Bishop’s Address, 186th Annual Convention of the Diocese of Tennessee, St. Paul’s Church, Murfreesboro


My dear friends and fellow members of the church, welcome to the 186th Annual Convention of the Diocese of Tennessee. For almost two centuries the diocese have been gathering in this way, not only to do the business of the church but to encourage one another in the ministries that we are called to. There is much to be encouraged about. We thank St. Paul’s Church, Murfreesboro, for being our hosts this year, and for extending their gracious hospitality to us once again. The growth of this remarkable church, and the range of ministries found here, is a cause for rejoicing, and we are grateful to you.

I’m also grateful to the Rev’d Canon E. Mark Stevenson and his wife Joy for making the trip to Tennessee this year, to be with us and to help encourage us in the work we are doing as a diocese. I thank Canon Stevenson for his address yesterday, and for sharing with us the good news about the work of Episcopal Migration Ministries. Again, when we invited him a while ago we could not have foreseen how timely his presentation would be. Thank you again for the work you are doing with refugees and others on behalf of us all.

Let me remind you that the church is larger than our individual congregations. Stephanie Spellers and Eric Law, co-authors and self-described contemporary leaders in the Episcopal Church (Spellers is Bishop Curry’s Canon for Evangelism), have described the diocese as “the basic unit of the church” (The Episcopal Way: Church’s Teachings for a Changing World, Vol. 1), summing up for the present the insights of many centuries of Christian reflection on the nature of the church. There’s nothing innovative here but a basic affirmation. The Church is fundamentally a Eucharistic fellowship, a baptizing community that manifests itself in many places but is linked together by connections that are organic, pertaining to the Body of Christ.

The major part of the connection in a diocese is the ministry of the bishop. The bishop presides at the Eucharist, proclaims the Gospel, as well as baptizing and confirming. The bishop helps to stitch together the life of the diocese, linking us as well to the wider church that lies outside our particular context, both in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. Bishops also have an ecumenical vocation, as we seek to manifest the unity that Jesus prayed that his disciples might have. There’s a reason why the early Christian leader, Ignatius of Antioch, a martyr under the Roman persecution, wrote to the Church in Smyrna, “do nothing without the bishop” (Smy. 8). Not because the bishop is particularly wise or otherwise gifted, but because the bishop plays a key role in stitching together the life of the church.

I am so grateful to you, the people of the Diocese of Tennessee, for your welcome day by day and week by week, as I go about the work of the bishop in Middle Tennessee. Sunday is really the bishop’s best day, because it’s a day spent with the People of God. My colleagues in the episcopate are of one mind about this, though they cannot know the unique nature of a Diocese of Tennessee welcome. I love being with you in the different contexts that make up our diocese. Thank you for your encouragement in this ministry.

I hope you know that this weekend in this Convention we are being upheld in prayer by the members of the Daughters of the King of our diocese. Rebecca Markert tells me that Daughters from many chapters have signed up for half hour and hour long stretches of time, while we are in session this weekend. I’m grateful for the Daughters who are reminding us that it is prayer that upholds the church, rather than the business that is before us, important as that is.

Our theme this weekend is “I was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me” (Matt. 25:35), from the Gospel of Matthew. These words remind us of the grand theme of God’s welcome of us, and our call to welcome the stranger, those who are in need. Canon Stevenson has done a wonderful job of encouraging us in this work, which is Jesus’ own work. It is good for us to be together under the heading of this powerful Gospel imperative.


This Convention is marked by some visible reminders of transition in our diocese. We saw yesterday, at the announcement of retirements and also the announcement of clergy new to the diocese or in new cures within the diocese, when a host of clergy came forward, that we have been in a season of change in the diocese. Yesterday’s Special Order of Business, and the celebration for Canon Snare yesterday, also reminds us of transition. I want to welcome our new colleague the Rev’d Canon Andrew Petiprin who has been working with Canon Snare and me since June, and who now serves as Canon to the Ordinary. Andrew has landed on his feet and is already deep into the work of transition in the diocese, which is ongoing.

I’m encouraged that the diocese continues to attract good and faithful clergy to serve in the Diocese of Tennessee. But knowing the people of the Diocese I am not surprised! I know we have some other transitions on the horizon but I do not believe that the traffic will not be quite so heavy in the next few years. I continue to be grateful to Canon Snare for her good work in guiding us through this process, and to Canon Andrew as well going forward. People from all over the world continue to move to Middle Tennessee, and this creates opportunities for the Episcopal Church to do the work of Gospel proclamation. This work will not only require clergy but lay leaders who are willing to share their faith.


