Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The want-to-be bishops and the immigrants

The prize, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

Last month I wrote optimistically that the eruption of immigrant protest against the terrible HR4437, the migrant criminalization bill, might signal a "new civil rights movement." Last night's session at which the seven candidates seeking election as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California met with about 350 of their potential sheep left me all the more convinced that something powerful has been sparked by the specter of an unjust "immigration reform."

First, I should explain something about this bishop election process. Episcopalians would be the first to admit the denomination has a strange and wonderful polity, a hybrid of popular democracy and authority. We believe we need bishops to serve as foci of unity -- God's church has to be bigger than just our little local congregation. On the other, having come into being as an early and rebellious split from the monarchical Church of England, we evolved a process of choosing those bishops through exhaustive consultation with members and clergy followed by election by congregational delegates. Then a person elected bishop has to be approved either by the other existing bishops or by the General Convention where bishops, clergy and lay people meet every three years to govern the denomination.

For the first time in 25 years, the Diocese of California (the immediate San Francisco Bay Area -- more history embedded in those boundaries) is selecting a new bishop; the previous one is retiring. Several months ago the candidates, winnowed down through exhaustive meeting, greeting, writing, talking and more talking, were announced. And the world got interested because three of the seven are gay, a couple of men and a lesbian. In fact, only two of the seven are conventional bishop types: straight white men. Two are women; another is African American; two have extensive experience with the Anglican churches of Africa, some of which think the U.S. body is heretical for its inclusion of lesbians and gays; one is an immigrant himself. This is an interesting bunch of people. The media flogs the gay angle, but all of the nominees seem interesting, somewhat unconventional people. And for none of them is the gay issue paramount.

This week the want-to-be bishops are being subjected to ordeal by polite interrogation and courteous conversation. For five days, open meetings in various areas of the diocese are providing opportunities for any interested clergy and laity to question the candidates.

THE question

You know you are in the midst of a vigorous civic movement when the movement's imperatives break into apparently unrelated "business as usual." And last night, the immigrant movement broke into the ever-so-carefully-choreographed bishop search process. Gloria del Castillo, a priest in the San Francisco Mission District, demanded that each candidate tell us where the Episcopal Church ought to stand on immigration issues. Moderators were a little taken aback, but quickly got with the program, feeling strong approval from the assembled Episcopalians.

So the candidates did tell us. I'm happy to say that every one of them insisted that the church's stance must begin with extending welcome to the stranger. And most of them went on to express in various ways that the church's mission had to include justice for those who do the work. There were nuances. One who is embedded in official Washington mentioned "border security" which rang wrongly in this state, though he certainly seemed to be on the side of migrants. The one who is an immigrant himself (political refugee from apartheid South Africa) shared his terror when the I.N.S. once declared him "out of status" and threatened deportation. He told us that his lawyer reassured him that, being white, he'd be able to work it out -- and this was true, but he knew well that such an option would not have been so available to an immigrant of a darker race. Two candidates said simply that the church's place was in the streets with the people and, if need be, in jail.

This is not anyone's grandparents' Episcopal Church and the immigrant civil rights struggle is reaching right into the most process-oriented fastnesses of church life. That's how these things should work.

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