Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I took time today to "catch my breath" after relentless and long days of committee meetings and legislative sessions at the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  I appreciated that the Reverend Margaret Ayers, one of our alternates, sat in on the floor for me today.  Thankfully, the committee on which I have served, Structure, has completed its work.

However, I do have some reports to share:

  • I failed to mention yesterday that the House of Deputies voted to continue conversations concerning the Anglican Covenant.  Though the Convention did not ratify it, we expressed desire to remain in communication about the possibility of a covenant.  I would be derelict to not note that several provinces of the Anglican Communion (including the Church of England) have refused to endorse the covenant.  It is a sign of good will on our part to express a desire to continue the conversation.
  • The House of Bishops today ratified the resolution calling for restructuring and reorganization of the Episcopal Church's finances, governance and administration, passed yesterday by the House of Deputies.  The Bishops took the same action as the Deputies -- passing the resolution unanimously without amending it.  I had mentioned the various aspect of the resolution in my blog posting of Monday.  This is a very good development for the Episcopal Church, and it has been both a delight and an honor to be on the committee which developed the resolution.
  • The House of Deputies today passed a resolution dealing with the much-debated Denominational Health Plan, which was enacted by the 76th General Convention three years ago.  The change in the plan made by today's resolution is to postpone the required parity for health insurance of ordained and lay employees in the church to the end of 204, instead of the beginning of 2013.  This gives congregations and other institutions more breathing room in the implementation of the plan.
  • The House of Deputies today approved a resolution reaffirming that Holy Baptism is needed in order for admission to communion in the Episcopal Church.  The resolution made provision, however, for admission to communion of the unbaptized in pastorally-appropriate circumstances.
  • The House of Deputies today elected Deputy Byron Rushing of the Diocese of Massachusetts as it Vice President for the next three years.  Byron has served as a Deputy to General Convention since 1973 and is Majority Whip in the Massachusetts Legislature.  He is widely regarded as a thoughtful leader within the House.  His candidacy had much support in the Mississippi Deputation.  He was one of five candidates for the office, and was elected on the second ballot, after having missed election on the first ballot by a single vote.
  • The House of Bishops had a fairly quiet day, waiting for the House of Deputies to act on many resolutions.  Tomorrow is the last day of Convention, and Deputies have around sixty resolutions to consider tomorrow.  Some of those are of significant importance.  We adjourn at 6:00 p.m. tomorrow.
Our closing Eucharist of Convention will be at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow.  The Diocese of Mississippi sent an excellent deputation to this Convention.  I have been thankful for their presence here.  It has been an honor to work with them.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

It was a full day in Indianapolis and the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

First of all, Dr. Anita P. George, of Church of the Resurrection, Starkville, was elected to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church (the wider church's "vestry") on the first ballot this afternoon.  She was the recipient of the second highest number of votes of six people elected to full six-year terms -- and of 15 total candidates.  Anita will be serving a full term after having completed an unexpired term.

Secondly, the House of Deputies approved the Structure Committee's recommended omnibus church reorganization resolution unamended and without dissent this afternoon.  It was a stunning development and gave me, as a Structure Committee member, a great deal of pride.  Please see my blog from yesterday to understand the various aspects of this resolution.

Third, the House of Deputies today elected the Reverend Gay Jennings of the Diocese of Ohio as the new President of the House of Deputies.  Gay was chair of the Structure Committee and did an excellent job of guiding the committee through the challenging issues.  Gay was one of the first church leaders to travel to the Coast in the days after Katrina and worked with clergy in responding to the needs of the devastated communities.  She was also one of the principal architects of the "Weathering the Storm" conference for clergy impacted by Katrina and their families in the months after the storm.  Her brother-in-law is a resident of Wiggins, Mississippi.  In the voting between three candidates, Gay had a majority of five votes on the first ballot.

We were also aware that one of the "hot button" issues would be considered this afternoon -- the provisional use of same sex blessing liturgies on a local option basis.  We had a wonderful and gracious meeting of the Mississippi deputation at lunch today (we meet each day for lunch) and it helped us prepare for the discussion which we knew was coming.  Bishop Gray provided his usual dose of wisdom and depth to the deputies.  We have also been blessed to have Linda Nelson, former Mississippian, church consultant, and director of Advent Retreat House in New Orleans, with us for the end of Convention. It was a fruitful discussion.

 Let me assure you: Whatever you have read in the secular press  about the approval of the blessings has been oversimplified and mischaracterized. Yes, the church did approve liturgical texts for provisional use in the blessing of same sex relationships. Yes, this is the first time the church has offered such resources. Yes, there is educational information which has been developed and provided for use in congregational discussions.

It is also local option, i.e., permission of the diocesan Bishop is necessary. It is true that "unofficial" liturgies have been used in many dioceses over the last several years. No, the rite is not "marriage" -- the church still defines marriage as between a man and woman.  It is the "blessing of a lifelong covenant relationship."  It is a resource for dioceses and congregations which have been moving in this direction, or has been allowing blessings, for several years.

