General Convention: Final Days and Home

Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…

It’s hard to believe, but General Convention—that great, crazy, amazing gathering of Episcopalians—is over until we gather again in Salt Lake City three years from now.  What did it all mean?

The world at large has responded to our General Convention by saying that the Episcopal Church is a dying breed (see Wall Street Journal opinion piece, House of Worship, by Jay Akasie, and the Sunday New York Times Editorial Page, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? by Ross Douthat).  But what I feel after 10 days in Indianapolis with a whole grand group of faithful Episcopalians who deeply love and are deeply dedicated to this church is an exciting sense of hope.  Hope for a future that we just can’t quite see yet.

In Ross Douthat’s editorial in Sunday’s New York Times, he noted that “the more progressive the Episcopal Church becomes, the more it shrinks.”  Yet he also said this:  “The defining idea of liberal Christianity—that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion—has been an immensely positive force in our national life.”  From the time of Bishop William White (whose life we honor today) through the Social Gospel movement of the nineteenth century into the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Episcopal Church has been at its best when lives out the Gospel in the world.  I felt that very same Episcopal Church at General Convention—not only when we passed the resolution continuing our work on the theology of marriage and life-long covenanted relationships but also when we passed resolutions of the relationship between Palestine and Israel, on anti-racism, on the inclusion of transgendered persons in the life of the church, and more.  Truth be told, the leadership of the Episcopal Church knows that we need different structures in the 21st century to live out these Gospel imperatives.  The task force to study our structure in these next three years before General Convention 2015 will be about making us a church that is more nimble (the catch word of the 2012 General Convention) as an institution to respond to the work of the Kingdom.

Douthat also wrote that “What should be wished for…is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence….the Christianity that animated causes like the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.”  We have to know who we are and whose we are—and proclaim it.  Perhaps we have to get back to Jesus’ essential message:  Feed my sheep.  Operative words are feed—the action.  And my—the people of God.  The broken world.  It’s possible.  We have a great cloud of living witnesses to the Episcopal tradition of living the Gospel.  I saw it for 10 days in Indianapolis.  In the grand scope of the world’s religions, it might be small, but it is mighty.  Just like a dusty group of disciples and a teacher walking the roads of Galilee a few centuries ago.  The institutional structures of the church may be wasting away, but the tradition lives on strong as ever before.

Alleluia!

Report from Lay Deputies Ronnie Reno and David Mallery

Ronnie writes: I serve as a member of the General Convention’s Committee on Canons. This committee has the responsibility for approving not only the resolutions that have initially been assigned to it, but also those resolutions that have been considered by other committees that involve amendments to the Canons of the Episcopal Church.

Many of the resolutions reviewed by the Committee on Canons related to Title IV of the Canons. Title IV sets forth the procedures for the discipline of bishops, priests and deacons. This title was the subject of a major revision by the General Convention in 2009 to convert ecclesiastical discipline from an adversarial procedure to one promoting healing and reconciliation. Because the revised Title IV has only been in effect for a short period of time, the Committee on Canons has recommended that most of the resolutions seeking changes in Title IV be referred to the Standing Committee on Constitution and Canons (which will meet periodically during the next three years) for further study. This Commission will report to the General Convention at the Convention’s next meeting in Salt Lake City in 2015.

 David reports: I have been privileged to be a member of Committee # 9, National and International Affairs.  As part of that work, I chaired the sub-committee which dealt with all International Resolutions except those dealing specifically with the Middle East.  We worked on issues pertaining to Cuba, Sudan, Haiti, Korea and others.

The whole committee also heard testimony on domestic subjects that some would say should NOT be the focus of the Episcopal Church.  Here is part of the list—fair trade agreements, fair wages, immigration policies and laws, people trafficking, tourism for sex, fair treatment for prisoners…the list goes on!

When I read some of these topics at home in Maryland to prepare for my responsibilities as a sub-committee chair, I thought some were really “out in left field” for our legislative agenda at Convention.  I have changed my mind.  Many of these societal problems were new to me.  But they are real and innocent people are being used/abused in many areas of our country.  Some would say “leave it to the state or federal bodies to rule and adjudicate on these situations.”  Well, it has not worked that way.  Our homilist at Eucharist today referred to those who are “impoverished in our society.”  So, who is there to be at least a voice of advocacy to try to address the needs of these people?

It is primarily the Episcopal Church working through our Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C.  Their representatives were with us daily, helping us craft strong but meaningful language which hopefully will be approved in the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops and will turn into something actionable to attempt to make our country and world a better place.  My team has worked long hours (we have not seen anything of Indianapolis) but I feel our labors on behalf of the Episcopal Church will result in a strong opportunity to improve the lives of so many.

