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General Convention: A cloud of witnesses

General Convention: A cloud of witnesses



by Kristin Fontaine


My mother spent 30 years attending the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (with one convention off in 1994). Her first convention was in 1982 as a lay deputy. I was a rising junior in High School and would turn 17 later that year. My brothers were 12 and 8 respectively.


Her last convention as a deputy was the 76th General Convention in 2009, by then she had been an ordained priest for 12 years.


That was a busy year for both of us. She went to convention that summer and then she joined my 13 year-old-son and me on a trip to France in the fall– a first for all of us. It was also the first time she was sure in herself that she would not be returning as a deputy to convention. After three decades of service, she had reached the end of that particular ministry.


My understanding of the church has always been intertwined with my relationship with my mom. When I was a child, she was active in the local church. By the time I left for college she was serving in the national church and traveling around the world as a part of her “church-job” (a job for which she was unpaid). As my college career was winding down, her’s was gearing up– she and my middle brother were both in college at the same time in the 1990’s. I still remember the moment she called me having just completed her first college paper since the 1960’s– she said it was the first time she’d had the luxury of being able to stay up and complete a train of thought since she had had children (something I took to heart when my husband and I were making the decision to have a child of our own).


In 1996 she was ordained to the priesthood. My husband and I sang at her ordination and I could barely make it through the verses, my heart was so full of pride and joy.


As she lived fully into her new role as priest, I started to struggle with my relationship with my local congregation. My issues with the facts of life in a small church, plus my own medical issues (insomnia is not compatible with a 10am service attendance), led to me having only a tangental relationship with weekly worship. Through it all, I retained my connection to the greater church. I gave money to Episcopal Relief and Development in lieu of a local congregation after my first Seattle-area church went under. I followed the national church news through developing on-line media. I named my blog Ceramic Episcopalian, because, while I might not be going to church on a weekly basis, I thought about God and my relationship to my faith on a daily basis and many of those thoughts found their way onto my blog in the form of personal essays.


For a while I settled on the idea that I was a tribal episcopalian– raised in the faith, but not longer living it.


That all changed on the 1st of July.


I had been watching the live-stream of the 78th General Convention, in part because I had been obsessively following SCOTUSBlog as they live-blogged the release of the court’s opinions on right to marry and on the outcome of the suit against the Affordable Care Act. It was an easy jump to follow the #GC78 twitter hashtag and from there I slid into waiting and watching as the House of Deputies confirmed the selection of Bishop Curry as presiding bishop elect.


We were in the midst of a rare June heatwave in the Pacific Northwest and temperatures in the 90’s kept me inside, desperately trying to conserve the dose of cool air we got at night when we threw the windows wide and turned the fans on high.


Sitting quietly and watching the House of Deputies feed via the media hub gave me something interesting to do that didn’t heat up the house.


Mom and I started swapping notes through Facebook about what we were seeing in the twitter and live-stream feeds.


Then on Wednesday, July 1st, my mom had to run into Portland with my dad for their usual town appointments– which meant she was cut off from the live-stream for most of the day. So I took it upon myself to send her regular updates.


It was a very interesting day to watch the House of Deputies (HoD) as they were working their way through some of the major resolutions on the future structure of the church and then later in afternoon they tackled the marriage resolutions. That is when I started seeing the phrase ‘don’t let perfect be the enemy of good’ pop up on both Twitter and on the floor of the HoD. Throughout their discussions and debates I continued to summarize what was going on for my mom. When she had time, she would comment on what I was seeing.


For the first time, I could see the work she had done for the past 30 years. Even though she was not a Deputy to this convention, she was up on all of the resolutions and could frequently identify them by number right away (I kept having to refer to the electronic blue book).


It was amazing and delightful.


I found that the increased attention needed to report things to my mom, rewarded me with a greater understanding of what the Deputies were talking about. At the end of the day, I was exhausted and all I had done was sit on my comfy couch to hide from the heat outdoors and pay attention to what folks in my church were saying. I can’t imagine how wrung out the Deputies themselves felt after starting their day at 7:30 am committee meetings and ending a long legislative day after 9:00 pm with more committee meetings.


That said, I came away with a rich appreciation for the history and tradition of my church and of the power of 800 plus people meeting in the same room to pray together, follow parliamentary procedure together, and put their best selves forward for the good of the order and the life of the church.


I have never been so proud to be an Episcopalian and, from now on, I will drop the ‘tribal’ from my description of myself in relation to the faith I was raised in. I found myself explaining the inner workings of Episcopal governance to my friends (most of whom are atheist/ spiritual/ taoist/ seeker or ex-Christians). The only person explaining more complicated arcane topics in my life was my husband when he talked about his latest bridge hands.


My mom tells the story of how I was the reason she returned to the church. I don’t know all the details, but like many college students and young marrieds, she slipped away from regular attendance at church. Then, about 2 years after I was born, she decided she should look into getting me ‘done’ (baptized). She returned to the Episcopal church she had been raised in and in the process of taking care of my spiritual needs, found her own path.


That path continues to this day. She has ‘retired’ from General Convention but is still very active in her local congregation and in the online presence of the church She coordinates the local church newsletter and helps out with the Episcopal Cafe. She is an evangelist for the church having both a good and strong digital media footprint in the world and she puts her time where her passion lies. Seeing her live into her faith, even as her role in the church continues to evolve and change is an inspiration to me.


And learning, through the power of digital media, how hard she and thousands of unpaid Deputies have worked through the years to guide the national church, to try and understand our role in the world, and to come together every three years to live out our witness as a people of faith makes me proud to be an Episcopalian.


I may have spoken too soon when I said I would leave the word ‘tribal’ behind, because, through watching my church in action, I feel I have rediscovered my tribe.


It is a cranky tribe full of smart people who can follow parliamentary procedure and complex rules of queuing and voting in one moment and open themselves to prayer and learning new ways of relating to one another under the guidance of the HoD chaplain.


It is a people of rules and of the book, but also a people who will try to listen to all sides of a debate and prayerfully consider not only what is right, but how folks are going to feel if they lose a vote that is dear to them.


It is a tribe of funny, creative people who make up songs to celebrate the new technology of virtual binders and electronic voting gizmos.


It is a tribe of crafty knitters, whose needles click as they try to parse a complex legislative proposal.


It is a tribe of loving people who are trying to be compassionate in the midst of sleep deprivation and work on hard issues.


I am grateful for the opportunity to see my church in action though the members of the House of Deputies. I am grateful for chance to get to share the same worship time with time as they begin their day. But most of all I am grateful for the mother/daughter bonding that the church gave me, starting with my baptism and continuing on into the future.


I am, and forever shall be, an Episcopalian.


Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything.  She spends a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life and her relationship to God and it all spills out in the essays she writes She recently embarked on a new adventure with her husband, supporting him as he launches Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.


image: Cloud of Witnesses by Martin Evans


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Michael Hartney

Your Mom is one great lady, and she is sorely missed in the council of General Convention. But she knows, as I do, that a new generation of leaders, lay and ordained, need to step up now to continue the Gospel work we love. On to Austin in 2018!

Michael Hartney
Diocese of Rochester
Legislative Aide for Committee 14/now Committee 12

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