Bishop Gray has said for the past year or so that the church has been heading in this direction. He had said at diocesan council this year that Convention would take this step.  This development should surprise no one.

Bishop Stacy Sauls, former Bishop of Lexington, has said that the provision for blessings is a "pastoral exception" to our usual understanding of marriage in order to minister to the needs of people in the church.  He has compared this "pastoral exception" to the provisions made for divorce by the Church in the early 1970s. 

At any rate, the vote passed with a 78 percent majority among lay deputies and by a 76 percent majority among the clergy. Because of those factors listed above -- as well as others -- I voted for the rite's approval.  There is a "conscience clause" for differing and dissenting bishops and clergy within the canonical change, so there will be no forced compliance.  This "conscience clause" is different from the one offered with the advent of women's ordination because it is more than a "gentleman's agreement" -- the "conscience clause" is included within the canons of the church.

One of the remarkable elements of convention is the sense of Christian community which exists among the widely varying perspectives.  We discuss, debate, listen and differ in committee meetings and on the floor of the House of Deputies.  But we do so respectfully, honoring one another in the process.  And in good Episcopal practice, we come together daily to hear the Word proclaimed, to say our prayers,  to break the bread and to drink the wine. Just as we are...

This church is a wide, expansive and gracious body. But no more so than the love of the risen Christ we proclaim as Lord of Life.  Despite tendencies to stereotype folks we do not know, understand, and from whom we differ, every person I have encountered here is a faithful, devoted and loving follower of Jesus Christ.

To be a part of this deputation and this convention is a blessing.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Today was another full-day at General Convention.  My day started with a Structure Committee meeting at 7:30 a.m.  This was the meeting we have all been anticipating and working toward.  We approved an omnibus restructure study resolution which, if approved by the House  of Deputies and the House of Bishops, will launch a process of evaluating church structure, governance and funding.  The subject -- and essential approach to the subject -- was brought before convention by resolutions supporting restructuring from 45 different dioceses (including Mississippi).

The recommendation was approved unanimously by our committee -- including some 18 lay and clerical deputies and eight bishops.  It may well be debated on the floor of the House of Deputies tomorrow.

Although the resolution is subject to amendment and passage in both houses, here are the essential points:

  • The desire for restructuring is grounded in a sense pervading the church that the Holy Spirit is calling for mission and structure grounded in the Episcopal Church's "Five Marks of Mission."
  • A task force of 24 members will be appointed jointly by the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies by September 30.
  • The group shall include members which are not in current national church governance structures.
  • The task force will function independently of church governing bodies (such as the Executive Council) and will make its report directly to the 78th Convention, to be held in Salt Lake City in 2015.
  • Local, diocesan and provincial levels of the church are encouraged to engage in discussion of how the church needs to be restructured.
  • A gathering of representatives of the dioceses -- bishops, lay deputies, clerical deputies, and persons under the age of 35 -- will be held to review recommendations made by the task force.
  • The task force is to finalize its report to the church by November 2014.
  • The task force will propose constitutional and canonical changes to the 78th General Convention.
The above is my description of what the resolution would do and should not be confused with the actual, literal wording of the resolution. And either house is free to change it.

There were other developments today, as well, both in the House of Deputies and House of Bishops (even though I know only anecdotally the actions in the House of Bishops, since I have little contact with that house).

The House of Deputies began dealing with more contentious issues today.  One matter which has complicated the circumstances today has been a level of confusion among the leaders of the house.  There have been several misunderstandings or mistakes in parliamentary rulings and procedural errors which have, occasionally, thrown the house into some level of confusion.  Happily, those generally get resolved within a reasonable time.  But they slow the house's progress.  The parliamentarian was ill and away from the house today and the substitute may not have been up-to-speed.  Hopefully, the official parliamentarian will be back on Tuesday.

The major debates today were over four resolutions dealing with two subjects:  access to the worship, programs and governance of the church and to the ordination discernment process regardless of gender identity (especially transgender individuals); and the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestinians.

The first two resolutions -- dealing with gender identity -- had passed the House of Bishops earlier.  While there was some spirited debate on the matter, church acting in previous General Conventions, had agreed to stipulate specifically several "groups" who would be welcomed within the community and counsels of the church (for example, race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, marital status, disabilities or age).  The argument was made that in order to welcome "all" (which was stated as the desire and intent by everyone who spoke), the church must be clear as to what that means.  Both resolutions -- one having to do with participation in the life and worship of the church and one having to do with the ordination discernment process -- passed by overwhelming margins (well in excess of two-thirds).

This may not seem to be a big issue, as it relates to Mississippi.  However, there are areas of the church (more urban areas) in which this is an issue.  There is a number of transgender clergy present at General Convention. They appear to be valued and dedicated leaders in their dioceses.

