Eyes on the Floor: Reflections from General Convention

Posted on July 7, 2009

Tuesday: Getting Underway



Somehow in the midst of the maze of rooms and halls of the Anaheim Convention Center and surrounding hotels, the herculean effort of starting General Convention is gaining a head of steam.  It began with a bit of an odd start this morning with new deputies and some deputy alternates (like yours truly) gathering near the information booth to find out where a promised new deputy orientation was happening.  Only thing was, it wasn’t.  This experience only exposes the simple fact that General Convention, a gathering of some 10,000 people, suffers the same kinds of technical and scheduling snafus that every institution wrestles with!  But General Convention, too, is also an organic body of people, a portion of the Body of Christ, which deals with challenge through prayerful adaptation.  Many of our new deputies are turning to more seasoned veterans for support and guidance through the maze before us: the processes of the largest bi-cameral legislature in the world.


My eyes are watching closely now for Title IV matters.  Jim Naughton wrote in his introductory post on Monday that I’m here as a Title IV wonk.  A massive revision of our canons that govern clergy discipline will come before Convention in the coming days, but exactly what form that revision will take has yet to be decided by various legislative committees.  At the request of the California deputation, I’ll be stuck – like a fly to wallpaper – to the Title IV resolutions as they are argued and re-forged.  And I will try to intelligibly disclose the heart of the debates and directions of these revisions as they unfold here at the Café.  So stay tuned!


The first significant public hearing of General Convention gathered this afternoon at 12:30, and, no, it wasn’t to discuss a rare kind of Episcopal sandwich, which would have been an appropriate lunch-time matter!  Instead, the gathering was to discuss budget priorities for the Episcopal Church.  And the chocker-block crowd that assembled to address the Committee for Program, Budget and Finance, had only an hour to do it.  Given our economic climate, it’s easy to imagine why.  Money is tight.  So what will be funded and what will be cut?

On the chopping block is 0.7%, the Millennium Development Goal commitment out of the total Church budget to help alleviate extreme poverty around the world – now growing alarmingly with the global economic and financial crisis.  One resolution before this Convention, B019, insists that we keep MDG’s a priority in our budget. . . up to 1%.  Many spoke movingly in support of this resolution and its principles, even if it means cutting structural funding for the Church as a whole.  Maintaining this commitment is critical to our witness to the greater world and inviting our members into what The Rev. Dr. Ian Douglas named in the hearing simply as “God’s mission.” Other speakers – lay and ordained – claimed our MDG commitment as a key part of our incarnational witness, a Christ-centered vocation for the faithful.  It is not merely the mission of an institutional Church.


But right now, everyone is here to plead for their particular piece of the shrinking pie. . .or sandwich, if you like.  So how do we prioritize around the future of the church: youth, evangelism, diverse and multicultural ministries, and reaching out to the marginalized and forgotten and those who have yet to join and be transformed by the Ways of Christ?  And how do we raise up and empower leadership for all of this ministry?
A member of our deputation who sits on PB&F laid out the greatest challenge of all this way: How do we decide what’s not a priority?  


I don’t envy the work of PB&F, but they are yet another example of a church body prayerfully struggling these days with diminishing resources.  The grace in the room, as a the chair of PB&F rightly pointed out, was the passion of so many who came to speak – a passion they have for the Body of Christ and our shared mission in the Gospel. That’s a resource we need to bank on more going forward.


My single, fervent prayer as PB&F holds more hearings in coming days is that they only set an example for all of us in following Christ’s eternal wisdom: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

(Re)orientation: Leadership and Character


Both Houses gathered together in the great convention hall later in the afternoon to hear from the two presiding officers of General Convention: The Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori; and the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson.  

They were introduced by Gregory Straub, executive officer and secretary of General Convention.  Mr. Straub’s unlikely character was summed up by his astonishing pale green jacket filling the great screens of the convention hall . For many years, General Convention has been host to a cast of remarkable characters – unique and distinctive personalities that make up what my grandmother would call the “rich tapestry of life.”  Gregory Straub is but one of these remarkable characters who constitute our Church at every level.   It’s this cast of characters that forms The Episcopal Church, from the General Convention down to the interactions of our diverse parishes and missions.  It’s this cast of characters that reflects the remarkable originality and humor of the Spirit at work among us.

