by Marshall Scott
Never having lived in a city where it was local, all trips to General convention have started the same way: sitting in an airport. There is that old saying that every journey begins with a single step, but this one always seems to begin sitting in a crowded waiting room.
There is a pervasive sense of waiting that I always associate with General Convention. After all, we only meet once every three years. We are the church always. We worship, in general, weekly. We meet as dioceses annually. We are the Episcopal Church gathered in Convention only every three years. So, for those of us who are part of it, and who want to see it work for the good of the church in all our more frequent expressions, there is a sense of waiting.
That, of course, begs the question of what we wait for. We are the church always, gathered or as individuals. We have the opportunity to express “church,” to intentionally live the faith in the world, with every day God gives us. We have the chance to worship together at least weekly, to gather for word and table, for pardon and renewal. If we need a larger expression, our congregations can meet together, plan together, worship together as dioceses; and isn’t the diocese the “basic unit of the church?”
So, what do we wait for these triennia? What is it about this gathering of the national (or, in our case, multinational) church that we find compelling enough to keep us coming back over that longer interval?
I think that to properly answer this question, the question that really gets begged is, who is this “we?” After all, as big as it seems when you’re in the middle of it, General Convention is a pretty small group. Maybe10,000 are directly involved, out of an Episcopal Church of one and a half million, give or take. That rounds up to .007%, if I read my calculator correctly. It’s not that big a portion.
On the other hand, I have to think about my own understanding of my own job. I am a Director in a hospital and in a health system. My job description has its details, and I am accountable for them. At the same time, I have to think about how I understand the purpose of my position, as well as the details. I think my job is about creating the climate and context in which others can do their work. I interact with administrators above me to help shape the culture of the institution, to help define the values of the institution, and to work with other chaplains to apply those values as is appropriate in that culture.
By the same token, the General Convention is about creating the climate and culture in which all Episcopalians can pursue the ministries to which God has called them. Notwithstanding how important some of us might find them, the actions of General Convention cannot provide detailed “instructions” for each of those vocations, or even for most of them. However, for a few critical ones it can provide a framework. More profoundly, it sets the tone in which our leadership is to work with the wider culture and the larger institutions of our society. In General Convention we acknowledge the values we see in the larger culture, and some we challenge and some we see as congruent with Christian life. General Convention asserts in that larger culture our values, and then offers us within the Church guidelines (and, occasionally, rules of varying firmness) to help us express those values.
If that is what General Convention is about, it is important. It doesn’t take all that many of us, really; and yet it provides an important service for our life as the Episcopal Church. General Convention is the tool we use to provide that, if you will, Directorial function. That is a responsibility not shared by everyone in the Church, and those who do participate are there of their own accord (which puts in context any of our individual complaints about how long and hard Convention is). That doesn’t make the ministry of participating in General Convention more important than the many other ministries exercised by Episcopalians. My work as a Director is not more important than what any individual chaplain is doing with patient and family at bedside. On the other hand, if I don’t do my part faithfully, it is harder, not easier, for the individual chaplain to get to that bedside, and to be recognized at the bedside as a member of the team. By the same token, if we don’t have General Convention or some tool to use for that directorial function, and if that tool doesn’t work faithfully, it becomes harder for us to work together as Episcopalians in the larger culture.
At this General Convention we reflected intentionally on how to improve this tool itself, as well as some related tools we have as a Church. Well and good: we are wise to see how we can improve our performance in serving the Church. Still, the role of the General Convention is to work on the climate and culture in which all of us together can do our ministries as Episcopalians. It isn’t always exciting, but I think it well worth waiting for.
The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.