Listening for the Next 200 Years

As part of my sabbatical, I have been accepting some invitations to preach.

I preached this sermon at General Seminary in May


In the name of our God of beginnings and endings, goings–out, and comings–in: Amen.

Good evening. And Happy Anniversary! I feel as if I am on the 200th Anniversary circuit this Spring. St. Paul’s Cathedral, in my own Diocese of Western New York, just celebrated its 200th. Our Presiding Bishop was with us for that great occasion, and he preached from the very spot where he was ordained deacon in 1979.

Bishop Michael recalled how, in late December 1813, the tiny village of Buffalo on Lake Erie was burned to the ground by the British. And then–just four years later in 1817–work had started on what would become our cathedral. So out of uncertainty—a future was born.

A few weeks later I celebrated the 200th Anniversary of St. Mark’s Church in LeRoy, New York, which prospered with the coming of the Erie Canal and found a new wave of prosperity when Jello-O was invented there. You will not be surprised that their 200th reception was all Jell-O, all the time.

1817 is the year the General Convention of the Episcopal Church chartered this seminary. By then, New York was the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, with a population of 202,000–or about the number of people who will show up at the box office in Manhattan tonight expecting to get a ticket for HAMILTON.

General Seminary was born out of the world Alexander Hamilton inhabited before he was killed in a fateful duel in 1804. Hamilton knew Bishop William White when Philadelphia was our nation’s capital, and Bishop White was the chaplain of the Congress.

White was the great advocate for one national Episcopal seminary, but he wanted it out of Philadelphia because–the legend goes–his wife was tired of putting up with candidates for holy orders who camped out on the top floor of the White house, so that they could be tutored by the bishop himself.

So it was north to New York City and to Chelsea Square, where this land–then an apple orchard–had been made available by Clement Clarke Moore. Some of the Virginia delegates to the General Convention worried that New York was not a healthy place for the promotion of sound views of the Gospel and the Church. They were assuaged by promises that “the evil of the undue influence of New York City on the General Seminary would be chiefly at the beginning, and would be decreasing every year.” Some of you will have to let me know after the service whether that promise has come true.

I preached often from this pulpit from 1993 to 1997, when I was a layman and a professor here. This is only my second time in this pulpit since I became a bishop seven years ago. Sot it is a great honor to be with you in this special year. As your term comes to a close, this is a time to celebrate and to give thanks for General Seminary.

When I was here a year ago, preaching on Ascension Day, I urged you to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Tonight I want you to be the ears of Jesus as well.

Now, let me clarify. I am a member of the General Board of Examining Chaplains, and a reader of the General Ordination Exams. This year one seminarian wrote that it is that candidate’s goal in ministry “to see the hands and feet of Jesus in the face of the other.” At first I thought that this was a classic GOE blooper, but I can’t un-see that image. It may haunt your dreams, as it does mine.

I want to share with you a story of how I was humbled this past Lent by listening to my own diocese. My diocese was bitterly divided 50/50 in the voting in the 2016 presidential election. And so to move toward some healing and unity, I decided that our Lenten study theme should be “Making a Space for Grace,” and I invited parishioners to share stories of what lay behind their own votes—when they had felt ignored, when they had felt no one was listening to them, why they are so angry——and stories about how they had sought to see the face of Jesus in those who had voted differently from themselves.

For the forty days of Lent I went from parish to parish to hear what people had to say. At one congregation, on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, older native people recalled how they were taken away from their families as children and sent to so-called “Indian Schools,” where they were beaten if they spoke their native language. The Seneca language was lost in one generation. They told me:” Bishop, you’ve never asked us what our lives were like.”

Another congregation is in the village of Attica, near the state prison. Parishioners told stories of the 1971 prison riot–about their High School classmates who worked there as correctional officers and whose throats were slit, about inmates who had done nothing wrong but were gunned down. They told me:”Bishop, you have never been to talk to us about why we are so angry.”

Another night I went to St. Jude’s in South Buffalo, a blue-collar congregation in which almost everyone in the parish had lost their jobs when the Buffalo steel mills shut down in the 1970’s, and many of them lost their homes, and some of them lost their cars. They told me:”Bishop, you’ve never come to ask us what that was like.”

I am ashamed that I, as their bishop, had never asked them to tell me their stories. How can we heal and love and serve our people unless we know their real stories of tragedy and loss?

Jesus listened. He listened to women when they asked for healing for their children. He listened to rich young men who wondered why all their possessions did not make them happy.

In our Gospel reading from John, the Temple leaders hear Jesus’ words but are unable to listen with the ear of their hearts to understand him. But Jesus listens to his Father, he declares to the world what he has heard from God. He speaks as the Father has taught him to speak.

O that we might follow the example of Jesus: —–to listen so completely —–to hear so clearly ——to speak so fearlessly Jesus was able to heal and love and serve because he listened to what was really on people’s minds—-to know the solace that people needed in their actual circumstances. Listening—-Listening—-Listening has in fact been part of the DNA of General at moments of crisis.

