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GENERAL CONVENTION: A RETROSPECT

The three-yearly jamboree we term “General Convention” is now history until next time. Interestingly the blogosphere seems more interested on whether TEC is in terminal decline, ready for hospice care, or whether a further injection of “progressivism” will produce a miraculous cure than on what General Convention actually accomplished. As someone else has remarked, most of us resemble cheer leaders for one side or the other. For overseas readers, cheerleaders are athletic women and sometimes men, who entertain the crowd during those interminable intervals during a sports event, and scream and yell unqualified approval for their team during the moments when something is actually happening. Very little written has actually addressed what General Convention actually did. I would address these achievements in three main categories: Sexual ethics, Structural Renewal, Social Commentary. I have no idea what proportion of the time available was devoted to the latter consideration of hundreds of resolutions commenting on issues of special import in an election year. It is assumed that these solemn proclamations will influence presidents, prime ministers, and elected officials and inspire the electorate. In truth, they remind one of the old rhyme, “I shot an arrow in the air. It came to ground I know not where.”

 

For the truth is that none of those for whom our messages are aimed, take the slightest bit of notice of the collective wisdom of bishops, other clergy and laity  assembled in General Convention. The old days when Episcopalians were among the rich and powerful are long gone. I also suspect that there is also some inkling that our chief synod  is neither “general” nor a “convention”: that is to say it is not representative and it doesn’t come together, but rather it demonstrates our fractured nature. Certainly it is more of a coming together than was true a decade ago, when traditionalists were a larger minority. However the Episcopal Church in its parishes is not nearly as progressive as its representatives to General Convention. In that sense General Convention isn’t “general” at all and it does not bring together accurately the beliefs and practices of its constituents.

 

The rapid decline in at least counted parishioners and the accompanying loss of revenue has finally been noted. Even four years ago apologists were still observing that “numbers” weren’t everything, or that the losses of the preceding decade were a temporary hiccup and that numbers would increase now that those previously excluded from the church began to avail themselves of a Christian body friendly to their self-identity and lifestyle. Perhaps it would be expected that a church body so caught up in its competence to effect change for itself, a church enamored by human capability rather than Divine sovereignty, would finally become aware of its plight as it comprehended its economic problems. Few parishes and missions have not been affected by loss of revenue, a loss partly caused by the recession, but also caused by a dwindling active constituency. It is perhaps at parish level that the crisis is seen in its full dimensions. So many congregations live off their dead, and the resources left by the dead are being used up at an alarming rate. If a congregation can raise the money to pay a priest, provide medical insurance to the family and a pension, it is more and more likely that the effort will take a good deal more than half the available income from all sources. Add to that the upkeep of moldering Victorian piles or concrete horrors swiftly constructed in the sixties, and little of nothing remains for program and outreach. Congregations turn in on themselves in a desperate bid to survive. People drop away, tired of constant canvasses to entice them to give more than they already do. The very fact that parishes have to put on yearly “dog and pony” shows to get people to do what they know they should be doing, speaks to a spiritual exhaustion. Of course the plight of the parishes affects dioceses, dioceses struggling with fewer congregations and often attempting to provide services to a collective membership throughout smaller than that found in a Southern Baptist Sunday School. Thus the risks trickle up to what is termed “the national church”. This past General Convention has decided to form a Task Force to address this real crisis. It may perhaps be true to reflect that upon its success lies the future of the Episcopal Church as we have known in. No essentially spiritual problem – and the crisis of morale is a spiritual problem – may be resolved by structural tinkering. A leaner and stream-lined structure won’t be of much use unless it is a vehicle for what we used to term revival and revival is an act of God and not of strategic planning.

 

The third area of achievement for this past General Convention was in the area of Sexual Ethics. During the past half century society has gleefully created categories of tribes of human beings, defined by their sexual preference. These groupings are to be treated as inclusive ‘types’ of human beings, as distinct from other groupings as tribes were once distinct. Each group is afforded a sexual ethic. Thus individuals approach the subject of sexual behavior not as individuals but as members of a self-assigned group which has created for itself sets of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. At the same time these groups have campaigned to get institutions like the church and the state to accept the reality of each group and to further accept its group ethic. In a sense there is nothing new in all this. The rub comes when words and the concepts such words denote are apprehended and re-defined in a manner which obscures definitions previously agreed upon.

