Eyes on the Floor: Washing Socks
By Richard Helmer
I spent part of the early morning today sorting laundry and washing socks in the room at the hotel. After all the lofty theologizing and vagaries of parliamentary procedure of the last several days, washing socks seemed very grounding, although it reminded me of how much I missed my wife and family, waiting patiently for me to return in Mill Valley. My wife doesn’t always do my laundry, but the image of the socks hung up to dry reminded me poignantly of home and our little indoor clothes racks, often populated with articles of clothing left there to air dry throughout the week.
It also reminded me that so much of the real General Convention – the Convention that happens off the legislative floor – is about sock washing. The great machine behind the huge gathering is staffed by scores of volunteers washing the Convention’s collective socks every day, hour by hour – running paperwork, maintaining lists, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, directing traffic, staffing the exhibit hall, helping the wayward and the lost guest, deputy, or bishop. And then supporting all of us together is a huge staff of hotel, food service, and store laborers. The Anaheim Convention Center and its surrounding cluster of hotels is a microcosm of the world supported by countless hard-working men and women who often “wash socks,” hidden behind the scenes. As some of Convention joined in with a local labor protest over low wages late this afternoon, members of this Church acknowledged the truth of our incarnational connection:
At the end of the day, we all wash socks to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.
General Convention is a huge undertaking. But it also is fiendishly expensive. Rumor – no, it’s more than rumor, now – is that the next General Convention will likely need to be significantly scaled back. Program, Budget, and Finance is already warning of a long-dreaded, deep and painful budgetary shortfall over the next three years. This will surely shake a lot of the perks and privileges out of the next great meeting of the two Houses and hold us to our sock-washing reality for the foreseeable future.
A greater concern, of course, is how this shortfall will impact our mission and ministry as a Church. No doubt someone will try to score points on this fact. But I’m not as worried as some. I’m concerned, but not fearful. We are like everything and everyone else in the world right now: tightening our belts, taking the red pen to our budgets. So instead of going to the laundry mat or hiring out a laundry service, we’re going to have to wash our own socks. And that’s part of the greater re-integration of community we’re learning as material resources are more measured and we must once again rely on the humble, vulnerable, but ancient way of sweat equity, grace, and interdependence.
Holy Women, Holy Men
The House of Deputies was washing socks today, as well. . .at least in a manner of speaking. Back to business, the deputies seemed a bit tired after the stirring motions and deliberations of the past few days. So debate this Tuesday got testy at times., and some stinky socks were aired.
The first few socks to wash and air were about adding saints to the church calendar. The discussion foreshadowed the looming deliberation over major revisions to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, now re-christened for the Church’s consideration as Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints. One resolution prompted a substantive debate around what exactly constitutes a holy person; and can those outside of the Church be declared holy – important for the prayer and inspiration of the faithful? The House of Deputies decided yes, at least for now until more feedback is gathered from the wider Church during the obligatory trial period of use. But the decision remained a bit of a stinky sock. I have the feeling this debate is going to hang in the air for some time.
More dirty socks materialized around the rudiments of parliamentary procedure. The House voted, in the name of fair hearing, to adopt rules of order that held motions for amendments at bay until a resolution had been in play on the floor for at least five minutes. A few clever souls took advantage of the new rules to insert a motion to end debate just prior to any amendments coming forward. It might seem a minor point of parliamentary procedure, but as more deputies were cut off from proposing amendments to various resolutions, hackles and blood pressures rose. In response, points of order and privilege started to multiply, bogging down the progress of the House.
By the afternoon session, the House’s dander was up. Even the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, became visibly irritated at one point, chiding the House for dragging our feet by abusing points of privilege to the point of leaving us collectively stuck in second gear.
She coolly reminded us towards the end of the afternoon session that we were the ones who had adopted the special rules; and so, we needed to decide whether to live with them or rescind them. I had a chuckle. In a way, she was telling us to grow up and wash our own dirty socks.
The President and Kindergarten
Volunteering in my son’s kindergarten classroom a couple of times this past year, I re-learned a truth that is now almost a cliché: “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” Today, I realized the same techniques Daniel’s kindergarten teacher used to keep the classroom in order all apply on the floor of the House of Deputies.
At an intuitive level, Bonnie Anderson understands that the same organizing principles that keep a kindergarten classroom in order also maintain decorum in one of the world’s largest legislative bodies. She knows that even grown holy women and holy men – as some of these amazing people in the House most certainly are – need steady leadership, a measured but firm hand, some appropriate chiding every once-in-a-while. Sometimes, we need to be reminded to put things away after we use them; to share, to play fair, and, yes, to wash our own socks – especially the smelly ones.
We’re lucky to have her.
To Concur or not to Concur?
This is the point at General Convention when resolutions begin bouncing between the two houses. One House adopts. The other amends and then sends it back for reconsideration. Procedures become more complicated as a result.
Two notable resolutions came back before us in the House of Deputies today. The first was D025, moderately revised by the House of Bishops, who instilled, among other minor changes, language that emphasized the mystery inherent in the call to ministry of all the baptized. A few attempts to re-visit D025 in a thoroughgoing way failed, although tempers were clearly starting to flare. The language of fear was back, stoked by reactions starting to flow in from elsewhere in the Anglican Communion. A few of us knew that the Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, was already scoring points by claiming we were (further) leaving the Communion by passing D025. I think a charitable thing to say is that the good Bishop of Durham is interpreting the resolution very differently from the way it was intended. But then I must remember that N. T. Wright is a thorough-going student of Paul. And Paul was nothing if not a rhetorician.
