An Interview with the Bishop of Tennessee, the Rt. Rev. Bertram Nelson Herlong.
By David W. Virtue
The Diocese of Tennessee is a missionary diocese dispersed in 52 missionary outposts (congregations) lead by Bishop Herlong, with the cathedral and diocesan offices in Nashville. It is a diocese committed to mission and ministry, is Biblical, obedient to Jesus Christ's Great Commission: "…to go…make disciples…baptize…and teach…" (Matt. 28), conducted according to Jesus' Great Commandment: "…to love…"(Mark 12:30 ).
Bertram Nelson Herlong was elected 10th Bishop of Tennessee January 30, 1993. He is the 882nd Bishop in the American Succession. From 1993 through 2001, membership has increased by 13.6% and pledged giving to congregations has increased by 59%. Since 1995, the diocese has planted 6 new congregations. Two are now self-supporting parishes and the other four are on a five-year declining financial subsidy plan. The newest congregation is located in Goodlettsville and was started July 1, 2002.
VIRTUEONLINE: Bishop, you have just ended the 173rd Annual Convention of the Diocese of Tennessee. How would you characterize it?
BISHOP HERLONG: I think it was a positive convention. It dealt with some difficult issues in a thoughtful manner. I think that the delegates came with a good will to do their work. That was borne out when a motion to adjourn the convention was soundly defeated. I believe that the convention decisions reflect the theological position and feelings of the vast majority of the people of this diocese.
VIRTUEONLINE: I read a couple of reports; one indicated that it was one of the best conventions' ever, the other expressed caution and fear that the diocese, like the national church was becoming more polarized. Would you agree with the latter assessment?
BISHOP HERLONG: The Diocese of Tennessee has been polarized for a long time, beginning before my election as bishop. The decisions of the 74th General Convention and the vote of the Tennessee Deputation to the House of Deputies made quite clear and exacerbated the division. I know that two of our clergy wrote to you about the convention with totally different views. The way I view the convention is probably somewhere in-between those two divergent views. Not everything in the convention came out the way I wanted and that is undoubtedly true for just about everyone else. But that is not important. My prayer is that it came out the way God wanted it.
VIRTUEONLINE: You are an orthodox bishop yet you are not personally a Network bishop, why?
HERLONG: The Network has kept a significant number of Tennessee clergy and lay persons in ECUSA by giving them a place to stand with like-minded Episcopalians. For that I am grateful. A number of our congregations and several of our clergy have joined the Network, others have not. While I agree with the basic theology and position of the Network and believe that it is a good thing, it is not appropriate for me to join unless the diocese in convention decides to do so.
VIRTUEONLINE: Your convention delayed making a decision to join the Network for 2 years I believe. How do you view that decision?
HERLONG: The convention did consider a resolution to join the Network. Some delegates were in favor, some were against and many felt that they needed more information in order to make an informed decision. Delegates from all three positions tabled the resolution, not for 2 years, but to give time to investigate and understand what the Network is and what joining it would mean. I think that the conventions’ decision is the right one for this time.
VIRTUEONLINE: What is the ratio of orthodox priests to liberal priests in your diocese?
HERLONG: I don’t know where all of the clergy stand but I suspect that they probably are about equally divided.
VIRTUEONLINE: Is the Via Media active in your diocese?
VIRTUEONLINE: Are you growing as a diocese?
HERLONG: From 1993 through 2002, the Diocese of Tennessee grew 28.8% in Baptized Members and 55% in Communicants in Good Standing. In 2003, the year of the General Convention, we lost 1% of our Baptized Members and 9/10 of 1% of our Communicants in Good standing.
VIRTUEONLINE: Do you see the possibility of schism if the Primates don't come forward with a plan to rescue orthodox priests in revisionist dioceses?
HERLONG: I can only give hypothetical answers to hypothetical questions, so I don’t know what is going to happen. I hope that the Primates come up with some creative solutions and that the American Church will be willing to accept those solutions.
VIRTUEONLINE: You wrote in your diocesan newspaper the Tennessee Cross & Crozier that there continues to be significant fallout and disruption in the Episcopal Church from the actions of the 74th General Convention. Laity and clergy are continuing to react in ways that demonstrate their dissatisfaction. Then, of course, there is an equal and opposite reaction by those who disagree with them, contributing to the continuing unrest. Would you elaborate on that?
HERLONG: It is still true here and I have been told that it is the same in many other dioceses. The issues are personal, related to the Bible and authority in the church and tend to produce strong feelings among clergy and lay people.
VIRTUEONLINE: You said you see four distinct things happening in the Diocese of Tennessee and from my conversations with other bishops that give you hope for the future. They are not what other parts of the Anglican Communion can or may do but what is happening right here within the American Episcopal Church.
First, there is an enormous amount of energy and concern among our laity. Never in my whole life have I see such interest, care and concern for the church. This has increased exponentially the interest and activity of the laity in our congregations and in the diocese.
Second, more and more people are reading the bible. New bible study groups are being formed and existing groups are expanding. Several of our churches have declared this “The Year of the Bible.” Then at what seems like just the right moment, the movie, “The Passion of the Christ” was released and brought about additional interest in the biblical story.
Third, many, many people are questioning what they truly do believe. This “teachable moment” is opening new and deeper understanding of the Christian faith in our churches.
Fourth, most important of all is the fact that more people than ever before are praying for the church, for the clergy and people and our common mission. We hold the power to change the world and the church in our hands when they are folded in prayer.
Are all these things still true in your estimation?
VIRTUEONLINE: You wrote: "there will be a resolution to the crisis that afflicts us all. If we have an energized, active and committed laity, seriously reading the Bible, studying their faith and deeply involved in prayer, there is good reason to look to the future in confidence." Do you still believe that in the light of the fact that the Presiding Bishop refuses to repent of his action in consecrating V. Gene Robinson?
VIRTUEONLINE: Will you offer DEPO to any liberal parish priest who may want alternative episcopal oversight in the months ahead?
HERLONG: Yes, after consultation with the vestry, congregation as well as the priest.
VIRTUEONLINE: Assuming the Episcopal Church muddles along after the Primates meet but orthodox parishes start leaving in droves, how will you respond?
HERLONG: The Episcopal Church is being severely tested. But since when has being a disciple of Jesus been easy? I don’t plan to leave. I don’t think that God has given up on me and I don’t think that God has given up on the Episcopal Church. The major places where the church is growing and flourishing is in the traditional and orthodox dioceses and parishes. If a large number of congregations leave, it will weaken those of us who are committed to staying.
VIRTUEONLINE: Would you ever consider pulling your diocese out of the Episcopal Church if the Primates suspend Frank Griswold indefinitely?
HERLONG: I have no power to pull the Diocese of Tennessee out of ECUSA; only a decision of our annual Convention could do that. I believe that the resolution of our present difficulties is going to take a long time. I believe our job is to be faithful, to work, pray and give for the extension of Christ’s kingdom. We in the Diocese of Tennessee do not know what the future holds but we do know who holds the future and that God will win in the end. We will do our best to be faithful in the meantime.
VIRTUEONLINE: Thank you Bishop Herlong.
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