Streamers sliced through the air like brooding spirits. Dancers twirled past the altar like winged seraphs. Several thousand tongues lifted up alleluias like a heavenly chorus.
On July 12, Episcopalians at General Convention went to a Sunday service that was somewhat different from the thousands that occurred around the church that day. This Eucharist took place in a cavernous hall, was led by the current and two former presiding bishops, and featured a symbol of church membersâ generosity: the United Thank Offering "ingathering."
Leaving discussion, debate and theological differences at the door, the estimated 7,000 Episcopalians stood together to experience a variety of pageantry expressed in radiant vestments, in soulful music and in one of the clearest sacramental displays of the churchâs mission: the acknowledgement of the $6.7 million collected by the United Thank Offering over the past triennium.
Each diocese was introduced as representatives approached the altar and presented slips of paper with the dollar amount they raised over the past triennium for UTO, a grant-making agency that supports work that alleviates human suffering.
The Rev. Libby Wade (Kentucky) said that was one of the most moving parts of the service."As I watched, I began to think about what it must have been like 50 years ago when women had no voice or vote or seat at convention, and even before that UTO even had to find men who were deputies to present it on their behalf â¦ Weâve made a lot of progress."
The Rev. Lauren Stanley, who will move to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in August to begin a three-year placement as an Episcopal Church missionary, said the church needs to find ways of raising awareness and understanding about UTO.
"The church cannot survive without the UTO," she said. "It is the most direct way that most Episcopalians from the time they're babies to the time they're dying have of participating in the mission of the church. Those little blue boxes are the most important way we get people involved in mission.
"Most people can't go out on mission, so they put their mites in â their pennies â and we add them all up and we can do the mission God has given us to do."
UTO grants are funded in large part with the money that Episcopalians deposit in small cardboard "blue boxes," which they keep in their homes and offices, however, blue-box income has declined in each of the last two years. The total amount of money available to grant in 2008 was $2.1 million, in 2007, $2.2 million and in 2006, $2.4 million, according to UTO President Regina Ratterree.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson in January appointed a 10-member task force that will conduct a three-year study of the UTO. The group grew out of the perceived need to clarify the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society's legal relationship with UTO because there is nothing in writing that spells out the relationship between the two groups. The UTO uses the tax-exempt number assigned to the DFMS by the Internal Revenue Service, which expects the relationship to be clear.
Questions about insurance coverage, liability, and operational procedures are meant to be explored in the study, as are UTOâs fund-raising model and grant-making method.
Worshipers added another $28,168.92 during the offertory collected during the service, which Wade described as "just the thing we needed."
"The scale and beauty of the service was fantastic, very moving," Carmen Germino, visiting from the Diocese of Connecticut, said about the celebration. "Worshiping together seems to really strengthen us for all of the work that needs to be done this week.
"This morning was a chance to take a step back from all the work weâre doing and celebrate the Sabbath â to worship and to praise and to feel the full range of the churchâs ministry and mission," Wade said. "It couldnât have come at a better time."
Many agreed that the Scripture readings also seemed divinely appointed: From Isaiah, the congregation heard the call for Godâs people to "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks." From Ephesians, they were reminded that Christ Jesus "is our peace" who "has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."
And from Jefferts Schori, they heard a timely interpretation of Jesusâ first instruction for the mission field as recounted in Luke 10:1-9 â travel light, offer peace, and proclaim the reign of God has come.
"Episcopalians are like Boy Scouts," Jefferts Schori said. "We like to be ready, with prayer book, hymnal, and bulletin in hand, and a Swiss army knife in our back pocket to open the wine bottleâ¦ This very convention is a testimony to our love for order, our desire to process and organize and structure our lives together."
"The challenge is that structure or culture can become an idol, an image of our lust for control. Jesus isnât interested in taking extra rations or all the comforts of home or in making hotel reservations for every stop on the journey."
She then directed that challenge to convention-goers: "When you leave this place, how much more stuff will you have than when you arrived? You can ship the papers home, but are you open enough to receive what is offered here â from the housekeeper in your hotel room, the deputy across the aisle, an international or ecumenical visitor, or the person who beats you to the microphone?
Many said those words resonated them in terms of work to be done at convention, but also as they relate to mission in the world.
"Traveling light, traveling together and bringing peace to all we meet â thatâs sometimes hard for us to do," said Sally Greene, (Central Gulf Coast). "But thatâs the challenge we have every day, the challenge weâre faced with in our lives day in and day out, to carry that message everywhere we go and into everything we do."
Scott Evenbeck, (Indianapolis), said he appreciated the presiding bishopâs soothing tone of voice as much as her message.
"The sermon was really on target because of the way it was a continuing push for mission, for what weâre called to do," Evenbeck said. "I loved the way she said it, not a loud voice but a strong voice helping us think about where weâre headed.
"A lot of us are praying about the key questions that face us here and trying not to rush to judgment but be vulnerable and think through what weâre called to do, and I think she helped us stay focused on that today."
Sally and Stuart Miller typically attend St. Augustineâs By the Sea in Santa Monica, Calif., but decided to make the 45-minute drive to Anaheim with their two children, Jacob, 7, and Jolie, 5.
"This was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Sally Miller said. "Every time I come to a gathering of large Episcopalians from across the country, it just brings home the fact that we can get very comfortable in our little niche parish, but that we really are a diverse group and we have to honor that."
Dave and Jean Hayward also were glad they came for their first glimpse of a General Convention rather than attend services at their home parish, St. Wilfridâs, Huntington Beach, Calif.
"It was beautiful," Jean Haward said. "It was very inspiring service. Itâs great to be an Episcopalian and celebrate the Eucharist the way we do it. It was fantastic. This is the only event weâve attended."
"For a while," her husband added, "I thought we were at halftime at the Super Bowl with all the flags waving and the young girls dancing around, but thatâs good."
Jim Wade, visiting from the Diocese of Kentucky, said he was deeply moved by the entire experience: "I had a hard time in there because I had tears in my eyes through the whole service. It kept me broken up the whole time because it was so beautiful."
Such uncertainties hardly dampened the ingatheringâs sacramental celebration during Sundayâs service, said Lois Rodney, a UTO delegate from the Diocese of Long Island.
"There was a fullness, a joy in the service and what you get you can take out and give to others," she said. "In order to experience the joy you have to be here. Every Episcopal person should experience the whole joy that happens when we are together like this. From east to west, north to south, weâre all here."
Click here for the full text of Jefferts Schori's sermon.
Mary Frances Schjonberg and Pat McCaughan contributed to this report.