In 1878, Eugene Augustus Hoffman–said to be the richest clergyman in the world because of his extensive real estate holdings–became the Dean of GTS. He led General at a time of great division–the lingering divisions of the Civil War; and the great division of the Episcopal Church into Evangelical and Catholic camps. General had been a pawn in these theological culture wars. A General seminarian had been tried for heresy for accepting the doctrines of the Council of Trent, and a delegation of bishops was dispatched to Chelsea Square to search student rooms for hidden rosaries. Dean Hoffman listened to the arguments, and the emotions, surrounding him, and his solution was to heal division by the design of the seminary.

His design emphasized four themes to lead to unity and reconciliation: formation, education, the necessity of a residential community, that community connected realistically to the realities of contemporary Church life. Hoffman oversaw the construction of this great collection of buildings in Chelsea Square to make this mission a visual reality: focusing above all on this Chapel of the Good Shepherd as the key place where future priests were formed by worship….and the classrooms surrounding the chapel where they were formed by reason….and a residential community not hiding from the city but also formed by the city, in a then tough, teeming neighborhood.

How can we find inspiration in this tradition of listening? How can listening to the voices of reality in our parishes, the hopes and actual needs of the parishes and its leaders, in our Episcopal Church, help us to build the seminary of the next 200 years?

Some of the newly-ordained priests I speak with tell me they wish their seminary education had offered some basic courses in more practical things (even in plumbing, the better to deal with crumbling church buildings). Others tell me they wish they had earned an MBA in addition to their M.Div. to keep their parishes sustainable at a time of scarce financial resources. Some think they would be better equipped with advanced degrees in psychiatry to deal with pesky parish personalities.

As an academic myself, I will always hold out for scholarship as the foundation for seminary formation. But, in 1880, THE NEW YORK TIMES made this editorial comment about General Seminary: What people are looking for today, the TIMES said, is “the teaching which reverences precedent, and yet is not its slave; which understands modern thought, and yet is not dominated by it.” The TIMES went on:”If the General Seminary can meet the need by training students to bring strength to modern life, it will bring returns that will amply repay its large present outlay in money and staff.”

To bring strength to modern life as it actually is—Is that not why we are here, we as a seminary, and we as a Church? The clash between what is in here, and what is outside Chelsea Square is why we need the General Theological Seminary. We need this place, steeped in the beauty of holiness, to prepare us to do the work of Jesus in a world where anger is the currency of the day. Here is where we find the truth that makes us free: Faith in Jesus’ identity as the holy listener to the cries of his people. Here is where we learn the skills: we learn to listen IN here, so we can listen OUT there. We need this place where it is EASY to listen, so we are prepared to go THERE—where it is HARD to listen—and to listen there with the ear of Jesus.

May God bless you on your 200th Anniversary, and for many years to come! Amen

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One of the benefits given to Episcopal priests and bishops in our letters of agreement is sabbatical time.  We accrue a certain number of weeks of sabbatical leave each year and can take those weeks after between four and seven years of service.  This April marks the beginning of my seventh year as Bishop of Western New York and I will be taking twelve weeks of sabbatical and four weeks of vacation between April 17 and August 17.

Sabbaticals have several purposes.  Basically it is to give concentrated time to think and read and explore some specific area that will enhance and re-energize our ministries.  It is an opportunity to step away and get some perspective and to be freed from the everyday demands that can sometimes be overwhelming.

During my sabbatical I will be focusing on three areas:

I will be responding to some invitations to preach and teach from several Dioceses, religious orders and seminaries.  I am looking forward to be able to deeply engage a wide variety of communities. I am particularly interested in how these different communities are responding to the challenges facing Christian communities in the world today.

I will be visiting a variety of Dioceses and talking with my fellow bishops, their staffs and some diocesan leaders.  I am exploring what these different Dioceses are doing in terms of programming, congregational support, vision and mission.  I am again exploring how these dioceses are responding to the challenges facing particularly Episcopal congregations today.

I will be also be thinking and reflecting and praying about the direction of the Diocese of Western New York during the final period of my episcopacy and the options available to me in setting the stage for the transition at the end of my episcopacy.  I will be reading and consulting and exploring both historical and contemporary models.  I will also be reflecting on the first part of my episcopacy and how that will inform the second part.

I will miss the weekly visits to congregations, which is one of my favorite parts of the ministry of a Bishop.  I will also miss the daily engagement with the committees, commissions and other groups who do much of the work of the Diocese of Western New York.  I will miss working with Diocesan staff and benefiting from their creativity, faithfulness and humor.

I ask that you keep me in your prayers this spring and summer as I will keep you in mine and I look forward to sharing with you what I learn when I return in August.

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We are all immigrants



A Statement on President Trump’s executive order

Our Diocesan Lenten Program in the Diocese of Western New York this year is called “A Space for Grace”.  The program will use Scripture and pieces of modern writing as launching pads for us to talk about our own stories and how those stories are informing our lives in the world today.

I have been thinking and praying all weekend about how to respond to President Trump’s executive order regarding travelers, immigrants and refugees and it seemed to me that using my own story was a place to start.

