Dean's Address

January 28, 2018

Delivered to the congregation of St. James Cathedral at the Annual Meeting on January 28, 2018.

In our gospel reading this morning, we heard Mark’s account of the beginnings of what our Presiding Bishop often calls "the Jesus movement." Since the New Year begun, we have heard Mark’s tell us of Jesus appearing at the Jordan River to be baptized by John and then starting his public ministry, by proclaiming that the time of the Kingdom of God has arrived; of his calling two pairs of brothers to leave behind the family business and follow him; and then, this morning, good Jew that he is, he rolls up in the local synagogue in Capernaum and starts to teach. 

And Mark loses no time in making clear to us that everyone sees that something utterly different has appeared on their doorstep: he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. We see that even ‘unclean spirits’ are capable of recognizing Jesus as ‘the Holy One of God’, and submitting to his authority. A new teaching – with authority cries the crowd, in utter amazement, and, as a result – his fame began to spread…

And did you notice the really interesting thing in that passage? In this very succinct telling of Jesus’ first ever public teaching appearance – did you notice what Mark didn’t tell us? He didn’t tell us what Jesus taught. Mark’s gospel is laconic and concise, and it is written to tell an essential and vital tale, and many parts of the ‘Jesus story’ that clearly matter to Matthew, Luke and John are just not there in Mark, for he does not think they are relevant.

And so, this morning, just now in church, we heard about Jesus’ first ever teaching moment – but Mark does not tell us what he taught. Because, for Mark, what is really relevant is not the what but the how – what counts, for Mark, at the very beginning of the ‘Jesus movement’ – what counts for Mark is that something new and different is happening, and that it happens with such clear authority or confidence that it is unstoppable and that it makes people pay attention and start talking.

And I think I would like to suggest that if I had been asked to choose the gospel reading this morning – if we did not belong to a church that has a pre-determined cycle of readings, and I could have chosen any passage from the gospels to have read at our service just now – I don’t think I could have chosen a better passage as the curtain-raiser for our Annual Meeting.

Because – by the incredible grace of God – things have been happening here at St. James Cathedral, and they seem to be making folk pay attention. Back some years ago in my native England, during the era of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, there was a week in which both he and the Archbishop of York, the ‘number two’ figure in the Church of England, were both interviewed by reporters about the mission of the Church. Dr Williams, who is one of the most theologically capable and deeply thoughtful people you could ever come across – Dr. Williams spoke to the reporter about the mission of the Church of God in language that was holy, thoughtful, profound – but which was also complex and lengthy, and a little hard to understand in places.

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, an exile from his native Uganda where he fled the Idi Amin regime, this archbishop has a rather different turn of phrase. And asked by the press what the Church’s mission was about simply looked up and replied, “We do big stuff!”

Well, if I were Archbishop Sentamu, that would probably be my report to you this year – it’s been a year of big stuff, much of which speaks for itself, and which was briefly described by that wonderful myriad of voices in the video we have just watched. It has, indeed, been a year of worship, service, generosity, and community-building, - and it has been a year of growth that places us in exciting contrast to the lot of mainstream Protestant churches in the Mid West which are in quite marked decline - and the numbers and graphs of the video, let alone the very feel of this place on a week by week basis illustrate this very clearly. Truly, as we were reminded in the opening quote from the third chapter of the letter to the Ephesians when God is working within us, we are able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. 

Because make no mistake, the reason we are growing is principally because of God, the God whom we behold personified in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and whose Holy Spirit inspires us and leads us ever onwards. And 2017 has been a year of working more clearly and consciously in partnership with God, to help proclaim and to help build God’s kingdom. And a key reason for the growth and energy we have been experiencing is related very directly to the fact that we have striven to grow as Christian disciples. The video talked about the growth in the number of people attending worship and attending formation, and it spoke of the role of Morning Prayer and the mid-week Eucharist.

And this is the starting point, because I am utterly, utterly convinced that the more we make ourselves of the mind of Christ and have God at our center, then, as per Ephesians, the more abundantly we accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine. 

So it has been a year of opening our hearts and minds to God’s call and living that call out. And that’s been lived out in a great partnership between everyone who makes up this wonderful cathedral community, clergy and lay, staff and volunteer, young and old, newcomer or long-standing member. And not only is that the Church of God at its best – it is also true that this kind of partnership is inherently in the DNA of us members of the Episcopal/Anglican family. If you like, it is part of the very charism of who we are and how we do things. And, in that context, I want to acknowledge two particular groups of people on your behalf.

