Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sacramental Marriage, Legal Marriage and Blessings

I've talked to a number of people about the Episcopal Church's provisional rite for same-sex blessings. Some confusion is occurring because certain important distinctions aren't always clear.  The distinction between the concepts of sacramental marriage, legal (or civil) marriage, and blessing can be particularly important.  My take on the differentiation between these three structures of uniting two people is as follows.

1. Sacramental marriage has traditionally been between a man and a woman.  The mystical joining of two people into one flesh is the fundamental transformation effected by sacramental marriage.   This sacrament is entered into by the two people marrying each other.  A priest or a church or a legal structure are not necessary to enter it, although we would understand all of those pieces as the normal method used in our culture for a man and woman to enter fully into this sacrament (in other times and places, or if you were stranded with your beloved on a desert island, the man might carry the woman around the hut three times, take her inside and be married).  Some people would claim that if society has a legal structure for marriage, then entering a legal marriage is necessary for a sacramental marriage to exist.  Others would say that non-legal marriages could still be sacramental, such as when a couple has a "common law" marriage by living together in a life-long, committed, monogamous relationship, or when an older couple joins their lives together but cannot afford the social security or pension penalties that a legal marriage would entail.   Whether or not gay folk are able to enter into a sacramental  marriage is really the theological crux of the matter of the church's debate about same-sex relationships.  If two people of the same-sex are truly able to become one flesh, then they could be married sacramentally regardless of their legal status.  On the other hand, if they are not able to enter that kind of spiritual union, then the authorization for legal marriage does not make it so, even if it does provide certain important contract benefits.

2. Legal marriage is a compilation of legal and economic rights and responsibilities to each other, to children and to society that two people enter into by becoming legally married.  The state defines what legal marriage is and what it means, and two people are legally married when the state says so.  In the United States, two people who are legally married are given special status toward each other and their children when it comes to financial matters, health care decision making, health insurance coverage, property ownership, estate planning, and other matters.  Most (but not all) of these automatic rights given to married persons can be authorized through various other legal documents, but doing so can be prohibitively expensive.  The state also has the right to determine who is allowed to be married.  In the United States today this question is being asked primarily concerning same-sex unions.  However, different states also have different requirements about who is able to be married in terms of age requirements and distance of relationships (e.g. whether or not second cousins can be married).  In some (rare) instances, people could have a legal marriage without a sacramental marriage (e.g. an arranged marriage where one partner doesn't consent to the union, a marriage to allow a foreign national to stay in the country, a marriage with extensive pre-nuptual agreements that is obviously meant to last only a few years before one party moves on).  In states that recognize gay marriage, the state would define the parameters for gay couples the same way they would for heterosexual couples.  Certain states also recognize same-sex unions but not same-sex marriages.  In most of these circumstances, the idea is to provide all of the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples but not to claim that any sense of sacramental marriage is occurring.  When clergy presiding at weddings "marry" people, we are acting as agents of the government to authorize the creation of the legal marriage.  We also witness the existence of the sacramental marriage.  The current proposed Episcopal rite to bless same-sex unions does not include provisions for clergy to preside at same-sex legal marriages on behalf of the state.  However, in many states that recognize same-sex marriage and unions, Episcopal Bishops have provided their clergy opportunities to do so under the rubric of pastoral provision, even though this has not been authorized by the entire church.  Even if the Episcopal church approved a rite for same-sex marriage in the future, it would not apply in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania unless the state decided to recognize legal same-sex marriage, as well.

3. The blessing (called the Nuptial Blessing) is the pronouncement of God's blessing on the union and is the unique piece the church adds at the start of a sacramental and/or legal marriage. The blessing opens the relationship up to God and is ideally a strong help to keeping the marriage or union from failing.  The priest pronouncing the blessing is what the church adds to the couple's sacramental marriage and the state's authorization for a legal marriage.  Some places, like France, recognize this by requiring the couple to go before the equivalent of a Justice of the Peace to get married, and then they go to church for the blessing.  The provisional rite for the blessing of same-sex unions is designed to provide a parallel pronouncement of God's blessing on a same-sex union that the Nuptial Blessings provides to a heterosexual couple.  Whether authorizing such a blessing for same-sex unions is also an affirmation of same-sex sacramental marriage is unclear.  On the one hand, the intent of the current rite is clearly to parallel a traditional marriage ceremony and most of those likely to participate would see it as such.  Nevertheless, the language does not necessitate the union to be understood as a sacramental marriage, and the blessing itself lacks the powerful and passionate language from Song of Songs found in the Nuptial Blessing.  What is being created through the rite and supported by the blessing is described as a covenant, a word that certainly applies to sacramental marriage but also has wider connotations.