I am the husband and father-in-law of immigrants.  My wife, Carmela, and her family came to the United States from Italy.  I am blessed every day by the presence of Carmela and I literally cannot imagine my life without her.  Carmela is a scholar and a professor and she has impacted the lives of her students and the institutions that she has served.  The ripples of influence of the different perspective as well as the love of America that Carmela has brought cannot be measured.  That influence is repeated by the life and work of every immigrant to our country.  I see the same impact from the presence of my son-in-law, Dr. Rey Ramirez, whose father is from a family of Mexican immigrants.  In my own family, I see the great benefits to this country of the presence of immigrants.

I grew up in the segregated South.  I have seen the horrible impact of laws and practices based on fear and discrimination.  It is not only those who are discriminated against who suffer.  The whole society is warped and lives of everyone in the society are limited and maimed when we act out of fear, especially when we act out of fear of those who are different from us.  The ripples of the negative effects of laws and practices that separate us from each other are as far reaching as the ripples of positive effects from immigrants in our society.

I am an historian.  I have spent my life studying the past.  I speak with knowledge and authority when I say that there is no time in the history of this country or any other, when excluding people based on race or religion or clan has been of benefit to the society that is excluding others.  From the ancient Israelites through Europe in the Middle Ages to the multiple times in the history of the United States when we have excluded people based on race or religion or ethnic origin, it has always been detrimental.  It comes back to the fact that acting out of fear is always the wrong choice.  History teaches us this over and over and over again.

I am a proud citizen of Buffalo.  Buffalo is a city formed by immigrants.  From the Irish, Germans, Italian and Polish of the late 19th and early 20th century to the people from Syria, Burma, various nations of Africa, China, India and Japan today, immigrants have added to the economy and community and culture of Buffalo.  The immigrants have made us what we are.  It is hard to remember sometimes, but often immigrants have not been initially welcomed.  The Irish were not welcomed, the Polish were not welcomed, the Germans were seen as enemy aliens and the Italian immigrants were accused of bringing a foreign religion and way of life.  Today, we take great pride in being a city of immigrants and have festivals and restaurants and celebrations of the gifts they have brought.  The same cycle is repeating with our newer immigrants.  I am certain that in the, hopefully near, future, the Syrian and Burmese and Indian festivals will be every bit as much of the culture of Buffalo as the Italian festival, St. Patrick’s Day and Dyngus Day.

I am the Bishop of deacons and congregations involved in refugee resettlement.  I have learned the difference between refugees and immigrants.  There are no people who come to this country who are more thoroughly vetted then refugees.  Refugees are fleeing the very people that we name as our enemies.  In the last 40 years the number of American citizens killed by refugees in the entire United States can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  We are in no danger from the people who seek refuge from war and persecution in our country.  This is what American was founded for – to be a place of refuge for all.  That is what makes us a light to the world.  Turning away refugees who have already been screened are have spent years proving themselves to a variety of government agencies is a betrayal of the founding principles of the United States of America.  The draconian limits to the number of refugees in President Trump’s executive order is a betrayal of the spirit of America and the vision of our founders.

Most importantly, I am a follower of the God of Jesus Christ.  It is not possible to read the Old Testament without hearing over and over and over again the call of God to his people to care for those in need, and particular to immigrants and foreigners.  To give just one of hundreds of examples, as the people of Israel were preparing to enter the land that God had promised to them, God gave them instructions for the setting up of the society in the land that they were about to enter. God said this, “So circumcise your hearts and stop being so stubborn, because the Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes.  He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing.  This means that you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19 CEB, emphasis added).  We are all immigrants, we, as the American people, are all immigrants every bit as much as the people of Israel were and God’s command does not change.  As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, we must love immigrants.  As Episcopalians we promise over and over again to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.  This is one small part of that vow.

I call on the Diocese of Western New York to join with me in standing against President Trump’s executive order, both as it applies to limiting immigrants from seven nations and as it applies to stopping all refugees for 120 days and limiting the total number of refugees.

Contact your elected officials.  The White House is not taking phone calls, but you can send letters directly to the President at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC, 20500.  Call your congressional representatives and tell them that you oppose this action and ask them to do anything in their power to oppose it.  Brian Higgins represents the 26th Congressional district.  His office can be reached at 716-852-3501 or 716-282-1274.  Chris Collins represents the 27th Congressional district.  His office can be reached at 716-634-2324 or 585-519-4002.

Support the work of the ACLU who are holding our government accountable to our Constitution, laws and the vision of our founders.  You can donate through their website at

Commit to supporting the resettlement of refugees.  There are several organizations in Buffalo the help refugees resettle and become a part of our community.  Donate, volunteer, help in any way that you can.  Journeys End is one that Episcopal congregations have worked with.  Their web-site is  Contact Archdeacon Tom Tripp at to ask advice on a program at your congregation on refugee resettlement.

Above all pray.  Pray for those who have been turned away from our country.  Pray for those who are being detained.  Pray for those who will face further persecution or even death because of this action.  And pray for President Trump and his advisers, that God will turn their hearts.

The Rt. Rev. R. William Franklin

Bishop of Western New York

January 30, 2017

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