Thursday, July 16, 2015

After the Fire

I should say at the outset that I cannot predict the future.  It is folly to think I can – or that anyone can.  In each arena of life, there are too many moving parts.  If we delude ourselves, we think that we can manage a few of those variables.  But we really can’t.  The vast majority of factors is out of our control and beyond our ability to see. 

The future of the Episcopal Church is like that.  We are a small boat in a vast sea of change.  Societal and cultural waves are rocking our little boat, as they are with all the other ecclesial craft on the turbulent sea.  Some are much larger than us, but none can control or even foresee the events which await us over the horizon. 

We do what we do on a wing and a prayer.  We make our decisions in hope.  That is what the 78th Convention of the Episcopal Church did in Salt Lake City.  The Convention made decisions which it hoped would move the church constructively into the future.  Some celebrate that course.  Some grieve it.  But none of us knows for sure what awaits us.

It is with that caveat that I offer the following hopeful metaphor.

After General Convention, Nora and I traveled to Yellowstone National Park.  It is a place of breathtaking scenery.  The vistas there are beyond description.  It would have been impossible for me to prepare myself for what I encountered there.  It should be on each person’s bucket list.

As we made our initial drive into that massive park (more than 3,000 square miles), I was struck by one element of the landscape.  Most of the trees we saw were very young.  The forest canopy which I had anticipated was largely not present.  The trunks of older trees were lying on the forest floor – like matchsticks thrown across a flat surface.  I observed this phenomenon for miles and miles as we drove into the park.

Then it occurred to me.  I recalled that Yellowstone had experienced devastating forest fires some years before.  I remembered seeing the news coverage of the massive firestorm.  The images of fire surrounding the Old Faithful Inn came to mind. I realized I was seeing the lingering effects of that blaze.

I could not recall precisely when that fire occurred.  The older I get, the faster time seems to pass.  In younger days, I could place all events within a specific context – how the events related to high school graduation, or a specific Ole Miss football game, or maybe a pivotal election (I was a political geek).  However, I could not place the time of the great Yellowstone fire.

Then I saw a marker, commemorating that epochal event.  The year was 1989 – much farther back than I would have guessed.  By that reference, though, I was able to place those young trees in context.

I saw more information on the fire.  While we tourists might view the fire as a terribly disruptive and destructive event, conservationists and the park rangers see the fire as a renewal of the forest.  In the blaze, much of the overgrown forest floor is consumed. Dry wood and brush are burned. Old, dying trees go up in smoke. The forest is scoured by the flames.

Something interesting happens in the fire, though.  The burning trees cast their seeds to the wind.  The wind scatters those seeds and, along with them, the beginning of a renewed forest is born.  The conservationists see naturally-occurring forest fires as a means for the land’s renewal.

Like the Phoenix, the renewed forest arises out of the ashes.  Like Christ, the forest comes from the silence of the tomb.  New life emerges from the old.

There was an additional element that Nora and I saw.  As we traveled around the park (we spent four nights there, at three different lodges), we saw a mixed multitude of people there.  The visitors and workers there were apparently of all colors, races, ethnic origins, shapes, sizes, and any other variable you might envision.  There were Anglos, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Germans, Russians – lots of variety in the people around the park.  There were so many languages and accents that I heard, I lost track.

It occurred to me that all of this – the forest, the scenery, the wildlife, the visitors, the staff – had all emerged through the experience of the fire.  No doubt it was a searing and frightening experience.  I suspect people wondered about the viability and future of Yellowstone – whether she would ever regain her lost glory.

Indeed she has.  The park is certainly different now.  No doubt about that. She is still emerging from the flames, the smoke, and the ashes.  Yet she is drawing people from near and far, and she has a compelling beauty to share with all who enter her four gates.  She has much to share.

Yellowstone seemed to me to be a metaphor for the Episcopal Church.  We too have been through the fires which have raged around us.  The fires go back at least to the 1960s, when the church began to wrestle with its sense of call to ministries of social justice.  Those fires flamed in the years following, with the decision on the ordination of women and prayer book revision.  In recent years, the flames have centered on diminishing membership, the prophetic voice of the church, and the church’s understanding of the appropriate sacramental response to people in same gender relationships.  Serving as an overlay to all this is the significantly altered role of the Episcopal Church – from its historic place as a powerful,  almost-established church to its place now largely on the fringes of culture.

We may have more flames yet to come. But if we are faithful, if we tend the soil of our hearts and spirits, if we are true to our call from God, we too will emerge from the ashes, blossoming with new life.

Perhaps, also, we will be like the renewed Yellowstone.  We will draw a mixed multitude of people – persons of many races, perspectives, opinions, needs, and views. There is room for all.

The future is unsure.  That is certain. But this is a vision of what may be.

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…