Every time I get back from General Convention, there’s a least a few people who mention seeing the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the news. I always give the same warning: assume any article about the Episcopal Church contains at least one factual error. Most of the time it’s something seemingly small, like referring to us as “The Episcopal Church U.S.A.” or calling it our “annual” convention. While they might be big mistakes to someone like me, most non-Episcopalians could care less, and I understand that.
Perhaps it’s only that I’ve become aware of a lot more Christian and Episcopalian bloggers, but the news cycle this time around seems to be a lot more intense. Gene Robinson’s consecration got us more headlines, but for that, the headline was the story, “Episcopal Church Elects Gay Bishop.” That was it. It was a thing we did. This time however, it’s gotten rather personal.
It started with a laughable opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, which many are blaming on the Journal’s recent change in ownership. Despite being in the opinion section, the piece was written like a journalistic article and often mistaken for one. And despite being written like a journalistic article, it contained almost no actual facts. A cursory view shows at least one error per paragraph, ranging from the seemingly inconsequential (gathered “from around the country” discounts all non-U.S. diocese) to the outright false (the presiding bishop carrying a metropolitan cross). I see the primary benefit in this article as being an excellent teaching tool to illustrate how personal prejudice can skew a piece of writing without being explicit. After all, the author never actually says that his real problem is with women leadership in the church, but I would be a fool to believe otherwise.
To give you an idea of what I’ve been reading, here’s a list I compiled, starting with the aforementioned muckraking:
What Ails the Episcopalians – The laughable piece of fiction from Jay Akasie, printed in the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal.
What Ails the Wall Street Journal – A dismantling of Akasie’s article, exposing the most blatant errors.
Rum, Sodomy, and the Cash: The Episcopal Church 2012 – Lest you think I’m only quoting the liberals that pulled Akasie’s article apart, here’s one from a conservative blogger.
Wrong on Every Count – A bishop’s response to Akasie, also pointing out a few of the bigger flaws.
A Strongly-worded Letter about General Convention and Love – A response to Akasie regarding tradition and the Holy Spirit.
Episcopal Church is Radically Faithful to Its Tradition Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer for TEC, writes a letter to the editor at the Wall Street Journal arguing that our liberal values represent a true commitment to Jesus.
Why Is the Episcopal Church Near Collapse? – From Belief.net, an interesting exercise in using opinion as news.
Brazen Women, Cross-Dressers, and Canine Caskets – An unpacking of the patriarchical undertones in the articles by the Wall Street Journal and Belief.net
Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? – A New York Times Op-Ed piece by Ross Douthat suggesting that liberalism is killing the TEC and other denominations like it.
Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat – Diana Butler Bass of the Huffington Post talks about the decline in church membership across all denominations, and suggests that liberal churches may not be the ones dying after all.
My Liberal Christian Church is Not Dying -A former Evangelical talks about TEC’s appeal to him and other young people in response to Douthat.
When “Liberal” Rhymes with “Theology” It’s Time for Evangelism – An argument for the theological basis of social liberal views in response to Douthat.
Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-In-Between – In response to Douthat and Bass, Rachel Held Evans talks about what it’s like to feel caught in the middle, and how embracing the middle could help both sides.
The Glorious Episcopal Church – In response to Akasie, Douthat, and Ross, we see a different interpretation of what happened at General Convention from voting secretary Rev. Winnie Varghese, who just so happens to be my second favorite General Convention celebrity (second of course to Gregory Straub).
Originally I ended this blog post with a long diatribe with my two cents about why we’re losing members and what it all means and the inevitability of death and there was even some nice imagery in there. But I think perhaps that’s a rant for another time.
Instead, with regards to the possibility that our liberal values are killing the Episcopal Church, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes. It’s from John Paul Jones, a navel officer in the American Revolutionary War:
“I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.”
The Episcopal Church Welcomes Harm’s Way.
1. Openly transgendered black female priest Carla Robinson high-fiving the deputies from the conservative Diocese of Dallas in celebration after the unanimous approval of the restructuring resolution.
2. Casually walking by an older black woman sitting outside, glancing down at her badge to see the name Barbara Harris, and walking another 50 feet before having the sudden realization that “that’s Barbara Harris.”
3. The Very Reverend David Thurlow of South Carolina gracefully and respectfully asking to be excused from our final committee meeting after Same-Sex Blessings were approved by the House of Deputies. His diocese left one lay and one clergy member behind as a symbol that while they may disagree with our decision, they are not leaving the church.
4. Learning that even if General Convention participants are staying in non-union hotels, those hotels are required to pay union wages for the duration of our stay.
