Courage, Compassion, Connection

Clergy conferences are different everywhere you go. Diocesan culture changes from one region to another. Some groups can’t wait to be together: everyone knows each other and is friendly and helpful. Other places are so big or full of competition or conflict that going into a conference makes everyone wary about what might happen. I have been in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania just over a year now. I have been to three clergy conferences and each one has been different from the last. Last year, the clergy met with the clergy of the Diocese of Pittsburgh at Antiochian Village. In the spring, we met by ourselves at Olmstead Manor, and last week, we met with the clergy of the Diocese of Western New York at Chautauqua. I have been nervous going into each one, not knowing what to expect or anything about the location, and knowing that I wouldn’t know half the people in attendance. Of the three of them, this last one was the best. Even though I only knew my colleagues in NWPA, there was never the sense of being an outsider or a newbie. There was a friendly attitude throughout the conference. It was interesting because as much as any of us thought we knew what was going to happen, there were surprises for all of us along the way.

Bishop Sean Rowe and Bishop Bill Franklin brought together the clergy of their dioceses to make a suggestion and gather our input on the idea. The idea is a rather radical one, especially currently given the Episcopal Church’s history of autonomy and continual splitting up into more dioceses. The idea is as the letter from the Executive Committees stated it, that when Bishop Franklin retires (announcing his retirement date of April 3, 2019) the Diocese of Western New York vote Bishop Rowe as the Provisional Bishop for five years and see what the dioceses can do together in the next five years.

Now I have to own my own baggage. I realized at this conference that my entire ordained life (all three and half years of it), I have been canonically resident (priest-speak for which diocese we belong to) in a diocese sharing a bishop. I was ordained the day after Bishop Sean was approved as the Provisional Bishop of Bethlehem and then transferred to the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. During that time I worked in the Diocese of East Tennessee as a seminarian and in the Diocese of Texas as a curate, two very different dioceses. What I have noticed though is that the effort of collaboration and innovation of working together and sharing resources between the Diocese of Bethlehem and the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania has had good and lasting effects for the people of both dioceses.

We considered the idea to the best of our ability. There is always vulnerability with thinking about something new and innovative and being able to face that and express it is helpful for everyone instead of getting defensive or fighting about aspects of the idea. We considered it with all the wisdom we were able to muster… and probably a little extra thrown in by the Holy Spirit. We took an idea seriously which hasn’t been tried before, because we know what a difference it might make, not only to our dioceses, but also to the national and international church. Things we do and learn and try and experiment with may someday revolutionize the way the church works. We don’t know what the future holds exactly. What we do know is that we want the Episcopal Church to be a part of it. Adaptation and innovation will help us get there.

What I saw was Brene Brown’s gifts of imperfection at work. I saw courage, in facing a new and scary idea. I saw compassion, for each other in the face of what might have to change in order for the idea to work. I saw connection, as we talked through how we might work together for God’s kingdom. I saw excitement for something that brings us together and progresses the kingdom of heaven. I saw acknowledgement that kingdom work ain’t so easy. I saw grief at the impending loss of a good bishop and a relationship which will be changing.

Yet, we also acknowledged that we know our future is going to require working together with other people and groups. We have to model this for those in our future. Seeing us work together, with those like us and those who are not like us will make a huge difference to how well the Episcopal Church weathers the years. The details of how we do this are important and many would argue they are the crux of the matter. I would say that the heart of the matter is the love which God has given us as a gift to share. Working from a place of love and unity, as does our Trinitarian God, we can make all things work together for good with those who love God. (Philippians 4:13)

I don’t always like being stuck in a windowless room for long periods of time listening to someone else talk, more or less simply because I like looking out windows. Yet, what happened in that low beige windowless room was much more remarkable than what it would have seemed. We walked into that room not knowing what was going to happen, simply we knew we had been brought together by God and our bishops to work together… and what we started was looking at a very intentional bonding together of people who can work, share, and play together. It was good to see people who don’t really know each other being vulnerable together and working together and thinking about something new together. It was good to meet new people who could be resources for each other and support for each other in different ways. I don’t know where it will lead, but I’m looking forward to exploring the future together.

The Rev. Elizabeth Yale is Priest-in-Charge of St. John’s Church, Franklin. 

A Wild Ride

God moves in mysterious ways. In the late 1990s, the Rt. Rev. Robert Rowley, then the bishop of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, met with the Rev. Barbara Akin, then the vicar of Church of the Epiphany in Grove City. They were having a discussion about her successor and joking around about who his successor might be. Little did they know that his successor, Barbara’s student intern Sean Rowe, was filing papers in the next room, and that her successor, Geoff Wild, was living in Australia deciding whether he was an atheist or not.

The now Rev. Geoff Wild, a native of Australia, has served as the vicar at Fr GeoffChurch of the Epiphany in Grove City for seven years and in recent years has also served as the vicar of Memorial Church of Our Father in Foxburg. However, the road to ordained ministry was not always an easy one.

Fr. Geoff describes growing up with uninvolved parents. As a young person, he drifted and in College he found alcohol. He spent twenty years drinking and using drugs. At one point, his then-wife wanted a divorce and Geoff recognized that he was harming his family. Finally, a friend took him to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and it was there that Geoff realized he was lonely. He got sober but didn’t follow all of the 12 steps, in particular the step about developing a relationship with your higher power. He remained lonely in sobriety. He became mean and miserable and, at times, even suicidal. Six years later, his marriage was over.

Even though he had been raised as an Anglican, he stubbornly refused to develop a relationship with a higher power. And then, as he says, “One night I got found by God in the form of a big white Ford wagon.”

One rainy afternoon, Fr. Geoff was out for a run and got hit by that big white Ford wagon. It put him in the hospital for three days. While he was in the hospital, he looked around him and saw the devastating affects of alcohol and drugs. The person next to him had tried to jump off a building because he thought he could fly. Another person could only talk about drinking beer and a third was drunk and waiting to go back to his homeless shelter. Geoff asked himself, “What is wrong with this picture?” And his answer was: “Me.”

He began in earnest to try and develop a relationship with his higher power. He started following the 11th step in the AA 12 steps, meditation. Around this time he also met Cheryl (now his wife and better half) and, to please her on a trip to the U.S. to visit her, he accompanied her to church. There he found “words that spoke to me.” He continued with his meditation and one day asked God, “Are you there?” To his surprise he received the reply, “Of course I am.” It made all the difference: “That loneliness I had felt all my life didn’t have to be there because God was there.”

Following his conversion, Geoff moved to the U.S. to be with Cheryl and started attending Church of the Epiphany, Grove City. One day Barbara Akin asked Geoff if he wanted to be a priest. He was somewhat taken aback because, when he was young, one of the things he thought about was becoming a priest. He took his time to think, meditate, and pray about it and 18 months later was able to answer yes. That was in 2003 and, in 2008, Barbara Akin’s successor that she had discussed with Bishop Rowley so many years previous was ordained by Bishop Rowley’s successor.

25 years ago, Fr. Geoff only wanted to stop drinking and using drugs. Life hasn’t always been easy for him, but sobriety and a relationship with Jesus Christ gave him far more than he believed he deserved: “Stopping [drinking] was the best decision I made in my life, but it wasn’t enough. It is the relationship with Jesus Christ that has made the difference.”

Julien Goulet, Assistant to Communications and Administration, Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania