by Terri Pilarski
Fifteen years ago I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, and I thought I understood what it means to be Episcopalian. After all I’d been an active member of a parish for over ten years and had completed three years of seminary education. The fact is I only knew the church from the perspective of the parish that supported me in the ordination process, the Diocese where I was canonically resident, and the seminary that educated me. No doubt these provided me with a foundation, but it was still just a little snapshot of the church. What I’ve come to understand after attending General Convention three times is that the Episcopal Church is about as diverse a body of faithful people as a denomination can be and still consider itself to be one church. General Convention, whose purpose is legislative and governance, is actually a place where one grows in understanding of the fullness of humanity that make up the Episcopal Church.
After ordination I began to learn about General Convention and in the years since I have done my best to keep the parishes I serve informed about General Convention and the work that is done at Convention. I’ve written newsletter articles and held adult forums laying out the legislative process. I’ve invited the diocesan deputation to speak on the resolutions coming before convention, and then to speak again after convention to discuss how the process worked and what resolutions were passed. I followed the newsfeed in 2003 when General Convention approved the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop and in 2006 when Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected as the first woman Presiding Bishop. By 2009 I managed to plan far enough in advance to arrange for some continuing ed time to attend General Convention in Anaheim, California, where, for a few days, I served as a Page in the House of Bishops. I still remember getting off the airport shuttle at the convention center in Anaheim and seeing the huge sign, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” Suddenly tears filled my eyes and I thought, “What a church geek.” In 2012 I attended Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana where I helped in the vendor’s hall at the Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC) booth, and attended open hearings in the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. Now, in 2015 I attended the entire convention, setting up and staffing the EWC booth, attending open hearings and daily worship. Working at three General Conventions in a row has expanded my perspective of the Episcopal Church and deepened my appreciation for who we are. I have come to think that every Episcopalian, regardless of whether one is a deputy, a volunteer, or a visitor, should attend General Convention at least once in one’s lifetime. I realize that it is not financially feasible for many people, except perhaps when General Convention is held in one’s diocese and access is easier. Nonetheless General Convention is the best way one can gain a true appreciation and understanding of the Episcopal Church.
So, what is convention about? It’s about experiencing the church in a fuller way, from governance to worship to the vendors’ hall, to seeing first hand Bishops and clergy and lay folk who represent the real diversity of this church. In one day at convention I spoke to Bishops from Ecuador, Haiti, Ohio, and Michigan, had conversations with transgender persons, lay and ordained, spent time with colleagues from Mexico and Liberia, hugged seminary friends I haven’t seen in years, and listened as Native people played drums and danced in the vendors’ hall. I could tell similar stories for each of the ten days I attended convention.
Every church I have served as priest and Rector in the fifteen years I’ve been ordained, is filled with people much like me, people who have no real idea of the vastness of this church. This tendency to know the church myopically, is common in parish life. We tend to “love” our own parish and we tend to think that everyone is like us. We think that the way “we” worship is normative and right and the only way to do it. We see our own problems regarding finances or church attendance or membership or Christian Formation or worship insularly, because we have no real experience of the wider church and the many other ways to be church. General Convention offers the opportunity to experience the vastness that is the Episcopal Church. Imagine attending worship with eight thousand other Episcopalians listening to preachers and worship leaders from parts of the church foreign to one’s own reality. Sitting in on hearings in either of the legislative Houses or attending an open hearing at the legislative committee level enables one to more fully understand the governance of the Episcopal Church. Participating in parallel events that are part of General Convention, such as the Episcopal Women’s Caucus breakfast, a tradition since 1982, or the Integrity Eucharist, celebrating LGBTQ people for many years, or the Episcopal Church Women’s events, gives one a deep understanding of the profound social justice work taking place at General Convention. Through a group called The Consultation, which is composed of a variety of Episcopal affiliated social justice organizations including the Union of Black Episcopalians, The Episcopal Peace Fellowship, The EWC, Integrity, and others, one can learn a great deal about the efforts of Episcopalians advancing social justice and witnessing to our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. The vendors’ hall at General Convention is another lesson in the diversity of the church where one can find everything from Bishop’s miters to clergy blouses to information on how to feed the poor to books on every topic under the sun to handcrafted jewelry from all over the world to lunchtime speakers who speak about everything from church finances to the conflict in Palestine. The ten days of General Convention are packed from 7am to 11pm with meetings and events, much of it open to the general public for viewing.
I came to this General Convention, my third in a row, thinking it would be my last. I left more excited than ever, looking forward to returning in 2018 when the church meets in Austin, Texas. Will you be there? You have three years to plan to take some time off and prepare to gather with nearly 10,000 other people to celebrate this amazing institution we call the Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Terri Pilarski is Rector of Christ Church in Dearborn, MI. She is also the convener of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus.