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.
Late last night (August 4th) it seemed as if today would be a day in suspended animation, or perhaps a day in grey tones. When we gathered this morning for worship and the first session of the legislative houses all we knew was (i) that Bishop Scruton of Western Massachusetts was in charge of an investigation of Canon Gene Robinson who was accused of offenses, (ii) action on Robinson's confirmation was on hold in the House of Bishops and (iii) the life of the Episcopal Church's General Convention was going on, if not as usual, at least as needed.
By the end of the day Canon Robinson was exonerated, confirmed as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, and we all knew that the life of the Episcopal Church would never be the same again.
One of the youth delegates at the Convention said she suddenly realized that what had happened would be something she would remember and tell her children's children. I only hope they listen with amazement, wondering how life in the church could have been otherwise than accepting of gay and lesbian persons.
It was hard getting there. Emotions had been deliberately dampened down yesterday by the need to respond to the allegations against Canon Robinson in a timely and mature matter. But the emotions were there: Yesterday, after the charges were made public, debate in the House of Deputies suddenly became pedantic and sometimes petty. People who had been living Technicolor lives just twenty-four hours earlier were in a grey land where emotions and energy were drained from us. We were doing what needed to be done, but we were not in very good health.
This morning a small group of people committed to World Mission met and listened to strongly worded statements from overseas friends who felt our actions were disruptive, dangerous and selfish.
Around 10 A.M. I stopped by the news room and talked to a reporter from a Minneapolis paper who really could not believe the openness with which the Episcopal Church dealt with its seeming implosion in public. As we talked I was proud of us in a comforting sort of way. We Episcopalians were out there, with all our laundry out for all to see in an odd but powerful witness to faithfulness.
By the time we started the legislative sessions at 11:00 the rumors were flying and a host of possible scenarios were being floated. By the time we broke at 1 P.M. we had heard from the Presiding Bishop in the House of Bishops that there would be a report in the early afternoon and a continuation of the consent process. Suddenly there was an easing up: something was going to be said, something that seemingly would not end the process.
From there the events documented by the media unfolded: Bishop Struton's report exonerating Canon Robinson; the announcement in the House of Deputies by the Standing Committee from the Diocese of New Hampshire that they saw no reason not to continue with the consent process; the Presiding Bishop's announcement that the consent discussion and vote would go forward; Canon Robinson's return to the floor of the House of Deputies where he is a deputy, and then of course the very late afternoon vote announcement and the minority protest statement.
The progression of events only tells part of the story. Several things stood out for me about the afternoon.
The first was the remarkable place of meditation and prayer in what happened. In considering the matters before them the Bishops took even more than their usually ample time for prayer and meditation. The Bishops started meeting at 2:30 PM but it was not until about 4 PM that the Scruton report was presented to the House.
And then there was the mid-afternoon presentation of the Scruton report. Many of us in the House of Deputies saw the report on screens in the worship space down the hall from our own legislative chamber. The screens were huge. Bishop Scruton's head appeared much larger than life on these giant screens, rising up behind a podium, seeming almost disembodied. It was oddly like the Wizard of OZ breathing possible judgment in his audience hall. And yet, most wonderfully, the judgment here was one of acquittal and release. Canon Robinson had been cleared of the accusations against him.
The third thing that stood out was this: I was struck by the feeling of unreality as we waited. We deputies went back to work after hearing the report on the investigation. We were more relaxed, but there was a constant undercurrent of anxiety about the vote that would come up later. Many of us were confident that the Bishops would confirm Canon Robinson, but our confidence had been crushed before. It was a long wait. I can't even guess how it was for Robinson, his partner, children, and friends. We prayed for him in the House of Deputies.
The late afternoon seemed to go on forever. The shadows were getting long, and people hungry. The House of Deputies let out shortly after 6 P.M. We were not really paying attention to what we were doing. Many wanted to go see the House of Bishops in action on those giant monitors in the worship space. Others were concerned about dinner arrangements. The press to leave the house was too great, so we were let go.
