Some personal thoughts about General Convention

General Convention

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve not had much to say about the recently concluded General Convention. Which is unusual for me. I started blogging back in 2003 during my first General Convention and I’ve been pretty good at posting regular notes during all the subsequent General Conventions. But this one was different; both for me personally, and I think in a few important ways for the whole of the Episcopal Church.

This was a different convention for me because for the first time in my experience I didn’t have a vote for much of it. While I started in the House of Deputies, after the second day, I and seven of my class of bishop-elects were granted consent to be consecrated by the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. Once that happened the two of us attending as deputies were translated down the hallway of the Convention Center from the cavernous Hall of Deputies to the smaller Hall of Bishops. And that experience of moving from one place to another has colored my whole experience of this Convention.

I was aware of this as the first full day of General Convention drew to a close. I realized, having heard the vote on all eight of us in the House of Deputies, that this was going to be the last legislative session in Deputies that I would ever attend. That was bittersweet honestly. As I remarked to President Bonnie Anderson later in the week, I was struck at the end of the day by the familiarity of the rhythm of the work in House of Deputies. The way people used the microphones, the way the chair managed the meeting, the way we spoke to each other in our deputation during the flow of legislation was the same as it had been in 2003, 2006, and 2009. George Werner once described General Convention as a sort of Brigadoon, which rises from the mist every three years for two weeks and then disappears again. It’s a little different every time it appears, but only a little. And that’s very much true of the way the House of Deputies assembles itself, decorates its stanchions, organizes its seating and talks about itself. And that was all very familiar to me. I knew automatically what was happening, what to pay attention to, when to work on something else.

The last walk off the floor as a deputy was a very private and powerful moment. I was remembering all the tense moments, the holy moments, the moments of decision and the relationships that I had with others in that place. And I knew I wasn’t coming back – at least not in the same way.

The next morning the House of Bishops voted on our consents and we were told to return for the private conversations that afternoon where we would be informally admitted to the floor. (The formal admission took place during the full public session a little later.) Friends were there, my wife was there, people from Rhode Island were there. There were a lot of pictures taken. It sort of felt like the first day of school honestly; there was that sense that a new thing was beginning for all of us. Later, when our names were read, more pictures were taken, and we were greeted by the bishops (in my case my bishop Kirk Smith and the bishop who ordained me deacon and priest, Cabby Tennis) we had our name badges taken away (my red one as a deputy) and were given new puple ones that said “bishop” at the bottom and listed our new homes.

That was the moment that the reality of the election, the new ministry, the upcoming move, all of it, hit me. I have a new home, a new group of people to serve and a community to meet. And I have one to leave as well. The leaving I think became more real to me as I moved from one House to the other.

A number of people asked me about the differences between the House of Bishops and of Deputies. There are two strong impressions. One is that the people in the House of Bishops know that they will be coming back to the next convention. Unlike the deputies who are re-elected each triennium, the bishops are members of their House for the rest of their life. That automatically gives a different rhythm to the conversation. The bishops all know each other, they respect each other even when they disagree and they take collegiality very seriously. One of the bishops mentioned to me that he thought the particular charism of the office of bishop was “unity”. It took me a while to agree with that, but having watched the House of Bishops stress the importance of their communal life which is meant to serve as an icon to the rest of the Episcopal Church, I eventually came to understand his point.

The other is that House of Bishops takes a much longer view of the matters being discussed. I suppose that is a consequence of the fact that they know they’ll be part of the conversation at the next convention and the one after that and one after that… Deputies also looked to the future, but my own impression as a deputy was that if I had a particular issue that needed to be addressed, it needed to be done now, because there was no guarantee that I’d have a chance to deal with it at the next convention. That focus on the long view tends to make the quieter side conversations around the table very different in nature than what I heard, and said on a few occasions, in the House of Deputies. I’m not sure I can explain it much better than this, but if you can make sense of what I’m trying to say, it was a striking impression of the difference.

As to Convention and its acts? I started blogging years ago because I wanted to make sure people knew what was happening from the perspective of someone on the floor. I was one of the first people to do that, and in 2003 I was one of a very few. This convention though, what with twitter and hashtags, Facebook, live streaming, live resolution updates, and many blogs, there was much less of a need for me to write anything. And to be honest, I didn’t have time. I spent much of this Convention meeting people, getting to know the ECW folks from RI as well as the convention deputation, having conversations with members of my bishop’s class, with Bishop Wolf (who’s been incredibly gracious to Karen and me) and catching up with a number of friends. In a word, this convention was more about relationships for me than it was about issues. Perhaps that comes with my new territory and job. Perhaps it’s just going to be once and done experience. But there you have it.

