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Father Gerns’ Simplified, Illustrated and Painless Round-up of General Convention for 2009 … with comments.

In addition to being Rector of Trinity Church, Easton, Canon Andrew Gerns chairs the Evangelism Commission and serves on the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Bethlehem. He is a member of newsteam of Episcopal Café and keeps the blogs “AndrewPlus” and “Share the Bread.”

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After every General Convention, I try to round up the Big News and the Big Trends that come out of General Convention for the people of Trinity, Easton. So here is my triennial round-up of what took place at General Convention. This time my perch was not on the Convention Floor but through the blogs, news reports and other sources that made this the most accessible General Convention ever.
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The Episcopal Church has over 110 dioceses in 16 nations including but not limited to the United States. Once every three years, the Episcopal Church gathers in General Convention to make decisions about mission, theology and ethics, the life and worship of the Church, ecumenical relationships, evangelism, social outreach, and to elect people to positions that guide and govern the Church over the next three years.

This year, General Convention was held July 8 to July 17 in the Diocese of Los Angeles, California, at the Anaheim Convention Center. Our own Jan Charney was deputy for the eighth time.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention is the second largest legislative body in the world. It is comprised of the House of Bishops, with upwards of 200 members, and the House of Deputies, with clergy and lay representatives from the 110 dioceses, at over 850 members.

“I in you, you in me”

“Ubuntu” is not only the name of an open-source computer operating system, it was the theme for the 2009 General Convention. “Ubuntu” is a South African word which means roughly “I in you and you in me.” The idea being that we are not only interdependent but that we find our fullest identity in the context of our relationships in community.

African words appropriated by Europeans and Americans are in vogue. When I first heard that this was our theme this year, frankly, I became nervous. I am wary of when we romanticize the words, symbols and cultures of peoples that we previously conquered or oppressed.

The Lambeth Conference last year is a case in point. The Bishops from around the Communion did not pass legislation (well, not really) so much as undertook a kind of appreciative dialog process called “indaba,” another South African word meaning a kind of listening by putting yourself in the place of the other.

I have puzzled over what to make of the Convention organizers mean by “ubuntu.” I could be wrong, but I think that from a Christian standpoint, it is a way of thinking about our life together in Church. In other words, we are more than a collection of individual believers but a community of Christ’s followers who, as a gathered people, represent Christ to the world and to each other. That’s my take, anyway, and I am sticking with it.

Besides the theme, the biggest difference this year appears to have been the absence of the kinds of conflict that had characterized previous conventions.

Unfortunately, some of this was because many of the most conservative (and contentious) members of the Episcopal Church have left either to form their own new denomination called The Anglican Church of North America. The loss of these former Episcopalians meant that there were far fewer people representing a literal view of Scripture or a traditionalist view of Catholic faith. The various opposition groups that now make up ACNA were well-funded by outside sources and very well-organized. This year these groups are now on their own, focusing on getting organized as a denomination and so were not present to lobby General Convention. (But they did, for old times’ sake, send bloggers to say unkind things about us!)

Connected…sort of

This was in many ways the most connected and transparent of any General Convention ever. It seemed like every other deputy and every third bishop had some kind of blog to let the folks back home know what was going on. (I did this myself when I was deputy in 2006.) While some of it was better than others…I got tired of all the Mickey Mouse references…this was all to the good.

The communications office of the Episcopal Church tried something called a “web portal” that was supposed to link us regular folk to the hearings, debates and stuff through blogs and live feeds. Since whoever does software for the Episcopal Church (and Church Publishing) insists on being more clever-than-thou, the portal largely, well, stunk. It broke a lot, and when it ran it made ones web-browser freeze or do funny things.  I gave up on it early. Better luck next time, eh, guys?

With all the possibilities out there, one soon came to rely on a few good sources for news. Episcopal Café (full disclosure: I write for them) did a grand job, as did the British site “Thinking Anglicans.” A priest from Arkansas, Lowell Grisham, did a fine job of capturing both the flavor and the content of the two weeks in a blog called, oddly enough, “General Convention.” Dean Nick Knisely, formerly of Bethlehem, wrote some great stuff on “Entangled States.” Three dioceses did daily e-newsletters that I subscribed to, which were all very fine: the Dioceses of Virginia (good), Southern Ohio (better) and Connecticut (best) did great work. And one could (and still can) download Episcopal Life’s Convention Daily as PDF files. Every day Episcopal News Service did good work as well.

