General Convention 2015 – Will history repeat itself?

photo credit Susan Snook

photo credit Susan Snook

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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.

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The Bible’s Lucky Decoder Glasses (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 1)

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The First Council of Nicea

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(Part 1)

In 1934, the Little Orphan Annie radio show hit on a terrific marketing gimmick: kids could mail away for a “secret decoder ring” in order to decipher hidden messages.

Perhaps you remember the young protagonist, Ralphie, in the classic movie, “A Christmas Story,” ordering one…

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…only to be disappointed that the “secret message” was nothing more than “a  crummy commercial.”

If you grew up in the sixties you might have had Johnny Quest “lucky decoder glasses” to interpret secret messages.

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It may surprise you to know that there are “lucky decoder glasses” to reading and interpreting the Bible – A set of lenses Christians have looked through as keys to understanding the Bible for nearly 2000 years.

Everyone has a set of interpretive lenses through which they see the world and read any text. For orthodox Christianity those lenses are a document originally written in 325 CE called, “The Nicene Creed.”

Settling Fights

As with all doctrinal statements, the Nicene Creed was written to settle a fight. More precisely to clear up confusion over the Bible’s teaching about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God. You see, Jesus was so unique that people had a hard time “getting” him. Now, my evangelical friends will say, “The Bible settles who Jesus is, just read the plain meaning of the text!” The only problem is “reading the plain meaning” was not working. The early church was reading the Bible…in fact, not only were they reading from the same Testament, they were even reading from the same Gospel, and yet coming to radically different conclusions.

Let’s be honest, the Christian claim that Jesus is fully God while at the same time being fully human is pretty confusing. It shattered any existing thought paradigm. Two thousand years later it is still pretty tough to wrap one’s mind around a claim that astounding.

It may be of interest to you that the early Christians struggled with the humanity of Jesus more than his deity. Greeks, influenced by Gnostic thought and the idea “flesh” was corrupt and “spirit” was good,  had a tough time with the notion that Jesus could be a real, actual human. So the early church wrote a creed we know as the “Apostle’s Creed.” It was used in Baptisms. The line, “Born of a virgin” was included specifically to insist that Jesus was an actual, real, burping, got gassy, snored while sleeping on his back, human being.

A century and a half later the struggle had shifted. A priest named Arius had started teaching that Jesus was something less than God (as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons teach today).

Arius’ new teaching began to win people over. (It helped that he was a good preacher and musician. He penned a catchy ditty that all the cool kids were singing, “There was a time when he was not…”) Arius argued out of the gospel of John, “Jesus said, ‘The father is greater than I.'” (John 14:28) The church answered with, “The father and I are one.’  (John 10:30) and ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the father.‘” (John 14:9) So there they are: reading the same gospel and coming to two thoroughly opposite conclusions as to Jesus’ identity and the nature of his relationship with the Father. So is Jesus less than or equal too the Father? This really, really matters because Jesus’ role is to make sacrifice for sins. If Jesus is anything less than completely holy, anything less than divine, his sacrifice will be incomplete…and we will remain dead in our trespasses. (1 John 2:2, Heb 9:26-10:12)

When the “Bible alone” is not enough

How did the church settle this dispute? Is the faith to be, as Arius’ would have had it, endlessly malleable or is there an inner core that is non-negotiable – a “…faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all“? (Vincent of Lerins, early 400s.)

The church had two trump cards in this argument: catholicity and orthodoxy. 1) Catholicity (universal), the unbroken line of bishops (apostolic authority) traced back to Jesus – an argument of continuity of relationship with Jesus (those related to Jesus by touch). 2) Orthodoxy, an argument of continuity in Jesus’ teachings (those related to Jesus by teaching). The church has argued one or the other for 2,000 years, but both were seen as vital.

Those bishop’s unbroken interpretation of the scriptures present in the conciliar statements generated when they met in worldwide (ecumenical) council. The first of these councils met  in a town in Turkey named Nicea in 325CE. 318 bishops from all around the world attended. They came from as far away as England. The meeting was presided upon by no less dignitary than the rather newly converted emperor of Rome, Constantine. The statement they wrote, stating in unambiguous terms, that Jesus was fully and completely God in flesh, was signed by 315 of the bishops present (Arius and two cronies refused).

Since that time, Christians, whether they are aware of the fact or not, read the Bible through the “lucky decoder lenses” of those bishop’s statement, the Nicene Creed.

And, since the Nicene Creed is so undergirds how we view and interpret the rest of the Bible, it is a pretty decent idea to, as more and more churches are beginning to, pray that creed in church every Sunday. 

(Part two: Creeds: “The Substance of the faith” not “things indifferent” – Creeds are not confessions and it is above our pay grade to rewrite them.)

 

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Epic Fail: TEC/SC Issues Boil Over

Prelude: I am in grief. The conflict between the Diocese of South Carolina and the national Episcopal church leadership has been brewing for years. The boil-over is like a bad divorce between two people who, in your mind, should have been able to work things out. You love them both and, even though you saw it coming, you keep wondering, “How did it come to this?”  I wrote this post on Wednesday evening. I have sat on it for three days hoping that my grief would subside. It has not.

“I ask…on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” –John 17:20-21, NRSV

 Epic Fail. It’s a junior high expression overused to meaninglessness: Dropping a pass. Spilling coffee on your laptop. Tripping in public. Yesterday an actual Epic Fail occurred. The Episcopal Church brought abandonment charges against a bishop actively trying to meet to work out differences. It was my worst day in five years as an Episcopalian.

