General Convention 79: The view from Madison’s Capitol Square

My twitter and facebook feeds are full of posts from real and social media friends who are traveling to Austin, TX for the Episcopal Church General Convention. I’m not among those who will be attending. In fact, I’ve never attended General Convention. As this one approaches, by my calculations the ninth since I joined the Episcopal Church, I am fascinated by how my engagement with this triennial event has changed over time.

Early on, I’m not sure I even knew what it was or cared very much about it. It wasn’t until I entered the ordination process and began getting involved on the diocesan level that I began attention. Coincidentally, that was right around 2003, when the decade-long conflict that began with the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, broke out. As that conflict continued and as the debate over same-sex marriage also exploded, I paid close attention to events at General Convention and the discussions and jockeying that occurred in the months leading up to the meetings.

This year feels quite different. It’s not that there are no controversial issues on the table: prayer book revision, several resolutions about marriage rites, and addressing sexual harassment in the Church are all important and likely to gain attention outside the confines of The Episcopal Church.

I know there are many who are passionate about General Convention. It is an important aspect of our Church’s governance and for many it is an opportunity to connect with old friends and make new ones. I’m grateful for both aspects of this gathering, for the work that takes place and for the relationships it nurtures.

At the same time, I find myself less interested in what will take place there. I think there are a couple of reasons for this lack of interest. First, I have been in my current position for nine years. The longer I stay here, the more focused my ministry becomes on my local context. Madison is confronting a number of serious issues: homelessness, of course, which because of the presence of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter here at Grace is always at the top of the church’s and my list of priorities. In addition, Madison, Dane County, and the State of Wisconsin have among the most significant racial inequities of any state in the nation and closely related to that is mass incarceration which affects us through the presence nearby of the Dane County Jail.

In addition, since 2011, we have been at the epicenter of political conflict in our state and by extension the nation. Since the protests that erupted around Governor Walker’s plans to transform the State of Wisconsin into a laboratory for conservative policies, hardly a month goes by without rallies on the streets and sidewalks outside our doors. Just last week, as we were celebrating and blessing a marriage, outside our doors thousands were rallying as part of the nationwide Keep Families Together effort. I have participated in more such rallies in my nine years of ministry here than I did in the previous five decades of my life.

Finally, as I continue to work in Madison, my relationships with clergy of other denominations and my ecumenical engagement have become as important, if not more so, than my relationships with Episcopal clergy and the larger church. I have participated on commissions of the Wisconsin Council of Churches for most of the time I have been here and have been nurtured by relationships formed with clergy colleagues there and in Madison. As denominational structures continue to transform in the wake of the demographic and cultural decline of mainline Christianity, such relationships and ecumenical partnerships may become more important.

 

I suppose what I’m saying is that context matters. As my tenure at Grace lengthens, the relationships I have built with parishioners and the wider community come to matter much more. The problems and challenges of our city take center stage, and my capacity to engage creatively and effectively with those challenges and opportunities grows. It’s not that the denomination as a whole, nor indeed the worldwide Anglican Communion, no longer matter to me, but rather, I experience those larger entities through a perspective increasingly shaped by my local context.

I am looking at General Convention from the corner of N. Carroll St. and W. Washington Ave., in Madison. So even as the work of General Convention goes on, I will also be doing the work of ministry, administration, and advocacy in this place, grateful for that work and calling, and grateful for all of those others called to do the work of the larger church. My prayers are with and for them.

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Episcopal Church General Convention: The Surreal and the Real

Something about this tweet captures my ambivalent feelings about the work of the Episcopal Church General Convention.

Screenshot 2015-06-25 07.28.47

 

Perhaps the Episcopal Church has made statements against the death penalty since 1956, but in those 59 years, how many Episcopalian judges, governors, legislators, prosecutors, and jurors have colluded in death penalty sentences?

(Episcopal Church General Convention: The Surreal and the Real may become a regular feature of this blog over the next week).

I won’t be signing on…

I haven’t blogged Episcopal matters much in recent months for several reasons. First, I’ve been focused on other matters in my day-to-day ministry and as we prepare for renovations at Grace. Perhaps more importantly, there are urgent needs and issues in Madison and the nation that have demanded attention. And frankly, although the Triennial General Convention is a little more than a month away and the usual verbiage and posturing related to it are well underway, I haven’t found any of it particularly compelling. That’s surprising, because there are a number of important issues that will come before Convention—reports from the marriage task force, same sex blessings, restructuring, and the election of a new Presiding Bishop.