It can’t be a General Convention without human sexuality

The Rev. Dr. Ian Douglass, a deputy from Massachusetts, professor at the Episcopal Divinity School and representative to the Anglican Consultative Council, told PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, that “There cannot be a major gathering of Anglicans anywhere, especially a General Convention of the Episcopal Church, without some discussion and controversy over human sexuality.”

The 76th General Convention was no different. There were two major resolutions that were passed by both Houses that were both widely reported and widely misunderstood by both the religious and mainstream media.

D026, called "Anglican Communion: Commitment and Witness to Anglican Communion." dealt with describing where the Episcopal Church is today about the ordination of gay and lesbian persons to all orders of ministry and our relationship with the rest of the Anglican Communion. D056, “Liturgies for Blessings,” authorized the beginning of study of possible  rites for the blessing of same-sex unions with a report and recommendations to be presented at the next General Convention.

A little background is in order: in 2003, the Diocese of New Hampshire elected and the Episcopal Church consented (through General Convention) to the ordination of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, to be bishop of that diocese. Some in our own church and others from around the Communion objected and said that since we, in their view, had strayed from scripture and tradition the “fabric of the communion” was torn. After a series of meetings, reports, position papers, and other maneuverings, we were asked in 2006 to guarantee that there would be no other consecrations of openly gay persons as Bishop. A resolution, known as B033, was presented and passed on the last morning of the last day of the 2006 convention that said we’d approach such ordinations with extreme caution.

As this convention approached, there were over three dozen resolutions from dioceses, deputies, Bishops and committees all calling for B033 to be rescinded in some form or another.

Another approach was taken this year, and that was to honestly describe the situation of the Episcopal Church which is this: we are committed to the Anglican Communion, we value the international relationships the Communion brings and the ministry we do together. At the same time, we have experienced God’s call to ministry to gay and lesbian persons to both baptized life and ordained ministry. We are not going backwards on what we believe to be God’s leading.

Dean Nick Knisely, a deputy from Arizona, (and former Rector of Trinity Church in Bethlehem) put it this way:
If B033 was in fact a de jure ban on the ordination of additional gay or lesbian partnered bishops (and that’s been debatable for a while), that dejure ban is reasonably read to be ended. If B033 is read to be a defacto ban, then the ban is demonstratably still in effect until another gay or lesbian partnered bishop’s election is confirmed by the larger Episcopal Church. Is that going to happen soon? I don’t know. I’m not thinking its terribly likely right now when people are worried about balancing budgets and doing whatever they can to avoid conflict. On the other hand there’s nothing in formal in place to stop that election and consent from happening.

I’ve learned at General Convention to not worry about what may happen or what we might do. I’ve learned that we are asked to vote on specifics of the legislation in front of us, not the generalities of the explanations or the rhetoric of the debate. I think this focus on the particulars of each situation is going to be the best thing for us going forward. Anglican Moral Theology has always insisted that “circumstances alter cases”. Focusing on what is rather than on what might be coming right now is probably the best strategy going forward.

We have gay bishops in the Episcopal Church. We have two partnered gay bishops, one retired and one active. That’s a fact on the ground. Will we have more? Yes. When? That’s still not clear. We’ve moved beyond B033 certainly. But honestly, for good or ill, we’ve not moved very far.

As our Bishop Paul Marshall says, B025 is “descriptive of what in fact has been happening in our church for some decades, and concludes by saying that there is a wide range of opinion and disagreement.”

The other major resolution was B056, which was incorrectly reported in the mainstream media as allowing same-sex blessings in the church, had two parts. The first part was study. The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, in consultation with the House of Bishops Theology Committee, was called upon to “collect and develop theological resources and liturgies of blessing for same-gender holy unions…: They will present their work to the next General Convention for action.

The other part was pastoral care. Several dioceses exist in states that now allow same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partners. B056 gives the Bishops of dioceses in those states “generous latitude” in figuring out how to minister pastorally to same-sex couples in their parishes. We forget that since the 1980’s, we have recognized that same-sex couples exist, that by virtue of their baptisms they are welcome to our fellowship and communion, and we have urged these folks to live lives of faithfulness, fidelity and mutuality. In all that time we have not provided the tools to care for these persons pastorally.

Since pastoral care in the Episcopal Church is grounded in our liturgy, developing the right rituals for these persons is essential for their full participation in the lives of our congregations. Equally important, the proper rituals also help those of us who are not gay minister to our sisters and brothers in Christ who are.

