What now? The Episcopal General Convention and the SCOTUS Same-Sex Marriage decision

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A generational explanation of lgbt church engagement and my conspiracy theory that millennials will be used to drive a boomer/Xer agenda.

If you are new to this blog you should know two things: First, I am an ecumenical pragmatist. I am always looking for a way forward in unity. Second, I am a futurist. I am always wondering what the unanticipated consequences of today’s actions will be tomorrow. Things are never as rosy as they appear to the winners, nor as grim as they appear to the losers. With those caveats out of the way, let me offer a reflection upon this morning’s SCOTUS same-sex marriage decision upon our church deliberations this week…

For thirty or more years the Episcopal Church has championed the cause of lgbt people. One of the Episcopal Church’s charisms is the desire to push the boundaries of the tent of grace as far as it can be pushed. This charism arose from our English established church roots that put Protestants, Catholics, and those for whom the church represented the national aspirations of a people at prayer in the same building. Into this “we can all worship together” ethos came the Builder Generation and their “what people do is their own business” ethic. The Builders were followed by Boomer generation “justice” clergy who gave lgbt people voice when they were at the periphery of the culture. Conservatives sneered that lgbt folk only joined churches for social acceptance. And, given the very human and universal desire for inclusion, surely there was some truth to that suggestion.

But the world changed. Lgbt people have gained cultural acceptance. This change coincided with generational shifts: Millennials, for whom the old categories of “right” and “left” only work if you are a product of either a progressive or conservative fundamentalist university, think much more like the Builders (“your life, your business”) and much less like Boomers and Gen Xers (“I am right, you are wrong. And since you are wrong, you need to be fixed.”)

In these shifting generational sands, I noticed an increasing number of lgbt people joining churches that are welcoming but not affirming. Then I noticed an increasing number of evangelical churches becoming affirming: two poles appear to be merging. This is not received as good news by either suburban evangelical power brokers (for whom this represents a loss of cultural status quo) nor mainline power brokers (for whom this represents the potential loss of a carefully cultivated constituency). But it is surely happening.

What does this new world mean for young lgbt Christians? I suggested a year ago in a post entitled “Will the Episcopal Church keep gay Millennials?” that lgbt Millennials would not stay in a church that is not theologically robust and is politically narrow. Lgbt Millennials, like other Millennials, are voting with their feet that they want sermons with stronger scriptural underpinnings, more rooted in the ancient wisdom of the church, more theological content…sermons that are deeper and, gasp, longer. Lgbt Millennials, like other Millennials, have no need to engage the church for social acceptance. They have that. In other words, Millennial lgbt people think more like their generation than their minority identification. If you accept that orientation is a minority, like race, lgbt Millennials think more like assimilated immigrants than first generation immigrants. In light of this changing milieu, I suggested that lgbt millennials might bail out on the Episcopal Church because we are too fuzzy on our scriptural and traditional roots – too much about Boomer and Generation X division politics and not enough Builder and Millennial generation “agreeing to disagree.” I watched this firsthand in a meeting a month ago between lgbt business leaders and twenty young evangelical clergy. Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian said, “Look, we don’t want to go to mainline churches with a fuzzy gospel. We may be gay, but we are evangelicals.”

My post last year had an interesting outcome: Nearly a dozen young gay clergy contacted me offline to say that they were having trouble staying in our church because of the rampant heterodoxy of their clergy elders. If two people contact me on a post privately I struck a nerve. But this was nearly a dozen. Clergy!

Why share all of this? Because in the euphoria of today’s SCOTUS same-sex marriage ruling, our convention delegates, who tend to see the issue of sexuality as their Selma, will feel a groundswell to change marriage canons and begin the process of prayer book revision – Two issues that threaten to squeeze another 100,000 Episcopalians quietly out of our midst over the next decade. People, I might add, that are serving, tithing, faithful church members.

To my progressive friends: You got what you wanted – both in the culture and in the church. From today forward, same-sex marriage is the law of our land. Lgbt people are already, and in the future will increasingly be, either joining us or leaving us because we are a church that proclaims the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. You don’t need canonical or prayer book changes.

What we really need today is for an lgbt delegate to stand up and say, “The world just changed. We don’t need the church for acceptance. We have that. We need the church to be the Jesus loving, God worshipping, body of Christ she once was. That is what will bring us and that is what will keep us.”

No matter what you are about to be told at GC, this is a generational shift not a theological one. In your Convention deliberations, I fully expect (and accuse me of being a conspiracy theorist on this point) that an uber-politicized, super-minority of progressive-fundamentalist millennials, fairly un-representative of their generation, will be the ones tasked by their Boomer and Xer elders with carrying the legislation and begging articulately for canonical and liturgical revision. They will be given the heady task of marching forward to microphones to exuberantly implore you for “long overdue sacramental justice.”

When that happens (and I am certain it will), delegates, resist them. Remember the reams of data you have read on the Millennial generation. Real Millennials like old words and traditions. Real Millennials like diversity. Real Millennials are ok with disagreement. Real Millennials live in a world that lacks neatness – they do not need canonical consistency. Real Millennials, to quote a Millennial friend in the midst of a disagreement with another Millennial, say things like, “I think you are really weird on that issue and I’m not really sure what the solution is, but I know a great craft pub in an old warehouse around the corner. Want to grab a beer?”

So resist the urge to make the world a neater, cleaner place for a generation that is looking for a more ancient, higher quality, more relational church. …A church that is a lot like the one we already are.

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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.