 

Two such groups came before General Convention and asked the church to validate its authenticity based on its own self-description and provide avenues for members of these groups to employ descriptions which at present have formal and very ancient definitions . So General Convention decided that transgendered people should enjoy the same right to serve the church as ordained or lay leaders as all others. On a personal note I would add that it must be very hard for a person who has come to believe that their physical  form doesn’t portray who they believe themselves to be. I gather that a transgendered person isn’t in essence what is termed a cross-dresser, someone who likes to wear the clothes of the opposite sex. Indeed some post-operation transgendered people have had their bodies re-framed to correspond to the gender they believe they ought to have had from birth. It is obviously a complex issue, and medical science and ethics struggles to keep up with developments. I very much doubt whether the bishops and deputies at General Convention were prepared intellectually or spiritually to address the matter.

 

The other major excursion into including groups of people who self-identify as  a kind or type of human being, was the adoption of legislation to provisionally permit bishops to allow the use of a service of “Blessing” by which persons of the same-sex or gender may agree to enter a life-long, faithful, monogamous relationship. The provisional rite permitted contains elements hitherto associated with marriage itself, such as the use and exchange or rings, vows taken “until death”, a blessing by a member of the clergy all usually in the context of the Eucharist. To differentiate such a rite from the marriage rite it has been necessary to construct a definition and justification which most observers may be excused if they find it opaque. Despite the fact that diocesan bishops may refuse to permit the provisional use of such a rite, as may parish priests and or vestries, there now emerges a group of people in our midst whose    status is acknowledged not because of its general or common nature, but precisely because this group is different.

 

One of the problems which arises from the acknowledgement of a group ethos distinct but recognized is that the basic Christian tenet that we are both one Body and also individual ‘members’ thereof is overtaken by a theory of self-describing group adherence, in which that which is different plays as important part as what is the same. When St. Paul insisted that there was no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free person, male or female he was proclaiming our individual equality through baptism by which we have died to the old and emerged as members of the Body, each, true, with individual charisms, but no longer dominated by what we once were.

 

How would the church have responded to individual transgendered people before it recognized a group category? How would the church have responded to two people of the same-sex who lived together all their lives before such people became a group? Perhaps the creation of groups, like unions, is a necessary political act, one which the larger community should permit and encourage. To my mind the problem changes when the larger community, in our case, the church decides to incorporate the group as a necessary and laudable, if distinct ‘tribe’ within the wider community. As Anglicanism has experienced to its great loss, when parties, self-describing distinct associations of Christians regard their identity and theologies and ethics as something over and apart from the whole, the church, the Body further divides. To my mind General Convention is defining and establishing such groups, based on sexual desire and preference in a manner never afforded for instance to Anglo-Catholics or Evangelicals. Divisions divide. Try as I may, protest my oneness with my African-American friends, while I at the same time live into a self-description of my whiteness, my oneness with a Black neighbor is limited. Driven by the laudable and Christian impulse to include, as a church we are creating division by admitting the existence of people who describe themselves as different. What we fail to understand is that the mission of the Church is to gather all ‘nations’ into unity, a unity in which our common identity “in Christ” transcends gender, race, class, language or national origin. Our desire to be only accepted by other Anglicans on the basis of our self-identity and ethos is one of a piece with our willingness to bless and authenticate group self-definition and corporate autonomy. In short the uniqueness of a group is not in what it can offer in unity with the whole, but rather in what it can distinctly claim for itself, difference overcomes sameness. We collectively lament the divisions in society while at the same time encouraging the creation of distinct divisions of people in our own fellowship.

 

I don’t expect the loss of  a huge number of parishioners as a result of General Convention. Most have already left, a wider group clings to its self-description as Episcopalian but seldom if ever attend church and those of us who think the church has gone stray who stay in make shift for our survival. I don’t expect a large influx of progressive people either. Losses or gains will not command the narrative. Our ability to reform our structures may help some. It is what God is about that will matter and that remains to be seen.

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