The other two -- having to do with the Israeli-Palestinian situation -- drew contentious debate.  This is not a new issue for General Convention.  The Convention has been vocal in its support of Palestinian Christians in the past.  I have been concerned that little attention has been paid to our debt to the Jews and Israel in some previous resolutions, but the first resolution seemed to be well-balanced and reasoned.  The second resolution -- even though an attempt to take a more moderate stance than many pro-Palestinians in the Convention liked -- walked very close to the line leading to divestment in industries and enterprises associated with Israel.  While I was comfortable and appreciative of the first resolution, I was gravely concerned with the second.

Many people know of my periodic trips to Israel.  That is a land and a situation close to my heart.

I have also been told that the House of Bishops today approved "provisional" liturgies for the blessing of same gender unions.  I have not yet seen that legislation.  I suspect my first look at it will be tomorrow, assuming it shows up on the House of Deputies' agenda.  We will likely be considering in the next couple of days.  It is interesting to hear in the conversation around General Convention how southern dioceses (Virginia and Texas, for example) are making provisions for same-sex blessings, where there is a local consensus on the matter (Even former Reagan Chief of Staff and Secretary of State James Baker has endorsed the Texas "local option" plan).

The level of angst is much less than 2003.  This Convention is less animated by sex-related issues and seems much more concerned with and energized by matters such as mission, budgeting and restructuring.  That is where the bulk of Convention's attention has been focused.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sunday was a different pace at the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  While my day began with a Structure Committee meeting at 7:30 a.m., the general schedule for deputies and bishops did not commence until the 9:30 a.m. ECW UTO Ingathering and Eucharist. Our committee made significant headway on the omnibus church restucturing resolution, but it will be tomorrow before we are ready to send a resolution to the floor.

I am very pleased with the proposed resolution.  I think that it represents a gracious and comprehensive approach to the idea and apsirations of restructuring the Episcopal Church.  I will be happy to share more of that resolution as it it is finalized by the committee and sent to the House of Deputies.  That should come first thing in the morning.

The UTO Ingathering and Eucharist was a wonderful service.  Probably 3,000 people were in attendance, including delegates to the Episcopal Church Women Trienium, which is held in conjunction with General Convention.  Representatives of all 110 jurisdictions within the Episcopal Church presented their offerings at the altar -- the basis for many hundreds of thousands of dollars in ECW UTO grants (from which the Diocese of Mississippi has benefited richly in the past).

The service also included a sermon by Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori.  It was an excellent treatment of both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons today.

The House of Deputies met throughout the afternoon.  Few issues of import were addressed today.  I suspect more of the important issues will arise in the coming days -- structure, blessing of same gender unions, the Anglican Covenant, and the Episcopal Church budget.  I can also see some resolutions dealing with the Israeli-Patlestinian conflict coming on the agenda tomorrow afternoon.

Our omnibus restructuring resolution will likely come out of committee in the morning.  That could potentially mean that it would be taken up in a special order tomorrow or, more likely, Tuesday morning.  I am really pleased with the work of our committee on this matter.

I have not had reports from last night's hearing on the blessing of same gender relationships.  I have been almost tunnel-focused on the work of my committee so that I have been somewhat unaware of other developments at General Convention -- whether in the House of Deputies or the House of Bishops. 

Tonight we had the Mississippi Night dinner.  Bishop Gray was the host and Canon Kathryn McCormick had planned a wonderful evening for Mississippians present for General Convention and the ECW Trienium.  Visitors included friends who are "ex-pat" Mississippians, a retired Mississippi Bishop, A. C. "Chip" Marble; former Mississippians who are also Bishops (Shannon Johnston of Virginia and Joe Burnett of Maryland); and other Bishops with whom we have close relationships (Lloyd Allen of Honduras and Julio Murray of Panama). It was a great evening of fellowship; probably 65 people were in attendance.

Work begins early in the morning, including a 7:30 a.m. committee meeting.  Please keep us in your prayers.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

I am writing earlier today than usual because I have a break for a short while so that I may report on today's activities.  We have just gotten out of a legislative session (which ended at 6:30 p.m.).  I will be going into a Structure Committee meeting at 7:30, and it is scheduled to end at 9:30 tonight.  Perhaps I will be a bit more clear-headed by writing earlier.

The big news in the Mississippi deputation is the election, on the first ballot, of Canon Kathryn McCormick as a Trustee of the Church Pension Fund.  She was one of 26 nominees in the election for one of the most important positions in the church.  She was elected along with 11 other trustees to oversee the functioning of the comprehensive agency which provides pension services, disability coverage, life and health insurance, property and casualty coverage, publishing resources, and many other services to the Episcopal Church.  Her election is a testimony to the broad respect for her in the church and is a compliment to the Diocese of Mississippi.