The level of my disengagement and disinterest was only slightly altered by the release yesterday of A Memorial to the Church: “Calling the 78th General Convention to Proclaim Resurrection.” Crafted by eight people and with a lengthy list of signatures from bishops, deputies, and others, the document is a plea for the transformation of the Episcopal Church:

 We, the undersigned, hold dear the Episcopal Church and believe passionately in the gift this church offers. Washed in the waters of Baptism and nourished from the deep springs of word and sacrament, we experience the power of God’s presence as we open the Scriptures and celebrate the Eucharist. We stand in awe of the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the power of the triune God to love, to forgive, to make whole. We know the joy of serving God through serving others. We long for a world with every unjust structure toppled. We love this church enough to yearn for it to be transformed.

The authors urge General Convention to take action:

Engage creatively, openly, and prayerfully in reading the signs of the times and discerning the particular ways God is speaking to the Episcopal Church now;

 

Pray, read the scriptures, and listen deeply for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in electing a new Presiding Bishop and other leaders, in entering into creative initiatives for the spread of the kingdom, and in restructuring the church for mission;

 

Fund evangelism initiatives extravagantly: training laborers to go into the harvest to revitalize existing congregations and plant new ones; forming networks and educational offerings to train and deploy church planters and revitalizers who will follow Jesus into all kinds of neighborhoods; and creating training opportunities for bilingual and bi-cultural ministry;

 

Release our hold on buildings, structures, comfortable habits, egos, and conflicts that do not serve the church well;

 

Remove obstacles embedded in current structures, however formerly useful or well-meaning, that hinder new and creative mission and evangelism initiatives;

 

Refocus our energies from building up a large, centralized, expensive, hierarchical church-wide structure, to networking and supporting mission at the local level, where we all may learn how to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.

As I read, and although I am familiar with and respect many of the authors of the document, I wondered, “What world do they live in?”

That question reverberated as I read another document prepared for General Convention published the same day, “The Report on the Church.”

The four-year trend (2009-2013) shows an 8 percent decrease in active membership and a 9 percent decline in average Sunday attendance. The 10-year trend data provides a longer view of what has occurred in the life of the domestic dioceses of The Episcopal Church. In that period, the Church has seen an 18 percent decrease in active membership and a 24 percent decrease in Average Sunday Attendance. Communicants in Good Standing also declined by 18 percent during the last 10 years. It should be noted, however, that the severity of annual declines began to moderate somewhat in 2011, with domestic losses dropping from around 50,000 members per year to less than 29,000 per year for three consecutive years (2011-2013).

I began to wonder not only “What world do they live in?” but “What church do they live in?”

The Pew Survey that was released earlier this work shows a dramatic decline in religious affiliation in the US, a trend especially prominent among “millennials.” It’s not just about the decline of traditional mainline Christianity. It’s a transformation in the way people express and embody their religious lives. What might “discipleship” look like or mean in that context?

Don’t get me wrong. I think what the document advocates is spot on. My criticism is that it isn’t radical enough. Perhaps we need to be ready to “release our hold” on the Episcopal Church itself.

This past Tuesday, while I marched with other clergy through the streets of Madison in the wake of the DA’s decision not to prosecute in the shooting of Tony Robinson, I was struck both by the power and privilege of our symbols and buildings as well as by their relative irrelevance to the lives and issues facing our community. Clergy and lay people were present. We spoke, marched, prayed, and sang but most of the energy, passion, and message came from others. We contributed our prestige, privilege, and whatever moral authority we carry. And the final gathering on the steps of Grace was a great photo-op.

As we marched, I had a conversation with a retired Episcopal priest about the Pew Survey and what it meant for the Episcopal Church. I told him I thought that the Church would die but that the spirit of Anglicanism could live on in new forms of community and in new ways of being Anglican. But we must let that spirit blow where it will, and not try to divert it to rekindle the dying embers of old fires. I suspect the Episcopal Church lingers in those dying embers.

I want to spend my time and energy in following where the spirit is blowing, into new ways of being church, new ways of encountering Jesus, and new ways of connecting with those who are seeking spiritual meaning. If the institutional church can be transformed to do those things, fine, but I’m not going to be fighting that battle. There’s too much else at stake.

 

Same Sex Blessings, Same Sex Marriage

Scott Gunn has blogged his perspectives on the materials produced by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Mission.

I’ve been thinking about them as well, more intensely in the last day or two, and I would like to offer my own thoughts.

