Good morning. My thanks to all of you for being here for our Annual Parish Meeting. I know that Sunday is a busy time for folks and I appreciate your willingness to stay and take care of the important business of the church. The past year has been one of growth and of challenge. I will not try this morning to go over everything we have accomplished in 2003 but I refer you all to my written Annual Report which summarizes our life together for the past twelve months.
It has been a rewarding year as well as a difficult year. I continue to be very pleased with the work of our staff. They are all conscientious, hardworking creative individuals committed to the well-being of St. James’s. And not only do they create but they also pro-create! Once again in the past year we have added another member to our parish family with the arrival of the beautiful Coco Jones. Melanie is a wonderful mother and I think we can all tell that Greg is smitten. Good people don’t work in churches because of the money they make. No one will ever make their fortune working for the church. Rather, your staff gives so much time and energy because of their faith in God and their passion for the mission and ministry of God’s people. I could not get along without them and all of us owe them a debt of thanks.
Further, I am very grateful for the hard work of your Vestry. We have had some long but fruitful meetings and those who serve on the Vestry give a large amount of their spare time to the church. A special thanks to those who are rotating off the Vestry: Steve Berg, Ron Cain, Natalie Irwin, Dean King, Helen Tanner and Betse Trice. They have been a great asset for the past three years and they will be missed. A special thank you as well to Pam Ware who has resigned from the Vestry after serving two years of her three year term. Pam has been a faithful advocate for Adult Education and Outreach and her insights will be missed. Let’s show them our appreciation for their service.
I can not talk about the good work of your Vestry without mentioning your Senior Warden – Brewster Rawls. Brewster has another year on the Vestry but I couldn’t have made it through this year without him. Brewster has a fulltime life and career outside of St. James’s and yet he found a way to give more than anyone to serve our church. It was not unusual to see Brewster at three different church meetings during a given day and I have marveled at his good natured commitment to St. James’s. More importantly, over the past twelve months Brewster has always done everything possible to make decisions guided by what is best for the church. Thank you Brewster.
As I said, 2003 has been a year of growth and challenge. We have grown our programs, which I outline in my written report, and we have grown our membership. More than 164 people officially joined St. James’s last year and that does not include those who regularly attend but have never transferred their membership. At the same time, 68 people left St. James’s, including the deaths of 14 of our members. By way of comparison, in 2002, 58 people left St. James’s.
While this was not a banner year for Stewardship we have successfully brought our budget up to last year’s level. I consider that a great success during these difficult times when many parishes and dioceses are seeing dramatic cuts in their income. Lilo Ukrop and Alex Hamilton were instrumental in the success of our Annual Giving Campaign this year. Along with the work of Frances Caldwell, their organizational skills, motivation and hard work made all the difference. We are well suited to continue to meet our financial obligations in the coming year. My thanks to each of them for their ministry to St. James’s.
In August, the General Convention’s approval of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire began what has become and ongoing process of dialogue, debate, and confusion in the entire Episcopal Church and here at St. James’s. As your Vestry and I acknowledged early on, there are many people who feel strongly about the actions of General Convention and there are a variety of differing opinions within our parish. Some people are hurt and feel as if their church has abdicated their responsibility to the Scriptures. Others are confused and not sure how they feel. Still others are glad that the church has finally begun the process of full inclusion for our gay brothers and sisters.
Since the very fist days following General Convention, I have tried to acknowledge the wide variety of opinions within this church while at the same time attempting to hold us together and keep our focus on the larger work God is calling us to in our city and in the wider world. However, that has not always been an easy task. Dana, Greg and I can honestly say that since August we have spent somewhere between 50% and 65% of our time dealing with this one issue. People have wanted to talk, express their concerns and learn more about this subject. In between all the meetings, phone calls and emails, I have personally sent two letters to the parish addressing this issue, your Vestry has sent one, and five separate opportunities have been made available for the members of our church to gather publicly to learn about and discuss this matter.
Some people have said that there has not been enough discussion, while others have pleaded with me to move on. From my point of view as your Rector, it is difficult to know what is too much and what is too little. While I am deeply sorry for the pain and anguish these decisions have caused for so many people around the church; I know there is a fine line between making room for people to express their concerns and wanting to make sure our congregation does not obsess on this one issue at the expense of other areas of our life together. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his famous book, The Screw Tape Letters, in a conversation between two of the devil’s henchmen – just get the church fighting amongst itself and we are the victor. I have worked very hard not to allow this issue to drive us apart because nothing good can come from such a conflict.
Some people have commented that I have not shown definitive leadership during this time. If they mean that I have not led in such a way as to push this church in one direction or another over the ordination of a gay bishop then they are correct. As I have said over and over again, I do not think the ordination of a practicing homosexual as bishop of New Hampshire is something that should force us to pick sides. It is a subject of importance, but it is not an issue central to the gospel, nor was it ever a topic discussed by our Lord Jesus. Because of this I have not, nor has Greg or Dana, used this pulpit for the explicit purpose of preaching about the rightness or wrongness of the decisions of General Convention.
Your clergy definitely have their personal beliefs in all of this which we have shared and will share with anyone interested. But we do not feel it necessary or desirable for the parish to be of one mind on this issue anymore than we think it necessary that the church be of one mind on the issues of abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, stem cell research and the like. Rather, we have been struggling to uphold the very Anglican idea that our church is a broad tent with lots of room for many different kinds of people who hold a wide range of opinions. Greg, Dana and I all believe that we are immeasurably enriched by having people of differing opinions living together in community with the Lordship of Jesus Christ as their common head.
Let me end by saying this: I can honestly say that it is still an immense pleasure and a great honor to serve as your rector and I thank you for your trust and your support. In the year to come I will do everything possible to ensure that St. James’s is the same open and welcoming community it has always been. We have room in our pews for the most conservative and the most liberal, for gay couples and straight couples, for those seeking Christ and for those who have known him for years, for the rich and the poor, black and white, old and young. It is Christ who binds us together and therefore Christ must always remain our focus and our cornerstone.