We walked down the hall to the worship area and there several hundred people watched the House of Bishops on the large screens in the front of the hall. The actual voting took place around 6 P.M. Then, for a long hour while the tally of the vote was checked, the Bishops tried to do some legislative business. One bishop said later he doubted if any of them would remember just what it was they were doing. I suspect the same was true for much of what we did earlier in the House of Deputies. We were mostly quiet over that long hour. And when the vote was announced there was some applause followed by silence.
The Presiding Bishop then invited bishops who were in opposition and who wanted to make a statement to come forward. Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburg began, "The bishops who stand before you are filled with sorrow.." He said that "the General Convention had departed from the historic faith and order of the Church of Jesus Christ." These bishops rejected the action taken and said they will ask the Primates (heads of churches) of the Anglican Communion to intervene. It is not at all certain what all that means, except that those who rejected Canon Robinson are now rejecting the majority of Bishops and diocesan representatives (deputies).
It was a bittersweet moment: A momentous event had taken place, one that would affect us all into the foreseeable future, and not only we Episcopalians, but perhaps other Christian groups as well. Many of us (and certainly I) were very pleased with what had transpired. And yet, the brokenness of this was also real, and something seemingly less complicated about who we are as Episcopalians was lost, along with close friends.
It was an extraordinary day, partially an Oz story complete with mean and nasty forces, smoke and mirrors, and amazing battles for good. It was also in some ways like a novel of political intrigue with seemingly sleazy political tricks and fast-paced chases. But most of all, it was a wild ride through the unexpected.
And then we all went out into the night, to dinners already arranged, to caucus meetings, to hotel rooms and rest. And we all know it's not over yet.
Tomorrow we meet to consider the budget for the Episcopal Church for the three years to come. Whatever else happens, those who feel betrayed by this vote will likely respond by withholding support. How much church funding will be affected don't know one knows. One official thinks it might mean as much as a twenty to thirty percent reduction in giving. We shall see.
Later in the day the Bishops will probably take up the issue of services for same sex blessing. And the House of Deputies will be voting on the Executive Council (the governing board) and on a Nomination Committee who will begin the process to elect a new Presiding Bishop in three years. All the work and concern surrounding the confirmation of Gene Robinson has caused us to be very much behind schedule, so we will probably have to begin evening legislative sessions.
There will be busy days ahead, but today stands out. Today the color returned to our little part of the world.
Writing from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church only six hours ago, it seemed that perhaps things had imploded. In the early afternoon, the Presiding Bishop and the Bishop and Standing Committee of New Hampshire confirmed that accusations of inappropriate conduct (read e-mail) and connection with a questionable website had been made against Canon Gene Robinson. Many were dumbfounded. The lead-up to these revelations must have been extremely difficult for everyone involved. Some observers noted that the Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, was quite subdued at the morning service. I believe Canon Robinson was absent for the morning session of the House of Deputies. It was a morning in which the Diocese of New Hampshire, the Presiding Bishop and Canon Robinson did precisely what was required in the circumstances--they called for a thorough investigation of the matter. That inquiry will be overseen by Bishop Scruton of Western Massachusetts. While most people I saw initially reacted with shock and awe--and not an inconsiderable amount of anger--people came to realize that there was indeed a way to respond, one already being put into play. That way is written into much of what we do in worship related to the taking of vows. It is also written into our procedures for background screening of candidates prior to their election or appointment to offices in the Church. In the ordination services and in the marriage service, attendees are asked if there is any reason why the person or persons should not be ordained or married. Even when a minister is instituted formally into a parish, the parish leaders and then parishioners are asked if they support the minister in this work. We know we have to ask. Most of us who officiate at marriage services know well that we need to be prepared to deal with an objection. We also know to caution anyone about objecting as a joke. Just like joking about guns on airplanes, there is no room for error in this and there is no humor. People have stated objections to ordinations in the past, most famously in the first years of ordaining women to the priesthood. There too, even when the objection was on theological grounds, rather than personal conduct