Both the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies spoke compellingly this afternoon.  Some highlights:

The Presiding Bishop invited us to see crisis, the present reality of our life as a Church at work in the world, as opportunity.  This is a time of decision-making, prioritizing, and turning:  She reminded us that a central crisis of the gospels is Jesus’ decision to turn his face towards Jerusalem, and the choice before us is to follow him in that journey.


Bishop Jefferts Schori named a great heresy of the West: that we can be saved as individuals; that our salvation can be boiled down to individual recitation of encapsulated formularies about Jesus.  Our response to this heresy is Ubuntu, a Bantu word that captures the vision of community from Southern Africa:


I am because we are. . .There is no ‘I’ without ‘you.’  


Through this lens, the Presiding Bishop said, we can see the roots of the present crises in our economic systems, our environmental challenges. . . “We are our siblings’ keepers and their knowers,” she said with her steady, centered tone.  Selfishness has no place in ubuntu.  Michael Battle, from the Diocese of Los Angeles, would echo these themes later in his presentation on ubuntu to the House of Deputies.


Bonnie Anderson picked up the theme by reminding us that we are, as General Convention of The Episcopal Church, rooted fundamentally in the promise of Jesus.  We are the Body of Christ, found in its full expression through all orders of the church: laity, priests, deacons, and bishops.  


Public Narrative and Mission Conversation


Questions about the use of Public Narrative at this General Convention have been wide and varied, from “What is it?”to “Why do we have to do it?” to “Does it matter?”. Is it another gimmick?  Another tool for our oft-neglected evangelical toolkit?  Or is it a plot to control the agenda?  We’re about to find out in the coming days as we engage with Marshall Ganz and leaders he has trained from across the Church to share in our individual and shared stories and build vision for common mission.  Personally, I find the approach compelling.  But you can read more for yourself about Public Narrative in Marshall Ganz’ own words here.

The House of Deputies and the Hundred Acre Wood


By late afternoon, the House of Deputies and House of Bishops gathered in their separate rooms to begin orientation to the legislative process.  As I found my way into the alternates section in the House of Deputies, I was struck by its sheer size – 880 deputies plus a few hundred alternates fill the Hall.  And, amazingly, this vast body is highly organized to debate, quibble, and discern the course of The Episcopal Church.  We were treated to an entertaining dry-run of the electronic voting equipment and a scripted example of how a resolution is handled on the floor, complete with Eeyore hats and a deputy who insisted – much to the consternation of the Chair – on calling himself Captain Jack Sparrow.  Still, he said he was only a nine- canon deputy.  . .


This is a fun bunch of people to be with.  Many of them go back years doing this work for the greater church.  The camaraderie is palpable.  I wonder how that will carry as the pace really picks up in the coming days.


A few quickies as I wrap up this reflection for the night and retire to bed for too little sleep:


  • This General Convention, says everyone I’ve spoken with thus far, is much more tightly scripted than the one in 2006.  Meetings begin and end on time.  The schedule is tightly adhered to.  Amen to that.  There is much to be done, and while a scripted agenda doesn’t determine outcomes, it keeps things moving forward and holds our hearts and minds in the deep work of discernment.
  • Controversy is on the way, but I don’t detect the rancor that one might expect.  There is an intentional effort to help us engage one other as Christians across the ideological divides, and the space is structured that way – from round tables in the main worship hall to the numerous opportunities to gather and dialogue intentionally outside of legislative process
  • We are surrounded by visitors from across the Anglican Communion.  One can hardly move between meetings without running in to a bishop or an archbishop from another part of the Communion.  The process this year is blown wide open for the Communion to see.  This gives the Spirit a lot of room to work.

At the Chicago Consultation meeting this evening, I had the treat of sitting down with Mark Harris of Anglican blogging fame for the first time.  We chuckled and laughed almost like old friends.  What a miracle this is, I thought, that Christians who live 3,000 miles away from one another can come together for the first time as colleagues and friends, and, of course, siblings in Christ,.  For that is who we are at General Convention.  And now I can’t wait to see what God does with this tomorrow. . .