General Convention–Days Four through Six

Hold your opinions lightly

                         Listening Hearts Discernment Guideline

Hold your opinions lightly….well, that is easy to do when the opinion is in an area of  your life that isn’t too important.  Most nights, Scott, Alma and I make a visit after dinner to this amazing chocolate and ice cream shop on the city circle just a few blocks from the hotel.  I could take or leave the chocolate shop…but Scott LOVES the chocolate shop.  I usually go along to be a good team player, but I don’t have strong feelings about the chocolate shop.  Before Day Four, our resolutions were easy to take too.  For example, we voted on the trial use of Holy Women, Holy Men–the new version of Lesser Feasts and Fasts that we use for the 7 am Peace and Justice Eucharist at Memorial.  That was a nice touch—a resolution on something that touches everyday parish life.  However, I wouldn’t have been upset if we limited the use (which we didn’t).  Easy to hold my opinion lightly.

But yesterday and today we entered territory where I had to work hard to hold my opinion lightly.  We were entering the area of blessing and marriage, the area of the Anglican Covenant, women and minorities in ministry and the area of Palestinian-Israeli relations.  More complicated issues.  More passion on my part.  When we begin to debate the resolution asking for a study on the theology of marriage, I really had to try hard on the “holding lightly” part.  As part of Resolution A 050, the work on the theology of marriage was linked with the work on blessing.  There was a proposed amendment to the resolution asking to delete the piece of the resolution including the integrated work on blessing.  I jumped up to speak against the amendment.  Just as I jumped up, I saw out of the corner of my eye that my fellow Maryland deputy, Scott Bellows, had leapt up to another microphone.  After I finished my comments against the amendment, I heard Scott speak for the amendment.  I knew I had strong feelings about the resolutions.  But I also had to pause for a minute.  A good friend and fellow deputy had a different view.  Could I hold my passionate opinion lightly enough to evaluate fairly my fellow deputy’s opinion?  Could I keep anger in check?  Could I work together in love?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says “Make friends with your opponent quickly while he is taking you to court; or he will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and the officer will throw you into prison.  You will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5;25-26)  In my favorite book of the summer, Falling Upwards, Richard Rohr says of this passage: “The ‘opponent taking you to court’ is…a telling description of what we allow inner story lines to do to us.  In ten seconds, we can create an entire and self-justifying scenario of blame, anger, and hurt—towards ourselves and towards another.  Jesus is saying, Don’t go there! or the judge, officer, and courtroom will quickly take over and have their way with you.”  Richard Rohr rightly says that when this happens, we become “our own worst judge, attorney and jury within ten seconds of an offending statement.”  (p. 129)

These past two days–and I hope for the rest of Convention–I have been able to catch my inner judge and jury.  I have been able to articulate and share my opinions while being able to stay open to the opinions of others.  I think why I have been able to do this is because of relationship—especially my relationship with my faithful fellow deputies.  When we practice loving one another in Christ, we are able to stay in the conversation, even—no, especially–when we disagree.  It probably doesn’t hurt to eat a little chocolate together too.

Prayers for Dion Thompson+ at the death of his mother

Death sometimes appears in our lives after a time of long illness. And other times, death is an unexpected and unwelcome guest.

Yesterday, the Rev. Dion Thompson, one of our deputies to general convention received the information that his mother, Jessie Lee Wilson, died unexpectedly at her home in Sun Valley, CA. Dion+ was shocked and saddened as his mother, aged 75, had not been ill.

We ask your prayers for Dion+ and his family as they gather in California to mourn her death and celebrate the life that she lived.

Most merciful God, whose wisdom is beyond our understanding: Deal graciously with Dion Thompson and his family in their grief. Surround them with your love, that they may not be overwhelmed by their loss, but have confidence in your goodness, and strength to meet the days to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Day 3

All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted  Matthew 23:12

Worship at General Convention takes places each morning at 9:30.  We gather in a large hotel ballroom that has been transformed into a church with banners, an organ, brass, choirs and altar.  We often have a guest preacher and celebrant.  Yesterday’s guest preacher was Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina (and past Rector of St James’, Lafayette Square in Baltimore).  As always, his preaching stirred us all.  And in honor of the Feast Day of Harriet Beecher Stowe, he implored us to be CRAZY CHRISTIANS!  Because anyone who follows and lives the Gospel of Jesus has to be a little crazy in this world.  Just like Harriet Beecher Stowe…who Bishop Curry imagined calmly sitting in her rocking chair, a shawl over her shoulders and knitting needles in her hands, smiling calmly while all the while, in her basement, slaves were being transported north to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

When Abraham Lincoln met Miss Stowe, he was heard to say:  ”So this is the little lady who started this great war.”  Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, together with her public anti-slavery work, was largely responsible for bringing the evils of slavery to light in American and in Britain, Europe and Russia.  An unlikely prophet–as most crazy Christians–Harriet Beecher Stowe was born to a firmly Christian family.  She knew the story of the prophets of old and the gospel of Jesus and she grew up to live it in the world.

