I guess there's just a meanness in this world: A reflection.

It’s been a week since the end of General Convention. I returned home to Lewes, the village by the bay, by the big water, to baptize our granddaughter. The picture is of her, with her hair still wet from the baptism. We spent some time with extended family, and we are looking forward to going to an art opening of work by our daughter Emanuela. You can see a video about her and her work HERE. It has been a blessed week.

And now it is evening on the eighth day, and looking back at the General Convention, I wonder…

As a member of the Joint Committee for the Nomination of the Presiding Bishop I was very pleased that two of the four candidates we put forward were the final focal points of voting, and personally I am overjoyed that Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected. My joy was further confirmed in her sermon last Wednesday morning and her interview on NPR today. She is solid.


But about the Convention itself, in its workings, decision making and unfolding, I have much more mixed feelings and concerns.

Perhaps the place to begin is with this: Jesus said, “Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil.” Matt 5:37, RSV

One would suppose that this precisely is what decision making in a democratic assembly of Christians ought to be about. At the front end of the struggle there would be arguments, justifications, pleas, negotiations, compromises, promises, times out for prayer or quiet time, and on and on. And at some point members of the body would state their ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to some final form of a proposition set before them.

And, just so everyone would understand the implications of it all, it would be repeated again and again that if you don’t like the results, stick around long enough and you can vote the resolution down again or wait out the term of incumbents. There is always, for the ecclesial politician, “next year in Jerusalem.” No ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is forever, it just seems like that sometimes.

“Everything else comes from evil.”

In our day perhaps evil is not the right word. Perhaps these days ‘meanness’ conveys just enough of maladroit efforts by anti-democratic politicking in the both civil and religious life to convey Jesus’ disgust with the fancy, snake-in-the-grass, sleaze that passes for political savvy and ecclesial power brokering.

Such meanness, for example, includes proclaiming, after the fact of a disastrously flawed debate, that a particular resolution of the Lambeth Conference of 1998, has the force of moral law for all churches in the Anglican Communion, when the fact is NO resolution of Lambeth, well debated or not, is binding, no matter what its force.

More succinctly and most recently, it may be that meanness came to visit the General Convention under several guises.

First, there was the possibility of the spoiler vote:

Several observers have suggested that some votes in the election and confirmation of the Presiding Bishop were cast so that a known progressive was more likely to win, thus proving just how miserable the Episcopal Church has become. While there are some indications that this might have actually occurred, there is all sorts of evidence that the realignment crowd had already decided they couldn’t actually carry the General Convention to the right.

Then there is the matter of distancing:

B033 passed in the House of Bishops last Wednesday, but by what margin we don’t know. The vote in the House of Bishops was followed within several hours by several groups of bishops disagreeing, the Network bishops “disassociating” from the vote and progressives “dissenting.” We do not know the actual vote on the matter, since no roll call vote was taken. But when it was over, perhaps 13% of the bishops in attendance (according to Bishop Wimberly) found themselves protesting or walking out.

What becomes mean spirited is the matter of “disassociating” and leaving. In a religious community part of the democratic process in the church is called sticking around. The Windsor Report calls it by a more fancy name: autonomy in communion. We get to be part of the process provided we don’t walk off because it doesn’t go our way. Where the Windsor Report gets it wrong is insisting that autonomy is limited by some prior state of affairs, namely communion and identifying communion with the Anglican Communion. The democratic process must begin with the assumption of autonomy and along with it a social contract by which we can get our turn later to throw the rascals out. That is why this business of an Anglican Covenant is actually of some importance. The name "covenant" is already in use, thank you very much, but "compact" or "constitution" or some such might do nicely.

One of the real matters of contention in regard to the Windsor Report and its approach had to do with the phrase, “until some new consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges.” (WR par 134) The problem with the “until” is that gave non-democratic force to decisions made now. Autonomy in the quasi democratic context of our governance means that NO decision holds in force “until” and unspecified time. Every decision is provisional, in place until at the most two General Conventions have said otherwise (in the case of Constitutional changes) and one for all other decisions.

