The Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Neil Alexander
The ordination of a new bishop is an act of faith. It is a sign of hope. It is a living reminder of the mission that the risen Christ has given to the Church. To raise up a new bishop requires enormous faith, not so much faith in Shannon, though our confidence in him is great, but a faith that rests comfortably in God’s confidence in the Church, God’s faith in us to live boldly, perhaps even daringly, as God’s servants in these days.
To raise up another bishop for the Church is a sign of hope, given the nay-sayers from within and without, those who would try to convince us, and convince the world, that our Church’s decline is inevitable. I say this morning, “Not so fast.” Because we dare to ordain another bishop, because we know that what we have is rooted in the risen Christ, our Church is strong and vigorous, full of hope in the face of the discouragements that some days bear down upon us.
To raise up a new bishop is a living reminder that we are to stay focused upon the mission to reconcile and restore all persons in relationship with God in Jesus Christ and with each other as members of the human family. For, you see, a community that has given up doesn’t need new leadership. Faithless people need no new vision. When your desire is only to barely exist, fresh new energy is a waste. Raising up Shannon Johnston to be a bishop in Virginia and to take his place among the bishops of this Church is a bold reminder, first to ourselves and then to the world, that the mission of Jesus continues, and that we are not prepared to give up, to let up, to hold back, or to relax for a moment.
Today is the Feast of Augustine of Canterbury. And the convergence of this feast with the ordination of Shannon Johnston to the Episcopate is a great gift. It is a great gift to Shannon and to the faithful people of the Diocese of Virginia. In the Church’s history it has been customary to ordain persons to Holy Orders on feasts of the Church. At first, of course, that was simply a matter of convenience. The Church would already be gathered to keep the feast. So slipping in an ordination or two around the edges saved lots of time, lots of resources, lots of coordinating, and lots of paper. So this morning I want to say to Bishop Lee and to Bishop Jones that I am mightily impressed, dear brothers, that you can get this many people out on a Saturday of a holiday weekend to keep the lesser feast of Augustine of Canterbury.
Ordaining on a feast is a gift because it provides a reference point for the person being ordained. The story of the feast is often the story of a particularly faithful servant of ages past whose witness to the risen Christ the Church has not forgotten. For those being ordained, those who claim the story of the feast of their ordination day, and claim it as a part of their own story, their own journey into Christ, they will in time discover that the feast shapes their ministry in powerful ways.
Augustine was minding his own business as the prior of a small Roman community of monks, when Pope Gregory sent him and a handful of companions to the southern shores of England with the good news of the gospel of Jesus. Their task was to renew the Church’s mission, and to establish ever more visibly the faith of the Apostles among the English people. Armed with little more than a small silver cross, a rude icon or two and the gospel of Jesus upon their hearts, Augustine and his companions set about the mission that God had given to them. Their missionary effort bore fruit. Not only were many souls called to faith in Christ, but King Ethelbert also heard the call of the Gospel and became the first Christian king of England.
It is interesting to note, friends, that the Venerable Bede in his history of the Church tells us that Augustine evangelized England the old fashioned way, singing, preaching, praying, baptizing and celebrating the Eucharist. Bede’s description of Augustine’s ministry sounds to my ears a great deal like the Shannon Johnston I know. And not a bad mission statement for the living of these days.
Shannon, I want to reflect for a moment or two on the life and witness of Augustine of Canterbury, and I want to make for you a couple of connections that I hope will inspire your life and witness in the years to come as you take your place as a bishop among the people of Virginia. My brother, I hope that you will always consider yourself a missionary bishop. Now I realize there are few pieces of real estate in the new world as well trodden by Episcopal bishops as the territory of the Diocese of Virginia. You come to lead a large and prosperous mission with deep roots, rich resources, steadfast faith, and you will do so standing on the shoulders of some of this Church’s finest missionary apostles, both past and present. You are coming, however, not as the manager of an ecclesiastical corporation, but as a missionary bishop.