These distinctions help us discuss the various facets of issues currently before our churches, whatever our personal beliefs.  My own thoughts at this time are that legal marriage or some sort of parallel such as civil unions are important for same-sex couples.  Given the numerous situations where legal family ties are important to make end-of-life and other medical decisions, to access health insurance, and to oversee the care of children as parents in school, extra-curricular, and legal settings, having a legal structure to allow a partner to be known as such is essential.  I have also seen God's love and grace clearly expressed in same-sex relationships, and have witnessed God's redemptive work and the Holy Spirit powerfully present in them.  Given the fragility of all commitments in contemporary America and the social and religious goods involved in committed same-sex relationships, some sort of blessing to support life-long unions seems meet and right.  Sacramental marriage is the hardest element to apply to a same-sex relationship, although for the reasons I've just mentioned, as well as a few others, I'm inclined at this point to think that when same-sex couples want to enter into such a mystical union, God in his mercy and love allows it.    Certainly, other faithful people see these points differently, and a complete treatment also requires much Scriptural discussion.  Hopefully, these brief thoughts provide a place to spark discussions at St. John's, as well as in the larger church and society. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Acts 8 Mo(ve)ment -- Suggestions for Next Steps

On of the most exciting and hopeful aspects of the Episcopal Church's 77th General Convention was the Acts 8 Moment.  The initiative takes its name from the chapter in Acts of the Apostles when the church faced a great persecution and scattered out of Jerusalem.  The result was the spread of the good news to new people and places with great joy.  Three Episcopal bloggers, Scott Gunn, Susan Snook and Tom Ferguson, hatched the Acts 8 Moment idea after reading each others' writings and thinking about how to move the church forward.  Two meetings at convention gathered dozens of people for prayer, Bible study, dreaming and discussion.  A video of most of the powerful completions of the end of the sentence, "I dream of a church that..." can be found here

At the end of the second meeting, some time was spent brainstorming how to move forward.  Susan Snook has summarized that discussion in her blog, also posted here at the Acts 8 Moment website. Putting together the website (thank you Frank Logue!) was a big first step.  In the interests of continued brainstorming, I'd suggest the following as a framework for thinking about next steps for the Acts 8 Moment.

Hearing our discussions and thinking about what this group of people could add at this time, I would suggest three broad goals for our work:

  1. Building a community of those interested in following the disciples of Acts 8 in taking the church outside into the world in new Spirit-led ways.
  2. Supporting that community as we attempt to carry out God's mission in the particular contexts we find ourselves in. 
  3. Helping the restructuring Task Force accomplish its work.
Some specific actions to accomplish those goals could include:

1. Building a community
  • Website/facebook page
  • Blogroll
  • Common time for daily prayer (5:08pm?), perhaps with a particular collect or reading verses from Acts 8
  • An Acts 8 Bible study that we can go through together and with those gathered around us (including pre-Christians!)
  • Development of a simple and flexible but committed rule of life including prayer, community building and action in line with what is in Acts 8
  • A face-to-face gathering or gatherings with prayer, bible study and discussion, similar to those at convention but going deeper
  • Connecting with and welcoming in those working on similar initiatives in other denominations

2. Supporting that Community
  • Areas on the web-site specifically to share resources, links and ideas about ways to take Acts 8 steps into our parishes and community
  • Twitter-conversations set up around specific topics that seem of interest
  • Prayer request opportunities for specific mission and ministry initiatives by people in their particular context (how much better to go to a vestry meeting with 40 people praying for its outcome!)
  • Break out sessions around particular ideas or ministries at Acts 8 gathering(s)
  • Some mechanism of allowing the community to know the costs for various activities and contribute towards covering them.

3. Helping the restructuring Task Force accomplish its work
  • Prayer, prayer and more prayer (perhaps a daily time or prayer can be selected)
  • Fasting (a day a month specifically for the godly restructuring of the church?)
  • Providing the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies with a list of people who have attended Acts 8 Moment meetings (in person or via social media) and are willing to serve on the Task Force (every other church group will be offering names, so we may as well offer those among us willing to serve without any particular endorsement or criteria)
  • Participating as individuals in whatever feedback mechanisms or gatherings that Task Force creates, while praying/fasting/etc together as Acts 8 during those times
  • Continuing to share ideas (and even disagree) about specific re-structuring ideas, possibly through the blogroll or other on-line mechanism, that will become a go-to place for the wider church to learn about and wrestle with various proposals.
  • Being prepared for appropriate action leading up to General Convention 2015 (even if we won't know what that action should be until the time draws closer).
There are probably many other good ideas for helpful activities.  I hope these three areas will provide a useful focus for our conversations as discern together how we can best serve God, God's Church, and God's people.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Convention Wrap-Up

As workstations get packed up, signs get taken down, and the occasional Bishop or Deputy grabs a cab for an early flight, I present a wrap-up of various General Convention Items.

"I move the previous question." Photo by Jim Steadman
Some updates on issues blogged about a few days ago, plus a few other items that have come before Convention.