5. Highly liberal deputy Susan Russell and highly conservative Bishop Daniel Martins trending on twitter after finding TWO things to agree on while discussing Same-Sex Blessings.
The main issue on the floor for the last day of convention was that it was the last day of convention. There is a sense of panic that sets in on the last day, as it suddenly occurs to us that we will never be able to finish it all in time. There’s a flurry of motions to suspend the rules of order to move around important legislation, it becomes impossible to keep track of the calendars and what’s been decided, and the amount of time we give ourselves to speak on any issue gets shorter and shorter.
We started the day with a resolution to bypass some rules and allow that all the resolutions we don’t get to by the end of convention to be referred to the appropriate committees. As the head of Dispatch was explaining the benign nature of it, he said, “We do this at the end of every convention.” If that’s not an argument for restructuring, I don’t know what is. We should not have a system in which we are permanently incapable of completing the work assigned.
I’ve heard several encouraging reports about how the hotel staff feels about us. The phrase, “I wish you guys would stay forever” has been quoted several times, as well as, “You’re the only Christians that haven’t made me mad,” and my personal favorite, “You’re much better than the Baptists. You guys buy drinks and you bring your own women!”
Time to get packing!
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.
Dear Conservative Episcopalians,
I wish there was some other way.
I wish there was a way that we could truly honor and respect our differing theologies. It pains me to hear your quiet voices echoing the word ‘no’ in the House of Deputies. It used to be because I didn’t like what you believed, and hated that everyone didn’t agree with what I was sure was right. But now I hear it and I’m sad. I’m sad because I know that you know that you are standing alone in a sea of people with whom you disagree. I hear you speak at the podium and it’s no longer anger. It’s a plea. “Please don’t do this. You don’t know what it means to me.”
As an Episcopalian I hold high the idea that all of us can carry our own personal theology as we walk the same path. So often we are able to settle our disputes by simply voicing our opinions, agreeing to disagree, and going back to our respective homes. But this time, we cannot. And I wish there was another way.
The problem is that if homosexuality is not a sin, then the people in these unions are not sinners. There is nothing wrong with them. Which makes denying them the ability to bind themselves together in fidelity an injustice. I am called to fight against injustice where ever I see it, and I see it in this.
The Blessing of Same-Sex Unions has no place in your theology, but it is essential to mine. And this is where the real problem lies. We cannot have both be true in the church at the same time. For a long time we did it your way, and that caused pain to our LGBT brothers and sisters. Now we are doing it different, and it causes pain for you.
So I wish there was some other way.
I am honored by your presence. You are the faithful remnant. When others gave up, you stayed. I do not envy your position, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to walk into that room knowing you are the minority and will not win the vote. And now that we have passed this resolution, you have to go back to your diocese and explain why you couldn’t stop it. Explain that you did all you could. Explain the small victories you were able to accomplish. And I’m sorry.
I used to worry that honoring your opinions was some how giving in to them. Sometimes these talks about sexuality remind me of the civil rights movement, and I used to wonder if trying to look out for you and your needs was like trying to accomodate racists. So I asked someone who would know. She is black, American, and old enough to have first hand knowledge of the civil rights movement. And she told me no. No, what is happening in this church is nothing like that. She told me the difference was that we’re talking about it. We’re willing to talk and we’re able to talk. When she was fighting for her rights in the 1960s, the people she fought against had no interest in talking.
You are still here. You re still talking. Thank you so much.
Since I first began coming to General Convention in 2006, I have both witnessed and been involved with countless discussions about sexuality. But what happened this morning in committee was different than everything I have experienced thus far.
After the Blessings hearing on Saturday night, the Blessings sub-committee met to discuss changes and amendments to the resolution. As we were finishing up we reminded everyone how important it was to get the resolution through committee in one session, to make sure it would get to the legislative houses in time. At every General Convention there are dozens of resolutions that die simply because we ran out of time and everyone had to go home.
So this morning we introduced the proposed amendments to the committee, and we let our parliamentary-procedure-hair down just a bit in terms of how we organized the conversation. But something extraordinary happened during our meeting. For the first time, it felt like we were all genuinely putting the needs of others ahead of our own. We had stopped fighting about what to do, and started asking each other what the other side needed. Our most liberal members were working together with our most conservative ones to ensure that there were provisions in the text to suit everyone’s needs. For example, many in the church who oppose these blessings are very concerned about being forced to perform them. Our canons include rules specifically saying they would never be forced to do such a thing, but many said making that explicit in the resolution would be helpful for the people in their diocese who held those fears. So we did.
