It's a Wrap

This old creaking ship of faith actually struggled with things that matter in the world.

BY: the Rev. Mark Harris

The Rev. Mark Harris, a priest from Delaware, is serving as a "deputy," or delegate, to the Episcopal Church's General Convention in Minneapolis, which runs from July 30-August 8. He will file regular reports from the convention for Beliefnet.

Friday, August 8, 2003, 10 a.m.

We have begun to fold the tents. The exhibit area, a kasbah filled with all sorts of hawker of goods, from seminary programs to east Asian weaving, closed down yesterday afternoon. We began making courtesy resolutions Thursday mid-afternoon. We were tidying up loose ends.

It is Friday morning and we have been told that the Archbishop of Canterbury has called for an extraordinary meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion. "Primates" is the term used to refer to the primary bishop in each of the 38 autonomous churches that make up the Anglican Communion.

That meeting will not be an easy one. Through the meeting of these leaders the loose confederation of churches that constitutes the Anglican Communion will need to find a way to live with great differences or try to impose a solution on the Episcopal Church.

But all of that is news for the future. For now it is time to draw this Convention to a close. The tents are folding, the last songs are being sung, the last legislative sessions under way.

In an odd way the resolution on how this convention would deal with the issue of same-sex blessings became a loose end, a tidying up. After all the drama about consent to bishop-elect Gene Robinson's election, the legislation that would impact most of us in the church was dealt with in comparative silence. That, in part, was because the Deputies by Thursday afternoon were dead tired and had heard over and over again all the arguments and experienced all the twists and turns of the legislation as it passed through committee and into the House of Bishops and out again to them.

The Bishops produced a compromise resolution about the blessing of same-sex unions, one which allowed but did not authorize blessings and sent their resolution to the floor of the House of Deputies on Thursday afternoon. It was no one's idea of a perfect resolution.

The so-called orthodox hated it because it admitted that pastoral care and diocesan action could produce the needed permission for the use of alternative liturgies for life-long relationships between people of the same sex. The progressives were uneasy because it was far short of what they hoped for.

We passed a budget that set the course for the next three years, elected members of a Nominations Committee for the Presiding Bishop, and took on a mountain of legislation. How much reality there was to the budget, what sort of church we would have in three years when our bishops elect one of their own as Presiding Bishop, and what purpose much of the legislation would serve, remains to be seen.

Much will depend on what happens with the energy of the dissenting bishops and those members of the Episcopal Church who stand in serious opposition to what we did here. Several bishops and perhaps as many as 50 deputies have left Convention. It is unclear when they will return, if ever.

One bishop opined that actually, the House of Bishops felt lighter without those who left. The House of Deputies continued to hear from its members who tried again yesterday to call us all to task for our legislative action. To the charge that "this Church will never be the same," several deputies said, "Thank God."

And what end did this strange and wonderful Episcopal Church thing, the General Convention, serve? Looking at these last 10 days I am struck by two things: one so obvious that it hardly needs re-stating, the other more subtle.

We all know that Robinson's election was a purposeful act that puts this church on record that one can be a wholesome example of the faith and in a committed relationship other than marriage. We mean it. And that indeed changes things. The struggle is not over, of course, and things could still turn out badly in all this. But the deed is done.

But in a more subtle way the Episcopal Church has been part of conversations in places it never otherwise would have had a hearing. People are thinking about these things again.

Cab drivers in Minneapolis ask what we are doing. People on the street have seen my convention badge and come up and say, "Thank you for being compassionate." Demonstrators yell at us or cheer us.

It is as if this old creaking ship of faith actually is struggling with things that matter in the world. And that made it feel worth the time and energy, the late nights and the long days. It's a wrap.

Wednesday, August 6, 10:30 p.m.

Eight days into General Convention, everyone is dead tired. Still, we're entering a delicate time when we begin to work with what the Episcopal Church has become as a result of the past two days' decisions.