Just before the afternoon session, Nick Knisely and I had a bit of a tete-a-tete over how best to publicly handle the more strident reactions coming already from various quarters. We might share more about this here at the Café at a later date, but the upshot of the discussion was how to remain in the integrity of our truth-telling, and to do it without feeding the beast of malcontent. The Episcopal Church has become triangulated in a number of ways by power struggles between evangelicals, anglo-catholics, and liberals in the Church of England and in the Churches originally founded by her missionary organizations. We’ve been further triangulated in power struggles between and within other provinces, and in the ongoing socio-religious clashes and disagreements that now envelope the globe. The IRD and its well-monied, shadowy exploits don’t help, either. Add to that the fact that the media loves a good fight, and there. . . you’ve got a nice little recipe for a dust-up.
The trick for The Episcopal Church, with D025 now firmly in hand, will be for us to depart the triangles; to continue to articulate the truth of our own messiness and our desire for honest relationship in the call of Christ. We don’t need to have to have the full concurrence of every member of the Anglican Communion to move forward in our mission with them. Instead, we can learn to grow up in relationship by working patiently and honestly through our disagreements. Maybe we’ll all gain a little bit more of God’s perspective in the process. That is the Christian hope I see inherent in D025.
Of Bishops and Quorums
The second significant resolution that came back before the House of Deputies was an old one changing the constitution of The Episcopal Church, with the seemingly mundane goal of better clarifying what constitutes a quorum in the House of Bishops.
It might seem like a canonical-junkie question. Maybe it is. Vanessa Glass, who was sitting next to me in our deputation, finally resorted to moving the volume of constitution and canons in front of me because I kept asking for her to pass it again and again!
I remembered that the question of what constitutes a quorum in the House of Bishops was a significant point of contention in recent years, especially when it came to the painful decision for the HoB to depose a few of its own. Claims were made – most vociferously by those deposed, of course – that the HoB had acted illegally because a “true” quorum, a majority of bishops of the Church, had not been present to vote at the time of the depositions. Many retired bishops had been absent from that meeting, as they often are.
Truth is, the current article (I.2) governing quorums in the HoB is convoluted, at best. I’m still not entirely sure I grasp its meaning. The House of Bishops themselves have been in earnest to clarify the matter for twelve years, passing resolution after resolution to re-forge the article. The one before the House of Deputies for concurrence on Tuesday states that only bishops with jurisdiction and their colleagues in active ministry in the Church have voice and vote, and thus a majority of these together constitute a quorum. Including retired bishops in determining the quorum, while in keeping with some interpretations of the old article, places an undue burden on them, as many cannot and will not travel regularly to HoB meetings on their own dime.
But, over successive Conventions, this particular matter of Article I.2 has become a bit of a dirty sock that the House of Deputies has refused to help the HoB wash. Why, I wonder? Probably for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is probably just to serve a reminder to the junior House. . .well . . . just who’s junior. It’s faintly amusing on the one hand, and rather irritating on the other: watching a resolution come back Convention after Convention, be passed from House to House, only to be amended or voted back into the oblivion between. I could almost hear the sound of collective eyes rolling amongst the veterans of the House of Deputies as the matter came to the floor for its obligatory second reading this afternoon.
Power and True Wisdom
One deputy seemed passionate about tossing the old sock yet again back into the hamper by proffering an amendment. He argued the HoB needed the wisdom in the voice and the current power of our retired bishops to vote. But the more I reflected upon this suggestion, the more it struck me as a bit strange. True wisdom, it seems to me, is not necessarily found in retaining power. Another deputy spoke against the proposed amendment by pointing out an important truth: the power to vote without the accountability that comes with jurisdiction is not necessarily a healthy thing. Under the original wording of the proposed resolution, the voice of the retired bishops would still remain welcome in the HoB, and that was wisdom enough, surely.
It’s unwise to conflate wisdom with power. The amendment was defeated, keeping the sock before us. And upon the vote by orders in the House of Deputies – required for amending the constitution – it seemed hopeful that the senior house had at last washed this dirty sock clean, allowing the House of Bishops to constitute a quorum in a much more efficacious manner. . .and further permitting our retired bishops the constitutional space to live into the wisdom of their post-jurisdictional ministries.
And, I realized later, maybe this whole strange exercise in constitutional amendment was really about the way we clergy and laity still project our greatest hopes and fears on the episcopacy. The claim that retired bishops need to retain power in the House of Bishops says to me there are worries about power elsewhere in the Church.
So how does one describe clericalism centered around the office of bishop? Episcopalism? Well, we are the Episcopal church, after all. So now I fear you’re bored to tears by this closing reflection on the more arcane and low-level disputes at General Convention. As I’m fond of quoting a classmate of mine these days: If I were having any more fun, they’d probably have to arrest me! Maybe ‘twould be a good thing. General Convention holds a weird fascination for many of us. Good thing it only lasts ten days.
But I have some news: the socks are now clean and dry, this reflection has come to an end, and it’s time to retire to bed.
More on the morrow.