A Temple Called Alaska

Bishops join residents of Venetie, Alaska, in blessing the river that runs next to the village. David Paulsen/ENS • bit.ly/2k1DgTq

Soon after he became the eighth Bishop of Alaska in 2010, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lattime began lobbying to host one of the semi-annual meetings of the House of Bishops.

A new presiding bishop took office in 2015, and Lattime told TLC how thrilled he was when, “as soon as Michael Curry was elected, not long after that, he said, ‘You know what? We’re going to come to Alaska.’”

About 115 bishops from all corners of the church gathered in Fairbanks Sept. 21-26 to bless the land, visit far-flung churches, and conduct the business of the church. Many brought their spouses.

The twin themes of the meeting were racial reconciliation and the environment, and Lattime told Episcopal News Service that Alaska was the perfect location: “This is your laboratory to experience that and see that.”

Of the 48 parishes in the Diocese of Alaska, only 16 are accessible by road. “The caveat to that is, some of those that are accessible by road, you need to fly to get to the road,” Lattime said, in a series of videos created by the church center before the meeting. Episcopal visitation in Alaska requires flying, and Lattime is a pilot.

The bishops broke into small groups to visit eight different villages in the interior, each town the home to an Episcopal church. There were no tour guides on the small planes. “They went on their own, on faith, trusting that they would be greeted at the village and taken care of,” Lattime said.

He accompanied a group that went to Fort Yukon and stood with the other bishops on the bank of the Yukon River while they were told that, five years ago, the water would have been covering their feet.

“The volume and the depth of the Yukon River has changed so drastically, just over the last five years,” Lattime said. “To see that and experience that was powerful. That’s a message that those bishops will take home with them and share, and make this issue of climate change and the importance of a healthy environment; … it will give it more flesh, make it more present.”

There was some criticism on Episcopal websites about the “carbon footprint” of the meeting — suggestions that the meeting should have been held by videoconference rather than in person. Lattime said the bishops were aware of the irony in “the fact that we’re talking about environmental issues and yet we’re expending all of this fossil fuel to be present. Yet I think that the overall integrity of the meeting and the overall willingness to be present with those who experience the changes in climate the most, those who live closest to the land, it’s worth that investment.”

The House of Bishops usually meets in the continental United States, and has not met in Alaska before. But the bishops have met in Taiwan and Ecuador, “in part recognizing that the bishops in Ecuador and the bishop in Taiwan are themselves always faithful in attending” meetings in the United States, Lattime said.

“Part of being the Communion and the Body of Christ is to be present to one another,” he said.

Lattime praised the church center’s meetings and convention staff for its work in arranging “all the moving parts” and making the meeting possible. He has a diocesan staff of two, with a third position vacant. “To make it all just a little more exciting,” he said, his annual clergy conference and diocesan convention were to begin the following day.

As the six-day meeting ended, the bishops issued an epistle describing how they had come to Alaska to “listen to the earth and its people.” Among other things, this meant:

  • Getting out and walking the land, standing beside the rivers, sitting beside people whose livelihood depends on that land. We had to slow down and live at the pace of the stories we heard. We had to trust that listening is prayer.
  • Recognizing that struggles for justice are connected. Racism, the economy, violence of every kind, and the environment are interrelated. We have seen this reality not only in the Arctic, but also at Standing Rock in the Dakotas, in the recent hurricanes, in Flint, Michigan, Charlottesville, Virginia, and in the violence perpetuated against people of color and vulnerable populations anywhere.

Here is some of what they heard:

  • “The weather is really different today,” one leader told us. “Now spring comes earlier, and fall lasts longer. This is threatening our lives because the permafrost is melting and destabilizing the rivers. We depend on the rivers.”
  • The land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where the caribou birth their calves is called the “sacred place where life begins,” so sacred the Gwich’in People do not set foot there. “Drilling here,” people said, “is like digging beneath the National Cathedral.”

Kirk Petersen


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