We hope that our other Mississippi deputy nominated for church-wide office -- Dr. Anita P. George of Resurrection, Starkville -- will be elected to her office, which is the the Episcopal Church's Executive Council, the vestry of the "national" church. That election comes in a few days.

I am primarily able to report on what has been happening in my committee and how that is being received in the House of Deputies.  I had shared earlier our recommendation that the Episcopal Church Center at 815 Second Avenue in New York had been approved by the House of Deputies.  That was the initial sign that convention is potentially receptive to a significant reorganization of the Episcopal Church.

A second sign was evident today.  Again, based on a recommendation from the Structure Committee, the House of Deputies today approved a canonical change that would eliminate the requirement that the next Presiding Bishop (to be elected in 2015) has to resign her or his jurisdiction.  That change, if approved by the House of Bishops, would mean that the next Presiding Bishop would continue to serve as diocesan bishop whereever he or she is currently posted.  This, of course, would require a radical redefinition of the role and duties of the Presiding Bishop.  The interesting thing is, of course, that this was the manner in which the Presiding Bishop functioned until 1947. "Back to the future," I guess.

Our committee meets in half an hour to look at the first draft of "omnibus" church reorganization legislation.  A drafting group has been working to bring something to the committee's consideration.  I am looking forward to hearing what they have to say.  This could mean good things for the future of the church, in terms of administration and governance.  I will report tomorrow on what those proposals offer.

Although I will be unable to attend, the Committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music is holding a hearing tonight on the issue of blessing of same sex unions.  I suspect that committee, chaired by former Mississippian Lowell Grisham, rector of St. Paul's Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas, will propose some form of blessings for implementation and use in those dioceses in which they are either legally allowed or permitted by the bishop of that diocese.

The hearing on same gender unions will likely be the largest hearing of this convention.  However, I would say that the subject has not been much on the forefront at this convention.  More attention has been focused on structure and the wider church's budget.

We also expect committee action on the Anglican Covenant.  Many observers expect the recommendation from that committee to be acceptance of the Preamble and first three sections while demurring on the fourth section (which deals with discipline).  Some of the air was released from this balloon by the English church's refusal to embrace the proposed covenant.

I will look forward to reporting tomorrow.  Please keep us in your prayers.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Today was the second legislative day of the 77th General Convention.  Like a locomotive gaining speed, the mechanism of General Convention is beginning to pick up momentum.  While we have -- as a House of Deputies -- dealt with some issues, nearly all of the significant ones are yet to come.  I cannot speak for the House of Bishops.  I get to see very little of Bishop Gray, but I will share a bit of what I have learned from his perceptions in a moment.

I took a day off from "the floor" today, and the Reverend Betsy Baumgarten, one of alternates, sat in for me.  I focused my attention on my committee work.  The Structure Committee actually met three times today -- 7:30 to 9:00 a.m., 2:00 to 4:00 p.m., and 7:30 to 9:00 p.m.  We are attemtping to dispatch more than 80 resolutions which have come before, and on which we must have hearings and act before the adjournment of General Convention.

Two bits of news from the Structure Committee (which is one of the most focused-on committees this year): (1) A special drafting committee has been named to devise a comprehensive, omnibus approach to reorganization of the Episcopal Church (especially the administrative and governance structures of the "national" church); and (2) the Structure Committee approved a resolution today instructing the Executive Council (the "national" church's "vestry") to sell the Episcopal Church Center, located at 815 Second Avenue in New York.  The resolution mandated that the sale take place before the 78th General Convention in 2015.  On the floor, the deadline was eliminated, but the requirement to sell the headquarters was approved.  It now goes to the House of Bishops.

The action to require the sale of Episcopal Church Center seems to me to be a "shot across the bow," indicating that the Structure Committee and the House of Deputies are interested in doing things differently.  I am suspecting that the seriousness of that intention is going to be punctuated by additional actions by the Structure Committee and the House of Deputies in the coming days.

The House of Bishops, for their part, is sending some significant signals, as well.  Bishop Gray says that his house is defeating funding resolutions which indicate "business as usual", and are also defeating certain appropriations and instructions to various Standing Commissions of the Church.  This seems to be an indication, on the Bishop's part, that they mean business, too.

There appears to be a developing consensus that restructuring is moving forward.  But, as my grandfather said many years ago, "Many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip."  We shall see; I am hopeful.

Our committee is also considering resolutions requiring that General Convention become a unicameral (one house) legislative body, and mandating that the next Presiding Bishop (to be elected in 2015) would retain jurisdiction, thereby continuing as the Bishop of the diocese he or she serves at the time of election.  Those may not be approved, but they are indications of the sentiments here.

Some of the more contentious matters are yet to be discussed.  The blessing of same gender unions will be the subject of a hearing tomorrow evening.  That matter, along with other significant issues, will be subject of debate on the floors of the two houses next week.

Please keep us in your prayers.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

I will be brief this evening because we have had a very full day and it is now 11:00 p.m., having just gotten a light bite of supper with other members of the Mississippi deputation after a large hearing on church structure this evening.