So, how might each of us be one of those crazy Christians?  I’m sure my children would already say I was one.  However, we are called to live into that prophetic craziness again and again.  Here at Convention, I decided that I was called to attend two different committee hearings and speak to two different resolutions.  Each national committee of the church holds public hearings on resolutions brought before it in advance of those resolutions being presented to the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies.  I spoke on Resolution D031 which was presented by the Maryland Deputation entitled “Consciousness Raising for Search Committees and Vestries.”  This resolution seeks to provide training for parishes and dioceses in search processes so the breadth and depth of the Episcopal Church is represented in its pool of candidates—women, people of color, all ages, folks with disabilities.  Last night I spoke to the resolution on Same-Sex Blessings and the materials prepared by the Committee on the Prayer Book.  I spoke in front of a large crowd and told of our Tri-Church Lenten Series and our Diocesan Video.  For me, I knew that I wanted to represent Memorial Church and the Diocese of Maryland at the hearing on blessings.  And my recent experience in the Diocese of Atlanta gave me the courage to approach the Ministry Committee on the Consciousness Raising.  But there were those nagging inner voices….

How could I really know what to say?  Did I understand the issues…really?  What made me think that I, a first-time deputy, really knew the drill?  What if I made a fool of myself?  Bishop Curry’s words spun around my head:  Martha, be a crazy Christian!  So I signed up to speak.  My name was called.  I was nervous, but I did it.  And I am glad that I am part of a Diocese and Rector of a parish that would be proud that I spoke.  And that’s part of General Convention too.  You realized how blessed you are back home.  You realize that you’ve got lots of crazy relatives in Christ to support you and have your back! Thanks be to God!

Blessings in Christ,
The Rev. Martha N. Macgill

Read more posts from Martha on her blog: Mother Martha’s Meditations

General Convention Day 2

Early Monday morning, as the car turned west on 1-70 and we headed to Indianapolis and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I began to wonder: What sort of convention might this be? I was traveling with two veterans of all things Episcopal-Scott Bellows (Rector of St. David’s, Roland Park) and Alma Bell (Memorialite and Episcopalian extraordinaire) They both were giving me all kinds of tips about convention-from how you open your binder during each session to meeting for lunch to evening receptions and much, much more. But I kept wondering: To what could I compare this 10 – day church convention that meets once every three years?

Would it be like a political convention with crazy hats and banners and cheering (incuding Bronx cheering) in the convention hall? Would there be nominating speeches amid the resolutions? Or would it be like the convention I saw gathering in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel in downtown Denver-the Beta Gamma Phi sorority with women of all ages in cowboy hats having a good ole’ time of fun and fellowship? Or would these 10 days feel more like a business convention with educational events and ways to do church better? Would this feel like work or play? Would it be inspirational or workmanlike in character? Since this is my first General Convention, I imagine that it will feel a bit like both-with the business of running the church in resolutions and committee meetings combined with the inspiration of a community that tries to build its foundation and ministry on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But what I know from my friends that have come to Convention before is this fact: They absolutely LOVE it. But why?

Here’s my initial guess: What I’ve found already is that General Convention feels a little like another summer-type gathering: a family reunion. Since arriving Monday afternoon, I have seen friends in the Episcopal Church from all over the country. I’ve seen Karen from Massachusetts, Ken from Idaho, Luke from Florida, Margaret from New York, and Bruce from Atlanta. And that’s just in the first 24 hours! All these folks are from different time periods of my life and have influenced my ministry in some way over the years. I can only imagine how this will grow over our 10 days in Indianapolis. Just like a family reunion, you begin to realize how blessed you are with the great cloud of witnesses that are part of your life-and that you only see from time to time. We all need to be reminded that when we choose to accept Jesus’ invitation to join Christ’s Body, the Church, we gain a whole amazing family that extends past our parish, across the country, and around the world. Alleluia for the Episcopal Family Reunion!

Blessings in Christ,

The Rev. Martha N. Macgill

Read more posts by Martha at Mother Martha’s Meditations

What is Our Role in Peace for Palestine?

Yesterday afternoon, the Committee for National and International Concerns heard testimony on about 12 resolutions encouraging the church to act in support of the Palestinian people. Even our own Diocese of Maryland put forth a resolution on this complex issue. After reading the resolutions and listening to the testimony, here is my distillation of the arguments at hand.
No one disagrees that Palestine and the minority community of Palestinian Christians are being oppressed, persecuted, and denied basic human rights. Everyone also agrees that in the United States, the story of the Palestinian Christian people is not widely known and they feel forgotten by their brothers and sisters in the West.