 Speaking of other challenging work, I commend to you our budget for 2018. This is a good budget, though it has not been able to fund all areas at the level requested. In some cases it has had to decrease support, and I regret this; though in others (especially our offering to the work of the Episcopal Church as a whole) it has increased support. It does not include a cost of living increase for folks on our payroll, including of course diocesan staff and also personnel at some of our missions.

In a time when diocesan revenue is up in a modest way, and the economy is good, we also find ourselves in a situation that binds us in some peculiar ways. The cost of benefits is up, as the now required participation in the Denominational Health Plan locks us into a certain schedule of costs. It is a good insurance plan, but we wonder where costs will go in the future as these costs are evened out across the dioceses of the church. In some important ways, we have less control over these costs than before.

At the same time, the voluntary asking of the Episcopal Church from dioceses will become a mandatory assessment in 2019, at a 15% level. You all know that our voluntary Fair Share system in the Diocese of Tennessee is pegged at 10%, which means that there is a considerable gap between what we ask of congregations and what the Episcopal Church asks of us. The gap between the one and the other in 2018 is still about $100,000. We have made great strides forward over the past three years in our giving to the Episcopal Church. At the same time I am committed to keeping resources at their basic level in our congregations for the work of the church. But at least for this year, our budget shows some of the stresses of this situation.

All Saints’ Movie

I told you last year about the movie, “All Saints”, based on the experience with refugee ministry of our congregation in Smyrna, which was to be released in the summer. Well, the film was released in August and we had a diocesan matinee for the screening of the film. What a great day!

The movie tells the story of a newly ordained Episcopal priest, the Rev’d Michael Spurlock (played by John Corbett), who is sent with his family to wind down a small and struggling church. His parishioners are prickly, remembering their past history and uncertain about their precarious future. As he begins his ministry, however, he is contacted by members of the Karen people, refugees from the civil war in Myanmar re-settled in Middle Tennessee and living in Smyrna. They are Anglican Christians, farmers mostly, some of whom had been soldiers fighting the central government. After being caught up in the war the refugees have spent years in resettlement camps in Thailand before coming to the United States. Led by community leader Ye Win (actor Nelson Lee) the Karen refugees have sought out the church. All pretty true to life; all actual people; filmed in large part on site. As you might imagine, there are some crises, but the church does not close and the People of God come together to do the work of the Gospel. Remember, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35), our Convention theme.

I thought the film was a good one, and largely accurate. You all know that All Saints’ is not a church with a long history but one that had experienced a major split early in its history. Fr. Spurlock was sent to revive the church not to close it. The place of the bishop was taken by a fictional character, “Eldon Thompson”, but he was a sympathetic bishop who played a key role so I’m not complaining.

What has interested me most is how you all have responded to the film. You have been inspired by it, especially those who were involved in the work and decisions that made this work possible. One person said to me with pride and gratitude, “I was there when we decided to move ahead”. Another was excited to watch the movie on an airplane journey not too long ago. The good news about the Diocese of Tennessee is out there, at 30,000 feet. I know we all feel gratitude to God for continuing to bless this work.

Dubose Scholarship Fund

Perhaps the most significant item that will be taken up by the Convention concerns the Dubose Scholarship Fund and the future of theological education in the church. Most of you will not have heard of this Fund before, but for over a hundred years, with a small and dedicated board, this separately incorporated Tennessee not-for-profit corporation has been making grants to support Episcopal seminarians from all over in their education. The assets of the Fund were created out of the assets of the old Dubose Training School in Monteagle (the site of the present Dubose Conference Center) when it was dissolved early in the 20th century. The Training School had trained “mature men” who were not able to matriculate at the School of Theology at Sewanee for ordained ministry.

The Fund has been doing this work for a while on a shoe string, with no full-time staff and without the means to think ahead strategically. Theological education in our church is under pressure, with rising costs and few resources in the church dedicated to it. Seminarians in most places are largely expected to be self-financing.

Over the past few years the Board of the Dubose Scholarship Fund has thought there might be a better way ahead, by combining with another organization with similar goals. I have chaired this board for the last several years, and we soon identified the Society for the Increase of the Ministry, an independent Connecticut not-for-profit corporation that is dedicated to the education of Episcopal seminarians, as a partner. SIM has full-time staff, and the combined fund will be the single largest such entity whose purpose is theological education in the Episcopal Church. SIM is committed to working closely with the dioceses of the Episcopal Church to help fund the next generation of ordained leaders in our church, and we are very excited about the prospects for the future.