We began this morning with our first official legislative session of the House of Deputies.  It was all pretty formal -- doing the various things we have to do in order to get Convention officially started.  On the floor today for our deputation were, in the laity, Kathryn McCormick, Anita George, Margaret McLarty, and Ed Sisson; and clergy, myself, Marian Fortner, David Knight, and Margaret Ayers.  The opening legislative session ran from 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. 

At 9:30, we had the opening Eucharist of convention.  The Presiding Bishop was the preacher and celebrant.  The propers were for the commemoration of Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden and Jacob Riis, 19th and early 20th century Christian social activists.  It was a wonderful service with outstanding music.  The Presiding Bishop preached an excellent service.

It is a bracing and wonderful experience to be in a service with 2,000 fellow Episcopalians.

Later, we had two rounds of committee meetings. Mine, of course, is the Committee on Structure. We met and continued to plod through a number of resolutions dealing with very dry canonical changes. Suffice it to say we put a very fine edge on everything -- wordsmithing resolutions to a farethewell. We were not yet to the matters of substance that our committee will ultimately deal with. A large crowd of visitors -- maybe 70 or 80 at each committee meeting -- indicates the level of interest in the she subject, thought the vast majority of the visitors almost certainly have been disappointed by our not taking up the most important resolutions yet. I expressed a hope that we would be prepared to deal with larger issues and that we would not restrict our options by acting too soon on some resolutions which seem to assume "business as usual."

Between legislative committee meetings, the Mississippi deputation met for lunch, as we do each day.  It is a good time for the deputies to meet with Bishop Gray and for all of us to "get on the same page."  Kathryn McCormick is making sure that a suitable lunch is catered to our meeting space each day.  Her hospitality and organization have been invaluable.

Tonight we had our BIG hearing.  The Structure Committee met in a massive ballroom for a public hearing on all resolutions addressing the serious restructuring of the church that has been so much in discussion.  It was largely a univocal exercise, with more than 40 witness (allowed two minutes each) endorsing the idea of restructuring the Episcopal Church's administration and governance.  Bishop Gray and David Knight spoke at the hearing; I was seated with the committee.  We will see where this goes.  The real work begins tomorrow.

Please keep us in your prayers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church began somewhat tentatively today -- as planned -- with committee meetings in the morning, a joint session of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies this afternoon, deputy orientation afterwards, and then committee hearings this evening.  Our work concluded at about 7:00 p.m.

Some folks unencumbered by committee work were able to attend the minor league professional ballgame literally across the street from the convention center.  Folks I saw afterwards said the game was "hot."  Surprise, surprise, surprise.  There was a large Episcopal group that helped make the July 4 home game at Victory Park a sell-out.  As I write this, a massive fireworks display is going on outside my hotel window.

It is hard to get a 30,000 foot view of convention developments when one is deeply involved in a committee.  What is transpiring on significant subjects will become more apparent as committee meetings are held and legislation is reported to the floor of General Convention.  That will be tomorrow and the following days.

My primary attention today was on the committee on which I serve, Committee 06-Structure.  We have some 80 resolutions to discuss and act on -- easily more than twice the number of any other committee.  The Structure Committee is one of the committees located at-or-near "ground zero" of this convention, due to the significant interest in and desire to reorganize the Episcopal Church and perhaps even General Convention.  Bishop Gray has been one of the leaders in that effort and it will be interesting to see how all this develops.

I was honored to preach the homily at this morning's opening Eucharist for the Structure Committee. Despite my erroneous reporting, Bishop John Howard of the Diocese of Florida -- a good friend of the Diocese of Mississippi and especially St. Patrick's, Long Beach -- was the celebrant, and not Bishop Michael Smith of North Dakota.  Bishop Smith and I serve as chaplains to the Structure Committee.

The Structure Committee is comprised of probably 25 members -- most of which are Deputies.  There are perhaps eight Bishops on the Committee.  We serve side-by-side in considering the matters which come before us.  Since all legislation from our committee goes to the House of Deputies first (and only later, if approved, to the Bishops), any negative decision by the deputy members of the committee kills a resolution -- subject, of course, to revival by the House of Deputies.

The committee spent a good bit of time this morning discussing philosophical approaches toward restructuring.  It was a very good and open discussion.  We had only scratched the surface by the end of the morning's meeting.

We held hearings on a number of largely uncontroversial resolutions during this evening's session.  However, once the committee began consideration of the various canonical revisions, conversation was lively.  There were various efforts to amend the resolutions, some of which were successful, some of which were not.  However, it appeared to me that a larger issue was being voiced indirectly by rank-and-file members of the committee.  It was the concern about the committee's need to address very directly the larger and more comprehensive issue of restructuring.  I shared with the committee that it seemed that this larger concern was like "whack-a-mole," in which the concern arises again and again, even when it is dispatched in one resolution or another.  It appears to be that the committee may have to address the issue more fully and more quickly than some leaders might have thought.

