The Bishop Looks Ahead to General Convention

The Episcopal Church is an association of local churches–referred to more familiarly as dioceses–that have covenanted to be accountable to one another in the worship of God and the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ, in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and all the other national and regional churches that are also in fellowship with that historic See. The instruments by which we express that relationship of accountability include the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, and the General Convention, which is the legislative body (a more “churchy” name for which would be synod) that alone has the authority to amend the Constitution and Canons.
Since the Episcopal Church was formed–in 1789, interestingly, the same year the U.S. constitution went into effect–the General Convention has met every three years, so far, 76 times. Between July 4 and July 12, in Indianapolis, the 77th General Convention will be held. There are now 110 dioceses, one hundred “domestic” and ten overseas. They vary greatly in geographical and numerical size, in financial strength, and in theological orientation, but each one is entitled to representation by four lay persons, four clergy, and whatever number of bishops are associated with it. Do the mental math, and you will see that General Convention is among the largest legislative assemblies in the world!
Like the U.S. Congress, General Convention is bicameral; that is, it meets in two chambers: the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. Items of business that come before the convention are known as Resolutions, whatever their purpose or subject might be. Some Resolutions, when passed, amend the Constitution or Canons, or create new canons. These then become binding on those whom they affect. Others enable various committees, commissions, agencies, and boards (known in General Convention lingo as “CCABs”) to continue their work. Many are, in effect, merely “mind of the convention” Resolutions, and could be said to express the “official position” of the Episcopal Church on a whole range of questions, both sacred and secular. In order for a Resolution to be enacted, it must be “concurred,” that is, passed in identical form by both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies.
This will, obviously, be my first General Convention as a bishop, but I have attended the last three as a Deputy, and have been closely following General Conventions since 1976. Not one has yet been peaceful and happy! (I actually don’t expect anything like that to occur in my lifetime.) There is always a tone of urgency–if not emergency–going into each one. The 77th is no exception, though my sense is that we will not see anything as cataclysmic as we saw in 2003 and 2006, which led to the departure of tens of thousands of Episcopalians and acrimonious property disputes that continue to this day. A big reason for this somewhat lower temperature is that the most conservative “right flank” of the Episcopal Church has essentially “left the building,” and those who remain are not capable of generating very much noise. So we will have more peace, but at the cost of less diversity.
As always–since 1979, at any rate–the lead story has to do with sex. Resolution C049, if passed (and I believe some form of it almost surely will), will authorize the use of an official liturgical form for the blessing of a marriage-like relationship (or, in some states, an actual legal marriage) between two persons of the same sex. It is interesting to note that, among those who are generally supportive, in varying degrees, of offering public rites of blessing for same-sex couples, there is considerable division over whether this is, or ought to be, marriage. Some argue that anything less than full “marriage equality” is an injustice, and the proposed rite does not go far enough. These, I expect, will voice their misgivings, and then vote for it anyway. Others argue, quite passionately, that only a relationship between a man and a woman can be deemed marriage, and the proposed rite looks too much like a marriage service to maintain any sort of distinction. Some in this category will vote No for this reason. I cannot predict how many.
It should come as no surprise that the Bishop of Springfield will vote No on A049, and the liturgy it offers will not be approved for use in this diocese. I know this is hurtful to the faithful lesbian and gay members of the diocese, and those who support them, and it gives me no joy to be the source of anyone’s pain. As one who holds a minority position in the Episcopal Church, I cannot but be sensitively empathetic toward those who hold minority views within the diocese. I honor their faith and Christian discipleship, and respect their witness. In God’s good time, this will all be sorted out. In the meantime, it’s messy, and we advance the cause of Christ in ways that our consciences allow.
By the time we get to Indianapolis, there will be several hundred Resolutions on the docket, and about nine days in which to deal with them. If you imagine this to be a high-stress environment, you imagine correctly. I can’t even scratch the surface of what all this proposed legislation covers, but, after the Big One that I’ve already discussed, let me name three issues around which there is a good bit of energy (and each one has several associated Resolutions):
  • The Anglican Covenant. This is a document that grew out of the aftermath of the 2003 General Convention, and attempts to deal constructively with situations when one Anglican province, such as the Episcopal Church, proposes or enacts a change that other provinces believe threatens the unity and/or stability of the communion. (Full disclosure: I am an ardent supporter of the Covenant.) Only nine of the 38 Anglican provinces have reported in so far, and seven have adopted it (the recent exception being Scotland, and the Church of England elected not to respond until at least 2015). General Convention will not join the eight. The only question is, just what form will our No take?
  • The Denominational Health Plan (DHP). In 2009, convention enacted a canon that makes it mandatory for every diocese, and every parish and church-controlled institution within a diocese, to join the Episcopal Church Medical Trust plan for providing healthcare coverage to clergy and lay employees, effective in 2013. (Thus far, there has been freedom to shop the market.) What most Bishops and Deputies thought they were voting for was a single church-wide plan with a single rate structure. What we have gotten are ten rate “bands,” with huge price differences between them. There is considerable consternation over this, to which I have joined my voice since learning that, under a single rate structure, premiums for the Diocese of Springfield would go down by a whopping 29%. There are multiple resolutions proposing multiple “fixes” to this problem. It is anybody’s guess what will actually get passed.
  • The structure of the church. There is a virtual consensus that the administrative structure of the Episcopal Church is outdated, unwieldy, and unaffordable. There is substantial opinion, though perhaps not a majority, that our governance model itself–that is, General Convention–needs to be drastically reformed. It cannot be denied that the cutting edge of this new awareness is financial: Giving from the dioceses to the national church has been in precipitous decline. Institutional collapse may not be actually imminent, but we can hear it roaring from around the bend in the road. The problem is that the only entity that has the authority to effect change is the very entity that needs to be reformed. Turf battles and politics abound. As we know from experience in the secular arena, political gridlock is an intractable problem. Color me pessimistic that we will be able to “fix” things in a coherent way before they fix themselves in ways we are not in control of.

There you have it–not the whole truth, certainly, but the unvarnished truth. The Springfield deputation–Kevin Babb, Elisabeth Langford, Gerry Smith, and Rick Velde (turning into Joe Patterson mid-stream) in the lay order, and Shawn Denney, Geoffrey Scanlon, Kip Ashmore, and Gene Tucker in the clergy order–they are real heroes, and I hope you let them know as much! And while I am not especially hopeful about this General Convention doing anything that will make me smile, please know that I am abundantly hopeful about the future of the Diocese of Springfield. There is tremendous energy building around a common vision for mission in central and southern Illinois, and the Holy Spirit is stirring in our midst.


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