It is a business meeting that inspires either the deepest anxiety or absolute apathy: General Convention – the triennial business meeting of the Episcopal Church.* This July we will have another of these enormous shindigs in Salt Lake City. What happened at the last one encouraged me.
My perspective on General Convention 2012 was somewhat unique: I was not a member of any of the “usual suspects” at General Convention. I was not a “deputy” (elected lay and clergy representative), although I listened privately to the perspectives of many deputies. I was (obviously) not a bishop, although I spent a fair amount of time privately listening to the widely divergent viewpoints of four bishops and their spouses. Neither was I a member of one of the many lobbying groups that show up at these events to push the church toward greater “justice.” Why was I there? I manned a booth with several friends attempting to rally adults to take the Good News of Jesus to youth outside the walls of the church. In other words, I was about as dispassionate an observer as one can be as an insider in our institution.
What encouraged me at GC12? The legislation that summer fell into three basic groups that illustrated trends:
Group One: legislation for theological change
-Allow Communion for people who have not been baptized. (A no brainer for evangelicals, but a big deal theologically for the church historic.): No
-Remove Confirmation as a barrier to holding parish leadership positions. (i.e. some semblance of Christian commitment prior to church leadership.): No
-Updating the 1982 Hymnal (A political precursor to revising the prayer book): No
Trending down: Theological change.
Group Two: legislation for political change
-The bishops voted to continue making statements on moral issues such as the plight of Palestinian Christians, the use of drones, world hunger, etc. (This is an attempt to “speak truth to power.” Not to be snarky, but it strikes me as somewhat humorous that we think anyone is listening when we, 1% of the countries’ Christians, tell the government to stop shooting cruise missiles.)
-We voted to include the word “transgendered” in the list of what will not prevent someone from seeking ordination.
-We voted to have same-sex blessing rite liturgies approved for use by those who choose to do so.
Trending up: progressive politics
Group Three: legislation for mission and overcoming organizational stasis
-Sell our church HQ building in Manhattan: Approved
-Establish a committee to restructure church governance: Besides our bicameral legislative body, the General Convention, we also have a large national church office and hundreds of national committees & commissions. This new committee to “restructure” was tasked with shrinking all of this. Approved
-Remove the stipulation that the Presiding Bishop must give up their diocesan bishop role (An attempt to roll back the ever-increasing hierarchical structure of our church since setting up of the national office in 1947.) Approved
-Perhaps most interesting of all: The bishops re-established themselves as the fulcrum in our three part divided form of government by writing a letter to the courts in Fort Worth and Quincy. Skip bracketed paragraph if you are not a church geek.
[How does a letter rebalance power? A group of conservative bishops had written a “friend of the court” letter (Amicus Brief) to the courts in Fort Worth and Illinois defending the ancient church practice and traditional Episcopal understanding that the diocesan bishop is our church’s highest authority. The majority of the bishops were very angry about this as it undermines our lawsuits in those diocese. However, in a stroke of brilliance they chose to write a letter supporting the new bishops and the churches that remained in the Episcopal Church in Fort Worth and Quincy, without mentioning the substance of the letter written by the conservative bishops. This is dense politics, even for Episcopalians, but our bishops, by affirming the new bishops and NOT addressing the substance of the letter, re-affirmed the traditional view that bishops are the highest authority in our church – rather than a metropolitan such as a Pope, prophet, Archbishop, or even our own Presiding Bishop.]
In one swoop the bishops appear to have re-established themselves as the locus of power in the church, rather than the other two groups (the national office/presiding bishop, and the House of Deputies/Executive Council) who each behave as if they are the prime authorities. Practically speaking, in an institution with balance of powers, someone always gets a vote with just a little more weight than the others. I think it is a good thing if our bishops, who are closer to the mission field than the national office, and in recurring collegial relationship with one another, unlike the deputies. It makes for a safer, more catholic church that the bishops would be the ones with tie-breaking power.
Trending up: The scent of a revolution to drive the church back toward mission.
Summary: We seemed to be becoming a more theologically conservative, more politically progressive church that is irritated at resources being siphoned away from mission to national structures.
Why is this important for this summer’s General Convention? Because this summer we will make decisions that strike at the heart of what many perceive as our orthodoxy: marriage in our prayer book and in our governing documents. These changes will be pushed for “consistency” sake. Indeed, we will be more consistent if we, a church where many are performing same-sex marriages has that practice canonically in place. We will also be a much smaller church if that happens. This will be a bridge too far for many of the 150,000 or so remaining social conservatives in our church. In 2003 823,000 people worshipped in Episcopal Churches on Sunday mornings. In 2013 that number was 623,000 people, numbers that do not include the loss of another 10,000 Episcopalians in South Carolina. Do we really have another 100,000 Episcopalians to peel off to make us, to quote one of our seminary professors, “a leaner, meaner church”?
Far better would be to resist the urge to over-define ourselves. As Nick Knisely, bishop of Rhode Island says, “Anglicanism is tentative, nuanced, and compromised.” The tendency to over-definition is characteristic of other traditions: fundamentalism with detailed statements of faith and Rome over-defining the Eucharist in the 11th century come to mind.
My hope this summer is that cooler heads will prevail. That we will continue our previous trends toward holding the line on matters theological, being open politically, and that the scent of revolution that wanted to drive mission from a national vortex back into thousands of local communities to proclaim the Good News of Jesus in word and deed would be the place our leaders will focus this summer.
Will history repeat itself? One can only hope.
*Bunny trail: Episcopalians will tell you, chests heaving with pride, that our General Convention is the second largest legislative body in the world. When one considers that Episcopalians now comprise less than 1% of the Christians sitting in American churches on any given Sunday morning (623,000 in 2013), it raises one’s eyebrows at the hubris necessary to think that we need a decision making body second only to the group representing the one billion people of India.