August 5, 2012

Reviewing the 77th General Convention

Two days ago, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori offered her views on the 77th General Convention in a message to the church. Not surprisingly, the PB, who frequently plays the role of the church’s cheerleader-in-chief, delivered an upbeat message. She began this way:
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 seal
“Creative” is the recurring theme of the letter. Jefferts Schori used some form of the word 15 times in 16 paragraphs! No doubt, some of what the General Convention did deserves to be called creative, but other outcomes were simply pragmatic, timid, or evasive, rather than imaginative. Time will tell whether avoiding “win-lose outcomes,” as she suggested we did in many cases, defused, prolonged, or intensified “differences of opinion.”

In particular, Jefferts Schori called General Convention’s refusal to take a stand on the Anglican Covenant a “creative” response to a “challenging” issue. In fact, there is little enthusiasm for the Covenant outside the insular world of the Communion Partners, and the action of the convention seemed more craven than creative. The church passed up an opportunity to drive another nail in the coffin of the Covenant, thereby making its resuscitation from what had seemed mortal injuries more likely.

Then, there is the matter of same-sex blessings. Here is what the PB had to say about that:
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.”
It must be admitted that bishops who object to same-sex blessings have indeed shown creativity in finding ways of allowing the use of the new liturgy while keeping such ceremonies at arm’s length. On the other hand, General Convention has hardly done much to unify the church respecting same-sex blessings, whether philosophically or in terms of practice. The spectrum of diocesan responses bounded by those of the Diocese of New York and the Kingdom of South Carolina is wide indeed. I suppose that bishops can appreciate a scheme that “permits bishops who believe it inappropriate to safeguard their own theological position.” But what about the theological positions of clergy and laypeople? They do not get to exercise any “local option.” General Convention’s “creativity” seems nothing less than a variation on the antiquated practice of letting the religion of the local prince determine that of his subjects.

Of course, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is not wrong in seeing hopeful signs in the work of the 77th General Convention. Both the budget and restructuring, issues that had the potential to produce serious conflict in Indianapolis, were resolved gracefully. Many other matters that have been little remarked upon were handled in a way that should make all Episcopalians proud. The General Convention glass is certainly more than half full. It is not, however, running over.

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