The Dubose Scholarship Fund has now decided to dissolve, and supported by our sister diocese to the East, we are petitioning the state of Tennessee to allow the Board to conclude the work of the Fund. The governing documents of the Fund require that the residual be given to a diocese or dioceses of the church, so the Diocese of Tennessee will receive this almost $1,000,000 gift, and then in turn pass it to SIM. It will be the single largest gift to SIM in its history, and a major development in the funding of theological education. Our action here today, in regard to the authorizing resolution that is before you, will be most significant for the future of theological education in the church, and secure these assets for this purpose in the future. Our church, through this independent entity, will be better able to think strategically about theological education. Not many Conventions of this diocese in the future will have the opportunity to give away a million dollars! But we do it with a good heart, since these gifts were assembled many years ago for this purpose, and we are securing them for the future.

Controversy in the Diocese

The past year has seen the Task Force we commissioned two years ago, on Pastoral Response to LGBTQ members of the diocese, continue its work. We will be hearing from them in a minute. I am grateful to the members of the Task Force, led by Susan Huggins and by Fr. Brian McVey, for undertaking this work and for continuing in it. It is clear that we as a diocese have much to learn about gracious conversation on disputed issues.

These issues are before us as a Convention this year. I ask you to bear some things in mind as you approach resolutions that speak to the bishop’s role in the diocese. Please remember that the Task Force on Pastoral Response to LGBTQ Members of the Diocese recommended to this Convention continued pastoral engagement of the bishop in response to members of the diocese, and also continued engagement of all members of the diocese, especially those with opposing beliefs, in order to have “face to face, honest, respectful, and open dialogue”.  It did not recommend to this Convention any memorial to the General Convention or any legislative action at all. I believe this was a wise course for a diocese that is not of one mind about issues of human sexuality and is still learning how to speak about these things. I think the work before us is to learn how to speak to each other in a gracious way, not to engage in legislation.

The trouble with legislative fixes is that in making them we create winners and losers. There are limitations that come with the sort of dialogue we can have at a convention gathering like this, given the constraints of time and the parliamentary process. For genuine dialogue to take place, there can’t be an expectation that at the end of an hour we will have a majority vote to decide matters which touch all of us, including the minority. We are not of one mind. I believe that we need more prayer, study, and conversation, of all sorts, in the Diocese of Tennessee, as suggested by the resolution that brought the Task Force into being two years ago. We need conversation, not balloting. The conversation we need to have is not one that convinces others that we’re right or we get what we want, but one where we practice the art of graceful conversation with others with whom we disagree.

Let me address the issue of the bishop’s role in a diocese, raised directly in matters before you. Bishops are in the business of discernment, asking the question of what God is doing in a particular situation, and helping to chart a course for the church. They do this in consultation with others. This is precisely what bishops do, the bread and butter of our ministry. This is especially so in the Episcopal Church, a church which puts forward a self-defining name that is all about bishops!

Bishops in our church, of course, are charged by the Prayer Book with guarding “the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church”. They do the work of discernment every day, in regard to ordination, the call of clergy to parishes and missions, the licensing of clergy for service, the granting of licenses for lay ministries, the remarriage of divorced persons, matters of liturgy and pastoral questions of all sorts bearing upon both clergy and laity. These are not acts of administration but acts of discernment. I’ve mentioned only a few. Others in the church have their own work of discernment, but Episcopalians have typically assigned the weightier acts of discernment to the bishop, for good cause I think, and in keeping with the nature of the ministry bishops are charged with, across the broad front of diocesan life.

Please note that the basis of the bishop’s ministry, or indeed anyone’s ministry, is not an appeal to conscience, as if conscience were the right category for us to think about these things. The appeal to conscience is meant to protect us not empower us. It does not authorize us to do anything. The word “conscience” never appears in the Canons of the Episcopal Church, in their treatment of marriage, and for good reason. Conscience cannot be our authority.

Instead we should keep in mind the work of discernment that we are all called to, but that bishops especially are called to do in a unique way in their own order. Arguing to exclude bishops from the work of discernment they are commissioned for cuts across the grain of our identity as an “Episcopal” church. Again, to quote the Prayer Book, bishops are specifically called to guard “the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church”. I, along with other bishops, continue to do this work of discernment in my own order not at my own whim but because it is my vocation, work I am called to do.

I have spoken over the years, both in the election process that brought me to the diocese and in Convention Addresses, about my own convictions on the nature of marriage and my own commitments as a bishop. You all know that I believe that marriage, as Christians have traditionally understood it, is between a man and a woman. I have thought and prayed about this over the years as a pastor and friend to many gay and lesbian members of the church. I have written about this in the church press and in a number of journals, as well as spoken directly about it in Convention Addresses. There should be nothing surprising here.