  • The House of Bishops also unanimously passed the resolution creating a Task Force to look at re-structuring the church. 
  • Both Houses passed the budget.
  • The House of Deputies passed a resolution saying the baptism was the normative sacrament to allow access to communion, but allowing an opening for pastoral response to what is being called “open communion” for the unbaptized.  The Bishops deleted the pastoral response provision and the revised resolution was sent back to the House of Deputies, which passed it.  Therefore the Episcopal Church continues to understand that baptism comes before communion, although a number of churches will probably continue to welcome all to an “open communion” and no one will check (or be expected to check) baptismal certificates at the altar rail.
  • No changes were made to the canons regarding mandatory participation in the church’s health plan.  Bishops were given until 2015 to work pastorally with congregations that did not sign up their clergy and lay staff by 2013.
  • A variety of liturgical resolutions passed.  One resolution allowed the continued use of the 1979 BCP lectionary.  A resource called “Daily Prayer for All Seasons” was approved, as was a service at the loss of a beloved animal.  The House of Bishops debate on the latter liturgy was characterized by one observer as an attempt to determine which Bishop loved their dog most. (In other House of Bishops news, five Bishops name Mark sang the five “Marks” of mission together for their colleagues.)  The resolution to authorize the Common English Bible was sent back to committee.  Holy Women, Holy Men continues in trial use for another three years.
  • We passed a resolution encouraging parishes and diocesan workplaces to declare themselves “Gun Free Zones.”  While the resolution may be helpful in times of parish conflict, it should be noted that impatient congregants with firearms do help keep sermon times down.
  • Many resolutions were also passed advocating any number of good things to happen in the areas of international affairs, the elimination of poverty, uplifting the needy, environmental conservation, and social justice.  To summarize them: love God and love our neighbors, even when it requires sacrifices on our part.  (Interestingly, a resolution against fracking failed in the House of Deputies after being passed by the Bishops.)
  • A clean-up of various constitutional and canonical language was enacted by some resolutions.  Those who follow such matters closely probably already know that they can see all convention resolutions at the General Convention website here.
Canonical Expert Reid keeps us in line.  (Steadman photo)

Vice-President of the House of Deputies
Deputy Byron Rushing was elected Vice-President of the House of Deputies from among a slate of five strong candidates.  Byron is a long-time deputy whose day job is majority whip of the Massachusetts state house. 

Official Youth Presence

The House of Deputies includes the Official Youth Presence, given seat and voice on the floor.  They spoke eloquently and passionately on a number of legislative issues on the floor and in committee, and many were lectors during our worship services.  At one point, Bishop Sean Rowe, who can be found on the dias in the House of Bishops as a parliamentarian, was referred to as the Bishops’ Official Youth Presence.  

Good times at the dias. (Steadman photo)
Serving at Worship
Kaycee Reib (Steadman photo)
As part of our daily worship, deputies and guests are invited to serve as Eucharistic Ministers.  A couple dozen ministers are necessary to ensure an efficient and orderly communion for the large numbers at Convention worship.  At the closing Eucharist, our Diocesan Canon Martha Ishman and I were privileged to serve, as were Northwestern Pennsylvania deputies Kaycee Reib, Holly Davis and Jim Steadman at earlier services.

Deputation Dinner
The last (un)official act of convention is our deputation dinner tonight following adjournment.  UPDATE: Thank you, Bishop Sean, for a great dinner and a wonderful evening.  We echo Vanessa's Facebook Post: Just had what was perhaps the best meal of my entire life with the super awesome deputation of NWPA!!

Acts 8
Thursday evening a number of people gathered again to pray, participate in Bible study around Acts 8, and finish the sentence, "I hope that the Church will..."  We also brainstormed ways to keep in touch, to pray together for the revitalization of the church, and to work for on-going transformation at the individual, parish and church-wide level.  Follow the Facebook page Acts8Moment to stay in touch with what happens in the future.

Special Thanks
Throughout Convention, Vanessa Butler and Carly Rowe have offered a gracious hospitality suite to our deputation.  Beginning with coffee and breakfast early in the morning before committee meetings and continuing with snacks after the legislative session, their hard work has allowed our deputation opportunities to relax and connect.  They also saved us the time and money required to have breakfast in a hotel restaurant.  A big THANK YOU to both of them (and to Joann Piatko) for their hard work!  

And now we are adjourned until 2015...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Exhibit Hall at General Convention

While the Bishops and deputies are busy discussing legislation, electing people to various things, and playing bonnie-ball, the rest of the church gathers together next door in the Exhibit Hall.  Dozens of purveyors of ecclesiastical articles, booksellers, interest groups, seminaries, missionary societies and other assorted Episcopalians offer their propaganda, buttons, sign-up sheets, candy, freebies, and any number of wares to the thousands of convention-goers and guests in Indianapolis.  If you want just the right theological tome, liturgical vestment, stimulating conversation, or way to spend the next few years of your life in a meaningful way, the Exhibit Hall is the place to be. 

Unfortunately, the Hall closed yesterday, as it regularly does a few days before the end of convention.  With the shortened convention this year and the numerous active committees meeting from morning to night, attendance seemed lighter than in the past.  Here is a smattering of interesting places that caught my attention.

