A message to the church on General Convention
The General Convention which took place in Indianapolis in July offered new and creative responses to the call of the gospel in our day. We saw gracious and pastoral responses to polarizing issues, as well as a new honesty about the need for change.
General Convention addressed a number of significant issues that will impact the life and witness of this Church for years into the future – and they include many more things beyond what you’ve heard about in the news. The way we worked together also represented a new reality, working to adapt more creatively to our diverse nature as a Church.
It is that way of creative engagement that ultimately will be most transformative for The Episcopal Church and the world beyond it. On issue after issue, the resolutions addressed by General Convention emerged in creative responses that considered, but did not end in, the polarized positions expected as we went into Convention. People listened to the movement of the spirit and discerned a way forward that was mutually upbuilding, rather than creating greater divisiveness or win-lose outcomes.
The hot-button issues of the last decade have not been eternally resolved, but we have as a body found creative and pastoral ways to live with the differences of opinion, rather than resorting to old patterns of conflict. There is a certain expansive grace in how these decisions are being made and in the responses to them, a grace that is reminiscent of the Elizabeth settlement. We’ve said as a Church that there is no bar to the participation of minorities of all sorts, and we are finding pastoral ways to ensure that potential offense at the behavior or position of another is minimized, with the hope that we may grow toward celebrating that diversity as a gift from God. If we are all sinners, then each of us may be wrong about where we stand. Human beings, made from humus, become Christlike when they know humility.
Major issues addressed at General Convention included approval of a trial rite for blessing same-sex unions. It may be used in congregations beginning in Advent, with the approval of the diocesan bishop. Bishops are making varied responses to the rite – a prime example of this emerging reality of local adaptation based on context – something which is profoundly Anglican.
The decision to provide a trial rite for same-sex blessings was anticipated by many across the Church – some with fear and trepidation, others with rejoicing, and yet others with frustration that more would not be offered. The decision of General Convention may not have fully satisfied anyone, yet it has provided more space for difference than most expected. The rite must be authorized by a diocesan bishop, which permits bishops who believe it inappropriate to safeguard their own theological position. Some of the responses by bishops with questions about the appropriateness of such rites in their dioceses show creativity and enormous pastoral respect for those who support such blessings. The use of this rite is open to local option, in the same way we often think about private confession: “all may, some should, none must.”
General Convention also produced creative responses to a number of other challenging issues – in particular, peacemaking in Israel-Palestine, the Anglican Covenant, and the call to restructure The Episcopal Church. The resolutions adopted reflect a higher level of investment in the health of diverse opinions and positions in the Church than we have seen for a long time. We can celebrate a bit of “growing up into the full stature of Christ” and the kind of welcome we claim to exemplify: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” whoever you are and wherever you stand. As a Church, when we’re at our best, we earnestly believe that that diversity helps to lead us toward the mind of Christ.
The call to restructure the Church is a response to growing grassroots awareness that we must change or die. I’ve heard it put this way, “It’s not a matter of tradition or change – tradition IS change!” We live in an age of rapid change, and if we are going to be faithful to our baptismal work of going into the world and proclaiming the gospel, our methods and support systems also need to change. We need to be more responsive and able to engage opportunities, more nimble.
Nimble is not a word usually associated with Episcopal churches, but the passion and energy at our General Convention was certainly moving in that direction. Most of us probably associate that word with Mother Goose and Jack who is nimble enough to jump over the candlestick. But there is a character to Jesus’ own ministry that has something to do with a flexible and creative responsiveness that might be called nimble. It certainly characterized the explosion of his followers across the Mediterranean world and then to India, Africa, and Europe. Nimbleness has something to do with creative risk-taking; it may have a playful character that is also profoundly creative, and it partakes of joy.
We’re looking for a 21st century Episcopal Church that can adapt and respond to a myriad of varied local contexts and missional opportunities. We’ve begun to realize, pretty widely across the Church, that the way we’ve “done church” for the last century or more no longer fits many of our contexts. We haven’t been terribly effective at evangelism with unchurched populations; we haven’t been terribly effective at retaining the children born to Episcopal parents; family structures are changing and our ability to address the needs of those families has not kept pace, whether we’re talking about ECWs and women in the workforce, or single-parent families, or special needs children.
The General Convention decided to address needs for structural change, by looking at the ways in which we live and move and have our being as a Church. A task force will be appointed to listen broadly within the Church and offer a proposal by late 2014.
General Convention adopted a budget for the coming triennium based on the Five Anglican Marks of Mission, which includes some creative initiatives in partnership with dioceses, other parts of the Anglican Communion, or those churches with whom we are in full communion or other relationships. One notable example: “Mission Enterprise Zones” will facilitate creative initiatives at the diocesan level, funded in partnership with the broader Church.
General Convention asked for a task force to study our theology of marriage. Remarkably, this happened only a few days after the Anglican province of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia did the same thing. This may offer some very creative opportunities for study across provincial boundaries in the Anglican Communion.
The General Convention affirmed the implementation of the Denominational Health Plan, and offered some greater flexibility and more time to address health care parity issues for lay and clergy employees at the diocesan level.
All of this creative work means that we emerge with abundant hope, better discipline for working together and with partners beyond this Church, for our fundamental reason for being – engagement with God’s mission. We have moved beyond the entrenched conflict of recent years. I pray that our growing confidence is a sign of new humility, knowing that we are finite creatures who can always be wrong, that we can do God’s work only as part of the Body, and that disagreement is a mark of possibility.
God still seems to have a use for this Church, if we can remember our central focus – to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, wherever we go, and wherever we find ourselves. May God bless the journey, and may we learn to travel light.
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church