This is where decades of disagreement over biblical interpretation and human sexuality have left us. If you are not a Christian you are probably wondering why we can’t just treat each other like Christians. If you are a Christian, and especially an Episcopalian OF ANY STRIPE, you will almost surely take issue with what I am about to write.

I write, however, as one who loves his church. Five years ago I walked away from reductionistic evangelicalism to embrace the wisdom of the ancient church, the beauty of liturgy, the soul enrichment of spiritual practice and social engagement as a force for good in the world. As someone who always rejected the small box of fundamentalism, I was enthusiastic to join a church that promised to be a big tent welcoming all to the table. You see, unlike other Christians, Episcopalians were never really a confessional church with long detailed doctrinal statements. We are a CHURCH UNITED BY OUR WILLINGNESS TO PRAY WITH THOSE WE DON’T AGREE WITH, and in what we do believe, we keep it simple – We are a creedal church (the brief Nicene Creed-a large tent with lots of room for disagreement). That room was necessary in England where one church contained Catholics, Protestants and the publicly religious.

If you are not an Episcopalian you probably have no grid in your experience for what a church united around the willingness to pray together might look like. My first Sunday in an Episcopal Church I sat with a friend who worked for our bishop.  He answered for me all the usual questions about the Catholic practice and Protestant theology that characterize us. Then I asked about the political stances of the church. The friend explained that with Episcopalians agreement was not expected. Diversity of opinion was considered a strength, a charism. On one end of the spectrum we had diocese’ that pushed the envelope to bless same-sex couples and, on the other, diocese’ that did not ordain women. As someone with every inclination toward including others, reconciling those in conflict, and whose life’s ministry has been to work across boundaries in ecumenical evangelism, to say I was intrigued by this commitment to comprehensiveness was an understatement.

The church I fell for promised roominess. It welcomed progressives to come in and allowed them to push the envelope on many issues. One would have thought that same roominess could be extended toward those who disagree with the new directions of the church. Unfortunately, yesterday we found out that was not to be.

I have followed things in South Carolina closely, both because of my own wiring toward reconciliation and because I have CLOSE friends on both sides of this issue. I know both sides of this debate well. Both sides have operated in ways that made perfect sense to them in their context and BOTH appear duplicitous and mean spirited to the other. The series of reactions and re-reactions has resulted in broken fellowship.

I realize that there are deep wounds on both sides. I know both sides chronology of what the other side did. I also know that the other side loves God and honestly thinks they are acting in good faith. But do you catch the language? Referring to our sisters and brothers in Christ as sides is tragic. Tragic also is that, in the end, we were the ones who said, “There is a stage leaving town at sundown. Be under it.”

I fear that the “oneness” for which Jesus prayed is going to become defined for us, as in other denominations, as agreement – or at least as the willingness to give the appearance of walking in lockstep with whoever holds the keys of power. That might be the most tragic result of all.

For those not following this situation, here is what appears to have happened in the simplest terms: The husband decided to divorce the wife for quitting on the marriage while they were sitting in the marriage counselor’s office. Did South Carolina really want a solution? I do not really know. They say they did. Did the national church want a solution? I do not really know. They say they did. I do not presume to read minds or motives…of either side. I merely grieve.

South Carolina is unlike the rest of the Episcopal church in many ways. But we have a long history of making room for people who push the bounds of our theology, politics and canon law. We had room for Bishop Pike who literally begged our bishops to inhibit him. We had room for Bishop Spong and his version of the old SNL Fluckers skit, “Here’s a new theology I just made up!” Now, sadly, we do not have room for a bishop and the lion’s share of his diocese, that hold a traditional view of marriage. The truth is that we have changed. We moved their cheese.[1] Why can we not give them room to differentiate themselves?

Last night I was in a car with someone who is a key player in our institution. She is a great person who loves God and the church. I cannot describe the sinking feeling in my heart when she said, “We will be a leaner-meaner church now. One that can stop pretending and be who we are.” Well, we will be leaner- by 30,000 Episcopalians. And we will certainly be meaner as we will no longer be held in tension by opposing voices. Is it really a good thing to silence dissent? Will we be able to “be who we are?” I fear that unless who we are is redefined as “a narrow group of Progressive Puritans” then the answer is no. We have been a comprehensive church – A table with room for all. Will that still be who we are? Or is that day passing?

The saddest part of the whole thing for me is the response on the web-organs of our church. Where is the grief in these posts?

The tone on the South Carolina sites is instructive. Their tone is grief. It is not the tone of someone who took their toys and went home.

I do not judge the motives of those on either side. Although this is a very public dispute, there is surely much information that I am not privy to. It is being said that this is what South Carolina angled for all along. I can say that, if this was a conspiracy, it was the greatest conspiracy since the resurrection. I would have to believe that multiple South Carolina diocesan employees including their bishop…in public and private conversations , within and without the walls of their diocesan offices, face-to-face, over phone and text, over years, faked frustration and fear. I think there is a better explanation: We missed it. Us. Them. All of us. We missed one another. They wanted to be different to be sure, but the South Carolina Episcopalians I know wanted to be Episcopalians.

And worst of all, in the eyes of the unchurched, we have all failed in both unity and love.

The irony of all of this is that the Episcopal Church has and is becoming much more theologically orthodox over the five years I have been here. It is more progressive politically to be sure, but it is noticeably more orthodox every year. If we could only have waited another five years both sides would surely end up closer together.

But we didn’t. None of us. And that is the shame.

We could have done better. All of us. We could have assumed the best of one another. We could have refused to respond out of fear. We could have made the other make the first move…and the second…and the third. I understand why everyone made every move they made. All around people did their best. Yet today we have an…

Epic Fail.


[1]Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life. Spencer Johnson, 1998.