First mention goes to the Association of Anglican Musicians for the best give-away.  AAM's "organ pipes" are pretzel rods covered in caramel and chocolate with a musical note at the bottom.  AAM is a great organization, but I've had many more interesting conversations at that booth than I might have if their hospitality were not so "swell."

Episcopal Relief and Development had a booth at the front of the hall where they gave out coffee and a freebie connected to part of their mission.  One day's gift was a small vial of bug repellent, highlighting their major initiative to provide mosquito nets for malaria-plagued parts of Africa.  Of course, opportunities to learn about their good work and contribute were also present and to be commended.

Those offering clergy bling and other items were too numerous to mention, but the photos give a small sample of their wares.
(Steadman photo)

(Steadman photo)
For the "Cradle Episcopalian"

Interest group booths provided interesting discussion.  Never before had I heard someone passionately express why we need to return to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.  She was across the aisle from someone promoting videos detailing involvement of Episcopal Bishops in slavery.  The Consultation, a collection of progressive groups such as Integrity, had a large area with comfortable places to sit, regular speakers and more papers to read than ecologically-minded Episcopalians would want to see trees killed for.

Almost every church organization was represented, including some of the less expected components of Christ's body.  Without claiming an exhaustive list, some that I saw are listed below with links to their websites:
Regardless of how much discretionary income we brought with us to General Convention, everybody is going home with a gift bag or two filled with complementary items and interesting purchases.  I personally don't expect to need another pen until I visit the Exhibit Hall at the 2015 General Convention.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Updates on Convention Decisions

As we get to the final few days of General Convention, the legislative process has reached a new stage.  Legislation has made it through committee hearings and discussions.  On some important issues, substitute resolutions that better express the subtlety of thought and diversity of opinion within the Convention have been put forward.  Opportunities to make decisions are now coming before the convention.  Each resolution starts with either the House of Bishops or the House of Deputies, before moving to the other house for concurrence. (Think about the eighth grade civics charts you once studied to learn how legislation moves through the US Senate and House of Representatives.)   Both houses have to pass an item for it to be approved by General Convention.

A few major items were decided at convention today, and others are taking shape.  Here’s a summary of some of the significant legislation before us.

Anglican Covenant
The House of Deputies took up the issue of the Anglican Covenant.  Three years ago, this issue seemed likely to be a major decision at this Convention.  Recently, however, other Anglican Provinces have rejected the Anglican Covenant, including the Church of England.  Instead of either adopting or rejecting the Covenant in its current form, two resolutions passed the House of Deputies.  The first emphasizes our commitment to the Anglican Communion and to a deeper involvement with Communion networks and ministries.  The second recognizes a wide variety of opinions and ecclesiological positions in the Episcopal Church and pastorally declines to take a position on the covenant at this time.  Later this afternoon, the House of Bishops agreed.

Sexuality Issues
The House of Bishops has adopted the provisional use of a rite for the blessing of same-sex relationships.  This resolution means that the Episcopal Church would have an authorized liturgy that can be used under the direction of the Diocesan Bishop to provide a blessing for same-sex unions.  This resolution does not approve a rite for same-sex marriage, and, as a trial rite, there will be a request for feedback over the next three years to see how this goes.  The House of Bishops also added gender expression and gender identity to the list of things that we do not discriminate against.  After navigating a morass of parliamentary questions, the House of Deputies also approved the rite of same sex blessings early this evening.

After some significant discussion, both houses of convention affirmed positive investment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to create a sound economy and a sustainable infrastructure.  The same resolution re-affirmed the Episcopal Church’s commitment to a two-state solution.  The House of Bishops did not approve a separate resolution encouraging corporate public engagement and asking for information about products made in “illegal Israeli settlements”.  The issue of divestment likely came up in committee, but was not referred out to the floor.  

Dozens of resolutions were submitted recommending various types of changes in the structures of the Episcopal Church.  Many were based on the “Sauls Resolution” that recommended a special commission be set up to consider a comprehensive church restructuring.  The Structure Committee, after an enormous amount of hard work, unanimously put forward a resolution calling for a Task Force to provide a set of recommendations for the next General Convention to help us re-imagine how the Episcopal Church can be best structured to engage our mission.  This Task Force would have no more than 24 members, be independent of church governing structures outside of General Convention, and convene a special gathering of people throughout the church, including those under 35.   This Task Force is likely the best opportunity we have to recreate a church that is nimble, efficient, cost-effective, and responsive to local opportunities for mission and ministry.  The House of Deputies passed it, seemingly unanimously, and then broke into applause and song in the feel-good moment of convention. 