But no matter, two hours seems unbearable for some, and three years an eternity. One reporter suggested that immediately on the call for a vote, several of the realignment bishops left. What disassociation does is short circuit the democratic process every bit as much as the effort to spoil ballots by voting otherwise than the “yes” and “no” of conscience, best hope or theological certainty dictates. The disassociation crowd left. Their “yes” or “no” was not enough. They walked, even if quietly.

There were a group of dissenter bishops who it appears made their statement and stayed. Dissent can happen in the room. Disassociation involves walking away. Dissent is about a particular issue, case or proposition. Disassociation is “we have no need of you.”

Disassociating is a meanness, the meanness of the embarrassed or the loser. But the greatest of these acts of meanness is the meanness of the ones who hoped for the worse in order to prove that they are the best. Disassociation, as practiced by dissemblers, is merely a way to further a cause that can’t carry its own weight in a democratic fashion.

There is almost no question that the realignment folk, Bishops, clergy and laypersons, were opposed to all the candidates for Presiding Bishop placed in nomination by the Joint Nominating Committee and against anything in response to the Windsor Report that was not absolute “submission” to what they understood the Windsor Report to require. But the realignment community has done very little gnashing of teeth, for they were already convinced that General Convention was going to do them no good. That being the case, helping drive the nails in the coffin was not a bad idea.

There is a certain meanness in dissembling by being the spoiler. There is a certain meanness in disassociation, the most radically dismissive form of dissent. Such meanness is too often part of the political life of the nation. It is a source of sadness in the workings of the Church.

I am reminded of the last lines of Nebraska, a song by Bruce Springsteen:

“They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world.”

There was a lot of good done at General Convention. The meanness distracts from the possibility that the Spirit of God may indeed work through the lumpy strange thing called the General Convention. But the signs are there: We have a new Presiding Bishop elect, and she is strong and clear. We are ready to get on with mission, with the challenge of the Millennium Development Goals, with energetic leadership in both Houses, with a wide range of programs and concerns, a sound basis in worship and prayer, and a faith grounded in the one covenant we sign on for when baptized, a covenant that our miss Lily took on by way of the community that will support her by sticking it out with her.

Maybe our granddaughter Lily will find the Church a thing of promise when she grows up. Maybe our daughter Emanuela will one day have her extraordinary paintings and drawings projected in a future Eucharist at the General Convention.

Maybe meanness will give way.

We live in Hope.


  1. Thank you for that picture of your granddaughter at her baptism. It sometimes feels like Christ looks at me through the eyes of children, innocent and questioning, listening and watching everything. And I am so ashamed of the ugly spirit that has descended on us, ashamed to be seen with such eyes--I want to hide, but it is too late. We adults
    shall all have to repent in ashes.

  2. Perhaps ashes.

    Perhaps putting down all the instruments of alienation and control and again seeking the joyous simplicity of gathering around a table, breaking bread and sharing the cup in Jesus' name. Of helping the poor and standing with those in need. . .again in Jesus' name. Of pursuing the mission of compassion and mercy first and foremost.

    The thing is, Communion doesn't ultimately require much more than that. Maybe that's what repenting in ashes leads to.

    Thank you, Mark, for a lovely piece. Blessings on you, your family, and your lovely granddaughter.

