Here at General Convention Monday has been a day of important net mending, community building and engine starting.
Remember “To Mend the Net”? It was a booklet by Archbishop Gomez (West Indies) and Presiding Bishop Sinclair (Southern Cone). It has long since gone to the dust bin of old documents for old battles. But the chill can still be felt in the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s recommendation of the book, which closes with the following statement: “Members of the Anglican Communion should heed that while much may be gained by healthy debate in 'communion' much will be lost by action which challenges lawful authority in the body of Christ.” The Archbishop in question was George Carey, most recently known for criticizing his successor,writing and speaking rather widely on matters about the Episcopal Church, about which I would suggest he knows little.
The real net mending always goes on, but not with the fearful observation, which looks mightily like an implied threat, that “much will be lost by actions which challenges lawful authority in the body of Christ.” Net mending, of course, is the regular meat and drink of General Convention. So the first full day of Convention activities included efforts to begin the legislative life of the two houses with a focus on care of one another and honoring of diverse opinions, at least to the point of hearing each other out. The question is how to retain the passion for position without loosing the love of sister and brother. Both the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies spoke to the bishops and deputies assembled, not in joint formal session, but simply as the community of General Convention.
Healthy debate in communion and on the matter of communion happens often at General Conventions, both now and in the past. This debate has taken many forms. At the General Convention 2003 the Standing Commission on World Mission published a vision statement titled, “Companions in Transformation” which spoke extensively to the matter of communion, and from a wide perspective on the whole of the Anglican Communion.
At this Convention, beginning tomorrow, I understand that the Special Committee on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion will consider a variety of resolutions having to do with affirming our continuance in the Anglican Communion. Hopefully there will be a real effort to gather testimony on the matter which will help the Committee form the legislation it sends to the Convention for consideration later in the week. There will be many who will want to testify on Tuesday, but not as many as on Wednesday.
On Wednesday night there will be a larger hearing where folk can testify concerning the “biggies” – the resolutions dealing with regret, election of bishops, rites for blessing and delegation of Episcopal pastoral oversight. I have always valued the fact that hearings are open for testimony from all sorts of people, not just deputies and bishops but visitors, guests, and any interested person. Open hearings have been just that.
All things going well the Special Committee will then form resolutions to be presented within a day or two to the Convention for consideration. Again there will be discussion and debate and finally decision. Decisions are what we might call “actions”. We need not worry too much about the Archbishop’s now five year old comment. Action taken by decision at General Convention is not “action which challenges lawful authority in the body of Christ,” rather it is precisely lawful. Now, granted the Episcopal Church is not the body of Christ (a rather larger mystically united body), but lawful authority is not lodged anywhere else either. Lawful authority rests with the actions of Convention precisely because “communion” in the body of Christ is broken, or at least widely impaired.
We didn’t break it, the Network didn’t break it, the Church of England didn’t break it. And for sure the Gay and Lesbian Christians among us didn’t do it. It has been broken in many ways by many generations of Christians who could not see a way to keep it all together. For this reason each church does indeed exercise lawful authority in the body of Christ, specifically for its own life and in ways that are held provisionally.
We have to make the decisions for our own church because no one else can or should. At the same time we need also to recognize and take responsibility for decisions which we know are innovative, new or challenging. In other words, we need to exercise provisional decision making, knowing that we are not by such actions speaking for the whole and universal church and knowing that we witness to what we know, not to the fullness of faith, a matter of each heart.
The matters of faith and heart required something other than actions alone, if they are to be shared. We need not only to work at expressions of our church’s place in communion but to work at stating the stuff of belief, the experiences of what we know beyond what we understand. And doing this means we have to work at building community.
We did indeed begin this community building Monday afternoon. In an exercise first proposed by the President of the House of Deputies, George Warner, we deputies gathered around tables in groups of ten to share something of our faith in Jesus Christ, our passion for the Gospel, and our hopes for General Convention. It was a guided conversation, closely monitored so that everyone got five to eight minutes to give personal testimony to faith, passion and hope.
It was amazing! The building of a shared listening and language of faith, and a witness to passions in ministry and hopefulness for our work actually took place. It was true at my table, and I am sure from reports, at others as well. I felt honored to hear the faith, passion and hope statements of others, and delighted to share my own. The sharing was not easy and the stories were not easy, but the doing of the thing lifted the load considerably.
We also “started the engines.” Monday we set the wheels in motion that drive the legislative process. The strange city of meeting halls, legislative committee sites, offices, and exhibit areas, all surrounded by food kiosks and lobbies (the better to lobby my dear) came together almost overnight, and Monday, in one swoop, the legislative committees scheduled and posted first hearings, deputies and bishops got their procedures in order, and the engines are running.
So, what could be better on slow Monday? We did some net mending with more to follow, we did some community building, and we started the engines.
There will be tough work ahead, but the whole thing is promising. We are the lawful authority in this Church and we can hope that others will see that we take this work seriously and faithfully, and also provisionally.