Program, Budget and Finance presented their draft budget.   The budget is organized around the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion.  These marks are:
  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
  2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers.
  3. To respond to human need by loving service.
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society.
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. 
 Some important elements of the budget proposal include:
  • A 19% asking from dioceses.
  • $1 million for starting new congregations.
  • $1 million for mission enterprise zones.
  • 0.7% of the budget to support Millennium Development Goals through Episcopal Relief and Development’s NetsforLife Inspiration Fund.
  • A one-time investment of $4.1 million to set up an effective development office.
  • Continued funding for the Office of Pastoral Development and the College for Bishops.
  • A reduction of approximately 12 church center staff positions (10.75 FTE’s), some of which are currently vacant.
  • A block grant to cover expenses for various committees, commissions, agencies and boards, with specific funding to be determined by Executive Council, rather than specifying the exact amount for each 

The President of the House of Deputies
This morning, the House of Deputies elected a President for the next three years.  The Rev. Gay Jennings was elected over Martha Alexander and the Rev. Frank Logue.  Gay is an experienced deputy, part of the current President’s Council of Advice, and the chair of this convention’s structure committee.  She most recently worked for CREDO, an organization dedicated to clergy vocational, spiritual, physical and financial wellness. 

An interesting aspect of this election was the nomination of Frank Logue.  A Diocesan Canon in the Diocese of Georgia, he is a successful church planter who is quite comfortable with modern technology.  He discerned his call to stand for election during the convention after many people, especially younger deputies, were looking for an alternative candidate.  His nomination was discussed extensively on Twitter feeds, blogs and other social media.  However, many deputies not proficient in social media were entirely unaware of his candidacy until his nomination from the floor.  His 266 votes out of a total of 832 was a strong showing for a candidate without the literature, buttons and other campaigning common at General Convention.  He is already an important leader in our church, and I hope that we will find more and more ways to take advantage of his many gifts.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Worship at General Convention

Episcopalians love to worship God.  In the first half of our General Convention, worship has been a highpoint at the beginning of each day.  The incredible gifts of people throughout the Episcopal Church have been laid at the altar for the glory of God and the welfare of God’s people.

The technologically savvy among us have live-streamed the Eucharist even God's people not at Convention can join us.  (You can watch it every day at 9:30 at the General Convention media hub.)  The Association for Episcopal Deacons has written the Prayers of the People for each service, focusing on the day’s particular remembrance, celebrations and concerns, and they have fulfilled their accustomed liturgical roles.  The National Altar Guild Association has done a superb job of preparations for welcoming as many as 2,000 people to God’s table for communion.  A variety of people are walking around with headsets to coordinate communion flow and other logistics in a spacious hotel ballroom.  CM Almy has provided beautiful vestments.  A huge backdrop behind the altar contains a screened image of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir and “Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church" in a number of different languages

The music for our daily Eucharist has been phenomenal.  An organ and choir has been supplemented by excellent cantors, flutes, brass, and other instrumentalists.  We have sung hymns from our hymnal, hymns from our supplemental hymnals, chants from Taize, and a wonderful Spanish Gospel Alleluia.  More than once, the organ has dropped out to allow us to hear hundreds of people singing together a cappella in four-part harmony. 
On Monday, for the commemoration of Samson Occum who was the first Native American ordained minister and published author, a traditional Lakota singing and drum group, Red Leaf Singers, provided our prelude.  The readings for that day were also read in three different Native American languages.  

Last Friday, the commemoration of Harriet Beecher Stowe included the incredible music of the Steel Band Orchestra of St. Augustine’s Church in Brooklyn.  Their preludes and postludes included versions of How Great Thou Art, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and Jesu Joy of Man’s Desire.  At the end of their postlude, the hundred people surrounding them called for more music (oh, that this would happen at the end of all our services).  They responded with another hymn before moving to Duke Ellington.  Probably no better way to start a day than by dancing with your brothers and sisters in Christ to spirituals, Bach and anything else that lifts hearts and mind to God.   

The bishops and their spouse made up a special choir one day, as well.  One of the sacrifices many of them make is no longer being able to be part of a regular parish choir.  Nancy Rowley, our previous Bishop’s wife, used to love to sing with Trinity Warren's choir during her husband’s visitations.  Giving them an opportunity to enjoy singing together was meaningful, and sounded good.

Bishop Michael Curry (Jim Steadman's photo)
While the preaching has been consistently inspiring, the highlight has been Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon on Harriet Beecher Stowe.  He challenged all of us to be crazy Christians.  His sermon can be found here, in video and text formats.  The Presiding Bishop has given two inspiring sermons, the House of Deputies' President Bonnie Anderson preached on courage, and we have heard a Blackfoot priest talk about revitalizing her small congregation.
Presiding Bishop (Steadman photo)

Organizers have also tried to allow the wide range of people coming to worship together from throughout the country and throughout the world to participate in worship.  The Presiding Bishop has offered some of the prayers in Spanish, and the entire service is translated in real time into Spanish and American Sign Language.  French has also been used in worship, as well as Native American Languages and Hmong.  The Hmong are a nomadic tribe from Southeast Asia, some of whom were conscripted as soldiers to work alongside Americans during the Vietnam War, and later relocated to the United States as refugees.  The Holy Apostles Episcopal Church in St.Paul has a membership of about 700 Hmong.
Sunday is the largest worship service of convention and is also the In-Gathering of the United Thank Offering.  This ministry of the Episcopal Church Women encourages Episcopalians to contribute in gratitude for the good things God has done for us.  The UTO then provides grants to congregations in the US and throughout the world.  Part of Sunday’s offertory was a roll call of Episcopal dioceses to come forward and bring their thank offerings to the altar.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Lighter Side

While everyone has plenty of responsibilities at General Convention, Episcopalians do have a sense of whimsy.  Below are a few examples.