I was invited to a strategy/information session tonight, to discuss "next steps" in the restructuring debate, but I declined to attend.  I believe that as a committee member, I must stay separate of such organized -- or very loosely organized -- efforts.

It may just be my own perception -- and not reflective of reality -- but I am unsure that the leadership of the committee or the leadership of the House of Deputies recognizes the depth of feeling and support related to a significant effort to restructure the church. That vision may be ill-defined at this point, but the energy is there, I believe.

In our opening joint session of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, more than 1,000 people were present on the floor of convention.  We heard an excellent, visionary talk by the Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori.  She seemed to be "looking over the horizon" at the challenges facing the church, and embraced them in a theology or hope. I truly respect and admire her.

The ensuing talk by the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, was not quite as upbeat.  One new deputy, seated nearby, after hearing her address, said "What was that?"  It was a fair question.  Another observer said the talk sounded like something from the Saturday Night Live character, "Debby Downer."  I choose to describe it as a view "looking back," while the Presiding Bishop's view was very forward looking. Hope triumphs over despair in virtually ever instance.

The first official legislative session is tomorrow.  A full day is ahead.  Please keep us in your prayers.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

We arrived in Indianapolis this afternoon to begin preparations for the meeting of the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  Much of the Mississippi deputation is already here.  Thus far, I have seen Bishop Gray, Canon Kathryn McCormick,  Dr. Anita George, Dr. Ed Sisson, the Reverend Marian Fortner, the Reverend Margaret Ayers, Margaret McLarty, and Danny Meadors. Others may have already arrived or will arrive in the next day or so.

The Indianapolis Convention Center is a sizeable facility and seems to be well-suited for this large gathering.  The House of Deputies and the House of Bishops will meet in the Convention Center.  That is also the location for the massive hall of exhibits -- a great place to do some "Episcopal retail therapy."  The Convention's worship services will be held in the nearby J. W. Marriott Hotel -- not to be confused with the deputation's place of lodging, the Indianapolis Downtown Marriott.  The large number of committee meetings and hearings (there are 24 legislative committees for General Convention) will meet in the two Marriott Hotels and in the nearby Westin.

Committee meetings begin at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow (Wednesday).  Some committees will begin straightaway with hearings on specific legislation before them.  Others will begin with committee discussions. The Structure Committee (on which I serve) will start our work with a Eucharist in the morning.  General Convention committees are composed of both bishops and deputies (they are called "cognate committees").  There is a bishop-chair and a deputy-chair for each committee. The Reverend Gay Jennings of the Diocese of Ohio is deputy-chair of the committee, while Bishop John Howard of the Diocese of Florida is the bishop-chair.  I have been asked to serve as the deputy-chaplain for the Structure Committee and, as such, will preach the homily for the Stucture Committee's opening Eucharist tomorrow. Bishop Michael Smith of the Diocese of North Dakota will be the bishop-chaplain and will serve as celebrant at the Eucharist.  It is important for the committee to begin its work in worship and prayer.

You have likely seen Bishop Gray's concise summary of the issues he anticipates being paramount at this General Convention.  I agree wholeheartedly.  I would describe the top issues as blessing of same sex unions, the governing, management and administrative structure of the Episcopal Church, and the church budget.  It is very likely that the bulk of the secular press's coverage will be on the same-gender blessings.  However, I think a great deal of new effort, thought and discussion will go into structure and budgetary issues.  The church has focused on the same sex blessing issues for a number of years and, as Bishop Gray has said, the direction of the Episcopal Church, at least as represented by the General Convention, seems to be set.  These other two issues are relatively new, and this will be the first really significant effort to grapple with them.

We will not be electing a new Presiding Bishop this convention.  That will come in 2012 at the 78th General Convention, scheduled for Salt Lake City, Utah.  This year, we will be electing a new President for the House of Deputies, since incumbent Bonnie Anderson of Michigan has chosen not to seek reelection.  Two candidates have emerged:  Gay Jennings, a priest from Ohion (and chair of the committee on which I serve), and Martha Alexander, a lay person from the Diocese of North Carolina.  It would appear to me that Gay Jennings is the leading contender.  That election comes next week and the new President will be preside over the House of Deputies in the 2015 General Convention.

We will also be electing a Vice President of the House of Deputies.  The prior office-holder was Brian Prior, who was elected and consecrated as bishop of Minnesota since the last Convention.  The only name I have heard circulated thus far is Sally Johnson, a lay person and attorney from Minnesota and just-retired legal counsel to Church Insurance Company and Church Pension Fund.  I anticipate other nominations, as well.

Legsilative sessions begin Thursday.  I will attempt to post summaries daily from here.

Please keep us in your prayers.

Monday, June 25, 2012

This certainly does not come under the category of the 77th General Convention, but it does have to do with vocation -- especially the ordained variety.  I am referring to a different approach to a sense of "call."