B056 essentially starts the clock that was stopped in 2003 when our focus shifted away from the pastoral care of gay and lesbian couples in lifelong partnerships onto the rather “inside baseball” discussion of gay bishops. Even with a report in 2012, there is no guarantee that official blessings will take place at that time. It is a slow process that has been made even slower, but at least it is has started again.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori described the importance of these two resolutions.
Some have insisted that these resolutions repudiate our relationships with other members of the Anglican Communion. My sense is that we have been very clear that we value our relationships within and around the Communion, and seek to deepen them. My sense as well is that we cannot do that without being honest about who and where we are. We are obviously not of one mind, and likely will not be until Jesus returns in all his glory. We are called by God to continue to wrestle with the circumstances in which we live and move and have our being, and to do it as carefully and faithfully as we are able, in companionship with those who disagree vehemently and agree wholeheartedly. It is only in that wrestling that we, like Jacob, will begin to discern the leading of the Spirit and the blessing of relationship with God.

In my view, the passage of D022 and B056 means that we no longer live in a “don’t ask, don’t tell church.” Actually, those days passed a long time ago. It is time our actions, our words and our ritual reflected the truth that God has called us into.

Budget cuts and belt tightening

Even as new initiatives were passed concerning Evangelism, Stewardship and ministry to Hispanics and Latinos, the reality of our finances loomed over convention.

Karin Hamilton of the Diocese of Connecticut wrote that “over $13 million was cut and about 30 people at the Episcopal Church Center are losing their jobs. Expenses, such as litagation costs, that had been paid from reserves, are back in the budget. Deputies moved to restore certain programs or positions but all motions were defeated and the budget resolution passed.”

Some church-wide programs will be eliminated under the budget, encouraging more mission work to take place in dioceses and congregations. 37 of the 180 people employed by the Episcopal Church in its New York and regional offices will lose their jobs.

The next General Convention could be two days shorter, and interim church bodies will meet face-to-face less frequently during the triennium. The Episcopal Church's provincial contribution to the budget of the Anglican Communion Office would decrease by a third.

The Program, Budget and Finance Committee (PBF) restored a budget line item dedicating 0.7 percent of income to U.N. Millennium Development Goals work that had been cut from a draft version of the budget, and added a corresponding percentage for domestic-poverty initiatives.

PBF's proposal predicts total triennial income of $141,271,984, with $79,161,193 coming from the dioceses and $27.6 million from investment income. Expenses are budgeted at $140,856,531. Those figures compare with the projected bottom line of the current 2007-2009 triennial budget of $164,863,529 in revenue and $163,934,334 in expenses.

The Rev. Terry Martin, who was appointed Evangelism Officer eleven months ago commented:
One of the most frustrating things about this unexpected development was that it follows right on the heels of the positive time I spent last week with the Evangelism Legislative Committee as they carefully crafted various resolutions. There were plans in place to host evangelism events with our ecumenical partners, create an innovative evangelism "toolkit," and develop training programs for evangelists, among other things. All these resolutions passed both Houses. I was quite enthusiastic about those proposals. But now, since the entire Evangelism program is gone, I'm afraid there will be no one to implement those excellent ideas. How sad.

A creative and ambitious program to increase ministry to Hispanics and Latinos in the US was passed with enthusiasm. Among other things, it called for the selection of 100 or so mainly Anglo parishes in places with significant Hispanic populations so that they can receive help in starting up or growing their outreach and evangelism to Latinos. In addition, the resolution called for the number of Hispanic congregations would grow by 15% to 350 over the next three years. The budget will allow only 8.5% of this project to be funded.

The position that was charged to raise funds through grants, endowments and special giving for mission was cut.

It is hard to know what to make of the choices in deciding what areas were to be cut. We have eliminated new or proven programs in evangelism, stewardship, worship and mission. Part of this is comes from the rotten economy and the hit our portfolio took, which affected both diocesan and national church revenues not to mention giving all around the country.

Part of the problem was that PB&F and the Executive Council (the council that decides things between conventions, kind of the “vestry” for the whole Episcopal Church) has for years insisted on an assessment level that was way in excess of what dioceses assess their parishes. For example, the diocesan assessment in our Diocese of Bethlehem is 13% but the Episcopal Church assessed dioceses at 21%. Most dioceses gave the national church a level that did not exceed what they asked of their congregations. Even allowing for the few diocese that withheld their fair share for theological (or political) reasons and the few who paid the whole 21%, there was going to come a time when assessments and program needs would not line up. I have no sense, sitting at the right coast, if the inherent systemic issues in the budget were addressed except to create a budget more in line with our actual income.

