I’ve learned that you often don’t understand the import of events while they’re happening. You need to take time for some reflection and wait to see the larger context in which the events happen before you can get a sense of what is important and what isn’t. So, while I write this with a few days of reflection, it’s not a “hot take” like they say on Twitter, but it’s not a fully baked reflection either.
My experience of this most recent General Convention is probably colored by the way I attended it. I was in the House of Bishops for just about the entire Convention. We had one pseudo joint session where the bishops sat in the back of the House of Deputies for a bit. But apart from that, we were in a room way off in the back basement of the Convention Center all by ourselves. There were no visitors, and there wasn’t a chance to mingle as there wasn’t an Exhibition Hall. There were no seminary class dinners or events sponsored by Church connected institutions. We got there, got registered and got to work.
I was in the House of Deputies for 12 years (4 conventions). I learned in those years how it works and the rhythms of its conversations. I’ve now been in the House of Bishops for the same length of time. And I’ve learned that it works differently. Deputies are only assured that they have one convention (the one they’re elected for) to serve. Maybe they’ll be back for the next, perhaps they won’t. Bishops, once ordained as such, serve for the rest of their life. And bishops see each other a few times a year. Over the years of ministry, we bishops get to know each other, and trust each other. If someone says that a resolution is good and proper, then generally there’s no further discussion needed. We tend to trust the committee work in the House of Bishops – in a way that was less common in the House of Deputies. That gives us the ability to work more quickly through the legislative calendar and means that we have more time to take a break… or when it’s needed, to dig in and talk details when there’s disagreement.
Which gets me to my big observation from this recently ended 80th General Convention. The House of Bishops this year was willing to have difficult conversations and to find unity to a degree I’ve not witnessed before. We’ve always been careful (in the years I’ve served) to protect our common life together and to avoid anger and quarrels with each other. But that laudable behavior has often kept us from dealing with important disagreements – and has had us paper over divides that need to be explored rather than covered up.
This convention had a number of instances where honest disagreement emerged as part of the floor debate. Yet this year, rather than move away from it, we spontaneously leaned into the disagreement. Generally, the bishops who disagreed agreed to speak with each other that evening to see if some compromise position could be found. That’s what happened with the conversation about Prayer Book revision, and it happened as part of our discussions about a statement of concern about Climate Change. (And it happened about conversations about where the Church needs to act in the present polarization of society.) In all these instances, people met separately and brought back much better resolutions that were ultimately passed unanimously and then (in the case of the Prayer Book resolution) sent on to the other house for action. (Where it was lightly amended and easily passed.)
The spontaneous decision to stop the process until better common ground could be found is what was so striking to me this year. There have been instances of such in previous conventions, but not in important and critical areas where there was serious disagreement. To me, this response signals something about the deeper Christian community that is emerging in the Episcopal Church today. We are finding our unity with one another because we are working from a common ground of mutual respect. This wasn’t always true in the past. It’s new, and I hope it’s a sign of a new future that will spread. Because it’s only by loving your neighbor that we have a chance to properly responding to deepening division happening in the World today.
So, we’ll see if this lasts. But if it does, I’ve very excited about what comes next for us Episcopalians as missionary witnesses to the Gospel. We seem to have found our unity in mutual self-giving love. Hooray for that!