The first is your Chapter and Wardens. The nature of the Episcopal church is, as I have said, that it is a great partnership of ordained and non-ordained, and that is hard-wired into its governance. And so my leadership of this wonderful church community is exercised both formally and informally in partnership with those whom you elect as your lay leaders each year. And I want to stress to you very clearly that the call to serve on Chapter, and, very particularly, the call to serve as a warden, is a demanding call to put yourself absolutely where the buck stops when it comes to the mission of the church.

And the quality of work undertaken by the Chapter this year has been superb. By which I mean the effort of prayer and thought which has gone into some very demanding decisions has been serious and profound, and led to discussions of high caliber and decision-making that has been motivated by a desire to serve and build God’s kingdom and proclaim it to the world around us. I will say more about some of that in a few moments, but I want to thank and acclaim your Chapter.

And in doing so, I want to note particularly that the ‘graduating class’ of this year’s Chapter sees the end of the era of those who were around to appoint me as your dean, and who have played a major role in the transition of St. James from being a place of crisis, as it was in the December of 2014, to being the place of growth and excitement that I believe it is today. So I want to say – and this will not be the only time I say it – I want to say a very particular thank you to Timm Holt, who stands down today as Senior Warden, and to Bill Cosper, Laura Jenkins and Judith Tribbett, who come to the end of a very full and remarkable three-year term serving on Chapter. Their steadfastness and constancy has been a blessing and a gift to this cathedral community in a myriad of ways, many of which are not in the public eye, but which have nevertheless been vital.

And I also want to thank and affirm the staff – your staff and my staff – with whom I have the daily pleasure to work. Quite simply, I have never known or worked with a team of colleagues like this. Everyone of my colleagues is of the highest caliber and has the strongest commitment to the mission and ministry of St. James Cathedral, and I want everyone here to know that you could not be served by a more able, a more committed, a more visionary and a more engaging staff team.

One sadness for us this past year, in staffing terms, was the rather unexpected departure of our curate, Jacqueline, whose husband’s arm was twisted behind his back so firmly that he had to accept a call to a very senior and distinguished post in Virginia back last summer. Jacqueline played a key role in helping the identity of our 9 a.m. liturgy develop into the family-friendly service that it now is, and was a very effective liaison with our committed team of Sunday School leaders and helpers, and we wish her well as her ministry finds new places to flourish in the diocese of Southern Virginia.

When news of Jacqueline’s departure became public, many were asking if we would replace her immediately with another curate or junior priest. As you know, we did not do this – Chapter endorsed my suggestion of taking more time to assess our needs, and thus we made the short-term appointment for this current program year to appoint Alison – yes, my wife Alison! – as the coordinator of children’s ministries. The success of this appointment and the growth of these ministries tells its own story, but let me make clear once again that the position was advertised publicly, and the Sub-Dean and Junior Warden took complete charge of filling the position, and the decision to appoint Alison was not one in which I was involved at any point along the way.

Alison was not, of course, the only new arrival to the cathedral staff in 2017, for we were also blessed to have Mary Pan join us as our first Organ Scholar in living memory, to work alongside Stephen, and especially to support him in the development of our wonderful new choristers’ program. That some 93 years ago my predecessor of the time thought it was acceptable for the then Director of Music to abolish any kind of children’s choir is one of the more remarkable wrong turns taken in the history of St. James. I think that the delight I have felt at the creation of this new musical era has been shared by every member of the St. James community, and the moment when those young voices sang the opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City at the start of our Nine Lessons and Carols just before Christmas was truly spine-tingling. Mary has played a significant role in helping Stephen make this a reality, as well as accompanying many of our choral services at a very high standard. And, indeed, it is good to be able to announce the breaking news that Stephen has invited her to stay with us for a second academic year (ie through to the summer of 2019), and I am delighted that she has accepted this offer. I know that this will help consolidate the excellent foundations of the chorister program, and continue to help grow the ever-increasing standards of cathedral music-making.

It is, perhaps, in talking about the staff team that it is appropriate to move from our assessment of 2017 to our hopes for 2018, for it is forthcoming developments in the cathedral staffing that are iconic of the hopes, dreams, and visions that your Chapter and staff have for the future.

