Ships Passing in the Night: Opening Remarks at GC 77
If I were a Deputy attending the 77th General Convention this week, I might be tempted to leave right after hearing the opening remarks of the Presiding Bishop, Dr. [in oceanography] Katharine Jefferts Schori, followed thereafter by the opening remarks of the HoD President, Dr. [in divinity, hon. causa] Bonnie Anderson. Comparing the two speeches side-by-side is a deadly exercise, and listening to them back-to-back must have been dispiriting.
Start with two examples. (I know that these are pulled out of context—but then, I challenge you to make any sense out of what might ordinarily be regarded as their “context”). Try to guess which leader said which (no peeking):
Happy Fourth of July. I am a big fan of parades and picnics and fireworks. I especially love it when the day can include a baseball game. In fact there is one tonight right across the street in Victory Field. A great thing about a baseball game is that you can arrive late. The game between Indianapolis and the Louisville Bats begins at 6:05 so if you want to come over after the legislative committee meetings, you can buy tickets at Victory Field.
We’re here for a tune-up – to breathe deep, clear our vision, focus the muscles, and synchronize our heartbeat with God’s.
Right at the outset, we are given two completely disparate views on what we are there for: first, to take advantage of a nearby baseball game (to which, like the prodigal son’s banquet, we may always “arrive late”), and to undergo a “tune-up”, to “synchronize our heartbeat with God’s.” One doesn’t know whether one has wandered into a sports bar, or the doctor’s office.
From there on, the two ships which are passing in the night continue their respective courses, each oblivious to, and unaware of, the other as something to be reckoned with. Two more extracts for comparison:
Let’s be honest. We in the Episcopal Church have been forced to get on the road toward the Promised Land. Some of us are happy about that, because being the institutional church of power and privilege, which we used to be, seemed a lot like being slaves in Egypt. Others of us were doing just fine in Egypt, and we’d be happier going back there. We’re wandering in a wilderness of declining membership and budget reductions and we’re pretty sure that we’re going to die out here.
But there’s no going back to Egypt. We’re on the Promised Land highway, and we’re spending a lot of time acting like the Israelites. We whine, we don’t trust each other, and we try to hoard what we have been given even though it won’t keep. Even though when we take more than we need, it breeds worms and becomes foul. And I’m pretty sure that we can all name some golden calves that we’ve been worshiping.
A lot of the anxiety in this body right now is rooted in fear of diminishment, loss of power or control, or change in status. The wider church – the grassroots – is not all that interested in the internal politics of this gathering. It is interested in the vitality of local congregations and communities, in ministry with young people, and in opportunities for transformative mission engagement in and beyond the local context. Our job here is to make common cause for the sake of God’s mission. That is in part a political task.
So where Bonnie sees a wandering in the desert, an acting out, like whining and apostate Israelites trying to find some vague “Promised Land,” Katharine sees power struggles and politics. (Go figure which one is leaving the arena defeated, and which one has emerged the victor.)
Have I made my point? Let’s try two more excerpts, to which I have added some bolding, for ease of contrast:
We need to cut it out. All of us. If we’re going to reach the Promised Land together, in one piece, we need the God-given gifts of everyone who’s on this journey. We need the folks who were slaves in Egypt and the folks who were rulers in Egypt and the folks who weren’t born yet when we left Egypt and the folks who came from other places to be on this road with us.
I am a bit concerned that this recent round of wandering in the wilderness has put at risk our central identity as a people whose democratic decision-making has led us time and time again to take prophetic actions on issues of justice and peace and build strong mission relationships with one another and with our sisters and brothers across the Anglican Communion. I am worried that a false choice between mission and governance will keep us from hearing the voices of all the baptized as we restructure the church and create a budget for it.
Discovering the most effective ways to organize and network ourselves for mission, for governance, and for supporting that mission is going to require us to look outside ourselves. We have to be willing to search out the gifts and assets already present. Something like a blue ribbon commission would be helpful – a leadership group that includes independent voices, that is non-partisan, that will offer the input of outsiders and people on the margins of the church, not just those already deeply invested in the church and in the way the church is now. That may not be easy for this body to engage, but God is already at work beyond this Episcopal Church and we have something to learn from that reality.
Once again, we see that for Bonnie, it’s all about finding room at the Church’s councils for “all the baptized” (code for: “us laity, as opposed to you bishops and clergy who think you run the show”). But for Katharine, on the other hand, she already has all the (partisan) baptized folk around her that she can stomach, and it’s time to go out and find the “independent, non-partisan” voices of “outsiders and people on the margins of the church”—i.e., precisely the unbaptized.
Bonnie is focused on who wields the power; Katharine instinctively goes after what will increase future ASA numbers on her watch, and future plate money to pay her salary.