grounds, it was important to hear the objections out and to respond. Episcopalians know that it is important to ask about impediments and important to take seriously any accusations made. Additionally, in the past twenty years a process for screening has been put in place whereby no person is ordained or brought into ministry in a diocese without an extensive background check. Again, sometimes reason for further inquiry has been found, carried out, and acted on as the situation warranted. A good friend, a lawyer, said today that events occurred precisely as they should. When the accusation was made, the process stopped and an investigation was begun. So on that level, the rebound from the initial shock has been pretty quick. At 10 p.m. the anger and shock has given way to more reasoned response. To its credit, the leadership of Integrity, a group working for the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in the Episcopal church, supports Gene Robinson and the investigation process. They have been reasonable at a time when a flood of emotions would have been quite understandable. The House of Deputies affirmed Canon Robinson's election on Sunday. And if the investigation does not uncover anything, the House of Bishops will have the opportunity to affirm him later in this Convention. All that needs to be done is to look at the charges rationally and act accordingly. Everyone, it would appear, will weather this storm. Hope is still there, and with it, faith. Calm prevails and the business of Convention moves forward. The accusation has a bad smell for me, however. Some people hate all that Canon Robinson stands for. There are members of this General Convention who firmly believe that affirming Canon Robinson's election will invalidate the Episcopal Church's claim to be a catholic and reformed church. They love the church and hate what they perceive as its enemies.
Passions run high on all matters related to the confirmation of Canon Robinson's election, and passion is no respecter of due process, wise reflection, or deliberated action. The passionate belief that Canon Robinson's election would destroy the Church's holiness might be a source of malicious action to nullify his candidacy. We do not yet know if this is this case.
So at the close of the day, we have three major concerns before us:
The rebound is to take what is and know what is possible, and get on with our common life and tasks. And the Episcopal Church in General Convention assembled is indeed on the rebound.
Still, nothing is fixed, all is in flux. There are snakes in the churchyard, there is lightning in the sky. Perhaps it is a passing storm. Perhaps it is a flood. It is our time to learn patience, and to pray for Gene Robinson and perhaps all of us, that he and we will have strength and faith for the days ahead.
Monday, August 4, 4:00 p.m.
Late last night, an e-mail was sent to at least some of the bishops of the Episcopal Church with the stunning accusation that Gene Robinson "does not maintain appropriate boundaries with men." When they received it this morning, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and Canon Robinson acted on the e-mail in the only way possible--by suspending the consideration of Robinson's election as bishop of New Hampshire.
A press briefing was held at about 2:45 p.m. Minneapolis time. Copies of the e-mail and the Presiding Bishop's letter were distributed to the news community. In the halls outside, people gathered to take in what all this might mean.
At the very least, it provides yet one more layer of controversy to the already heavy load that Canon Robinson must carry. In a way not true two days ago, considering him for a bishop's position must carry the weight of whispered innuendo, raised eyebrows, and leading questions--the whole mean-spirited range of angry responses to the success of his candidacy in the House of Deputies yesterday.
The charges will be investigated. Hopefully findings will be released within the next two days.
The allegations could lead to the premature end of the approval process, the voiding of New Hampshire's election, and a widespread tear in the fabric of the General Convention's common life.
Perhaps most importantly, the emotional costs of this development added to the already strained lives of many here at the Convention could lead to ruin and despair.
The General Convention is in deep trouble and there is no easy way out. Everything is now in confusion. What will happen to the legislation on same-sex blessings, to Gene Robinson's election, indeed to all the efforts at Convention are now on the block.
There is muttering in the hallways, stunned response in many quarters. There will be recovery later, but for now there is only the sense that things have imploded.
Sunday, August 3, 11:40 p.m.
Every once in a great while something is done at General Convention that shifts the ground on which the Episcopal Church stands. Today was such a day. The House of Deputies voted this afternoon by about a 2-1 margin to support the election of Canon Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. It was a dramatic legislative event, complete with complex voting instructions, emotional testimony and debate, prayers and silence, and an almost eerie common agreement not to celebrate victory in the face of those whose objections were overridden.