And while I say that I am prayerfully hopeful that 2018 will be another year of growth for St. James Cathedral, I also need to say that we must be careful to avoid any sense of complacency that the genuinely good news summarized in the video might accidentally bring out in us. For we should be honest and we should be clear that in this era of my two-and-a-half years as your dean, in this era of my fabulous team of colleagues, in this era of a highly capable and committed Chapter, and in this era of growth, generosity, worship, service and community-building on the part of so many many people here – in all that we have been doing, wonderful though it has been, we have done little more than level out the playing field and seize hold of a secure, structured, and – at least in some ways – ‘normal’ environment in which we can pray, work and live as a church community.

Those of you who were part of St. James back in 2014 will know that, as I have already mentioned, the cathedral went through a crisis – a crisis reflected in any sets of numbers you chose to examine, and, much worse, a crisis of mission and confidence. I have already paid tribute to the lay leadership who helped move the cathedral through this challenging period in its history, and it is also always good to acknowledge the vital role played by Jim Steen in his time as Acting Dean. But we have to acknowledge that much of what has happened here in the three years since January 2015 has been moving us back to where we should have been and who we should have been, and enabling us to do what we should have been doing.

Now, I think the way we have turned a corner has had some very remarkable elements, and, notwithstanding where the cathedral was at the end of 2014, the growth in worshippers, in pledging, in formation opportunity and take-up, and in morale has been breath-taking. But don’t, for a moment, think that what we are now doing is the total extent of what God is calling us to be and to do. The potential for mission and ministry of this cathedral is vast, and the great-hearted response that has already led to so much growth and new vision has almost limitless possibilities. And I am very pleased to report that wants to seize the limitless possibilities God gives us in the name of Jesus, the Holy One, this has been the motivation behind your Chapter’s decisions about our work this coming year.

Because growth needs managing and it also needs planning for – otherwise it can not only stop but grind quickly and easily into reverse. And one of the stories behind the joys of that video about 2017 has been the fact that both as a community of volunteers, and as a professional staff, St. James Cathedral has been operating at almost 100% of its capacity, without any slack in the system at all. Indeed, there have been times when the staff has been operating at above 100% capacity, and I have come across some of my colleagues in the office or emailing me from home at hours and on days when they ought to have been taking leisure time. And all of this has been happening out of goodwill and a huge desire to take forward the mission and ministry of St. James as much as possible.

However, this is not a sustainable way of working, for as growth continues, it means there is no capacity to consolidate it, and it is all to easy to reach a point when it is no longer possible to juggle all the balls being thrown, wonderfully, into the air – and at that point it is all too easy for growth to be strangled. And this would be true even if we were simply (and sinfully) hoping to spend 2018 and the years beyond just doing ‘more of the same’ – which we are not.

As I said at this point last year, if we are to release the full potential of our mission and ministry, and show to the city of Chicago, and the church and the world beyond, how best we can serve God and build the Kingdom, we are going to have to embark on a major capital campaign – the first one not for years but for decades at the cathedral. A year ago, I had hoped that we would be able to launch this during the latter part of 2017, but that has not proved the case – chiefly for two reasons.

The first of those reasons was the need for Chapter to be able to create a Campaign Committee of the right combination of skills and experiences to lead and serve us during such a campaign – and forming such a committee does not happen overnight. And related to that, the cathedral staff was not in a position to undertake the very considerably increased workload that such a campaign will bring.

I think the Chapter is now close to being able to invite people into membership of a committee to undertake the principal lay leadership that such a campaign will require. It has also taken some serious, wise and prayerful decisions about the staffing budget for this year and beyond, both to ensure the stability of the current, wonderful staff team, and also to enlarge it as effectively, but as economically as possible. Some of you may be aware of some of the developments that will come from this decision, but I will outline them briefly now.

As I mentioned at last year’s Annual Meeting, one of the key challenges that we have faced is the need for more effective and professional communication, especially through the complex modern world of social media. Inspired by the natural talent and strong enthusiasm he possesses, we have moved Alan Taylor into the new position of Associate for Communications and he has shed some of the administrative workload that he previously undertook. Unless you arrived late at this meeting and missed the video with which we began, you will need no convincing at all of the soundness of this move. And it is plain to me, and to the wardens and the Chapter, that the more we can up our game in terms of communications – both to the wider world and within the St. James community – the more we will flourish.

