Monday, July 20, 2009

The Last Word

I am back in my beloved New Hampshire where the clean air and my own bed have banished my fever and restored my health. A nasty bug, enabled by my near exhaustion, ruined the last couple of days of a great Convention, but it does not diminish in any way the good work we did.

This General Convention accomplished, addressed and acknowledged many concerns that face the Church and the world, among them...

* put in place a mandatory lay pension plan for all lay church employees working 20 hours or more, addressing an inequity long overdue for remedy

* established a mandatory denominational health plan for all clergy, combining the buying power of our numbers of clergy in order to provide excellent health coverage (with several plans to choose from) at an estimated 10% reduction in cost

* advocated for humane treatment of undocumented immigrants, including a call for the ending of roadside checkpoints, an ending to raids on community centers, transportation centers, workplaces and houses of worship, an end to the inhumane conditions and questionable processes in detention centers, and a call for a process toward legal citizenship for those already resident in this country

* called on members of this church to work for universal health care coverage, including, in time, a single-payer system

In doing all this, The Episcopal Church faced into the economic realities of this time, passing a drastically reduced budget, which includes the painful elimination of some 30 positions at the Episcopal Church Center and cuts to worthy programs, but which seeks to continue our mission in the world.

In addition, the Church decided to move beyond the informal moratoria on gay bishops and the blessing of same sex unions. By this time, you will have read of those actions, but let me tell you about the most significant moment, for me, related to these actions.

The House of Bishops had already concurred, with some minor amendments, that this church will continue to follow our constitution and canons regarding the election of bishops. This resolution basically said, "We have canons, they have served us well in the past, and they will be sufficient for guiding our selection of bishops in the future." In other words, we will not be constrained by any extra-canonical agreements. That was a positive statement about where we mean to be in the selection of bishops.

Then, the Prayer Book and Litury legislative committee brought to the floor of the House of Bishops (where such legislation originates) a resolution that called for the development of liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender unions, along with a generous flexibility in the use of rites in those civil jurisdictions where marriage equality is already (or may become) a reality. The debate was vigorous and positive. It looked as if we were going to move forward. Then a bishop rose to propose that legislating this issue was counterproductive. It was moved to send this to a small working group to come up with a "better way." This motion passed, and I feared that this move was an attempt to get us to do nothing, or worse, to make our own statement as bishops, completely sidestepping the fact that we were meeting, not as a lone House of Bishops, but as the General Convention, which includes laity and clergy.

In an effort to forestall this move, I signed up to be a part of the small working group (Presiding Bishop Katharine had invited any who wanted to be a part of the group to volunteer). What followed was perhaps the most signficant "moment" of the Convention for me.

We met late into the night on Wednesday night. Some 25 bishops representing the entire spectrum of opinion, from the most conservative to the most liberal. On Wednesday night, using the style of the African Indaba process from the Lambeth Conference, we each simply spoke about where we were on this issue. NEVER in my six years as a bishop have I experienced the holy speaking and holy listening I experienced that night. Each bishop in turn spoke their truth -- the pain and difficulty they've experienced in their dioceses as a result of the controversy, the personal burdens they've shouldered, the pain of gay and lesbian people in their dioceses who are not sure whether they are valued as full members of this church and their pastoral needs as children of God. Each spoke of what they needed to go home with. Each was honest and vulnerable about what they could give up for the good of the whole. It is hard to describe the vulnerability and honesty with which each bishop contributed.

We took all this to our prayers and to bed, and returned at 7:00 the next morning to decide what all this meant for the resolution before us. The vulnerability and honesty continued in this working session. What resulted was a resolution to bring back to the House that represented that group's "best way forward," although there was no attempt to lock anyone into voting for it or to commit to every word.

At our afternoon session, the resolution was presented, along with a brief account of our precious time together. Then we talked about the resolution at our tables of eight, for close to half an hour. Then the debate began. There were a few amendments offered -- some passed, some failed. But the resolution we had crafted remained reasonably intact.

Just as we were nearly ready to vote, a bishop rose and proposed "discharging" the resolution (in effect, NOT voting on it and making it "go away"). This move to not deal with the issue failed by a substantial (3 to 1) margin. It seemed clear that the Bishops knew that we could not duck out of this one. A roll call was requested, so no bishop could hide behind a voice vote. The time had come to declare ourselves. When the resolution came to a vote, it passed by a whopping 3.5 to 1 margin. Interestingly, some of the bishops who had voted to make the whole issue go away, when finally having to vote, voted "yes!" There were some bishops who voted "yes" who had NEVER voted "yes" on any gay-affirmative resolution before. This vote was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone seemed stunned.

As is our practice at the end of each session, the Presiding Bishop asked the chaplains to lead us in prayer, which they did. But what happened next was a total surprise. As the chaplain spoke the final AMEN, no one moved a muscle. Normally, we would have immediately gotten up and exited the hall. But this time, there was no movement at all. The bishops sat perfectly still, and totally silent for some 10 minutes, continuing to pray. My prayers were filled with love and concern for those who had courageously voted "yes" and would face much criticism for having done so. I prayed for those conservatives who had voted "no" and whose dioceses would demand to know why they had not been able to stop this move. And I prayed for those lgbt people who now had a new, bold affirmation that indeed they ARE full and equal members of this Church, good news for the marginalized. It was a stunning moment, and for me, a moment to experience/feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. I believe others felt it too.

This Convention had an unexpected -- and wonderful -- effect on me. The marginalization I have felt from my own House of Bishops since Lambeth seems to have disappeared. Finally, after months of feeling "cut out of the herd" by Lambeth, I once again feel restored to the community of bishops. Perhaps it was my own doing, I don't know. But whatever distance I felt, now seems mostly healed. And for that I am very grateful.

One brother bishop noted in private that my blog was still called "Canterbury Tales from the Fringe," and wondered if that was not out of date now. While I had simply decided to continue the same blog, rather than establish a new one, I now wonder if at some level I had still felt "on the fringe." Because that is no longer the case, if I decide to blog again (I'm sure I will), it will be under a different name. I, along with my gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters, are moving into full participation in the Body of Christ. There is no sweeter result of General Convention than this one.

Thank you for reading my musings here. Your prayers and support have meant and will continue to mean the world to me. As I am fond of saying, God's love wins! And God's inclusive love certainly won the day at the Convention. Still, isn't it amazing when it happens right in front of your eyes?! Thanks be to God.

No longer on the Fringe,