The hall where we met was crowded, not only with the 830+ deputies, but in addition by a large press corps, members of the House of Bishops who watched the vote, and hundreds of visitors. The silence at the time of the announcement of the vote was all the more amazing because it came in two parts, the first of which took some time. All the negative votes were first announced, and then the full positive vote. Until the last moment it was not clear that the vote had been positive. And then there was an audible sigh, a longer silence, a period of "business as usual" announcements and then the House recessed. People finally began to talk only when they moved into the hallways.
Leaving, one Bishop turned to me and assured me that he believed the House of Bishops tomorrow will vote approval as well. I think he is right, but tomorrow is still tomorrow.
Several people I knew who were opposed would not look at me. Many others had smiles and a twinkle in their eyes. Some few were emotionally overcome with joy, and some with sorrow.
Gay and lesbian friends now are beginning to sense that perhaps this Church really does think that they live in a state no more sinful or blessed than that of heterosexual couples. In some ways this vote, and the likely vote of the House of Bishops tomorrow, is an affirmation, not only of Gene Robinson, but also an affirmation of every other gay or lesbian Christian couple who hope for a future in the Church.
Walking down the street in the early evening, passing Minneapolis' many eateries on the downtown mall, people from the Convention were gathered as usual over food and drink. Everything seemed normal. But there were knowing smiles, and sometimes sadness. It will take a while for things to sink in.
The next few days will see first the Bishop's decision about Gene Robinson, and then a vote on liturgies for same-sex blessings and the national budget. We will also see the beginnings of what the traditionalists have claimed will be a `re-alignment' of the Anglican Communion. What we had here this afternoon has been a deciding moment; it will be completed tomorrow. What happens beyond that will be at least surprising, perhaps startling.
I was struck by an argument raised this afternoon in the debate on the floor. The argument was that Anglicanism has thrived on division, which forced change. We were divided by loyalty to the English monarch, by the role of Bishops in this country, by slavery, by the place of women in the church, by Prayer Book change. Each time the division meant change, and the change in turn made us more inclusive, less monarchical, less a church of privilege and more a community of engagement. And, said the speaker, that is the way we should see the action begun by the Deputies today. May it be so.
Saturday morning began with legislative hearings on matters both optimistic and fearful. I attended one that dealt with remarkable new efforts at reaching out to the rest of the world--but I also and visited one that was still fretful about approving Canon Gene Robinson as bishop.
Optimism and fear rise and fall in this convention on our perceptions of matters at hand, and it is hard not to be guided by our own emotions. And all the more so because how this Convention feels about its votes on same-sex blessings and homosexuals as church leaders will have an effect on other matters as well.
So at 10 a.m. yesterday, as we do every day, we prayed together. Over 1,200 strong, we filled the worship space to sing, pray, hear a sermon, and receive Communion. Everything was normal, and then the sermon came. Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina preached. It was a remarkable, wonderful, empowering sermon, the sort of sermon heard too seldom in this church. The preacher is African-American, and his style was not the staid and bland presentation we were used to. His voice rose and fell to great heights and low whispers. And what he told us was that we could be a people of hope.
We needed to hear this. Today is Sunday, and in the early afternoon the House of Deputies (clergy and lay representatives) will debate and then vote on the matter of approving Robinson's election as bishop. If it passes there, the matter will go to the House of Bishops; but if it fails, there is no approval possible at this Convention and the Presiding Bishop declares the election null and void.
It is not at all clear Robinson' s election will be approved. Matters are very close. Hopeful people point to the good showing of Louie Crew, a gay English professor and activist at Rutgers University, yesterday in the election as the new President of the House of Deputies. He lost, as expected, but had more votes than expected. Opponents have continually said that voting in favor of gay rights will split the Church, and that argument is working in some wings of the church.
