Still, taking a careful pulse of the day gives a slightly different sense of things. The battle on the surface is about the inclusion or exclusion of sexually active gay men and lesbians in various holy vocations (marriage and ordained ministry). But behind this public controversy is a challenge of a more disturbing sort, one that strikes at a central tenet of Episcopal Church governance. The challenge concerns authority of national conventions.

The major question before this General Convention is whether or not the Episcopal Church has any right to make decisions contrary to the commonly accepted (read: traditional) interpretation of Scripture. Do we have the authority to vote to do something we understand to be right and just--even if contrary to or not addressed by Scripture?

Those who believe that the democratic process of decision-making is the primary tool for faithful discernment are in a serious struggle with those who believe such decisions are limited by unchangeable characteristics of the faith as it was delivered hundreds of years ago. The particulars concern who can claim blessings of one sort or another-- but the more general question is whether or not the modern experiment with democratically organized church life is coming to a close.

It seems clear, even on this first day of gathering, that bishops and deputies know that the stakes are high.

We Episcopalians are woven quite tightly to a whole range of other Christian groups. The primary fabric for us is called the Anglican Communion, a family of regional or national churches related to the See of Canterbury. The larger fabric includes those Christian bodies with whom we are in full or partial communion, meaning we have a relationship in which each church maintains its autonomy while believing that the other holds the essentials of the Christian faith. But the weaving is a fragile thing and can be torn rather easily.

The world will not be particularly shaken if we Anglicans don't stay woven together. Disarray in Christendom already abounds. Still, it has been perhaps one of Anglicanism's greatest gifts to the larger Christian world that it has been able, mostly, to hold in tandem catholic and democratic sensibilities. It has certainly been a source of pride within the Episcopal Church. It would be too bad if we squandered that gift in a fit of destructive infighting at this Convention.

But perhaps we won't. Perhaps disagreement will not mean rending our garments. Perhaps contending parties will emerge in communion still.

It is, after all, the end of the first day. Schmoozing will soon overtake us and the tribal rituals of food, drink, and friendships across the lines of division will set in for a spell. Who knows what will come tomorrow?

As a deputy, I hope we will confirm Canon Robinson as bishop and that we will ask for the development of liturgies for the blessing of same sex relationships. I believe the fabric can hold, or at least be patched together later. But no one has a sure sense of any of these matters yet. Perhaps as voting comes closer, there will be some clarity.

The great thing about democratic processes, in the church and elsewhere, is that no one really knows how the vote will go until the ballots are counted, and even then (given the perversity of the human condition) we sometimes wonder. And we will not know for some time to come how those whose position did not prevail will react. Still, it is a wonderful proposition - that God's purpose and my church's political processes might have something to do with one another. It is a beginning.


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