The Problem With the Youts

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This entry was originally posted July 24, 2009 as part of the website “Slouching Towards Anaheim.”

“A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.” -D. Elton Trueblood

The resolution was D066: Official Youth Presence Vote. It was submitted by Sam Gould of Massachusetts, but the resolution itself was written by the Official Youth Presence in attendance at this year’s General Convention. This resolution put me into a very sticky situation, and resulted in many conflicting conversations.

To start with I discussed the feasibility with Stephen Moore. The big canonical problem with giving a vote to the Official Youth Presence (OYP) is the Vote by Orders. Each dioceses gets two votes in a vote by orders, so where would they fit? The obvious solution, as rewritten into the substitute by the Structure Committee, is to qualify them all as lay deputies, giving one lay vote for the 18 of them in a Vote by Orders. This would require a canonical change and some creative wording.

Next I talked to the other young adult deputies about this resolution as part of a long and very insightful conversation about young people in the church we had during a young adult deputy gathering. One deputy was worried that giving the OYPs vote would encourage dioceses not to elect young people themselves, since there was “already a place for them,” turning the OYP into a sort of ghetto for the youth at General Convention.

youth, young adult, Diocese of Olympia    Others were worried about elections vs. appointments. Right now the OYPs apply and are appointed, two youth from each province. But if they were to have vote they would have to be elected instead, as you can’t be appointing votes into a legislative body. One deputy brought up the diversity present in the current OYPs. They are indeed a unique bunch, representing different races, political backgrounds, etc. They are a better looking group than the rest of convention in fact, in terms of fairly representing a large range of people. We were all sitting in the bar in small conversation groups when a deputy said, “Look around us right now. Look at who the church will elect if left to their own devices.” It was a sobering sight as those of us in the discussion took a quick look around at the other young adult deputies. We really are all the same person. White, middle to upper class, college educated, and put together. Each with just enough personality showing through our business casual to make us appear unique when comparatively we are not. We are a lot of preacher’s kids, all cradle Episcopalians, who have been hard core involved in the church for sometime. The fact of the matter is, the only people we really represent is each other. And we’re already there.

It suddenly occurred to me that as noble a pursuit as OYP vote was in the fight to get young people more involved and represented, it was so obviously the completely wrong way to do it. Like giving the people of the Titanic a bigger bucket to bail with, it’s no use helping if you can’t acknowledge the larger problem.

That’s when I talked to my mother. Kathy Hamilton has worked for the Diocese of Olympia for more than a decade in Faith Formation (children, youth, young adults). Until recently, she was the one who appointed the OYP at our own diocesan conventions, a job that she was very good at considering she has worked with nearly everyone under 18 who is active in the church in Western Washington. She worked hard to ensure diversity in everything from gender to geographical location, and the OYPs were great. Olympia voted that OYP should have vote at our diocesan conventions and has since had to have their OYPs elected. While I do believe this was a good thing and the right thing to do, and the OYPs we elect are great, we do lose some of the diversity we used to have.

Considering this, I thought for sure that my mom would understand the argument about sacrificing vote to maintain the diversity that can only be achieved by appointments, and how this is perhaps the wrong way to go about this at all. While she does understand, she countered me with another good point: we have to do something, anything. We cannot wait for the perfect solution to come along because it never will, or if it does it will be too late. We must settle for the imperfect fixes, and try with each new attempt to seek better solutions.

It’s a hard pill to swallow. Do something you know is a bad idea? But maybe it’s not so bad an idea. If the status quo is not working, we have to change it. If we cannot change it for the better, we must at least change it for the different. We are told “seek and you shall find.” We cannot find that which we have resolved ourselves not to look for.

And so I was prepared to vote for D066 when it came to the floor, flaws and all. The debate was hard to listen to. As usual some good arguments were made and some bad ones. I think the best is that the OYP is essentially a minority group, and if we give vote to them shouldn’t we be doing it for others? Does the Episcopal Black Caucus get extra votes? Women? Gays? Our system is based on equality through geography, with each region getting the same number of votes. Because OYPs come from specific dioceses, giving them vote would be giving an extra vote to those dioceses.

(I would counter this by pointing out that it’s still not perfect. Large dioceses get the same number of votes as small ones, Americans vastly outnumber those from other countries, and if your diocese can afford to employ assisting bishops, bishop suffragans, etc. then you get an extra vote in the House of Bishops. Not to mention more for how many retired bishops you have surviving. We can’t make a perfect system, so can we really defend it as one?)

Then there were some very bad arguments, like the man who seemed to think that youth could only vote with youth issues in mind, as their only focus and motivation as though young people are not whole and complete individuals like the rest of the deputies, but lobbyists for their own age.

What made the debate especially hard to listen to was that underneath so much of it was the thin but consistent layer of prejudice. Behind every comment was a notion that young people were undeserving of the vote, not because it went against the legislative system, but because they didn’t know enough, they weren’t smart enough, they were too flaky, they didn’t take anything seriously, they didn’t understand. It is an assumption that the thoughts and opinions of the youth are worth less than those of the adults. That the holy spirit does not speak to them like it speaks to the grownups, or at least that they can’t hear it.

With anger behind my eyes I sat quietly, unable to speak in favor of that which I knew was flawed. I voted in favor of the resolution regardless, knowing it would fail. For now I think the problem will sit with me for the next three years as I try to resolve for myself what the possible solution could be, not for this specific resolution but to youth and the church as a whole. Growing up in the Episcopal Church has been such a positive influence on my raising. It showed me what is both good and bad about belief and helped me to find my own faith, that driving force that won’t allow me to sit down and quit, but forces optimism and compassion and love into me without my consent. If I can share this I must. There is something that the church is not providing its young people, either through content, acceptance, or invitation. And we cannot expect them to fix it for us.

I leave you with two thoughts that I might have shared in the debate had I decided to speak:

  1. If General Convention teaches us nothing else, it is that people have the ability to be ignorant, single-minded, immature, unaware, frivolous and stupid at any age. If we are afraid that the OYPs will bring these traits into the vote, it’s too late. The flood gates opened the moment we asked humans to try to discern the will of God.
  2. The OYPs who proposed this resolution are well aware of how long it takes to change canons. They know that even if it were passed this year, they would be too old to be Youth Presence when it finally took affect, and they did it anyway. They are thinking towards the future of the church and the betterment of those who come after, in hopes that youth will be influencing the church they will inhabit as adults. This is a level of forward thinking that should be envied.

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