Sunday, July 08, 2012

Church politics

The subset of U.S. (and international) Christianity to which I belong, The Episcopal Church, is holding its triennial General Convention in sweltering Indianapolis. It's a heck of a wingding! Over 1000 voting deputies from over 100 dioceses are meeting as a legislature, not to mention several hundred bishops in their own legislative house. Together they govern the denomination, fractiously, laboriously, and somewhat democratically.

Not surprisingly, this unwieldy assemblage had its origins in the founding era of the United States. The President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, expounded on the peculiar history and culture of our governing body on July 4.

... the conditions of the American Revolution are in many ways responsible for the leadership of the laity that is one of the Episcopal Church’s particular gifts. … Independence from England meant a break with the authority of the Bishop of London. What’s more, many existing priests were loyal to England and new priests had to travel to England to be ordained. Ordained authority was hard to come by in the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the laity exercised significant leadership. Our first Presiding Bishop, William White, who like Thomas Jefferson was a student of John Locke, became a champion of shared governance by all orders — laypeople, clergy and bishops.

But, as many of you may be thinking right now, celebrating July 4 isn’t that straightforward. You don’t have to scratch the surface of July 4 very hard to expose the horrors of colonialism that the United States inherited from Great Britain and continues to impose on so much of the world. You’ll also find in the Declaration of Independence itself evidence of the bigotry and ignorance that led to the Native American genocide for which we have yet to atone or make restitution. And it is impossible to reflect on Independence Day without reflecting on the institution of slavery that so many of our Founding Fathers and their descendants defended to the death. …The scourge of African American slavery that Douglass struggled against has ended in this country, but the plagues of racism, oppression, discrimination, violence and poverty have not—not in the United States, and not in any of the other fifteen countries of the Episcopal Church. What we celebrate on July 4th in the United States is an ideal that we have not yet achieved.

…Let’s be honest. We in the Episcopal Church have been forced to get on the road toward the Promised Land. Some of us are happy about that, because being the institutional church of power and privilege, which we used to be, seemed a lot like being slaves in Egypt. Others of us were doing just fine in Egypt, and we’d be happier going back there. We’re wandering in a wilderness of declining membership and budget reductions and we’re pretty sure that we’re going to die out here.

But there’s no going back to Egypt. We’re on the Promised Land highway, and we’re spending a lot of time acting like the Israelites. We whine, we don’t trust each other, and we try to hoard what we have been given even though it won’t keep. Even though when we take more than we need, it breeds worms and becomes foul. And I’m pretty sure that we can all name some golden calves that we’ve been worshiping. We need to cut it out. All of us. …

Preach it, Madame President. Anderson could definitely give Nancy Pelosi a run for her money as a leader of women and men. Churches, like countries experiencing demographic and technological transitions, can only go forward, not backward.

Saturday I indulged myself by following the Twitter feed (#gc77) from the meeting. A complex event like this, with multiple caucuses, committees and hearings taking place concurrently is well suited to Twitter. One of my favorites from today is this commentary on the setting:

@JMCaler: Can't tell the gravitas and solemnity added to #GC77 to know that we share the Convention Center with a body building competition.

After some particularly rancorous parliamentary wrangling,

@rsgracey: Approve parliamentary combat pay for the PoHD

PoHD is the aforementioned Ms. Anderson. I've seen her run a tight ship.

But of course this is not all laughs. My friends from Transepiscopal are successfully shepherding resolutions through the process that will assure full access for all to consideration for ordination and for lay jobs in the Church without discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression. They seem to have swatted away any impulse to "study" them further -- putting folks under a microscope has historically been a "polite" dodge to avoid taking a stand for inclusion. This seems not to be in play this year.

What is in play is whether to approve some sort of optional experimentation with rites to bless same-sex couples, especially in jurisdictions that have achieved marriage equality. I'd bet they get to yes.

And then maybe all these good people can struggle through the numerous other challenges this governing body faces. These are tough -- whether to sell the Manhattan-based headquarters, how to structure the budget, how to interact with Anglicans around the world who sometimes resent us as both a little crazy and also ugly Americans.

Watching all this from afar (I worked at Convention three years ago), I take two thoughts away.
First from the opening address by Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefforts Schori:

Politics is not a dirty word – it refers to the art of living together in community, and it applies to Christ’s body as much as it does to the various nations in which this Church is present. We don’t yet live in the fullness of the reign of God, even though we do see glimpses of it around us and among us. Our task is to gather the various parts of this body of Christ, together with any partners who share our values, for the work of building societies that look more like the reign of God. That takes compromise, for we will never all agree on the proper route or method for getting there. We live in the awkward yet lively tension between what is and what will eventually come to be, in God’s good time.

The PB reminds me of President Obama: the very fact of her improbable elevation to this top job only 14 years after a woman was first made a bishop meant she carried wildly hopeful expectations among people wishing for rapid changes in the denomination. For them (us), she's been a mixed bag. But I have to like a Church leader copping to the truth that politics is holy work. I think she's right.

I'll give the last word here to my friend the Rev. Cameron Partridge, one of the trans activists whose agenda is moving through Convention. In the midst of this vital struggle, he was able to recall something else important.

The world is small, and we must be gentle to one another.

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