Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gathering the Fragments of Anaheim

The Gospel for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost is John 6:1-21

A Gospel reading with five thousand people convened on a hillside is a good starting point for considering our Church’s recent General Convention. That triennial gathering welcomes ten thousand people over its eleven days, meaning that there are few convention centers in the country large enough to accommodate us. Anaheim is one, and that’s where this 76th General Convention in our Church’s history took place.

If five thousand people eat a lot of food at one sitting, ten thousand people across a week and a half can leave a city picked clean, like a plague of locusts—though we can assume it’s good for business.

One facet I admire in the Gospel story of the feeding is how nothing is wasted. Jesus orders a gathering-up of the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost. Twelve baskets are filled in this way, and they appear to be a sign, proof that Jesus is the long-awaited messiah of the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s special agent to reveal to the world the abundant life that is in God.

Making sense of what happens at a General Convention is like picking up a multitude of bits and pieces of information. I served as a deputy helping to represent this diocese at five conventions, and I’ve got to admire how the Internet has made it easier to gather up the fragments, this summer. Mind you, I couldn’t navigate the media hub Website that offered instantaneous samplings, day to day—it kept dropping me off in alien blogs that just made me vow to wait until all was said and done. But now that Convention is over, the Internet provides important tools to help us understand what did and didn’t happen in Anaheim.

Swift letters arrived in clergy inboxes, from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and from our own diocesan Bishop, Gordon Scruton. They speak of frequent worship throughout the eleven days, “stunning visually, musically, and liturgically, with provocative preaching and lively singing.” Fifteen of the thirty-eight Anglican primates from around the world were present, including briefly the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Scruton reports his delight to have welcomed Bishop Sarfo and his wife Mary from the Diocese of Kumasi in Ghana, and Bishop Hart and his wife Frances, from the Diocese of Liberia, two African dioceses with which we’re building relationship.

On the international front, it’s worth remembering that the Episcopal Church itself includes dioceses in sixteen nations, most of them in Central America and the Caribbean. Here in the Northeast, our Church doesn’t display the rich ethnic diversity that is true of our national Church, itself an international body.

This Convention committed us to a domestic poverty initiative meant to find coherent and constructive response to some of the worst poverty statistics in the Americas, Native American reservations and indigenous communities.

The Church’s budget for these next three years maintains, on top of a commitment of 15% for international development work, a specific commitment of 0.7% to the Millennium Development Goals through the agency NetsforLife® (that’s nets as in mosquito nets), empowering communities to eliminate malaria by providing life-saving prevention training and long-lasting insecticide-treated nets in 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, reducing dramatically the incidence of malaria.

That said, the Church’s budget for the coming trienniuim was reduced by $23 million, compared to this past three-year period. This means a serious curtailment of Church-wide ministry efforts, and one out of six staff members at the Episcopal Church Center will likely be let go.

The four dioceses where bishops and congregations have left the Episcopal Church were represented at Anaheim. A provisional bishop has been assigned to each of these continuing dioceses, and around each have gathered the congregations and parishioners choosing not to depart from the Episcopal Church. Bishop Scruton comments, “There continues to be much pain in those dioceses, yet there was also much enthusiasm among the people who are continuing as members of our church.”

General Convention adopted a health plan to serve clergy and lay employees, expected to bring cost-savings across the country. This plan doesn’t yet address the needs of employees in those sixteen nations outside the U. S., but efforts continue to that end.

As you would expect, resolutions addressed timely issues of environmental responsibility, conflicts in various places on the globe, and defense of the civil rights of transgendered people.

Bishop Scruton writes that a commitment was made to starting new congregations around the country, including a specific plan for reaching Latinos. Full Communion was approved with the Moravian Church (though we haven’t many of them in the Northeast), and closer ties with the United Methodist Church and the African American Methodist Churches were furthered. Relations with the Presbyterian Church are also moving forward, but Bishop Scruton predicts we may never achive full communion with them because they have a certain attitude towards bishops.

Liturgical additions were approved—more saints to be celebrated, new prayers added (two examples: for women and couples suffering miscarriage, and for the blessing of a companion animal joining a household).

You will have noticed that I’ve saved for last what CNN, PBS, and the networks found exclusively interesting about this General Convention.

Three years ago, the last General Convention called upon the Church to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate for the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider Church and will lead to further strains on relations within the Anglican Communion. (What language we Anglicans find, when we’re trying to avoid plain speech…)

If that action carefully avoided the words “gay” and “lesbian”, a resolution this summer did not. In the midst of language reaffirming our commitment to the Anglican Communion, our Bishops and Deputies affirmed point-blank that God has called and may call gay and lesbian people to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.

In a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to the other primates of the worldwide Communion, Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson explained carefully that no step was taken this summer that the Episcopal Church hadn’t already taken in years past. Quoting from the letter, “While ordination is not a ‘right’ guaranteed to any individual, access to our Church’s discernment and ordination process is open to all baptized members according to our Constitution and Canons.”

And in another resolution that also passed overwhelmingly in both houses, this Church made note of changing circumstances regarding same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships that call for a pastoral response from this Church. While not acting to approve the blessing of same-sex unions, this Church has called on its Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and the House of Bishops, to gather and develop theological and liturgical resources for such pastoral response, to be reported to the General Convention of 2012. In the meantime, bishops, in the particular context of where they live and serve, may provide “generous pastoral response” to the needs of members of this Church at a time of changing environment on this matter across the country.

How does the Episcopal Church change? Slowly, gradually, and through her Book of Common Prayer, which defines and expresses the belief and practice of the Church. (Ironically, in this digital age, we might wonder about the future of printed revisions of that book—but can be confident that there will always be a standard Book of Common Prayer, embracing what is kept, and what is changed, from age to age.)

Our own Bishop addresses this subject in his letter: “In this diocese we will continue our pastoral response to married same-gender couples by encouraging services of commitment and thanksgiving. Since our church’s Constitution and Prayer Book stipulate that marriage is between a man and a woman, and since the Anglican Communion has requested us to exercise restraint in moving forward with Blessings, we will continue our practice of not allowing Blessings in this diocese. Since a resolution of this Convention encouraged the development of theological and liturgical documents around same-gender relationships, I will appoint a committee to work on this topic in our diocese and send their reflections to the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music.”

So whatever a service of commitment and thanksgiving is, apparently it doesn’t bestow a blessing. I don’t understand that. I believe he means that the public blessing of same-sex couples will not be permitted; the quiet private at-home variety of blessing (I think) may not be within the purview of this edict. I think.

Confusion notwithstanding, I am confident that there will be dioceses in our Church—I won’t be surprised if Vermont and Maine are among them—that will provide more generous pastoral response, will show the rest of us how that’s done, and will keep inspiring courage and consistency and patience.

In ecclesiastical processions, a bishop always walks last. That’s not Presbyterian self-effacement. That’s Anglican custom. So I’m giving Bishop Scruton the last word, again from his letter:

“What was different at this Convention was the mutual respect and engagement of conservatives, moderates and progressives. People spoke with clarity about their convictions, listened with respect to those from different perspectives and all worked to express as honestly as possible the different convictions that make up our church. When bishops with conservative convictions expressed their minority position at the end of the Convention, they also expressed their appreciation for the respect with which they were received in all the deliberations. The broad center was strengthened in this Convention. We have moved to a place where The Episcopal Church is again intentionally valuing the conservative, moderate and progressive perspectives. We are recovering our vocation as a church of both/and instead of either/or.”

And to that let us all say, Amen.