A theological rationale for same sex marriage has to begin with the nature of God and with human nature. God created us in God’s image, to be in relationship, just as God in Godself is in relationship, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Life-giving, holy relationships are based in mutuality, love, and commitment, and some people can only experience such relationships with people of the same gender. Our fallen human nature and our society make any committed relationship difficult, almost impossible, and any couple needs the support of a loving community and the grace of a loving God to thrive. The church should do all in its power to help such relationships flourish. To forbid the sacrament of marriage to a group of people who need it to thrive and flourish is an offense to God who created us in God’s image, and who created us to be in relationship with others.

The proposed liturgy for same-gender blessings is inadequate. I find it lacking precisely because it fails to locate the basis of human relationship in the imago dei. Instead, it speaks of covenant and blessing (I find it ironic that the same people who praise the liturgy and its theological rationale based in covenant are for the most part opposed to the Anglican Covenant). Frankly, I think the theological rationale for the liturgy is deeply flawed. The liturgy itself is adequate although confusing, but there is a question at its heart, namely why blessing? Why not marriage? On the other hand, the SCLM was specifically charged with developing proposed blessings for same sex unions, not a marriage rite

Given the cultural climate, with many of those who most vigorously oppose same-sex marriage having themselves made a mockery of the sacrament by their own lives (Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich come to mind). Would not a more sacramental, a holy witness be of a couple living out a life-long commitment? Would the church’s blessing of such relationships be a witness and symbol of what marriage might be in this world, instead of the dominant cultural models of short-lived relationships like the recent ones of whichever Kardashian it was, or Brittany Spears? In other words, is there a sense in which two living out a committed relationship for a lifetime, are a sacramental witness to the Christian virtues of love and fidelity, and a symbol of Christ’s love for the church to the whole world?

The question facing General Convention 2012 and the Episcopal Church is how to work with what’s facing us. On the one hand, we have this proposed liturgy for Same Sex Blessings. On the other, there is a continuing push to move toward marriage, and another resolution urging an examination of our theology of marriage. This is work that urgently needs doing. It may be that the outcome of that examination is a revision of our marriage rite, and perhaps our canons. I would like to see us freed from the obligation of serving as agents of the state. I would like to see marriage only as a sacramental rite, which might help us offer an alternative to the contemporary marriage business.

I’m sure there will be lively debates on all these matters at General Convention. In the meantime, Huffington Post is running some essays on gay marriage, written by LGBT religious leaders. Here’s one from Patrick S. Cheng (who teaches Theology at Episcopal Divinity School.) And from Malcom Boyd, commenting on the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rite:

One of the prayers says: “Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.” I feel this is our own prayer at the heart of our marriage.

Another prayer in The Book of Common Prayer goes: “Give us grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault, and to seek each other’s forgiveness and yours.” Wow. This is a central prayer for any committed day-by-day life together.

What about a really central question — the deep meaning of a shared life in the context of a world with other people? “Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.”

I am deeply grateful for Mark’s and my gay marriage and our blessed years together. Our gay marriage binds us to the world around us. Our gay marriage gives us healing and blessing that we can share with others.

Is a representative democracy the best way to structure a denomination?

Like Churchill said, it may be better than the alternatives. It’s certainly better than the authoritarian hierarchy we see elsewhere, but can we envision alternatives?

Jim Naughton takes to task those who see in the infinite vote-takings at General Convention a culture of “winners and losers.” He wonders whether we have become to fragile for democracy.

Mark Harris has asked the same thing.

Others disagree. Susan B. Snook advocates a deep period of prayer and discernment as we look toward restructuring, rather than the calling of a special convention.

Scott Gunn’s blogging blue has come to the resolutions on public policy that are before GC 2012. He is sharply critical of resolutions that ask governments to take action. In fact, this is one of my pet peeves. I’ve sat through enough diocesan conventions to dread the debate over this or that resolution that takes a stand on some issue facing the state or the nation. I doubt that whatever we say, as a diocese or as the Episcopal Church, has any impact on lawmakers or on public policy. The impact it does have is on making some of us feel good, when the resolution that is passed is in keeping with our political agenda. It also alienates those who may take a different perspective on the issue, and ultimately, it may alienate outsiders as well.

In the Episcopal Church, we have seen a hard-fought partisan battle over the full inclusion of LGBT persons. That battle is winding down with the approval of liturgies for blessings likely this summer. There were winners and losers and many of the losers left the church.