Augustine’s vocation at Canterbury was to renew the Church’s mission. Christianity had been there before. Augustine borrowed an old chapel from a previous foundation and rebuilt the Church, called the people back to their spiritual home, and understood himself to be an apostle for mission.
In spite of all the great work of those who have gone before you, and even in the face of the strong foundations that have been laid, the Diocese of Virginia is still mission territory. And you are to be its first missionary. From the day on which Bishop Lee hands you his crosier until the day you pass it along to the next diocesan bishop, you are to be the first missionary to the people of the Diocese of Virginia, both those we know and those new friends that God will send our way.
Shannon, in remembering the ministry of Augustine, don’t forget that he was an apostle used by God to call the king to faith. As a bishop of the Church, it will be your task to speak truth to power and to do so relentlessly. Sometimes that power is embodied in the political processes of the Commonwealth of Virginia or those of our nation here in Washington. Sometimes that power is embodied in those who possess money and influence in the private sector. Sometimes that power is embodied in those who hold offices in the Church, in your diocese and in the larger Church nationally and internationally. Power can be embodied in ways that faithfully serve the common good, and when it is, you need to speak to that power words of encouragement. Power can also be embodied in the rhetoric of the common good, but in ways that are destructive and demeaning. And we count on you, Shannon, to know the difference.
Augustine engaged the king with the call of the Gospel. He spoke truth to power. And you, my friend, are called this day to be just as bold. What that means on many days is speaking truth to power on behalf of those who have no voice. In the public square or in the Church’s circle, the voices of far too many are not heard. Whether the cries of the hungry and the homeless, the sick and infirm, those who suffer from unrighteous discrimination because they are differently blessed, you, Shannon, are to use the eloquence that God has given you to speak on their behalf. And when you do, your knees knocking together, your voice shaking, your heart racing, remember Augustine standing before the king with the word of truth in Jesus Christ.
Today, Shannon, like Augustine before you, you take your place among the long succession of the Church’s apostles. There are many who misunderstand what we are doing here today. But the Church really needs, my brother, for you to understand really clearly what is happening to you. Many in the Church and in the world see your ordination to the Episcopate as an elevation to the higher rank of the Church’s ministry. They see what you take on today as a profound enhancement of your life in Christ, a badge of honor at how well you have performed as a deacon and priest. It’s the bestowal of a new class of ecclesiastical prestige. Well, in some outward and visible way, some of that is partially true, occasionally.
Shannon, in moments that no one will see, not even your beloved Ellen, in moments that no one can truly share, you will experience the Episcopate as a broad and deep limitation upon your life, a rather narrow framework within which to work out your salvation. If you want to be free in Christ and unencumbered in your ministry, you should have stayed a lay person. But brother, I fear it’s far too late for that.
The Episcopate is a ministry with a wide range of duties and a very narrow focus. At the present time, Shannon, many will judge you by how well you navigate that wide range of duties. How many balls can you keep in the air at once and how few of them will you drop? History, however—Church history—will judge you on how clearly you stay focused on your apostolic witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
As we see in today’s Gospel, an apostle is first and always to be a witness to the Resurrection, one who comes with Good News about how God sees reality, refracted through the prism of Resurrection. You may be remembered by some as a good administrator or a lousy one. A loving pastor or an aloof one. An effective leader or a boring one. But in the end, all of those things will recede into the haze of the Church’s memory. What the people of Virginia will never forget, and the matter upon which your ministry will ultimately be judged is your witness to the Resurrection of Jesus.
And this is what we so desperately need to hear. This is what we need to see lived in front of us. The Resurrection of Jesus is God’s profound declaration that the way things have always been need not be the way things always will be, that new creation is not only possible, it is present reality for those who are in Christ. The Resurrection of Jesus is the divine energy that makes the future that God sees possible, where justice and mercy is no longer God’s dream alone, but the daily reality of all humanity.
Shannon, today the Church makes you a bishop, an apostle, a witness to Jesus. And we beg you, call us away from those things that are passing away. Call out from within us God’s new creation. And wear us out! Wear us out with the promise of Resurrection.
Alleluia. Christ is risen!