  3. Some years ago I was in a parish that was threatening to blow itself apart. One party wanted the parish to move in one direction, and another wanted it to go in the opposite direction. In between was a community who could see some virtue in both points of view, but who refused to go to either extreme and who preferred to think of their church as a place where people of diverse views met around the Altar within the Presence of God. Happily, the parish survived (and since then it has gone from strength to strength), partly because of some wise intervention by the bishop, who appointed an expert in conflict resolution to work with the parish for a year. But the work of this expert would have been to no avail had there not also been goodwill within the parish, and a desire to transcend the details of the conflict.
    I remember two comments that were crucial to eventual resolution. One was made by a member of one of the clans that was part of the problem. The family was threatening to leave the parish en bloc, and this young man was under strong parental pressure to join them. But he said in a parish meeting, “Just because my idea differs from yours does not give me the right to take my idea and walk out of the room with it.” He could equally have said (and his listening attitude showed that he believed): “... does not give me the right to cast you and your idea out of the room.” As you suggest, Mark, it is that quality of staying in the room that makes the difference. And I see it as the difference between St Paul’s idea of charity, and the opposite of charity, which as St Augustine tells us, is cupidity.
    Like you, Mark, I have suffered my share of Synods. Especially at first I found it very difficult to hang onto my sense of peace and equilibrium, with so many voices competing for air time. There were two conflicting temptations when vexed issues arose. One was to fight the battle to the bitter end, to wish to return to the microphone again and again to hammer down points. The other was to walk out of the room. It took some time to learn the Benedictine art of speaking my own mind and then remaining quietly within the council, letting the discussion continue without even in my heart trying to silence voices I did not wish to hear. The Benedictine Rule has a great deal to say about non-contentious deliberation that we could all profit from learning.
    For in learning to practice quiet listening (and I suppose this is close to the essence of the Benedictine idea of obedience), I could see the wisdom of the other crucial comment that was made in the conflicted parish I mentioned. It came up over music, which like other things had been thrown into the struggle. One side wanted one kind of hymn, the other wanted something quite different. In the midst of a heated discussion, one of the older members of the third “group” I mentioned above said quietly, “Well, this is the way I see it: I may not like your music at all, but because I love you, I will be willing to put up with it, even to enjoy it.” As I see it, it is this element of love that creates a trust that even if we cannot understand what someone else is up to, we are able to transcend our own interest in order to make room for the other. Again, that wonderful 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians has much to teach us.
    We would all do well, I think, to recall the words of 1549: “And whereas in this our time, the minds of men are so diverse, that some think it a great matter of conscience to depart from a piece of the least of their Ceremonies, they be so addicted to their old customs; and again on the other side, some be so newfangled, that they would innovate all things, and so despise the old, that nothing can like them, but that is new: it was thought expedient, not so much to have respect how to please and satisfy either of these parties, as how to please God, and profit them both.” And these words are echoed in the Preface of 1662: “It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it.” Whether or not Anglican churches have always honoured the ideal expressed in these words (and we know they have not!), the ideal is nonetheless there for us to try to live up to. What it calls for is that both the old-custom addicts and the newfangled will remain in the room together and keep on talking – keep on learning from each other. And the reason why it is a good and decent ideal is because it calls for a shared love between both. I believe that this is the Anglicanism of the Elizabethan Settlement, of Hooker, and of John Donne (I find Donne’s third satire very instructive in these times – we are certainly not the first generation to experience conflict!). If we remain in the room together – and above all, if we can pray to grow in love even of those with whom we most vehemently disagree – we can, I think, retain the essence of this primal Anglicanism, no matter which party we belong to. Otherwise, we lose it, no matter how “mainstream”, “orthodox”, “faithful” or “progressive” we call ourselves. And it is not merely a matter of negotiating our way to compromise. Instead, it is (I think) a way of living in a sacramental paradox, recognizing that the Truth lies somewhere in the Silence beyond all our assertions, but that all our assertions in balance are somehow important as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
    Charles Abbott Conway, Great Tew Vicarage, Diocese of Oxford.

  4. Congratulations on the baptism. I did not read your whole post at this time, but I plan to. I am very pleased that you used a Springsteen quote. It sums up this mess and sadly many others. I hope you you have listened to the Seeger Sessions. It's far more hopeful than the bleak Nebraska.