I work with search committees on a regular basis, and a major challenge is to help them avoid the trap of thinking of the search for a new priest as a secular process of "hiring" a certain "type" of priest.  I generally deal with that temptation preemptively by asking them to reflect on a specific biblical passage at the initial search-vestry retreat.

The passage is from First Samuel15 and it was our first lesson on Sunday a couple of weeks ago.  In that passage, Samuel has been urged by God to go to the village of Bethlehem and to the family of Jesse to anoint a new king for Israel. Even though Saul is still alive and serving as king, an heir is going to be selected.

Seven sons of Jesse stand before Samuel.  He looks first at the eldest, Eliab, and thinks "Surely the Lord's anointed is before me."  But God tells Samuel "no" -- do not look at his stature or outward appearance.  God looks at the heart and sees the essence of the person's character.  So Samuel looks next at Abinadab, then Shammah, and the four remaining sons.  None of these is chosen by God through Samuel's sense of discernment.

Samuel turns to Jesse and says, "Are these all your sons?"  Jesse responds, "There remains one -- the youngest. He is tending the flocks in the fields."  Jesse sends for the youngest, a mere boy.  David -- with his ruddy complexion and beautiful eyes notwithstanding -- is chosen by God and anointed by Samuel because God looked into David's heart and saw what he was seeking.

All of this was within the context of Saul having been chosen the first king because he was taller than all the other Israelites.  David -- a young boy -- was chosen as his successor.

The point, from my perspective, is that if we are willing to be truly discerning in hearing God's call, we may well be surprised.  We may be looking for someone who is tall, handsome, graceful and extroverted, when what God is seeking to show us is someone who is short, frail, thoughtful, and introverted.  Or any other form of a surprise.

That is a point I seek to convey:  That God may be urging us in one direction when we, for our own reasons, may be champing at the bit to go in another direction.  Being able to open ourselves to a true sense and experience of discernment may yield great promise.

I think that is how congregations need to see this process, and God's seeking to move in our midst.  Now to the clergy.

I am amazed at how often a sense of "call" is confused with something entirely different.  A colleague once told me of his service as a college chaplain in the New Orleans area many, many years ago.  His cure as a college chaplain was not real prominent and I am certain his compensation was modest, at best. 

This colleague -- then a young, rookie priest -- was contacted by a congregation in another diocese, expressing an interest in calling him as rector.  There would have been a great increase in responsibilities, profile and, of course, compensation.  He felt very attracted to the offer, so he went to see his Bishop, Girault Jones, Bishop of Louisiana.

In his meeting with Bishop Jones, the young priest described the offer from another diocese and congregation.  Bishop Jones listened patiently, then said, "Well, what do you think?"  The young priest responded eagerly, "I think I am being called there." Bishop Jones, thought for a moment, then said, "I don't know if it is a call or a temptation."

It is interesting how frequently many senses of "call" are in complete concert with our own hearts' desires.  It is amazing how frequently what God wants us to do is exactly what we would like to do!  What an amazing coincidence!

Examples are numerous:  "I am called to stay in the same area as my seminary," "I feel called to be close to the beach," "I feel called to Florida,""I feel a call to a program sized church," "I feel called to a metropolitan area," or, of course, "I feel called to a much higher paying church."  It's interesting how infrequently people sense a "call" to small town, rural ministry.

A colleague recently left a very prominent and important position in a significant diocese.  She did not do so in order to be "upwardly mobile."  Instead, she accepted a call to a small, struggling congregation, split by larger church controversies, in hopes of bringing healing to this congregation seeking gifted leadership.  I admire her for her response to the call, countercultural though it may be.  She models, for me, an openness to God's call.  There are so many levels on which I admire her.  This is just one of them.
If our vocation is truly a calling, we need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, drawing us in directions we might not ever have anticipated.  The vocation of priesthood is not about self-actualization as much as it is about self-offering. 

I cannot help but think of Jonathan Daniels, the Episcopal seminarian who came south to work for racial justice.  I also think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who left the safety of the United States and New York City and returned to his native Germany to lead the "confessing church" in Hitler's Germany.  I think of Matt Devenney, the 33-year-old father and husband, who sensed a call to be executive director of Stewpot Ministries in Jackson, Mississippi.

They were all pursuing their sense of call -- and each paid a significant price. Jonathan Daniels was shot down in the streets of Hayneville, Alabama, protecting a young girl from the shotgun's blast, on August 20, 1965.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred at Flossenburg Prison on April 9, 1945 -- less than two weeks before the Allies liberated that infamous concentration camp.  Matt Devenney was shot-down on a Jackson street by a deranged homeless person he was trying to help on June 19, 1991.  While their lives were ultimately not "happy" (in a traditional, superficial sense), there was no doubt a sense meaning in their response to God's call.