To pick up the administrative tasks Alan is no longer doing, Chapter approved a part-time post, currently of ten hours per week (although that will be kept under review), and I am delighted that Timothy Beltran del Rio, one of our recently arrived young adult members, has agreed to help us in this way.

The Chapter has also approved the appointment of a new curate to join the clergy team later this year. This post will be for someone graduating seminary this summer, and I will be visiting some of the Episcopal Church’s leading seminaries in the next week or two, to identify some potential candidates, with a view to inviting those who seem to me to be the most exciting ones back to Chicago for a more formal interview process.

Let me say that this is not necessarily a post to be viewed as a direct replacement for Jacqueline. Not only will it be a full-time position, but the portfolio that this new priest will take on will not necessarily be related to youth formation. My colleagues and your Chapter all share my opinion that the most important thing at this point is to find the person whose personality and energy will best fit into the current staff team, and then work with them to identify what area of responsibility will suit them and us the best.

That might be children; it might also, equally usefully, be young adult and millennial ministry, or social justice, or something else of which I have yet to dream. Once we have identified the right person and taken note of their skills and experiences and passions, I will continue to work with Chapter and my colleagues to ensure that other areas of mission and ministry are appropriately covered at staff level as we move forward into the future. But I would rather have the ‘right’ junior priest join us and work with us in a way that will build and enhance our team than limit my search of seminarians or junior clergy by restricting it to a particular talent set.

And let me say that a second reason I am keen to appoint a curate is that there are fewer and fewer opportunities in the Episcopal Church for the newly-ordained to serve in such positions. It is increasingly common for new clergy to find themselves alone in a small parish, which, typically, cannot afford to pay a higher salary for a more experienced priest. And, as a result, the pool of nurtured, talented and experienced clergy is less rich than was once the case.

At a time of growth such as we are experiencing here at St. James, it is our job to help resource the Church of God, and to fashion out a pattern of ministry here that is a beacon to the wider church. One final-year seminarian at one of the seminaries I will visit next month knows someone here at St. James and called them up the other day. They had seen the announcement of my visit, and were keen to send in their resumé to be forwarded on to me – but they called their contact here because they wanted to check out if all the good news they had heard about St. James Cathedral was really true. In other words, something about our approach to mission and ministry is beginning to spread around the surrounding countryside, to use the words of today’s gospel - we are becoming that beacon that is a vibrant, exciting, well-run parish – and this appointment will help us make it the more so.

And the most creative thing that your Chapter has done is to employ Dent Davidson on a half-time basis. Many of you know Dent well and will know his husband Jim, who is a very regular member of our 11 a.m. congregation. Dent’s skill set and experience in the field of music and liturgy is unique, and his reputation across the Episcopal Church is second to none – including a role as liturgical chaplain to the House of Bishops. Back in 2016, when it was announced that he would be reducing the hours he worked for the diocese to a half-time post, my brain started whirring with excitement and enthusiasm – and, once I was able to articulate the idea that was going around inside my head, it was a joy to me to find similar excitement and enthusiasm on the part of my colleagues, on the part of the Chapter, and – most importantly – on Dent’s part.

And so Dent is now working with us as a half-time colleague, and his musical influence is already being felt around the cathedral – particularly in the context of the 9 a.m. service. But we have not employed Dent just to be another pair of hands in our wonderful music department. A mark of the success of Dent’s work under the banner of St. James Cathedral will be related to how many Sundays we end up not seeing him. Dent has a consulting ministry around the wider church that is already prolific, and part of the point in offering him a position on our staff is to tie this work into a proper liturgical base and help the work grow and grow.

Speaking as a former artists’ agent, let me say that I think that us and Dent working together will be a win-win arrangement, that will reflect both in the ever-growing reputation of St. James Cathedral, and as a positive line in our staffing budget. And the partnership that he is building with Stephen is one that I suspect has little to equal it in the Church of God, and will, I am confident lead to a host of events, workshops, publications and other such wonderful things in the years to come – the first of which will be a workshop at the Consortium of Endowed Parishes conference next month in San Antonio.

So I share with you what I think has been visionary planning for consolidation and growth on the part of your Chapter. It has added a significant increase to the staffing budget, but, in doing so, it is providing us with the means to handle and continue to cultivate the kind of growth to which God is calling us, and giving us an effective base to grow in mission and ministry. For let me remind you that it is very rare for churches to stay still – not to grow or to plan for growth leads inexorably to decline. And we know enough about decline to know that we don’t want to go down that path because we don’t believe that the Kingdom of God is about decline.