Am I being too cynical? Perish the thought—the cynicism of our two current leaders is far worse, permeated as it is by the guilt they each feel on their respective consciences. Bonnie is a traditional liberal, who sees nothing but elitism and prejudices all around her, extending back even to our Founding Fathers (bold again added):
But, as many of you may be thinking right now, celebrating July 4 isn’t that straightforward. You don’t have to scratch the surface of July 4 very hard to expose the horrors of colonialism that the United States inherited from Great Britain and continues to impose on so much of the world. You’ll also find in the Declaration of Independence itself evidence of the bigotry and ignorance that led to the Native American genocide for which we have yet to atone or make restitution. And it is impossible to reflect on Independence Day without reflecting on the institution of slavery that so many of our Founding Fathers and their descendants defended to the death.
Did I hear that right? “Evidence of bigotry and ignorance in Thomas Jefferson’s paean to all individuals’ equality before God? And what Founding Father, pray tell, died in the Civil War—or even earlier—“defending to the death” the institution of slavery? This touches on the very worst aspects of America-hatred, which is so rampant among the liberals. And to give voice to it on July 4th, of all days, before a gathering of ... oh, well—never mind. Enough of Bonnie Anderson’s blackened conscience.
Our Presiding Bishop’s conscience is bothering her, as well, but only subliminally. Only a ruler as determinedly blinkered and cynical as she, who has watched her minions just instigate the desperate attempt at straight-jacketing her opposition that we call “Bishopsgate,” could be troubled by her conscience to say this to the Convention, and with a straight face in the bargain:
Go look for connections with your sparring partners – for the left hook and the right jab both come from the same body. Link up with somebody from another part of the theological spectrum – this big tent is the dwelling place of the holy, and we will never be who we were created to be if we only work with the fingers of the right hand or the left. Search out those you have wounded or who have wounded you – seek them out and let the grudges go – there isn’t much life in hanging on to them. It’s like that old tale about swallowing rat poison and expecting somebody else to die. Go find the supposed source of wounds and build a bridge together – notice the blood that’s been shed, and let it form a good scab to draw flesh together. Continue to pick at the wound and it will never heal. Let it go and keep breathing.
The images are as violent and crude as is her Disciplinary Board’s attempt to silence dissenting bishops just as they were committing themselves to testify in the cases now pending in Illinois and Texas.
Yes, Bishop Katharine, by all means use your time at General Convention to “search out those you have wounded or who have wounded you—seek them out and let the grudges go.” I’m now certain that you will use the occasion to make up with Bishops MacPherson, Martins, Stanton, Love, Howe and Lambert while you are with them in the coming week, and to assure them that you will be voting to drop the charges before they can go any further.
Just as sure as I am that you and President Bonnie are reading from the same page.
The disconnect between the two of you could not be greater, and it continues right to the end of your respective addresses (Katharine first this time):
... Our task is to gather the various parts of this body of Christ, together with any partners who share our values, for the work of building societies that look more like the reign of God. That takes compromise, for we will never all agree on the proper route or method for getting there. We live in the awkward yet lively tension between what is and what will eventually come to be, in God’s good time. We aren’t going to find perfection at this Convention, but we can prayerfully work at discerning a way forward that will let us gather our common gifts to work toward that dream of the reign of God.
We’re in this together – as the full range of Episcopalians, together with our Christian siblings – both those most like us and those who seem most distant – and we have other potential partners for the various parts of the mission God sends us to do. Our task is to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, in finding and blessing any creative gift that will serve God’s dream. Can we reframe our view? Will those with eyes to see and ears to hear look for the places where God’s creative presence is already at work? God has given those gifts, and we will miss the mark if we ignore them. We will miss all five marks if we ignore the partners and possibilities around us.
So breathe deep, open your eyes and ears, build bridges with unlikely folks, and let God’s word prosper in that for which God sent it.
It is my prayer that the process of restructuring The Episcopal Church and developing its budget will allow us to listen more closely to people who do not carry important titles or sit in the councils of the church, but who know a great deal — perhaps even more than we do — about how to find our way in the wilderness and how to be the kind of church that God is calling into being.
Here’s what I’m going to do at this General Convention, and I invite you to join me. I’m going to regard the next nine days as one long Bible study in how we, the institutional church, can be more like the people-of-God-church. As we journey in this wilderness — through restructuring and budgets and hearings and resolutions — I am going to keep my face pointed toward the Promised Land where God is calling us, toward the church of the future in which everyone’s voices are heard and everyone’s leadership is valued.
The tragedy of these two diatribes is that, in allowing their respective consciences to hog the footlights, neither leader (a) addressed forthrightly the problems facing the Episcopal Church (USA) and this convention, (b) acknowledged their own role in adding to and exacerbating those problems, or (c) offered a credible way forward. What a blown opportunity, to have engaged in such liberal blather and faux-pastoral Episcopal bombast! And even in that, they still could not connect with each other.
Ships, as I say, passing in the night. Please pray for the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
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