Possibly the greatest moment happened when the Susan Russell, arguably the most publicly liberal gay rights supporter on our committee, finished speaking about one of the proposed amendments. Once she was done, Bishop Martins of the Diocese of Springfield (one of the more conservative dioceses) raised his hand to speak. He said, “Alert the presses: I agree with Susan Russell.” With laughter and applause the question to end debate was immediately called, for fear that we might keep talking and ruin this perfect moment. Later on Susan had the chance to agree once again with Bishop Martins, and I knew we were doing something right.
We stayed 20 minutes passed our planned time because everyone wanted to get it done. After the vote was taken and the decision to recommend adoption was reported, one of the conservative members asked to file a minority report (which gets attached to the end of the committee’s report and can be requested by any deputy or bishop if their conscience leads them to do so). We were packing up to rush off to the worship service when someone asked if the minority report would slow down the legislative process. Our chair said it wouldn’t if the deputy could write the report right now. “I’ll have to miss church,” the deputy said with a smile. We all agreed that the Lord would forgive him, and he wrote it right then. This to me is the ultimate example of the difference between honest and dishonest disagreement. I can’t help but think that if such a thing happened in the U.S. congress, a congressman might take advantage of the opportunity to tie up legislation he didn’t like. But this deputy didn’t. Because we’re all at the table again.
You can’t simultaneously have and not have gay bishops, or same-sex blessings, or transgender clergy. The church is either doing things things or it’s not. Even when you allow different dioceses to make their own rules, it doesn’t matter. We are still one church, and as a church we either allow it or we don’t. And so we fought. And as the liberals started to win, the conservatives started to leave. And it was awful.
And so the remaining church is mostly liberal now, which means something like same-sex blessings stands a very good chance. And the conservatives know that. The ones who remain are not going anywhere. They are committed to keep trying, even though they know they are the minority. But in (somewhat) resigning to the idea that these things will happen, there is less anger. The liberal side has changed too. There is less anger there as well. So the conservatives can come to the liberals and say, “Look, we know this is going to happen. You know we don’t like it. But how can we turn it into something we can take back home with us?” And the liberals step up to that challenge.
I have gained such deep respect for the conservative members of our committee. They are in a difficult position that I don’t envy. But I’m so glad they’re here. I don’t want to become a church of the fundamentalist left. Diversity brings health. It’s easy to acknowledge that truth when you’re talking about including racial minorities or young people, it’s hard when you’re talking about including people you know will vote opposite you in every thing you can imagine.
I told Stephen Moore about my experience in committee. He said, “You know if you were a more theology inclined person, you might say it was ‘Spirit-filled’.” Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes with wind and fire. But perhaps more often, it’s with peace.
I’m on the committee for Liturgy and Music here at GC, which gets the first look at the resolution to approve and use the Same-Gender Blessings created over the last three years by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM). Tonight was our public hearing, which all of us on the committee were anxiously awaiting. This was our big night.
When trying to work out the guidelines for how to run the hearing (order of speakers, time limit, etc), there was a lot of speculation about what would happen. Would we have too many people? Or barely any? The Church has been talking about this for awhile now. A LONG while. Years. Some wondered if all the talking people wanted to do had already happened, especially at the last GC in 2009 when we first approved the development of these rites. In addition, I think we were all a bit wary of sitting in a room for two hours watching people yell at each other about something most people take quite personally.
So it is with great happiness that I tell you the hearing went well, the speakers were all civil, and we even ended early. Some speakers said that we’ve been talking about this for too long. Others said we’re going too fast. Neither argument is new, which is part of why to me they are both right.
Yes, this is slow. This is painstakingly and annoyingly slow. We only have convention every three years, so anything that can’t be made in eight days (such as an entire liturgy) has to be given to committee and come back three years later. Changes to big things like the constitution or canons are even worse, because they require passage at more than one convention. We have hearings and more hearings. We talk about it in the House of Bishops and in the House of Deputies. We have special consultations and our own weird network of insider blogs that I’m only just discovering myself. And for those who are waiting, it is an eternity. Imagine getting engaged, and then planning the wedding for 15 to 30 years.
But it’s slow for a reason, and in the end I think it’s a good one. The easier it is to change something, the easier it is to change back. Just think of fad diets. Sure it’s simple to drink nothing but juice for a week, but you’ll be back to french fries in even less time. It’s a lot harder to change your whole pattern of diet and exercise, but in the end the change is more likely to be permanent. This is why it takes two General Conventions to change a canon. This is why we’ve been talking about Blessings for years. We need to be sure that if we do this, it will stick.
How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?
That depends, how many people are on the Change Committee?