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Doing things the hard way: reflection on General Convention

Doing things the hard way: reflection on General Convention

by Marshall Scott

We are odd creatures, we Episcopalians. We seem to like tension. That leads us to do things the hard way.

I don’t mean to say that we enjoy anxiety. I don’t think we take anxiety better, by and large, than any other group of people. Rather, we seem to like to hold things in tension, to commit to doing two things at once, and to accept willingly that we’ll experience some strain.

Let’s take some of the examples, perhaps less obvious examples, from this General Convention. We honored in a variety of ways our siblings from Native American and other indigenous cultures. We did this especially in worship; and we all know that worship is where Episcopalians show what we value. We incorporated several different Native American languages into our daily Convention Eucharists. We heard daily in the House of Deputies from chaplains from indigenous peoples both at home and abroad. This is well and good. We also noted that the only four counties in the United States in which the plurality of residents are Episcopalians are Native American communities in South Dakota and Alaska.

At the same time, we honored our youth. We welcomed and celebrated the presence of the Episcopal Youth Presence, both in the House of Deputies and in their presence in legislative committees to speak as witnesses and share their thoughts. A good number of dioceses, too, had young people from home who came to have some experience of General Convention. We looked to them as our future, and asked them how we might move into the new reality in which they will live: social media, networked communities, and web-based culture. We embraced change in a radical way in opening the way for the restructuring of our life together – and that without a single no vote in the House of Deputies.

I don’t know that everyone would see the tension there, but I do. You see, I think our commitment to the new is an expression of the larger, dominant Euro-centric culture. We wrestle, I think, with the culture of youth that can pull us, if we’re not careful, to an urge for change for change’s sake. It is a notable theme in the culture around us – the dominant culture around us – that we in the dominant culture can bring into the Church. On the other hand, the Native and Indigenous cultures we also embrace have much to recall to us about honoring the elders, about embracing wisdom based in experience, both of individuals and of a people. Native peoples are also committed to their young people, and do their best to ground them in their own cultures to better prepare them to interact in the dominant culture.

If that seems a bit obscure, let’s bring that to a more common arena. We continue to be a people of the Book of Common Prayer, even as we seek to append to it new tools for worship. Over the eight days of Convention our daily Eucharists incorporated both – both content from the Book of Common Prayer and new materials, some written specifically for the Convention. The Association of Episcopal Deacons prepared new intercessory prayers for every Eucharist. At the same time, one of our Eucharists was celebrated using Rite I. We felt the same tension for our life outside Convention as we offered new rights for provisional or occasional use. We got the most press for our new provisional rite for the blessing of same-sex couples, especially where civil marriage is equally available to them; but those weren’t the only additional rites we approved. We would always claim that we continue to be a people of the Book of Common Prayer, and that the Prayer Book is where we say most fully what we believe. At the same time, many of our congregations work from prepared worship books that incorporate language of Prayer Book and Hymnal, and also services for trial or provisional use and music from many sources.

It was particularly acute when we considered resolutions related to our efforts to restructure how we govern our life together. I can’t speak for the House of Bishops, but in the House of Deputies I felt a similar sort of tension between retaining and changing. We first passed the resolution that called for a task force to recommend the changes that we will consider three years from now. As has been noted, that resolution passed in Deputies without a single voice saying “no.” That in and of itself seemed remarkable, and a sign of a broad desire to change.

On the other hand, once we’d passed that resolution to commit to change, almost no other resolution of change passed. Notably, we considered changing the Canons now to eliminate almost all the Standing Commissions of General Convention. Liturgy and Music would be gone. Health would be gone. Ministry Development and Small Congregations would be gone. All that would remain would be Constitution and Canons, and Structure of the Church – only those directly related to recommending or implementing change. Those who suggested the change felt it would, as it were, clear the decks for the new Task Force. The House as a whole did not, and the resolution went down to defeat.

Similar things happened to other efforts to initiate changes now. Structural changes had been proposed in the Executive Council’s proposed Budget were undone in the final budget. Interim bodies that were initially unfunded were funded in the Budget, and sometimes directed by other resolutions. We were clearly committed to change – but not without a good deal of reflection, consideration, and examination.

That really shouldn’t come as a surprise. We are a people who, like the White Queen, seem sometimes to believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” We believe in a God who is Three and also One; who is both transcendent and imminent; who is both fully human and fully divine. We believe that bread and wine become body and blood, even as we believe that we can’t say how – indeed, that the harder we try to say how the more trouble we get into. We believe that God has a plan and is in control; and that we are also not only enabled but expected to take part and take responsibility in shaping the world. We believe that in and through all our most human, apparently venial and political processes God in the Holy Spirit is still working to guide the Church and its individual members.

All of which suggests to me that our Episcopal life in General Convention actually reflects pretty well our Episcopal life for the two years and fifty weeks in between. We may not want anxiety more than anyone else, but we embrace paradox and creative tension like almost no one else. Some may see us as indecisive. I rather think we’re able to see the value of apparently different principles, and so to avoid discarding either. Where others see differences as grounds for conflict, we see them as complementary and/or supplementary – not as separate realities as much as perspectives that together better describe the whole.

And so, for all the expenses financial, emotional, and physical, General Convention has offered a remarkable reflection of the faith and life of the Episcopal Church. And I expect that, even if it is changed in our restructuring, it won’t go away; or that if we no longer have General Convention we’ll have – we’ll have to have – some comparable experience. It is both the Church at prayer and the Church in governance, and also the Church in microcosm. I don’t know yet where I’ll be in three years, or even where the Church will be. But, wherever I am, in three years the Episcopal Church will gather again in General Convention. It will be interesting. It will be exciting. It will be worth our time and effort; because it will once again gather us, not to take us out of our life, but once again to focus ourselves in our life together and before God.

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.

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