Imagining what it’s like in the House of Deputies may not come naturally to many of you, so here’s a few things to keep in mind as I tell you what happened yesterday.
The room is huge. No matter what city we’re in, the biggest hall in the convention center is where the House of Deputies will be. It sucks up sound and spews it back in echo. Several times this week we’ve had complaints from deputies sitting in the back that they can’t hear because of the echo. The floor of the house is row after row of huge tables, eight people long. There are 840 seated deputies. The head tables tower over us, and the projection screens are massive. Outside the barrier to the floor are rows for guests, special guests, and alternates. Pages and administrative staff are everywhere, running back and forth to deliver notes and collect materials.
With so many people, it’s impossible to control the sound. Binders are clicking and unclicking, papers are shuffling, people are walking to and from the bathroom. There’s a constant hum of the people who are leaning over to talk to their neighbor rather than listen to debate (myself included). With 840 people, when someone asks for a second to their motion, they always get it. When we vote on simple procedural things, people are talking over the vote. Voting always sounds the same: Bonnie says “All in favor say ‘aye’,” and there’s a mostly together group yelling of the word from some portion of the house (in general, more things are approved than rejected). Bonnie follows it with “All opposed?” and there’s another group grumbling the words ‘No.’ When we vote on stuff that should be straight forward, there’s always a few voices in the distance yelling no. Sometimes because they don’t like the content, sometimes because they don’t think the General Convention should be discussing it at all, sometimes because they’re board and ornery.
So that’s what it’s like. The only time things are still and even close to silent is when we pray. Even then, it’s not the regular opening and closing prayers that get the prime respect, so much as special calls for prayers, like when it’s announced that a deputy had to go to the hospital or when someone asks if we can pray for a moment prior to voting on a difficult issue.
Some of you already know that one of the big issues this year was structure. In order to talk about it on the floor of convention, we had to have a Special Order. Special Orders come from the committee on Dispatch of Business, and are intended to keep us from getting out of hand or off track during a debate on something weighty and controversial. There was a Special Order for Same-Sex Blessings, one on the Budget, one on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, etc. Special Orders tend to limit the amount of time individuals can speak, state that no one can speak twice on the same issue, and set special rules about procedural motions (such as no one can propose an amendment in the first ten minutes of debate).
The resolution from Structure was anxiously anticipated, as was the debate. What would the plan be? What would people say? Would we be able to agree on how to reform the structure of the entire church?
The time for the Special Order came, and the committee chair got up to introduce it, explaining how it came out of the 80 different resolutions they had on structure and the dozens of testimonies they heard and the open hearing. Debate began, and went as usual. An amendment was proposed, people talked for and against it, and it was ultimately defeated. We talked in abstracts about the need for new thinking, cautioned against going too quickly, and made up a lot of metaphors for better and worse. While it was a special topic and a hot-button issue, everything seemed pretty on par for a big issue debate.
The time came to end debate and call for the vote. We all knew it was likely to pass, the real questions were how close it would be, and where those dissenting voices would come from. Dallas behind us? The Spanish speakers over on the left? Maybe a mix from all around, with individual protestors separate from others in their diocese?
Bonnie asked, “All in favor?”
Absolutely, completely unexpected, dead silence.
Eight hundred and forty people who can’t even agree to make March Lay Ministry month just cast a unanimous vote.
The silence went straight into clapping and cheers. People jumped up from their seats. I turned around to see Carla, an openly transgender priest from our diocese, high-fiving the deputies from conservative Dallas. Bonnie suggested we celebrate with song, and the house music leader jumped up to lead us in the same song the Structure committee sang when they had finished crafting the resolution. It was a beautiful moment. I asked Stephen, and he said in all his time at General Convention, he’s never seen such a thing.
It’s nice to know we can agree on something. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.
I’ll leave you with the chorus of the song we sang:
Let us bring the gifts that differ
And in splendid, different ways,
bring a new church into being,
one in faith, and love, and praise.