Focus on mission and ministry

Not everything at General Convention was about sex, money and church politics. In fact, this convention was characterized by many commentators and bloggers that I read as the most productive, open and energizing convention in years. A higher percentage of presented legislation was acted upon this year than ever before.

Most of the work that was accomplished had to do with everyday mission and ministry. Here is a sample:

Three resolutions dealing with the ministry to the incarcerated and their families were passed: A019 Model Prisoner Ministry, C075, Camps for children of the incarcerated, and D095, Prison Ministry
Deputies also adopted on second reading Resolution A051, which changes the church's constitution to make it easier to license clergy from other denominations to officiate in the Episcopal Church, a move made in anticipation of possible full communion with the United Methodist Church.

A065 a resolution Convening and Supporting Evangelists including the addition of the role of "lay evangelist" to the list of possible licensed lay ministries in the ministry canons.

Several resolutions were adopted concerning Ecumenical relationships: A072 about Interim Eucharistic Sharing with the United Methodist Church as well as D054 which outlines interim Eucharistic Sharing with the United Methodist Church & authorizes the start of dialog with the Historically African American Methodist Churches. A075, an agreement between the Presbyterian Church USA and the Episcopal Church was passed. The passage of A076 means the start of dialog with the Church of Sweden.

A077 supported the work Episcopal Health Ministries.

A082, established a Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation.

Three resolutions passed concerning the revision of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, now known as Holy Women, Holy Men: A096 included additional calendar commemorations. A097 authorized the trial use of these commemorations over the next triennium. A098 contained principles for future revisions of Holy Women, Holy Men. Additional Commons were also passed in A099.

A138, Established a mandatory lay employee pension system.

On racism, two resolutions were passed: A142 Recommit to being anti-racists and A143 which extends encouragement to research the complicity of the Episcopal Church in the slave trade.

A154 continues Jubilee Ministry grants.

A177 detailing the denominational health care plan.

A185 Proposed Title IV--clergy discipline canon-- revisions passed both Houses with an amendment to remove the "self-incrimination" clause. This resolution passed after nine years of intensive work over three General Conventions.

A191 on Ministry formation.

B003 on camping ministries. This passed both Houses but does not appear in the budget.

B006 on the economic justice implications of immigration.

B013 on equipping the baptized for ministry in The Episcopal Church.

Resolution B029, approved on first reading, will amend the church's constitution to remove the provision that bishop elections within 120 days of General Convention receive approval at convention. All other bishop elections receive consents by diocesan bishops and Standing Committees, and this resolution would make that process apply to all elections.

C013 on the Financial Support for Those Studying Ordained Ministry passed both Houses though with less funding than requested in the original resolution. What funding that was approved will flow through the Society for the Increase of the Ministry.

C051 on ministry to wounded soldiers and veterans.

Resolution D018 urges bishops to develop a pastoral teaching resource on God's mission and the global economic crisis and invites dioceses and congregations to use Lent 2010 as a time of "penitential reflection on the brokenness of the global economic order and its reformation in light of the gospel."

D055 reaffirmed the tithe as the minimum standard of giving.

Deputies also adopted several resolutions dealing with the church's liturgical life. They included: B020, requesting that Thurgood Marshall be added to the church's liturgical calendar of observances; A178, encouraging dioceses, congregations and individuals to remember and support Episcopal Relief and Development's work during Lent; A088, adopting Rachel's Tears, Hannah's Hopes, liturgical resources to assist with healing after abortions or other childbearing-related losses; C078, directing development of a liturgy for the loss of a companion animal; and

A099, adding various observances and prayers to the church's liturgical calendar.

Mission: the heartbeat of the Episcopal Church

In writing to the Episcopal Church describing General Convention, Bishop Jefferts Schori said:
Above all else, this Convention claimed God's mission as the heartbeat of The Episcopal Church. I encourage every member of this Church to enter into conversation in your own congregation or diocese about God's mission, and where you and your faith community are being invited to enter more deeply into caring for your neighbors, the "least of these" whom Jesus befriends.
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In addition to being Rector of Trinity Church, Easton, Canon Gerns chairs the Evangelism Commission and serves on the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Bethlehem. He is a member of newsteam of Episcopal Café and keeps the blogs “AndrewPlus” and “Share the Bread.”

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