At the same time we should not lose sight of the fact that it is unremarkable for a bishop to hold this traditional teaching about the nature of marriage. Indeed, given the scope of history and the extent of the church throughout the world, it is abundantly well supported. Modestly put, it is the mainstream position.

Here’s what I said at my first Convention in 2008: “I hope that you know that I am committed to a traditional understanding of Christian marriage, and that I believe the Church’s traditional teaching on sex and sexual relationships.  I have been saying this consistently and publicly, I believe, since the year 2000…  I will follow through with the discharge of my responsibilities as bishop…” (Convention Address, 2008).

Here’s what I said in 2013: “I have… been clear from the time of my election about my own limitations in regard to the blessing of same-sex relationships.  My convictions about this were not quickly or lightly acquired and I have been clear about them.  I cannot offer the direction and permission that the resolution requires for the use of the rite [for same sex blessings]” (Convention Address, 2013).

I mention this not to exhaust the subject, or to exhaust myself or your patience, but simply to make the point that I have been consistent and I hope trustworthy in a difficult subject for the church. I commend to you the work of the Task Force in helping us to talk about these issues. Please know what high regard I have for all of you on both sides of these questions of human sexuality. Nothing about this controverted issue has caused me to hold anyone in less regard than before. We are fellow members of the Body of Christ and I love you dearly. Many people on both sides are carrying much heavier burdens than I am. For myself, I have never done any harder work of discernment in my life. But know that I do this work gladly, even eagerly, for the sake of the love I have for you as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Beloved Community: Committee on Racial Reconciliation

 I’m also grateful to Natasha Dean and Bill Gittens for moving forward this year on the work of the Beloved Community: Committee on Racial Reconciliation. It is clear here that there is much to learn about the history of racial injustice in Middle Tennessee and among Episcopalians. The Committee has immersed itself in that history, learning some new and surprising things about the history of the church’s struggle with this issue. They have also focused on equipping themselves for difficult conversations, not only within the Committee but also more widely in the diocese and in society. I think the Committee is laying a strong foundation from which they will be able to engage us further. Again, I am encouraged by our engagement here.


Let me remind you again of four words that describe the mission and ministry of the Diocese of Tennessee, that mission and ministry that we share together as a community of faith.

First, “Open”. In the Diocese of Tennessee we are open to the power of God.  When we gather we’re expecting God to show up, and to do things in our lives and in the life of the world that take us beyond ourselves. We’re looking for transformation in our lives and in the life of the communities in which we live. Transformation happens through grace, God’s free gift that is the power and presence of God in our lives.

Second, “Obedient”. In our diocese we are obedient to Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching; and indeed proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the whole creation. “Go” is a small word, but it is the word that Jesus uses, at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew and again at the end of the Gospel of Mark. “Go” opens the door to the mission field that always lies outside, up ahead, and around the corner.

Third, “Responsive”.  In the Diocese of Tennessee we are responsive to the needs of the world, because it is the world that God created and for which Jesus gave his life on the cross. The world is in need of healing and reconciliation; it’s broken and sometimes doesn’t even know it. We can see it when we look around us, and if we can’t see it there we can always look within our own hearts for the evidence of our own need for healing. As Jesus’ disciples, those who are striving to follow in his footsteps, this work falls to us. We seek to carry forward the unique and life-giving work of Jesus on the cross.

Fourth, “Committed”. In this diocese we are committed to our life together as a community of faith, for the sake of the life of the world. The world has got some wonderful examples of division and hatred. It needs from the Church the great counter-example we can offer, where unity overcomes division, and love overcomes hate. I have been preaching this since I was consecrated, in the face of church splits in the diocese in 2007 and 2008, and now in this new context. I will continue to preach it, “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). At times, being together as Jesus’ disciples is challenging work for the church but it is work that Jesus demands from us.


Finally, I’d like to thank all the members of our staff who have helped to encourage me in my own ministry as bishop: Canon Pamela Snare, who has served as Canon to the Ordinary; Canon Andrew Petiprin her able successor; Canon Fred Dettwiller, who serves pro bono as Canon for Special Projects; Susan Abington, who serves as our Finance Administrator; Linda Rex, who serves as our Database and Benefits Administrator; Kim Jones, who serves as Assistant to the Canon to the Ordinary; and Kim Dougherty who serves as my Executive Assistant and Associate for Communications. I am particularly grateful to my wife Caroline, who has balanced responsibilities with family and work and helped to encourage me in this past year. She helps with grace and charm to welcome people from all over to the Diocese of Tennessee.

Thank you for being here at this Convention, and for doing the work of the church. I thank you again for your encouragement in this ministry, and for your love and faithfulness toward God. These are great days for the Diocese of Tennessee.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee