Thursday, July 5, 2012

77th General Convention – 1

This post is the first in a series on the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church (TEC).

For those unfamiliar with TEC, the denomination spans 18 countries, although heavily concentrated in the United States. Every three years, TEC holds a General Convention, a bicameral legislature that is the denomination’s highest authority. Each of the 100 plus dioceses sends 10 delegates (5 lay, 5 priests/deacons) to sit in GC’s House of Deputies. The House of Bishops consists of the Church’s bishops, active and retired. GC establishes policies, programs, and budgets for the next triennium. Amending the Church’s canons and constitutions – the rules that govern how the Church does business – also happens at GC.

Perhaps the most controversial GC was the 74th, which met in 2003 and consented to the election of Gene Robinson as the new Bishop for the diocese of New Hampshire. Although each diocese elects its own bishop(s), TEC must consent in order for the individual to be consecrated a bishop. Generally, the standing committee and diocesan bishop vote on these consents; for elections within 120 days of GC, GC acts in lieu of diocesan standing committees and bishops. Robinson’s election was controversial because his was the first of an openly gay, non-celibate priest as a bishop (he certainly was not the first gay bishop).

My general impressions of this GC, the third that I’ve attended, include:

·         Attendees are well above the median age of the nation’s population. Taking ten days to attend a church convention, perhaps even paying some of one’s expenses, is infeasible for the less affluent, those with limited vacations, single parents, and many others.

·         Attendees’ appearance suggests affluence but not wealth. The wealthy, like the poor but for different reasons, probably find attending impractical.

·         The process tends is largely dysfunctional. There are too many issues, too little time, and – especially for first time delegates – too much of the process is new to permit most delegates to understand breadth, scope, and consequences of the literally hundreds of issues on which they will vote.

·         Although GC’s large (1000 plus deputies and several hundred bishops) size suggests that it affords diversity of perspective and thinking, the real action happens primarily in sub-committees and committees, perhaps in the House of Bishops, but rarely in the House of Deputies. In the smaller forums, smaller groups of people address fewer issues more in depth.

·         Many of those present are passionate; all appear deeply committed.

On the first day of formal sessions, both the Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, spoke. Bishop Katharine spoke of a vision of the future, in which TEC adapts creatively and constructively to a changing world, becoming an increasingly vibrant witness to God's reconciling love in Jesus. Bonnie Anderson, by contrast, offered a vision for the future that looked more like the past. TEC, as readers of this blog will know, is on a downward trajectory (if you are unfamiliar, read some of the blogs listed under the key word, “Episcopal Church”). More of what we have been doing seems unlikely to reverse the decline. Change is happening. Our best hope, institutionally, is to move intentionally in new directions that include:

·         More efficient, less costly, less time consuming governance (e.g., virtual conventions to address policy, program, and questions),

·         Directing more energy into mission (e.g., fewer committees and holding a triennial gathering of tens of thousands of Episcopalians to infuse fresh enthusiasm for mission and demonstrate that TEC lives vibrantly and abundantly),

·         Continuing to move toward becoming a more welcoming, inclusive Church (e.g., adopting rites for blessing same-sex relationships).

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