Thursday, July 2, 2015

"Moving Day" at General Convention

Wednesday was “moving day” as one General Convention staff member described it – using the metaphor of Friday in a PGA tournament for the convention’s action on major items.  Those two major issues were structure and marriage.

Much of my focus at this General Convention has been on structure.  I was appointed to General Convention Committee 5 – Governance and Structure, and much of my time and energy (and frustration) have been connected with that committee.  I will be happy to share more of that subject’s action in a few moments.

The marriage subject has been less of a focus for me, other than having read the report from the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, which was issued earlier this year.  It was that report which served as the foundation for the legislation which the Convention has approved.

I was on the floor Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning for the debate on structure.  I was not on the floor Thursday afternoon for the debate on the marriage resolutions.  I can speak with some knowledge and authority on the former, and not much on the latter.

I know that the hot topic for many people is the General Convention action on marriage.  General Convention has extended the use of "I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing", which was passed by the 77th General Convention for use in jurisdictions, with the approval of the Bishop of that diocese. Another version of that rite, but for use in a marriage, was one of three trial rites approved Wednesday. The other two changes affect the language of the two marriage rites currently in the Book of Common Prayer, making them gender neutral.

Trial rites are a first step towards prayer book revision but will not necessarily be what is in a new prayer book. I also understand that Title I, Canon 18, was amended to make various changes, with much of the focus being on replacing "man and woman" or "husband and wife" with "two parties" or "the couple" (this is the same language used in the new trial rites). My understanding is that this terminology is actually what was in the canons many years ago.

There are, of course, strong feeling on both sides of this matter.  I am certain that I am taking a very complex matter and reducing it to just a couple of paragraphs.  But that is what I am prepared to do at this time.  I strongly suspect there will be continuing conversations and insights in this matter.

I would note, however, that Bishops continue to have the authority to either allow or not allow marriages of same gender couples in their jurisdictions; that the church’s involvement must conform to civil law and canons; and that clergy continue to have the right to decline to officiate at any marriage (a right that has been in place for many, many years).  I know that such provisions do not satisfy anyone.

Having read a few blogs in the last few hours, I see that one of the main objections to General Convention action is that convention amended canons to make the change, rather than beginning the process to amend the Constitution, which is the usual manner for changing the Book of Common Prayer. (A constitutional amendment requires approval of the change by two successive General Conventions.)  I believe I am correct in noting that the canonical amendment route (requiring only one year) was the same process and the same focus of the stated objection when the ordination of women was approved.

The Reverend David Knight, a member of the Mississippi deputation, served on the Task Force for the Study of Marriage, and would be an appropriate person to contact with questions about this subject. 

No one should be surprised by this decision.  The Episcopal Church has shown a gradual inclination toward moving in this direction for many years.

Now, to structure.  In my previous blog posting (Can a Zebra Change its Own Stripes?), I shared my frustration with the process of considering, deliberating, and drafting resolutions by this committee.  After having offered my concerns and becoming more and more frustrated with the process, I had stopped attending committee meetings.

One of my primary concerns had to do with the section of one resolution which allowed the Executive Council (the “vestry” of the Episcopal Church) to “direct” the Presiding Bishop to dismiss any of the three top officials of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (the formal name of the Episcopal Church).  That would have included the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief Financial Officer, and the Chief Legal Officer.  There is no parallel ability of vestries, standing committees, or executive committees to force similar action in congregations or diocesan structures.  I believed that such a canon would have impinged on the freedom of the Presiding Bishop to choose and keep staff.

My effort to amend that section was defeated in committee – and overwhelmingly.  However, it was with a great sense of relief that, when the resolution came to the floor of the House of Deputies on Wednesday, that provision was removed from the resolution, in a formal vote on the floor.

While we considered the various structure resolutions, we agreed to keep Executive Council the same size (42 members!), but we reduced the number of Standing Commissions (interim bodies created by the canons and in perpetual existence) from 14 to two.  In this action, General Convention indicated that it wishes to reduce the bureaucracy of the upper levels of the Church.

I would note that I still stand behind my belief – stated in yesterday’s blog – that the renewal, revitalization, and reenergizing of the Church will come, not from the upper levels, but from congregations, dioceses, provinces, and voluntary associations within the Church.

Over the last few months and the course of this convention, I have come to a broader awareness of the call of the Church and my place in it.  More on that later…

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