With the end in sight, the tasks at hand are not as emotionally hot or as interesting to the press. But old hands at Convention know that the devil is in the details--and the angels too.

Yesterday the "yes" was clearly "yes" and the "no" was clearly "no."

Yes, Canon Gene Robinson was cleared of charges. Yes, his election gathered consent from the House of Bishops. But no, the decision was not going to be bogged down in the arguments about how this or that group of objectors felt. No, those who opposed his election were not going to go quietly into the night.

There was sorrow and anger, joy and exhaustion. There were rumors and side conversations about just how and why the allegations against Robinson came up at exactly the right time to hold things up for 24 hours.

Today, however, General Convention folk heard a lot of "maybe," and more than a bit of mumbling, spread through the day.

As Canon Robinson was introduced to the House of Deputies as the bishop-elect of New Hampshire, now consented to by both houses, there were impolite additions to the niceties of the normal tableau. Normally, respect and custom brings Deputies to their feet when the bishop elect is asked forward. But today several delegations sat in protest, and a number of them talked among themselves while the introductions were taking place. Episcopalians notice such things.

After Canon Robinson left the dais, the President of the House of Deputies called on Dr. Kendall Harmon for a statement of personal privilege. Harmon's remarks, however, turned out to be a restatement of all the arguments mounted against Robinson's confirmation combined with a variety of statements about the pain this whole thing has brought to orthodox Anglicans. He went on at considerable length. Several members of the House felt he had misused personal privilege for a post-debate debate.

For Episcopalians, inducing liberal guilt is an invaluable skill, one being used widely by the orthodox crowd at this convention. It has become a way to transfigure a "yes" into a "maybe"--yes, there is consent to Robinson's election, but maybe the consenters will come to see they were wrong to have hurt others so much. Yes, Robinson was exonerated, but maybe he is still a sinner anyway. Yes, General Convention worked its will, but was it also willful and arrogant? Maybe so. "Pain," was the cry, but "blame" seemed the mutter.

The orthodox Anglican folk, who call themselves "mainstream Anglicans," met for prayer at a local Lutheran Church, and on reappearing in the halls of Convention were marked with ashes on their foreheads. Maybe they were repenting for themselves and for the Church and perhaps even for us all. Then again, maybe not. Whatever else it was about, it was a sign that disturbed.

"Yes" and "No" are fighting words. Maybe is easier to mutter.

In the land of maybe, things seem more malleable. So today the House of Deputies spent its time doing the "maybe" sorts of things. We celebrated the consent given Robinson's election, but maybe we felt badly for breaking with the past. We worked on and passed a mountain of legislation, but maybe it will mean less than we think, for we have yet to face the financial consequences of the battles we have had.

The Budget was presented this afternoon to a joint meeting of the House of Deputies and House of Bishops. There was no mention, no hint that maybe, just maybe, the contributions of all the dioceses might not be as certain as assumed. All budgets are guidelines, of course. So the maybe is always there. But this time hearing it presented seemed a bit more ephemeral than usual.

Deputies worked until 6:45 p.m. passing the legislation, but there were no mighty shouts of "yes!" It was a long and muttering sort of session. There were some moments of energy, but mostly work, work, work.

The House of Bishops met in the morning to hear the pain, then met in the afternoon to take up legislation concerning same-sex blessings-quite a combination. At the end of the afternoon session they passed on resolution C051, amended to address some of the hopes of those wanting blessings of same sex unions, but they avoided the publication of liturgies for official consideration at the next General Convention in 2006. This legislation will come to the House of Deputies tomorrow. I hope it will pass without amendment and quickly.

There's no question that the Church works with compromise, with the push and pull of the many forces. "Maybe," is a working concept in a community in flux. But "maybe" can be heard to mean yes, even when spoken by someone who means no.

Tomorrow we will mutter some more, pushing toward some clarity on how to open this Church to options that include blessing services. May it be so.

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