I have the sense that those who support same-sex blessings and Canon Robinson's election are now prepared, as prepared as possible, to win or lose both. But today it is all in the hands of the voters, men and women of good will trying to do what we believe God is calling us to do. That it goes one way or the other is not nearly as important in my mind as that it is our best effort to be true to God's calling.Friday, August 1, 2003
The people to watch are those in the Dispatch of Business Committees of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies (made up of clergy and lay representatives). There the decisions about the order in which legislation is taken up are made, and they subtly affect all manner of events in Convention.
The timing of decisions on Gene Robinson's confirmation, of presentation of legislation on same sex blessings, of the election of a new president of the House of Deputies, and the presentation of budget all are determined by dispatch of business committees.
In the past day, dispatch committees have formed schedules, and we begin to see how matters will play out. Hearings on Robinson's election and same-sex blessing legislation were held Friday. After that hearing, the Committee on Elections recommended that Robinson's election be affirmed. Open hearings on budget matters were held Thursday and Friday. Yesterday, nominations for President of the House of Deputies were made.
On Saturday morning, the election of the President of the House of Deputies will be held. The incumbent, The Very Rev. George Warner, is up for re-election. His only challenge is Louie Crew, founder of Integrity (the organization of Gay and Lesbian Episcopalians.) The office is mostly of no interest to those outside the Episcopal Church and challenge to an incumbent president is unheard of. What makes this vote of interest is that Crew is gay. While the word in the halls of Convention is that he has little chance of winning, the number of votes he carries will be watched with interest.
The House of Deputies will take up the question of Canon Robinson's election as bishop on Sunday. The best read is that the House of Deputies will give assent, even with the super-majority voting scheme called a "vote by orders." It will then go to the House of Bishops. It looks more and more like Robinson's election will be approved by both houses. But nothing is certain. And sometime in the midst of all this the House of Bishops will take up legislation on liturgies for same sex blessings. The finished resolution will first go to the House of Bishops, perhaps as early as Sunday.
Will the vote on the President of the House of Deputies be a signal of things to come? Assuming Robinson's election is approved by the House of Deputies, will the House of Bishops take it up as soon as possible, or will it take up the same-sex blessing legislation first?
In the land of winners and losers, confirmation of Robinson gives one point to the inclusion crowd. A negative vote in the House of Bishops on the resolution on same-sex blessings might then be viewed simply as one point for the traditionalist crowd, thereby letting the bishops off the hook on the substance of the request for such liturgies.
But such a positive spin on a no vote will be easier to make if (and that is underlined) the Robinson matter is settled, and then the same sex blessing matter is taken up. At least that way, some argue, everybody could get a bone thrown to them. And, because Episcopalians sometimes confuse looking fair with being just, it would all seemingly be part of the great "middle path"--so fondly held as part of the Anglican ethos.
If there were not actual people and real calls for a just and inclusive church, all this could be fun. But it is not fun. It is hard work.
The final chapter of all this will be that great test of church legislation: what will happen with the budget? The early signals are not pretty. There may be some dioceses and parishes very unhappy with the results of votes taken on sexual "issues." Threats to "take the money and run" were expressed at hearings last night. Before the Convention there were threats to "realign" the Anglican Communion and cease to support the Episcopal Church.
There are hard times ahead for the Episcopal Church, no matter what. Will those times be worse if inclusion is the operant vision for this Church? Better if the pace of inclusion is slowed? Who knows?
Today was the first regular legislative day of General Convention. There was all the regular stuff having to do with motions required by state and church to convene a meeting of a national organization. It is done. The convention is under way.
In the hallways, corridors, exhibit area, salons, and private gatherings in rooms, the measure is being taken of the rising tide of support for the confirmation of Canon Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as a bishop, and the commissioning of liturgies for blessing relations outside marriage.
As a child growing up on a bayou in northwest Florida, I learned that the way to measure the rising tide in a hurricane was to go out each hour and put a stick in the sand where the tide was at the moment. After many hours of putting sticks only to lose them to the tide a stick was put in place that remained after the next hour. Then, and only then, did we know when the high tide had come. Knowing took perseverance.