Few of us are called to lives of complete sacrifice.  Yet those of us who are blessed to be in ordained ministry do have a mandate to seek "the mind of Christ" as we try to live out the vows we have taken for ourselves.  That sense of call may lead us to interesting and challenging pathways -- but so rich with meaning.

My perspective on the sense of call is greatly influenced by a specific hymn.  And I am grateful to the Greenville, Mississippi poet, William Alexander Percy (1885-1942), who wrote Hymn 661 in The Hymnal 1982:

"They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown;
Such happy, simple fisherfolk,
Before the Lord came down.

"Contented, peaceful fishermen,
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that filled their hearts
Brimful, and broke them too.

"Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head-down was crucified.

"The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing --
The marvelous peace of God."

Monday, June 18, 2012

The 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church convenes in Indianapolis, Indiana in about two weeks.  The official dates of the convention are July 4 to July 12. The Mississippi Deputation, consisting of four lay deputies and four clergy deputies, four lay alternates and three clergy alternates, and of course, Bishop Gray, has met formally two times  in advance of General Convention. Additionally, several deputation members attended the Province IV Synod at Kanuga near Hendersonville, North Carolina, earlier in June.  All of this is to prepare for our time at General Convention.

The Mississippi Deputation includes the following:  lay deputies -- Canon Kathryn McCormick of St. Andrew's, Jackson, and the diocesan staff; Dr. Ed Sisson of St. Peter's, Oxford; Dr. Anita George of Resurrection, Starkville; and Margaret McLarty of St. Andrew's, Jackson; clergy deputies -- the Reverend Canon David Johnson of the diocesan office; the Reverend David Knight of St. James', Jackson; the Very Reverend Edward O'Connor of St. Andrew's, Jackson; and the Reverend Marian Fortner of Trinity, Hattiesburg.

Alternate deputies include the following: lay -- Danny Meadors of St. Patrick's, Long Beach; Bobbie Marascalco of Holy Trinity, Vicksburg; Hilda Povall of Calvary, Cleveland; and Jack Conway of St. Philip's, Jackson; clergy -- the Reverend Margaret Ayers of St. James', Port Gibson; the Reverend Elizabeth Wheatley-Jones of All Saints', Grenada; and the Reverend Betsy Baumgarten of Coast Episcopal School, Long Beach, and Redeemer, Biloxi.  The Reverend Matt Rowe of Nativity, Greenwood, had been elected as a clergy alternate but has since accepted a call to the Diocese of Northwest Texas.

Alternates and deputies share time on the floor of General Convention.

The General Convention is divided into two houses -- the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops.  It functions in a manner similar to the United States Congress or the Mississippi Legislature; i.e., in order to be accepted as a canonical revision or as a policy of the church, a proposal must be approved in the exact same form by both houses.

The House of Deputies is comprised of four clergy deputies and four lay deputies from each of 110 dioceses and jurisdictions from 16 countries spanning from Europe to Taiwan. That membership totals over 800 deputies on the floor of General Convention.  The House of Deputies is chaired by the President of the House, currently Canon Bonnie Anderson, a lay deputy from the Diocese of Michigan.  She is not seeking reelection to that post.

The membership of the House of Bishops includes all living bishops -- somewhere in excess of 250 bishops.  However, in a normal General Convention (which does not include the election of a Presiding Bishop) the average attendance in the House of Bishops is about 180. The House of Bishops is chaired by the Presiding Bishop, currently the Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts-Schori. She has three years remaining on her nine-year term as Presiding Bishop. Bishop Gray, of course, is a member of that house.

Much of the work of General Convention is done in the Cognate Committees (consisting of both deputies and bishops). Several Mississipians serve on those committees. Bishop Gray serves on the Evangelism Committee. Canon McCormick serves on the Church Pension Committee. Dr. George serves on the Education Committee. Dr. Sisson is on the World Mission Committee and Canon Johnson serves on the Structure Committee.

Two Mississippians are seeking election to national bodies of the Episcopal Church. Dr. George, who has been filling an unexpired term on Executive Council (the "vestry" of the Episcopal Church), has been nominated for a full term.  Canon McCormick has been nominated for election to the Board of Trustees of the Church Pension Fund. Those elections will be conducted in the House of Deputies and those elected must receive a majority vote of the members of the house.

One significant decision to be made by the House of Deputies will be in the election of the next President of the House.  Since Canon Anderson is not seeking reelection, a new president will be elected.  The House will also be electing a new vice president since the previous incumbent, Brian Prior, was elected and consecrated as Bishop of the Diocese of Minnesota.

For your information, here are some links which might be helpful before and during General Convention:

Episcopal News Service --
The Episcopal Church --
General Convention (including pre-filed legislation) --
Constitution and Canons (and other publications) --

I plan to post more information about issues coming before General Convention in the days ahead.  Additionally, I hope to post daily updates during each day of General Convention.  I invite you to read and share this blog as you see fit.