I was easy to spot because I had taken my convention materials to read at a restaurant near the state capitol. All deputies and alternates receive an enormous white three-ring binder to tote the resolutions and other information around between the hotel and convention center. The binders and our name badges serve as a sure sign of being in town for convention. And, people seem to be more friendly now that we've been here for a while.
So the man (whom I'll call "'Jim") from what's typically known as the "heartland of America" said hello and we talked for a moment about clergy from his Diocese whom we both knew.
Then Jim kind of blurted, "I hope our Church will be alright."
He voiced a heartfelt concern that lies behind most of our conversations, from the Presiding Bishop's opening homily to the careful and polite placement of booths in the Exhibit Hall. For all our hope and energy for mission, the longer we're in Columbus, the larger the topic looms.
Tonight was a particular flash point. There's a special committee of the convention tasked with legislation responding to the Windsor Report. The report is the creation of a global commission responding to the furor over the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. Among other things, it requests that the Episcopal Church express regret over the hurt it caused to partners in the Anglican Communion by approving an openly gay bishop.
The 7:30 PM hearing was designated as the marquis event for the special committee. The discussion was moved to the Hyatt's main ballroom. Extra press credentials were issued. Even though there were 1,500 seats, the hall was standing-room only and a line waiting to be seated snaked through the lobby.
The assembly reminded me of a scene from “Cinderella Man,” the Russell Crowe movie about underdog boxer Jim Braddock during the Great Depression. Braddock is fighting for the heavyweight title and his entire New Jersey town turns out to the neighborhood church to listen to a radio broadcast of the event. The crowd is packed closely together in the pews and listening anxiously.
In the middle of 70 other speakers, the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Robert Duncan, who leads the coalition most upset with Gene Robinson's consecration spoke immediately before Bishop Robinson himself.
Bishop Duncan suggested calmly that it might be too difficult for progressives and conservatives to "walk together" any longer within one church. Bishop Robinson didn't address a specific resolution but defined the question posed by the Windsor Report as whether we find the "light of Christ in gay and lesbian persons."
Rarely outside movies does such a dramatic pairing actually happen. And the distance between the two positions--echoed in many other remarks--is equally dramatic, and maybe a bit disturbing. I didn't see Jim in the room tonight but I'm thinking about a story he told at the restaurant.
About 20 years ago, Jim's friend was licensed as his congregation's first female eucharistic minister. On her first Sunday, he tried to choose the opposite side of the church, so that he wouldn't have to take communion from a woman. Only it turned out that she had switched sides, too. When she came to his spot on the altar rail and presented the chalice, he accepted it. Jim said he thought, "OK, God, you must really want me to take this."
That Sunday morning began a transformation in his feelings about women's leadership roles. He listed for me all of the women who had become leaders in his parish. Now, 20 years later, his wife is an ordained deacon and he's attending this General Convention as a spouse.
Jim's story is about the long road required to change hearts. Jim had a simple but difficult response when presented with a challenge to his faith: he stayed at the altar rail. That's where we all were last night. Consideration of Windsor Report resolutions over the next several days will be an important indicator of whether we are able to stay there together.