The General Convention consists of two legislative houses; concurrence is needed for a positive decision. We are starting to get the sense that Robinson will get the required approval in the House of Bishops, if the matter ever gets there. But the House of Deputies must vote first on Robinson's election.
So the interest turns to what the House of Deputies will do. There is less certainty about his approval in the House of Deputies (a body made up of clergy and lay members of each diocese). This House will probably vote by a complex voting process called a "vote by orders." If Robinson is accepted in this house it will be by a super majority of clergy and deputies together.
So all eyes are on the House of Deputies. There seems to be a rising tide of support there, too, but no clear sense yet of whether that will be enough.
Meanwhile, what about the legislation on the development of proposed rites for blessing relationships other than marriage? Here there is a complex mix of messages. What is at stake turns out to be considerable concern about the effect of this vote on future votes and future issues. In secular terms, the phrase "horse trading" seems about right.
Gay and lesbian members and their friends in the Episcopal Church are active and savvy about how to effect change in the church and sometimes angry about prejudice and lies. They are not going away. They will effect the election of delegates to the next convention and the rise of legislation there. They will help elect a new Presiding Bishop.
So in the strange working of the Episcopal Church's politics there are now decisions by some Bishops and deputies based on the power of the ripple-effect of their votes.
For instance, in three years the Episcopal Church will elect a new Presiding Bishop: that alone will push some bishops to take a positive or negative position on the blessing of same-sex unions based on their sense of how that decision might affect their chances to be considered as Presiding Bishop material. It will also affect the way in which incumbent bishops respond to new members of their house.
And among the deputies there is the looming, but mostly unspoken, threat of financial difficulties to come if conservative dioceses or parishes pull their support away from the Episcopal Church. How are we to vote, knowing that the fragile financial structure of the church may be dependent on the givings of badly disappointed dioceses?
No one will know until the votes are taken, but influence is being felt - by those who aspire to national church office, by those concerned about finances, by those who simply want to know what is going on. We need to remember that people put their futures on the line by taking positions on these matters. And we should remember, also, that the apparent rising of a tide of support for Robinson and for the liturgy resolution will crest. The question is when? And when it crests, will it stay there long enough to sustain affirmative votes on both issues? I hope so.
Meanwhile these Episcopalians wonder about finding restrooms, eateries, the exhibit floor, the meeting rooms, and each other. People seriously on opposite sides of the issues at stake find themselves in small group discussions, at the altar, on committees, and in session together. It is by no means impossible that it could all go crazy. But it is not impossible that we may all stick together through this as well.
Tuesday, July 29
Beginning today--and running for 10 long days to come-Episcopal priests, laity, and bishops gather to manage the budget of the national Church, pass legislation on matters ranging from the courteous to the courageous, and schmooze. It is a great tribal gathering.
It is also a wonderfully hopeful way of governing the church, for the convention's very assumption is completely democratic: the notion that people deputized by their dioceses possess by that credential alone the common sense to make decisions for the Episcopal Church. In a church that claims to be both catholic and reformed this is a powerful and sometimes dangerous assumption.
Today, the first committee meetings were held, the deputies and bishops registered, the exhibit area opened, the press interviewed, and prayers were invoked. It was a quite normal first day for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which meets every three years.
But, of course, it is not a normal convention at all. You can tell at first glance because the secular media, not noted for coverage of church proceedings, has decided that the Episcopal Church General Convention is Big News. This is because we will consider two items in particular: the approval of the election of Canon Gene Robinson, who is gay and in a committed relationship, as Bishop of New Hampshire; and a resolution to produce liturgies for blessing relationships outside the boundaries of traditional marriage.
There is a sense of impending struggle. Someone I know walked up to me today and asked, "Well, are you ready to do battle?" About what was assumed - about electing a gay bishop and blessing same-sex relations. Doing battle makes good press indeed, and rallying to this or that cause makes the convention juices flow.
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.