Mary Magdalene of the Golden Halo
The Supreme Executive Committee of Lent Madness is at convention, and they did not come alone.  Some of you are aware that during Lent, an on-line voting extravaganza among the saints for the Saints resulted in Mary Magdalene winning the coveted Golden Halo award.  On Friday, Mary Magdalene made an appearance at General Convention, and accepted votes for the first play-in match of the Lent 2013 contest.(Gregory the Great defeated Gregory of Nyssa after the on-line votes were counted.) 

(Photo by Jim Steadman)
On the floor of the House of Deputies, many Dioceses have a mascot resting upon their standards.  The Diocese of Western New York includes Jamestown, home of Lucille Ball.   The Rev. Susan Anslow Williams of their deputation is also responsible for a daily cartoon in a convention  newsletter.  Last year in Anaheim, where stuffed Bambis were plentiful, our mascot was a roadkill deer.  This year, we were less inspired and just have a sheep.

Deputies on the floor are able to view the sartorial splendor of our Secretary, the Rev. Canon Dr. Gregory Straub. On Thursday, he was wearing one of his more subdued sports jackets.

A local red-tail hawk.
What a midwest corn diet will do for you
The Indianapolis Event following Sunday's Eucharist was a great opportunity for convention-goers to relax and enjoy.  The temperature was only in the 90's today (as opposed to 107 for the past two days).  The Diocese of Indiana held the event at their local baseball stadium, which is across the street from the convention center.  Lunch was ballpark fare, with clowns, jugglers, crafts and games.  Wildlife folks brought birds of prey, snakes and local animals.  The concourse around the ballpark included historical re-enactors, and, being Indianapolis, we had race cars, too.  Even Captain Kirk and Mister Spock made an appearance.  Everything was done in return for freewill donations to support the Diocese's work in Sudan, Brazil and Haiti.
Perhaps Captain Jean-Luc Picard will speak at the next VTS Convocation...

I Dream of a Church that...

In my last blog post, I talked about the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit when a hundred people showed up at the Acts 8 Moment and began to speak prayerfully and passionately about their dreams for the church.  It turns out that Lauren Stanley of the Diocese of Virginia's Convention publication Center Aisle took notes and wrote down  people's responses to the phrase, "I dream of a Church that..."  (You can read her excellent article in its entirety here.)  The responses are below.  Take a moment, say a prayer, and let the Holy Spirit inspire your dreams of a Church that...

Without stating their names, 46 people, many with great passion and emotion, responded.
“I dream of a Church that …

…. has lots of opportunities to listen and share with each other.”
… where you can’t tell where the Church ends and the world begins.”
… shows love.”
… believes that the Holy Spirit will direct and is not afraid to go where it’s directed.”
… in which the spiritual life is lived intensely.”
… is not ashamed to proclaim Jesus.”
… honors its past without sacrificing its future.”
… where we are working freely and joyfully with ecumenical partners to do Christ’s work in the world.”
… actively engages in raising the dead.”
… whose members are not afraid to talk about how God has changed their lives.”
… where people can sing the song that is in their hearts and their souls.”
… is a home for the entire community.”
… has tattooed on its forehead, ‘Take a risk.’”
… is willing to take risks knowing that what God does not bless, God will redeem.”
… practices radical welcoming with joy for everyone.”
… where the answer is ‘Yes’ far more often than the answer is ‘No.’”
… where we understand that our own transformation not shared is wasted.”
… that’s at Starbucks or Panera or the Laundromat.”
… puts God first in everything it does and every decision it makes.”
… where people don’t say, ‘We always did it that way before.’”
… where the preaching is damned good every time.”
… believes it has good news worth sharing.”
… believes in missionary outposts everywhere.”
… actually acts as if the news of the reign of God is a good thing.”
… where the average age is not 62.”
… plays as well as it prays and learns from younger members how to do that.”
… where people come or don’t come, where the Church comes to them, where people expect to feel that tingle in the spine where we know the Holy Spirit is close.”
… made peace with the fact that it is not a kingdom or a corporation but is in fact a church.”
… sings the old hymns as well as the new hymns and we like them all.”
… where I’m not one of two (African Americans) in a room.”
… where we create altars in the community, where we’re even in burned-out buildings with plywood and sawhorses, a table is laid to feed the people who need to be fed.”
…. realizes the idols in front of us and don’t let them control us.”
… knows the most important thing is relationship, holy relationships that ground us and out of which we act.”
… is more worried about laying its life down for the life of the world than it is about its own self preservation.”
… puts its money where its mouth is.”
… loves and trusts Jesus enough that we can recognize, confront and confess the sins that we are engaged in, all of them.”
… removes all barriers of all people with disabilities and that they are fully included in the life and ministry of our Church.”
… in which the leadership reflects the diversity of the community in which it’s located.”
… is pregnant and expects to give birth very soon.”
… is passionate about reaching out to unchurched people, and equally passionate about reconciling post-Church people to God.”
… takes Jesus and the Gospel seriously and itself lightly.”
… is more interested in going out and doing mission than in studying it.”
… is where gatherings like this is where we make decisions.”
…. is where no one says to me, in a tone of apology, ‘I’m just a lay person, but …’”
… can involve mission using plane tickets and mission that doesn’t use plane tickets.”