  5. Dear friend Mark--every blessing and good wish for you and your lovely family. Enjoy that grandchild.

    Country Parson, we are 'near neighbours'--I am in Cuddesdon! I know it's not that close, but closer than over the ocean... :)

  6. Mark,

    First, at some point those of us on the conservative side will have to address head on this liberal view that our leaders are dishonest, mean, and unChristian. I don't agree with that view but certainly more and more liberal/progressives are voicing the belief that Duncan et al. are not acting in good faith and really are intent on fracturing the Episcopal Church. I don't know any of the named bad guys so I'm left to judge their actions (since I don't know their motives).

    Second, since you brought up the reference to the Boss, I thought I would share the name of another pop culture band that came to mind while reading your post--The Spin Doctors.

  7. Mark,
    It was wonderful to see you in Columbus, and congratulations on the baptism of your granddaughter.
    I, too, am pleased with the election of Katharine Jefforts Schori as the new PB. That is a hopeful sign. I also think we should have said a loud NO to the Windsor Report because it does not deal with the matter of justice and respect for the dignity of every human being. It is a flawed document, and the reflection from Canterbury following our resolution of restraint is not particularly helpful.
    I find the action of many dissidents hypocritical. They say nothing about polygamy in Africa and what that portends for the future of the Anglican Communion. Nor do they consider all Biblical proscriptions with equanimity. Do women in their parishes cover their heads? Do they wear polyester? What is their take on the Sabbath? Do they rest from all labor on Saturdays?
    A call has gone out for a possible national meeting in DC in November to discuss what we can do about the meanness in the Church, and how we might respond.
    Fortunately, we live in hope. I heard that one of our late bishops was once asked whether he ever became disillusioned about the church. His answer was a definite no, because he said he never had any illusions about it.
    Peace and blessings.

  8. Great joy to you, Granpa!

    To reiterate what country parson said, I grew up in the town which had the only "High Church" in a diocese referred to as "the YMCA with Apostolic Succession." The ultra low bishop always told jokes about the parish (& the parish told jokes about him). The parish wanted a confirming bishop to do things that he refused to do, but he had no objections to having another bishop come & do them (he was present in the congregation & coffee hour). For all the joshing & genuine differences in churchmanship, there was never any suggestion from the parish that he was not the bishop nor any hint on his part that those odd folks at St. James were not authentic (if eccentric) Episcopalians. There was mutual respect & trust. That is what has been lost in the church & I have no idea how it can be regained.

  9. What a refreshing rest stop this was today. Thank you. I appreciated the original post, but was positively enthralled by Country Parson's and the dear Prior's stories about a true Christian communities. I haven't witnessed any such thing lately. It is nice to be reminded that they do exist.

    Blessings upon your grandaughter, Fr. Mark. It is always nice to be reminded that Life goes on despite all our efforts to screw it up.

    Writing from the Diocese of Central Florida, where there is a bit of meanness these days, dontcha know.

  10. Heartfelt congratulations, Mark, to you and your family. Blessings.

    Charles (country parson). Wow! Thanks for your words, which I will "read, mark and inwardly digest" this weekend. Cheers.

  11. Anonymous, that's an interesting article. I think, though, it's going to take a long time for all this to come to 'fruition', if that's even close to the right term for it.

    I'm now working in a CofE theological college outside of Oxford. It's a mainstream place with a breadth of viewpoints, and a liberal-leaning Principal who is very well respected in theoligical circles here. We've got a young woman who is going on exchange in August to CDSP (there's a long history of that relationship). And yet there are also close relations here with GTS.

    The more I think about it, the more I'm pretty convinced that the 'two tier' system has a chance of being implemented, but will be subverted through people and institutions with existing relationships who will not play by 'the rules' of the new system.

    And so what will we be left with? A mess, where people actually have to put up with viewpoints they don't agree with, in the interest of getting anything done and presenting anything of the body of Christ to the rest of the world....

    Basically, we'll be left with the Anglican Communion. What a glorious mess!


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.