On not being too good for General Convention

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I had a little very minor moment of self-realization recently. I am not too good for General Convention. I don’t believe that the whole thing is such a mess that I have to stand at an ironic distance and make comments that demonstrate my superior intellect and my more refined sensibility—tempting as those activities may be for a writer and an introvert.


I am not above working on the edges of a messy, maddening, anxiety-provoking representative democracy. I started sliding voting cards under the windshield wipers of cars in church parking lots during Sunday morning Masses in my hometown when I was nine years old and my father worked for the city controller in Scranton, Pa. I didn’t go into politics myself, but I never lost my affection for the arts of organization and persuasion that make the systems that govern our church and our country work.

I find, as convention approaches that I feel a greater kinship with the people who natter endlessly about what they are going to pack for convention, who have strong feelings about the wisdom of bringing a small box of laundry detergent and a pair of sensible shoes, who invest themselves deeply in obscure and possibly quixotic causes, who are possibly just a little too fond of the sound of their own voices. I find those who regard the shambling student body president’s fever dream that is our legislative system to be engrossing and even peculiarly ennobling, far more compelling than I do our system’s critics.

Whatever brands of myopia may afflict these people, they have been willing to donate weeks of their time to the church—not only on the national level, but in most cases on the diocesan level as well, as this tends to be what gets them elected in the first place. I bristle when their willingness to make themselves of service is derided by people who haven’t done the same kind or quantity of unpaid labor that they have. I think it is unseemly when they are mocked by young clergy because they are no longer young themselves. These are people who have been chosen by the members of their dioceses to consider legislation that in many instances is also put forward by the members of their dioceses. I like how that works.

I don’t deny that our system could stand some streamlining and some improving, but I suspect that it is capable of reforming itself. The General Convention has given us female priests and female deputies, it approved the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and patiently, skillfully extracted us from the morass that was B033. I believe it can reform itself, and will do so more effectively if the House of Deputies does not feel that the Presiding Bishop and some of her allies are backing it into a corner. I appreciate that the deputies are not in possession of all of the wisdom in the church, but I don’t believe that those who are in no way accountable to the people in our pews should play pivotal roles in deciding our future.

As I look forward to General Convention, I suspect that the proceedings may, at times, be cumbersome. The proceedings of large legislative bodies tend to be. I am quite certain that a few resolutions will come before the houses that ask us to make meaningless gestures that will please some small, but probably well-organized audience. I would be willing to bet that our technology may let us down at some point, or be misused by older members of the convention in ways that will inspire someone those more comfortable with technology to tweet #Fail a few times in their twitter stream.

I imagine that a few too many people may raise points of information, that are really points of personal privilege, or instruct a presiding officer on the rules of order in a way that suggest that they don’t quite know what they are talking about. I can pretty much predict that some people will complain that we haven’t spent enough time debating resolutions that those of us who spend time online have been debating for months.

I can see all of those things coming, and I’m almost looking forward to them. I love this church, and I love it in some measure, precisely because it is governed by an elected representative body. This is what elected representative bodies look like, and I salute those who are not too good to make them work.

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5 Responses to "On not being too good for General Convention"
  1. Oh, Jim, thank you for this 🙂 I also spent my childhood handing out political flyers at the factory gate during election season (and I still walk precincts).

    Under the sweetness of this post you make an important point about accountability. Politics are messy, difficult, off-putting, and necessary. Power will always flow through some channel in an organization--question is can we see how it flows, and help to channel it.

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  2. What if the point isn't the legislation that gets passed, etc.--tho that has to be done--What if the point is the being there?

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  3. I appreciate that the deputies are not in possession of all of the wisdom in the church, but I don’t believe that those who are in no way accountable to the people in our pews should play pivotal roles in deciding our future.

    At the risk of placing myself among the unwashed GC critics, the only thing that gives me pause is that I think we are in danger of worshipping democracy and equating ordained bishops as the equivalent of out-of-touch CEOs or secular politicians. I certainly don't advocate a father-knows-best, clergy-centered, prince-bishop church. It does, however, give me some pause when I hear people denigrate anything that doesn't come from some (preferably spontaneous) grassroots effort.

    We call, elect, and ordain our bishops to be leaders in their individual dioceses and in the larger church. We actually make them take vows to that effect. They are accountable to their own dioceses and the Presiding Bishop is elected out of their number and approved by House of Deputies vote. I'm not saying you are saying this Jim, but I sometimes think that we want leadership from our leaders until they actually exercise it, and then we call it a power-play.

    I expect both branches of our bicameral legislative body to set aside both personal preference and diocesan majority opinion and work for the benefit of the entire church. To the extent that they do so, I don't much care how they were selected. To the extent that they fail to do so, they are not serving as they ought to, whether directly elected or not.

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  4. Well, Jim, that all makes sense; but, then, I've already said what I experience at General Convention over at the Daily.

    I continue to participate in great hope. It will be messy, and at times cumbersome indeed. Still, we will speak as a Church and speak to the Church, and will say some good things - some really good things.

    Tom, I worry less about how these things get expressed in General Convention then I work about how well (or how poorly) this will be communicated back to the folks at home. Of course, there's only so much that we can do about that from Indianapolis. We who have been elected in one sense or another, and those who elected us, share a responsibility to take this back and get folks involved in our congregations.

    Marshall Scott

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  5. The shambling student body president’s fever dream that is our legislative system was worth the cost of admission!

    I lived just south of Denver in 2000 when GC rolled in to town. My wife and I were two of the denim-vest-wearers that greeted you with smiles and pointed you to the restrooms. (Included in that lot: one very flustered bishop.) I danced around on Sunday after a eucharist with 10,000 people - danced around with Frank Griswold without realizing it was him until he had given me a hug and a smile and trotted off.

    I'm someone who has run before and was barely elected to an outlying clergy-alternate position, yet tightly clung to it until I had to give it away because of a change in jobs that necessitated a change in dioceses. I tried to figure a way around the rules, but they were explicit: "delegates must be canonically and physically resident." That was in 2009.

    I didn't run here in Iowa for 2012 because - well, it's complicated, but I suppose I could tell that helping introduce the idea of GC term limits at convention didn't make me very popular for the next year or so.

    None of which dampened my enthusiasm for being in Indianapolis this year in the slightest. I plotted and schemed, working every angle just to be able to be there for the three or four days I thought I could afford ... and still circumstances prevailed to prevent my going, even as an eager if unelected observer.

    So just know that there are "young clergy" (I'm 40 tomorrow so I might be disqualified) who really, really want to be there - not because it's cool, but specifically because it's about people who desperately do care and aren't afraid of showing it.

    The whole church is in my prayers.

    Torey Lightcap

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