To view most of the responses on video, check out episcopalmaine's youtube video.

In the comment section below, feel free to leave your own responses.  If you aren't a regular church-goer, I hope you respond, too.  The Church is meant for everyone, not just its members.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Legislation and Acts 8

July 5 evening
During the afternoon legislative sessions, I testified in the Evangelism Committee against a piece of legislation encouraging more licensed lay evangelists.  I strongly support evangelism.  But I thought this was an example of the kind of legislation that takes too much of the church's time, adds too many layers of bureaucracy, and gets in the way of letting people go out and use their gifts.  Of those speaking, I was a clear minority, but we still don't have a definition of what a lay evangelist should be doing, or why that task would be different from the responsibility all of us have for evangelism.  Instead of challenging dioceses to license more lay evangelists, we should probably help dioceses to develop whatever evangelism programs would be most fruitful for them.  Most of the people in my parish who have been the most effective evangelists would be unlikely to see themselves that way, and wouldn't be very interested in going to a licensing training. 

The afternoon featured the first legislative session of the House of Deputies where we handled legislation.  In one of the few times in my three conventions, we also finished all the business before us for the day.  Whether this was a testament to the fine planning of Dispatch of Business, a reduced need for deputies to hear themselves talk, or a slow feed of legislation from committees, I'm not sure.  But it was good to finish the day's calendar of events.

Legislation that passed the House of Deputies (and now will go to the House of Bishops) started with some general business, rules of order and scheduling matters.  We consented to Jeff Fisher's consecration and requested that Program, Budget and Finance put $300,000 in the budget to support the Episcopal Youth Event.  Fr. Denny was chair of the committee that brought that legislation, and he got to present it to the house on the big screen. 

In one of the many political resolutions that will come before the convention, we urged the United States to allow domestic partners of lawful permanent residents to seek lawful permanent resident status in the same way as different-gendered spouses.  While not a big issue in Northwestern Pennsylvania, this issue is significant in other parts of the country.  Some churches are losing key members as couples are forced to leave the United States.  I would also say, in agreement with the majority, that we have a moral obligation to help keep families and loved ones together, and our immigration policies should allow that to happen.

The Deputies voted down an piece of legislation that would have called upon us to make our churches more loving toward older people.  After two mature deputies said the resolution offended them, the resolution was soundly defeated.  Surprisingly, we did not feel that this is the biggest problem in the Episcopal Church today. 

After the legislative session, I went to sign up to testify at the Structure Committee's hearing on a slew of resolutions concerning significant reform.  Bishop Rowe, Jim Steadman and I all testified in favor of a special commission.  Bishop Rowe asked us how our current situation is working for us and asked us not to think outside the box, but to realize there is no box.  Deputy Steadman suggested we stop driving a '52 Buick by looking through the rear-view window. (Jim also provided the photos of Fr. Denny above and of the structure committee to the right.)  About 40 deputies spoke for 2 minutes on the need for significant changes in how we do business.

During the evening legislative session, I also popped into the Pension Fund hearing on the church's health plan.  Most of the important concerns about cost and flexibility were raised.  One cathedral church spoke of having to lay off their sexton because they couldn't afford to pay a health care package and the new rules required it of a full-time staff person.  What we thought we passed at the last General Convention regarding health care does not seem entirely congruent with what has happened.  Hopefully something will get changed.

At 9:30pm, I went to a meeting of The Acts 8 Moment.  Scott Gunn, Crusty Old Dean and Susan Snooks put this together just to get people thinking and dreaming about what God might be up to and where we are going as a church.  They had no agenda.  After some opening remarks, we did a short Bible study on Acts 8, where a serious persecution of the church results in people scattering, proclaiming the gospel and great joy.

The most powerful moment at Convention so far was when they opened the microphone and allowed people to come up and finish the sentence, "I dream of a church where..."  As a couple of dozen people finished that sentence, the presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable.  People were dreaming of a church that was expansive of God's people and creation, that was effective, that was transformed and that was transforming others. 

