There has been a trend in recent years to use diocesan conventions in the Episcopal Church more as opportunities for training and community building than for considering legislation. The thinking goes that our time together is better spent in learning the skills and cultivating the relationships that will help us to revitalize the church than in debating resolutions that may have little effect on anyone not present to hear the debate.
I sympathize with this way of thinking and helped plan some conventions in the Diocese of Washington that were light on resolutions and long on keynote addresses, workshops and reports on parish level ministry initiatives. I have spoken at conventions organized on this principle and been grateful for the invitation. My tolerance for posturing and point scoring is almost certainly below the churchwide mean.
That said, I admire dioceses in which people have serious public conversations about the issues confronting the church, and in which decisions about the direction of the diocese (and the things that are on the minds of it members) are made openly by a large assembly of clergy and elected lay leaders.
It has become fashionable in some circles to deride people who take church politics seriously, and to speak as though a commitment to our ways of making decisions together are outdated and quaint. In response, I’d like to offer the example of the Diocese of Virginia, whose Annual Council is currently in session. Its agenda includes the following resolutions (texts here).
R1: Add Charles Gillette to Holy Women, Holy Men
R2: Appoint a Task Force to Address the Name of Annual Council
R3: Toward a Just and Reasonable Reform of Immigration System
R4: Prayerfully Consider the Merits of “Green Church” Initatives
R5: Virginia Legislation to Assist Immigrants
R6: Sponsoring and Supporting Scouting Units
R7: Task Force for South Sudan
R8: Strategic Re-visioning and Repositioning Process for the Diocese of Virginia
R9: Investments and Purchasing Electronics
It will no doubt take considerable time to debate nine resolutions. In another system, the leaders of the organization might have come before the assembly with strong recommendations on each of these issues and simply asked for approval. This, no doubt, would be more efficient. But here is what I take from Virginia’s way of doing business: that it is a diocese in which lay people are heard from, rather than just spoken to; that the accumulated wisdom of those lay people is respected by the clergy and lay professionals who work in the diocese, and that the members of the council care enough about each other to hear one another out.
I suspect that people will be edified by at least some of the debates on these issues, and that the church may benefit from the decisions that the council makes. I know that I am edified, at a distance, by the example of Christian people making decisions on complex issues together in the light of their faith. Coming from the Roman Catholic tradition, I saw the way Episcopalians shared authority and decided that I wanted to be part of that.
Governance is ministry. Like other forms of ministry, it can be done well or poorly. It can be affected for good and ill by the competence (and vanity) of the minister. It can be enhanced or demeaned by expertise acquired in the secular world. It is, in other words, no better than we are. But also no worse.
The Episcopal Church has developed a method of making decisions that puts God’s church in the hands of a great many sinners. The only thing worse would be to put it in the hands of just a few.