next time!
So what do 150 Episcopal bishops actually do for the better part of a week together?
We prayed. We enjoyed an amazing round of twice daily worship that fed us, spiritually and intellectually. We had whole group and table discussions about some of the themes that are emerging as important to the work of the Episcopal Church these days: Reconciliation (including racial reconciliation), Evangelism, and the Jesus Movement. We told and listened to stories of our own experiences around these issues and began building relationships of trust and vulnerability, based on one-to-one encounters. We did business: We discussed the upcoming election of a new bishop suffragan to serve the armed forces, prison chaplains and veterans. We received reports of committees and task forces on subjects like Methodist-Episcopal relations and theology. We had a meeting of Bishops United Against Gun Violence to plan for a conference in Chicago in April 2017. We learned about the resource for a curriculum about Creation care, free to us for the next several months until it is published by Church Publishing (I brought home a copy) and we studied the different possibilities for how we’d like to organize ourselves as a House in our meetings in the near future.
We played. Our “classes” went out to dinner. My class consists of the bishop of Dallas, George Sumner; the bishop of Central Gulf Coast, Russell Kendrick; the co-adjutor bishop of the Dominican Republic, Moises Quezada Mota; and the bishop of SE Florida, Peter Eaton. (Insert corny joke here about “Five Episcopal Baby Bishops walk into a Mexican Restaurant….” ) We went hiking and walking and horseback riding. (that explains the photo).
And we “bonded.” Or, I should say, I bonded with them. It’s a pretty tight group, actually, and, even for all of its tightness, it is hospitable. Very hospitable.
The female bishops had an evening together, I had a session with my bishop coach, dinner out with my former diocesan bishop (more Mexican food) and I was welcomed warmly to the choir (20 music-loving bishops and an amazing music chaplain).
And, I was glad. Glad to be with them, and, glad to be headed home after a week.
I knew that in my absence, that the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania did not stop working. In fact, many good things took place while I was miles away, sawing my way through a rib-eye steak and trying to look natural on horseback. Lots was happening here, in CPA, and I was glad to learn of it all in my evening email engagements.
We are a good Church. A solid Church of people who plainly love Jesus; adore good worship, are willing to wrestle, theologically; and respect the dignity of every human being. It is a good day to be an Episcopalian and to every bishop who inquired “How is it going?,” I was able to reply, confidently, “Well. Quite well.”
We did issue a statement at the end of the House meeting. It aims to be a prophetic voice on the subject of civil public discourse and to my brothers and sisters who word-smithed it (imagine 150 bishops writing something together by committee) I am grateful.
I’m glad to be home. There was no chance of me running off with the rodeo.
Here’s a link to our “bishops’ statement” in case you missed it.