And so we move on, with God’s grace, into what I think is going to be a highly significant year in our life of mission and ministry together. I think that in 2017 God has shown us big hints of what we can do to build his kingdom, and he has set us wonderful and exciting challenges for 2018. But this is not for the faint-hearted. And you do not have a faint-hearted Chapter. And you do not have faint-hearted wardens. And you do not have a faint-hearted staff, and, as I don’t think you need to be reminded, you do not have a faint-hearted dean.

But it is not down just to the lay leadership, the staff and the clergy to make God’s plans into a reality in this wonderful place. Church is not a spectator sport, whatever the beauty or grandeur of a Sunday liturgy. And a successful capital campaign, and ongoing growth – this will not happen – not one single tiny bit of it – without everyone being involved. And that is still, perhaps, our greatest challenge.

For we have got – all of us – we have got to keep growing in our discipleship. That means growing in prayer, spirituality, and commitment.

So - have you made the effort to come and discover the quiet joy of Morning Prayer as a way of starting your day – or sometimes carved out some lunchtime chances to come to a weekday Eucharist? In a way that is wonderfully unexciting, disciplines like this can change your week. 

Have you reviewed your pledging and your giving to charity? If all our members followed the classic Anglican interpretation of the tithe and pledged 5% to the ministry of St. James, about the only complex decisions Chapter would ever take would be how to spend the money it had even more missionally and productively. It’s a wonderfully simple rule to live by that I have followed for years, and it takes all the thought and head-scratching out of calculating your pledge, so yet again, I commend it to you!

Have you told your close friends, neighbors or colleagues what you get up to on a Sunday morning? We are growing – but we are not growing anything like as much as we could. And that is because the average Episcopalian invites someone to come to church with them once every 17 years. But if you are ashamed of what you are doing here this morning, then I’d rather you didn’t bother coming – and if you are excited and fulfilled by what you are doing here this morning – go and tell others. If we leave evangelism to the evangelicals there will be no Episcopal Church left in a hundred years…

And, of course, Lent starts in two and a half weeks – how will that change and impact your life?

There is still much that God is calling us all to do, whoever we are and whatever our role is here. Even as I was in the middle of writing this report, I had an email from Judith Tribbet saying to me – clearly and unequivocally - As I hope I made clear I do not have enough adults from St. James who are interested in volunteering for our feeding ministries.

Now, if I had a dollar for every time I have heard new members say to me that one of the things that attracted them to St. James was our commitment to social justice, and if I had a dollar for every time I heard our longer-standing members tell me how vitally important it is to them that Sandwich Sunday happens, then I’d be very very rich. So it is a surprise to me that – despite everyone’s profession of great love for our feeding ministries – Judith can’t actually put together a sufficient roster of helpers. And if that is a surprise to you as well, I know Judith would love to talk to you. (And let me say, in case Judith does not feel able to do so, that helping at Sandwich Sunday might just mean you have to attend a different celebration of the Eucharist on that particular Sunday. But it’s OK – we normally do three every Sunday morning, and you might find something new and wonderful in attending a different one from usual!)

We have had a year of wonderful growth in 2017, even if it has mainly been to put us where we should have been. We are doing things with a confident sense of mission that, manifestly and visibly suggests we are aspiring all the more to being true servants and agents of the Kingdom of God. People are increasingly talking about what we are up to at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago.

Our mission for 2018 is to make ourselves ever the more indispensable to all those around us and to God:

  • more indispensable as a church family that worships with an excellence that makes peoples hearts and souls become more fully alive – something we try and live out through our liturgy, our music-making, our praying and our preaching;
  • more indispensable as a community that serves our neighbors both near and far – something we live out through generosity of money, of resources, and – I very much hope – of time;
  • more indispensable as a place where all sorts of things happen to bring a more abundant life to this city – and to that end, we will, I hope, be hosting at least one major lecture that will seize the attention of the wider community, and we will be presenting a major concert by the choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. More details of these will follow soon!

So I invite you to walk onwards with God and this wonderful cathedral community – onwards into a 2018 that will keep people near and far talking all the more about what God is up to in this little bit of Chicago, so that the Kingdom might draw ever closer to being built, and that the truth that Jesus is the Holy One of God may be ever the more visible to the world around us. Amen.