But how do you fight the oppression and discrimination of a people?

Some resolutions called for only taking action that was in support of Palestine: building relationships, supporting education, making pilgrimage, investing in their economy, telling their story and being very careful not to paint a negative picture of Israel. These resolutions were endorsed by the presiding bishop and others as a way to move towards justice with our Palestinian brothers and sisters without alienating our relationship with Israel. Presiding Bishop Katharine wrote, “The process towards peace is often unbearably and indefensibly slow…” But this is the path that keeps us faithful to all of our relationships in the Middle East.
Other resolutions called for more aggressive measures, calling for all the same action of the more conservative resolutions and pressure for the divestment of the Israeli settlements, economic boycott of Israel, and endorsing materials for education about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict that criticize the unjust policies of Israel. The two controversial materials are “Kairos”, a document written by the Palestinian people about their situation and “Steadfast Hope”, a teaching resource adopted from the original publication by the Presbyterian Church that criticizes Israel for their treatment of the Palestinian people.
One man testified, “One side does not hold all the blame, but one side holds all the power.” He continued to describe how “behind the scenes work towards peace and justice is no longer working. Putting pressure on unjust policies of the Israeli government is not anti-semitism, it is the only faithful thing we can do.”
Another man testified that the education materials being recommended told a one-sided and false account of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. He criticized Kairos and Steadfast Hope as unhelpful and vilifying the people of Israel, “this is not the kind of education we need to be promoting.”
When I first entered the room for the hearing I quickly noticed a few people with yarmulke’s and I wondered what kind of testimony they would be giving. Serving a parish in Pikesville, MD – a predominately Jewish community – and having been part of conversations between Christian and Jewish clergy about Israel and Palestine, I am very sensitive to the way the Jewish community refuses to publicly criticize Israel. I was surprised and moved by what they had to say because of their passion and their unusual willingness to speak critically of Israel.
One woman, an 80 year old survivor of the holocaust who escaped as a child. Her entire family was killed in Auschwitz. Her parents had been anti-Zionist. She spoke passionately about the need to support the Palestinian people. She saw their persecution in the light of her own experience of persecution and had spent her life traveling and speaking out in defense of them, even though it caused her much criticism from the Jewish community.
A man who was raised in a Jewish settlement, served in the Israeli military, and was now a Cantor in a reform synagogue said that the only faithful response was to criticize Israel so that they might move towards respectful relationships with Palestine and benefit from a peace with their neighbors instead of constant fear of terrorism from an enemy.
After listening to all of the testimony offered, I was even more convinced that this issue is terribly complicated and even with the best of intentions, it is unclear what is a faithful path forward. The only thing I am clear about is the need to stay in relationship. Be in honest communication with everyone about the injustices that have been witnessed and proclaim the hope for reconciliation that will bring healing for all involved.

The Welcome Table

Those sitting on the Committee on Evangelism knew they could not dispense with resolution C040 — Open Table — in a few minutes. The proposal, sponsored by the Diocese of Eastern Oregon, went to the heart of what it means to gather as God’s people.  Latecomers to Friday’s hearings could not find a seat during the morning session, or the afternoon session. People crowded the doorways, leaned against the walls, or sat on the floor.

At issue was whether or not the Episcopal Church should formally change its practice and “invite all, regardless of age, denomination, or baptism to the altar for Holy Communion.” Proponents spoke about the need for unconditional and radical hospitality. Opponents wondered whether this proposal diminished baptism in the name of a fuzzy inclusivity.

Scripture was no help. Both sides quoted Jesus. Tradition? That only raised questions about what the Early Church did and why.  The only point agreed upon was this: There is power in the Eucharist, sacred, holy power that brings tears to our eyes as it works upon our wounded, yearning souls. This power is beyond our understanding. We know it exists. How it works is a divine mystery.

People told stories about how they were transformed by receiving Holy Communion before they had been baptized. They wondered aloud whether they would have become faithful and faith-filled Christians had they been denied the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Priests talked about giving the Sacrament to unbaptized babies and others who came to the altar rail. Some described judgment calls made on pastoral visits. Put simply, the cancer ward is really not the place to decide who should and who should not receive Holy Communion.

Resolution C040′s ultimate fate remains unknown. But those who spoke, or heard the testimony, or read the resolution had to examine their own views about this Sacrament that lies at the core of our Christian identity.

You, too, can make your own inquiry.  Visit www.generalconvention.org/gc/resolutions.

The Rev. M. Dion Thompson