It was disconcerting to come home to a series of three negative articles in the national press all published on three successive days. If I thought there was someone who had something to gain by denigrating the Episcopal Church, I could probably imagine such things didn’t happen randomly. But as bothersome as the attacks were, I was delighted, overjoyed!, by the spontaneous response of so many across the Episcopal Church who wrote to refute the critics, line by line sometimes. I think we’ve come to a place in the Episcopal Church where we’re not willing to stand politely by as people tell whoppers about who we are and what we believe. People are going to respond and not let the charges of being “unchristian” or “merely political” hang out there without a counter narrative being developed. All of the work so many of us have done in communications ministry has really paid off in a huge way during the past week.

Hooray for that, and hooray for us.

My final impression of General Convention is that this is the first one I’ve attended where I’ve returned energized and excited to get to work. Other conventions have done great things and some not so great things. I’ve generally returned emotionally exhausted from the conflict and the pain. But this time, while there was pain for some, the many who rejoiced made sure the rejoicing did not happen at the expense of those who grieved. We’ve come to a pretty clear consensus in the Episcopal Church about the questions of marriage equality, of the shortcomings of our structure, of our desire to move forward together. There was no one present at this convention who desired to harm the Episcopal Church in an attempt to save it. And those things are making all the difference in my hopes for the next three years.

I wasn’t sure after the convention in 2009 that I was going to ever run again to serve as a deputy. Now I’m grateful to know I’ll be returning, albeit in a different role, to continue the exciting work we started this year.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Thanks for this, Nick. You have offered important insights into the differences in the two houses. Very helpful.

  2. Sandy Niles says

    Nicely written, gave me goosebumps about the leaving one House and being admitted to the other, and the mix of sad-leaving and glad-arriving at this huge change in your life. Personally very happy to hear the Convention energized you! I am the fringe of the fringe when it comes to things like church politics, management, policy-making… (One 3-yr term on Vestry and one Diocesan Convention a million years ago made it clear my gifts are elsewhere!) I just want “my” Episcopal Church to stand together, respect each other as sisters and brothers and friends with one real goal – to learn and grow as Christians for our good and the good of the world. Big hug to you!

  3. Eugenia says

    The Episcopal church has much to be proud of… especially with dedicated person such as your self are an inspiration to others….congratulations Bishop and many blessings in the comings years of your ministry.

  4. Ken Poulton says

    Hooray for that for you and for all of the rest of us who love our church especially because we have been stretched and tested and challenged for decades. For me, all of that has brought me closer to the love of God… I’m exited for our church!! Great reflections, thanks..

  5. Thank you for writing your impressions. It was good to “experience” the Convention and it’s many aspects through your communications. We look forward to seeing you here in Rhode Island!

  6. Dan says

    Nick: Thank you for sharing your impressions and insights of your experience at GC 2012 concerning endings and beginnings. Looking forward to working with you in Rhode Island. -Dan

  7. John Kitagawa says

    AZ Deputies found it difficult to lose your immediate insights and good humor. OUr loss is HOB’s gain.

  8. Christopher J B Hoctor says

    It has been a treat to follow your insights. I am a little puzzled by this one – you haven’t really stated anything about what you thought regarding the decisions made at this convention.

    My lifetime in the Episcopal Church was approaching a possible end. The last 30 years of the church’s departures from centuries of Catholic tradition have made me quite weary. I thought I could stay and tolerate the changes to date. This last convention did me in. My philosophy on the church (which I don’t think is far off from 2 thousand years of Christian doctrine) is as such:

    The church upholds a standard – a church has rules and laws that are exclusive. The man we put in the pulpit or under a miter hat is the one you want your children to grow up like. Every facet of their life should be admirable to you, not just tolerable. Do you know any heterosexual that wants their children to be gay? That same man should bless those receiving the Lord’s blessings, and marriage between same sex was never one before now. The Bible, and the writings of thousands of scholars on it has not changed, why does the Church? To me, that, and so many other things, are just liberal (the adjective, not the label) changes for political correctness and change sake, not theological progress.

    The Episcopal Church has become a haven for the tolerance of anything, and there seems to be no end in sight with how far it will go off the path. It has far surpassed what I can tolerate in a church.

    As Ronald Reagan once said, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me”. I hate to see the parent grow up and leave the house when the children are still growing. I hope you’ll come back some day.

  9. Barbara Harber says

    Nick, the closest I can come to your dichotomy of feelings is when one morning I was a classroom teacher and that afternoon was a school administrator. That whirlwind will settle down even when/if you have a fleeting moment of wanting to be in HoD rather than HoB.

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