December 15, 2008

Special Convention

I hope that I didn’t lead any readers to think I was going to cover the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh’s special convention in anything like real time. I did not anticipate that anything unexpected was going to happen, which made prompt reporting seem unnecessary.

Of course, Standing Committee president Jim Simons did announce that retired Western North Carolina bishop Robert H. Johnson was going to be a half-time assisting bishop in the diocese through July 2009. Simons did not say what the diocese will do for a bishop after that, but, presumably, that will depend on how things go in the coming months. A press release from the diocese about Bishop Johnson can be read on the diocese’s Web site. I don’t know much more about him than is available there. Louie Crew has some facts about the bishop and his voting record here. You can make of that what you will. General coverage of the convention was done by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

For me, the highlight of the convention was Simons’ State of the Diocese address. This turned out to be something different from what the title suggested. I expected facts, such as how many parishes were in the diocese and how many may soon join. Instead, Simons essentially said that it is time to stop fighting and time to start building. What was surprising was that he accepted some personal responsibility for the creation of what he called “a culture of fear and control” under Bishop Duncan. (The deposed bishop was not mentioned by name.) As one who has fought against that culture for the past five years, it was gratifying to hear a repudiation of it from someone who enabled its development.

Simons had an interesting take on “diversity,” a term about which he clearly has some ambivalence. Nonetheless, he declared that “diversity needs to be a hallmark of our common life together.” Using the analogy of stream ecology, he argued that diversity is not so much the result of direct action aimed at its enhancement as it is the result of building a healthy community. “But the church is broader than we have allowed it to be here and we need to work at creating a healthy environment that fosters appropriate diversity,” he said. "We must be in conversation, seeking to understand each other and when possible to rejoice and embrace the diversity God has blessed us with.”

Openness and coöperation were evident in both obvious and subtle ways at the convention. Individual parishes were assigned the task of providing refreshments at various points in the program, and attendees were fed well. Six parishes provided singers for the combined choir of about 50 that sang at the closing Eucharist. In the past, only official “mission partners” of the diocese could have displays. Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh, for example, has never been able to have a sanctioned role in a diocesan convention. But displays from PEP, Integrity Pittsburgh, the Calvary Church Bookstore, and a Ugandan orphanage were all in evidence at the special convention. PEP distributed perhaps 100 of its “The Episcopal Church Welcomes All” buttons.

That the diocese is getting better at staying in conversation was obvious from the discussion of the four resolutions proposed to facilitate the diocese’s reorganization. All of these were passed with virtually no discussion and no dissenting votes, a far cry from the acrimonious debate of recent conventions. Of course, the resolutions had been distributed in advance of the convention, and people had opportunities to express concerns about them. In the past, those favoring or opposing any particular resolution would consult in advance of the convention with allies, strategizing how to strengthen or weaken a resolution and planning how to carry on a floor fight. The draft of Resolution IV for the special convention did raise some concerns. It was intended to declare constitutional and canonical changes made under Bishop Duncan null and void, but there were disagreements over how wide-ranging the resolution should be and how the intended actions should be justified. The underlying problem, of course, was that some of the people who needed to declare past changes improper had supported them enthusiastically. The resolution went through three official rewrites, and the version presented to the convention was the product of a process that sought to listen to and address the concerns of everyone. No one voted against Resolution IV; it attracted a single abstention.

Many people remarked to me how different and friendly the atmosphere seemed. The tenseness of recent conventions was not in evidence. When things went wrong—some errors were made in tabulating votes for Board of Trustees positions, for example—everyone seemed to take it in stride. In past years, the closing Eucharist has been notable for the number of people who left the convention before it began. It seemed that many fewer people made an early getaway this time. The service was crowded. Because St. Paul’s curate, Kris Opat, was being ordained, some worshippers came especially for that service, of course. In any case, the service and the reception that followed were very happy affairs.

Jim Simons’ address was, of course, a challenge. There will be disagreements among the people of the diocese in the future, and it remains to be seen whether we can change what had become a dysfunctional culture. There is surely hard work ahead of us, but I think we’re off to a good start.

POSTSCRIPT: Because so many diocesan leaders had left the diocese for the Southern Cone, many diocesan positions had to be filled by election at the special convention. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could best serve the diocese and to what position I might reasonably expect to be elected. (My résumé didn’t make me look like a strong candidate for Board of Trustees, for example.) I finally decided to run for the single lay seat open on the Committee on Canons, since I have spent much time contemplating and writing about the constitutions and canons of both The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh over the past several years. I ran and won against four other candidates. I am grateful for the confidence in me shown by the convention. I have no illusions about the difficulty of the work I have agreed to take on, however. Jim Simons’ challenge to reform diocesan culture will need to be kept in mind both in how my new committee works and in what it actually accomplishes.

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