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Dear Friends & Colleagues,

Grace and peace to each one of you in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  I pray that this letter finds each of you well and blessed.

Before I share with you the original intent of this letter, I invite you to join me in daily prayer for the church family of our East Branch United Methodist Church and their pastor, Rev. Dora Odarenko.  On Monday, the East Branch church building was engulfed in flames due to a yet unknown cause.  That fire left the church completely destroyed.  I can only imagine the deep sense of loss and pain this has caused to the members of the East Branch U.M. Church.  I also know that Rev. Odarenko will be called upon to provide extraordinary pastoral care as this congregation discerns its next steps.  Please keep these persons close in your prayers.

I have just today returned from the fall meeting of the Council of Bishops and a series of other meetings on behalf of the denomination.  It is always a unique pleasure to have the opportunity to interact with leaders from across the globe and to enter into conversations that cross contextual and theological boundaries.  The testimonies of our struggles within the denomination are widespread and very concerning.  Yet, the stories of faithful, fruitful, and vital ministry that is taking place in the midst of those struggles is deeply inspiring.  Although this group represents a wide variety of contexts and theological persuasions and, as a result, struggles to reach consensus on many issues before us, there is among us a deep commitment to find ways to live out our commitment to “spread spiritual holiness across the land” and creatively “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

There were many things discussed at our meeting that are summarized in a recent report by our Council President, Bishop Ken Carter.  You can access that report through the link: https://www.unitedmethodistbishops.org/newsdetail/presidents-report-on-the-november-2019-meeting-of-council-of-bishops-13017975

There are, however, two specific actions that took place at the recent Council of Bishops meeting that I would like to highlight with you:

Racism, Colonialism, Tribalism, and Privilege  
After the official Council of Bishops meeting ended, the active bishops engaged in a two-day learning retreat on “Racism, Colonialism, Tribalism, and Privilege” that was facilitated by a team from the General Commission on Religion & Race.  This very focused conversation not only provided honest and insightful teaching, it also gave us the opportunity to discuss together how racism, colonialism, tribalism and privilege has affected us personally and as a church.  It also gave us the opportunity to deepen our commitment to end these sinful behaviors and lifestyles in our own lives and within the church.  A part of our discussion was centered around the book, White Fragility: Why it is so Hard for White People to talk about Racism by Robin Diangelo, which I would highly recommend to you.  

I share this with you because of the clear reality that in the midst of the church’s current struggles and debates, the issues of systemic racism, privilege and bias are so easily left unaddressed and avoided.  While I am proud of the efforts that we have and are making to address dismantling racism in New York, I am fully aware that there is much more to be done.  It cannot be a subject that is ignored or shelved to a later time and there is plenty more that we need to be doing to keep this subject clearly before us.  

I encourage all of our leaders, both clergy and laity, to immerse yourself in this reading and in joining me to create civil yet honest dialogue about the racist behavior that still dominates the landscape of our churches and communities.

Complaints and Trials Against the LGBTQIA+ Community
As a community of leaders, the Council of Bishops is well aware of the anxiety that is experienced on all sides leading up to the changes in our Book of Discipline on January 1, 2020.  The significant fears that are being expressed by members of the LGBTQIA+ community are impacting lives and ministry in ways that are deeply hurtful.  

As I stated earlier, the Council of Bishops is a group that is elected by various constituencies and, as a result, bishops often lead out of or in the midst of those contexts.  As a result, the manner by which bishops will respond to these disciplinary changes differs greatly.

However, approximately two-thirds of the bishops agreed that we would work tirelessly to avoid referring complaints for trial against the LGBTQIA+ community.  I was one who signed onto that covenant and will repeat my words to you that I am very committed to lessening the harm done to the LGBTQIA+ community in whatever ways possible.  

Our complaint process is one that always seeks a just resolution and never sees church trials as a preferred end.  This is true for every complaint that is filed.  But these are particularly sensitive and vulnerable times for our church.  Unwarranted complaints only add to the harm that is done to everyone and they do not acknowledge the reality that we are in a time of deep discernment as individuals, congregations, pastors, and leaders on all levels.  It is a time for us to invest more in open, respectful conversation rather than rhetoric and actions that are accusatory and harmful.  I respectfully urge everyone to foster a deeper sensitivity, a greater patience, and deeper love for one another in these uncertain times.  And I urge us to do no harm to the LGBTQIA+ community by not filing complaints.  Instead, let us work toward creating fruitful conversations and initiating faithful prayers for one another as we attempt to create a faithful picture of what the Body of Christ truly can be.

On a final note, on the opening day of the Council of Bishops meeting we gathered in worship to celebrate and memorialize the lives of those who have gone on before us.  It was a distinct blessing to spend a portion of that service remembering the life of Bishop C. Dale White.  Former New York Bishop, Ernie Lyght, delivered the remarks that gave tribute to the exceptional and faithful service that Bishop White gave to the church in general and, specifically, to the New York Annual Conference for eight years.  
I had the privilege of being at the Jurisdictional Conference as a youth delegate when Bishop White was elected to the episcopacy in 1976.  When I arrived here in New York forty years later I came with the full awareness that I was carrying on a legacy of excellence from many wonderful episcopal leaders, one of whom was C. Dale White.  

As I remembered Bishop White last week, I also gave thanks for each of you and the amazing privilege God has granted me to serve in your midst.  It is a gift that I do not take for granted and one that I count as precious.

Stay well, be blessed, and know today how very much each of you are loved and appreciated.

Grace & Peace,

Thomas Bickerton
Resident Bishop

 

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