As the session closed, someone stood up and talked about looking for new leadership and someone else suggested drafting new resolutions.  After planned program was over, some people gathered to talk about leadership, some to look at legislation, some to look at taking this vision to parishes beyond convention, and some of us gathered in prayer.  When people went from our vision to the politics of convention, the energy shifted noticeably.  I'm not sure whether it was coming down the mountain to get to work or if it was a God-moment being pulled back down into the morass of anxieties over the present day, or maybe both.  But people in this place have a deep love of God, Jesus, our church, and the ministry God has given us to do.  As we keep praying and dreaming, God will lead us into it.

For those keeping score at home...
The Episcopal Church provides two web sites to follow along at home.  Anyone can go to the General Convention Media Hub to get a live stream of worship services, read twitter feeds, and see a variety of other goings-on.  The General Convention site is the legislative geek treasure trove of resolutions, committee hearing schedules, and the place to see the broad range of issues General Convention will probably address in the next week.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

It was evening and it was morning...the first day

Wednesday, July 4
The first of the Episcopal Church's General Convention started for me at 8:00am Wednesday in the parking lot at Bella Cena restaurant off I-80.  Jim Steadman picked me up for the six hour drive from Sharon to Indianapolis.  We arrived just in time to get registered, and spent a few hours in the House of Deputies orientation session.  After learning the intricacies of this year's electronic voting devices, receiving admonishments to always identify ourselves at microphones, and learning how to open metal three-ring binders while making a minimum of noise, we adjourned to various legislative sessions at 5:00pm.

Since I was elected as our diocese's first clergy alternate, I was not assigned to a committee this year.  I was free to attend the evening's meeting for the legislative committee on the Consecration of Bishops.  Their business that evening began with consideration of the Rev. Jeff Fisher, who had been elected as Suffragan Bishop for Texas.  Jeff was a classmate, and next-door neighbor, at seminary.  He has a true pastor's heart, loves Jesus and the people around him, and walks with great humility.  As a CPA and former CFO, he also knows how to get things done.  He is ideally suited to be a bishop -- prayerful, loving and competent.  Seeing he and his wife, Susan, again, was a great joy, and the committee unanimously recommended that his election be confirmed.  The House of Deputies will likely vote on it tomorrow.

Also present at the hearing were about a half-dozen other seminary classmates.  Probably the greatest joy of General Convention is reconnecting with beloved friends who are now scattered across the country, and sometimes the world.  The conversation went from the hotel hallway to a local Italian restaurant for dinner. 

Having conversations about what is happening in other churches in other places fosters ideas, perspectives, and a great sense of gratitude for the ways the Spirit is working in every time and place.  Sometimes these chats come with old friends, sometimes with a co-worker from a committee last convention, often with the person staffing a booth in the exhibition hall, and not infrequently with someone who looks very familiar but I can't quite place.  The large nametags we all wear are very helpful, especially in those latter situations.  We in Sharon, PA don't often realize, for example, the ways that some Episcopal Churches now have separate worship services for Sudanese refugees in their own language.  Or how some churches along the Gulf Coast had been almost wiped out by hurricanes and have been revitalized with entirely new ministries.  Or that one parish started publishing lectionary materials as a ministry that is now benefiting the entire church.

After dinner, a check of e-mail gave some good news.  The Program, Budget and Finance Committee decided to use the budget from the Presiding Bishop as a template for their work.  I've blogged about the pluses of that proposal here.  They will rightly make numerous changes based on the input of the entire convention, but our church's next budget will be organized around the five marks of mission.

At 8:30 pm, I gathered with a number of other folks to discuss structural reform proposals.  The best idea seems to be the appointment of a special commission to look closely at structural issues and make recommendations for the next convention.  While creating a commission might not look like doing very much, one of the key components of its success would be involving people who aren't part of convention.  General Convention will have a much harder time figuring out itself how to simplify and eliminate some of our structures than if we include people looking at it from the outside in the conversation.  Hopefully a special commission can also access the expertise of people who have studied organizational structure.  They have spent their lives looking at issues that we might not otherwise think of, and we should ask for their help.  The hearings on the Committee on Structure is holding on these issues will occur tonight at 7:30pm.

The city's July 4th Fireworks could be heard and seen from the hotel before bed.

Thursday, July 5
The day's first legislative session was 8:00-9:00am to organize the House of Deputies.  This organization involves electing officers and making sure all staff is in place.  At 9:30, the opening eucharist began.  Like most of the services at General Convention, part of it was conducted in English and part in Spanish.  The Presiding Bishop preached about three saints from the late 1800's to early 1900's who worked to transform social structures to help people live into the Kingdom of God.  The experience of about 1000 people singing together is always amazing, even in a hotel ballroom set up about as nicely as possible for a large worship experience.

After the Eucharist, I took a quick stroll through the exhibit hall.  While I only began to scratch the surface of the interesting programs, purveyors of ecclesiastical articles, and advocacy groups represented, I did drop a business card into a hat to see if the Bearly Rev. Theodore J. Wippell might be called to a ministry to Saint John's Sharon (probably either Special Adviser to the Rector or Pastoral Associate for Nursery Care).