We live in a political culture of hyper-partisanship and I think we need to ask ourselves whether the deep partisan divide that affects our political culture may also have infected our church. Are there other ways of decision-making that might avoid up or down votes on hundreds of resolutions? Are there other models for gathering the larger community together to discern God’s will? We have a legislative process in the Church and in the nation. The legislative process is broken in Washington; perhaps it’s broken in General Convention as well–or perhaps it diminishes us as individuals and as the body of Christ, instead of allowing us to flourish.

This week in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic

i.e., talking about restructuring the Episcopal Church

Scott Gunn, in his blogging blue series, has this to say about a resolution to create a task force focused on restructuring:

when this task force is convened, we need to make sure it doesn’t have any of the usual suspects. The same people will bring us the same ideas. That’s not what we need. And if at any point you voted in favor of the disaster of a budget that came out of various committees and Executive Council, you especially should not be on this group. Not that anyone will pay attention to the ranting of a simple blogger.

A thoughtful post from Unapologetic Theology on gnats, camels and General Convention. He puts his finger on what I’ve been thinking, too:

Rather, I’ve come to believe in the concept of “parallel growth change.”

“Parallel growth” is a strategy apparently adopted by some major corporations that face issues similar to the Episcopal Church: outdated structures, bloated budgets, overly centralized and irrelevant systems.

The theory is this: Those interested in change should resist the temptation to battle the system or try to change the dominant, inherited culture – battles that only end up causing turf wars because people tend protect “the way things are.”

Rather, leaders who are in favor of change are encouraged to all but ignore “the system” and concentrate almost all their efforts on encouraging healthy franchises – those local retailers that are doing well in spite of “corporate” policy or procedures.

The analogy isn’t perfect – we’re not a corporation – but how that looks in the Episcopal Church is that people who are in favor of change should all but ignore “the system” and concentrate their efforts on encouraging healthy congregations – those congregations that are growing and mission-minded in spite of diocesan or “national” structures.

Susan Brown Snook is thinking along the same lines:

Let’s put everything on the table at this Convention – the budget, the structures of the church, the shape of Convention itself.  Let’s not spend our time wrangling over niceties in an endless series of resolutions that will make no difference to the church.  Instead, let’s have a conversation about where Jesus is leading us.  Let’s pray and read the Bible and discern where God is calling us to go.  Let’s network and share and listen for the voices of the ones who aren’t often heard – the younger, less experienced people who have a better understanding of the future that lies ahead.

General Convention Update–Blogging the Blue Book

Not me, Scott Gunn. He’s writing a series of posts on the various reports and resolutions to be discussed at General Convention. They are all worth reading–thoughtful and challenging–and often addressing larger issues facing the church.

For example, he raises questions about the political resolutions proposed by various bodies here. Here’s the principle he proposes:

Let us tell the world what we are going to do about political problems, rather than telling the world what they should do about political problems.

So rather than tell corporations to mind the environment, let’s pledge to have environmentally sustainable congregations. Let’s stop killing so many trees (ahem, General Convention legislative binder. *cough*). Rather than tell President Obama to do this or that about various Middle Eastern crises, let’s divest or invest or travel or boycott or something. Let’s stop calling for an end to the boycott of Cuba and instead set up travel programs to take people there. You get the idea.

And, for the love of God, let’s stop telling other governments what to do. What possible business do we have telling the government of North Korea what to do? How are 800 deputies and 200 bishops going to monitor the use of drones in warfare? Why should we wade into the complexities of the US tax code (remember, we are an international church!)?

And remember, one of the few budget items to be increased for the the next triennium is the Governmental Affairs office, while other programs like formation were gutted.

Frederick Schmidt also ponders the relationship between the church and the political realm in “Winning the White House and losing our souls.” Some of what he says is quite pertinent to Scott’s analysis of the place of political resolutions at General Convention:

Three, political speech and theological speech are not one in the same. Yes, theology has collective and corporate implications and, therefore, political implications. But the church is called upon to think about those issues from a fundamentally different point of view. Methodists are fond of talking about the resources of Christian theology as lying in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. That list is inadvertently read as a list of two resources unique to the church (Scripture and tradition), alongside two resources shared in common with everyone else (what goes on inside our heads and what goes on in our lives). But when Christians talk about reason, we are talking about reasoning with the church, and when we talk about experience, we are talking about the experience of the church. When we use political language as if it were theological language, or when we use theology as if were a surrogate for politics, we fail to live and think as Christians were meant to live and think.