November 8, 2013

Observations on the Diocesan Convention (Part 3)

This is my third installment of reflections on the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh held November 1 and 2 at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh. Part 1 can be read here and Part 2 here.
In this third commentary on the recently concluded annual convention, I want to reflect on Bishop Dorsey McConnell’s address to the convention that he delivered last Saturday.

Much of the bishop’s address needs no further comment. Changes to the status of parishes and various personnel changes are simply news events requiring distribution. Those not present at the convention can read about these matters on the diocesan Web site.

A couple of personnel matters mentioned by the bishop do require comment. McConnell noted that Cathy Brall has left Trinity Cathedral to become Canon Missioner, but the bishop has still not explained why a diocese as financially challenged as our own needs three canons, the other two being Scott Quinn and Jay Geisler. What is the remit of each of these canons? Are they all doing the same job, or do they have different job descriptions? In fact, do they have any job descriptions at all? Of all the questions raised by Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP), the matter of why we need three canons is the one people most want explained. Alas, the bishop has not yet provided any explanation.

The bishop did offer this:
Cathy is already making a huge contribution to the life of our diocese, as she joins Canons Scott Quinn and Jay Geisler as part of what I may call my extensive council of advice. There is, actually, no formal designation or boundary to this council of advice, and if you’d like to give me some, all you need do is write me an e-mail or pick up the phone, and you’re there.
I found this passage distressing. Many of us are concerned that the bishop has relied too much on the opinions of Quinn and Geisler. Is the bishop’s observation that he is often surprised by how people in the diocese react the product of consulting an insufficiently diverse group of people? The council of advice for a bishop is supposed to be the Standing Committee. That is not to say that a bishop cannot consult others, but it is true that the Standing Committee is elected by the convention, not simply designated by the bishop. It is therefore likely to be more representative of the diocese at large. Article IV of the Episcopal Church constitution reads as follows:
In every Diocese a Standing Committee shall be elected by the Convention thereof, except that provision for filling vacancies between meetings of the Convention may be prescribed by the Canons of the respective Dioceses. When there is a Bishop in charge of the Diocese, the Standing Committee shall be the Bishop’s Council of Advice. [Emphasis added.] If there be no Bishop or Bishop Coadjutor or Suffragan Bishop canonically authorized to act, the Standing Committee shall be the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Diocese for all purposes declared by the General Convention. The rights and duties of the Standing Committee, except as provided in the Constitution and Canons of the General Convention, may be prescribed by the Canons of the respective Dioceses.
McConnell next addressed another personnel matter pressed by PEP, namely, the lack of a Director of Administration. After announcing that Kathi Workman is the new diocesan treasurer, the bishop promised, though not at a time certain, to name a “Diocesan Administrator.” He observed that the “‘team approach’ to administration” is working just fine. Not everyone would agree.

The bishop made a few comments about the budget. The budget, of course, is a difficult one with which many are uncomfortable, as am I. I don’t know what a more acceptable alternative would look like, however, so I will have nothing more to say about it.

Next, Bishop McConnell began an exposition of what he most wanted to talk about, namely his priorities for the  next decade: Public Gospel, Missional Communities, and Leadership Formation. What people will most remember about this part of the address is the charming story of the bishop’s encounter with the Duck. (Read the text.)

I find myself both pleased and wary of this description of the Public Gospel part of his program. Proclaiming “Jesus crucified and risen” is all well and good, but I would hope that we will also present The Episcopal Church to the public as a church embodying a Christianity that responds to the needs of contemporary Americans and not simply one asserting the understandings of long-dead generations. The public needs to hear that Christianity is broader than the literalist, inflexible theology of many of those who left our diocese in 2008.

It is easy to buy into the bishop’s Missional Communities concept though perhaps harder to make our parishes conform to that ideal. The bishop asked, “Can we begin to change our mindset, so that we live not so much as settled, inward-looking religious families hoping for more people to come to church, but as vigorous, Spirit-filled, apostolic societies moving outward to meet the need of the world and transform it?” Can we indeed? This may be the bishop’s greatest challenge to the diocese.

Wrapping up his vision for the diocese, Bishop McConnell said this: “The final piece of this vision lies in the formation of leaders, both lay and ordained, to guide our missional communities in a public Gospel.” He went on to say, “May I say that nothing in our parishes is going to change culturally if it is not led by lay leadership. Clergy can help you, pray for you, equip you. But unless it is the laity that is leading this transformation, change is simply not going to happen.” It is difficult to argue with this, but it is also difficult to see any moves by the bishop so far that have encouraged lay leadership. He seems to have no systematic means of consulting laypeople, seems to prefer getting advice from his ordained canons to getting advice from the half-lay-half-clergy Standing Committee, and seems unconcerned about the decreasing lay representation on the Legal Committee. His vision for a “leadership training institute” and coƶperating with adjacent dioceses, however, is intriguing.

There is an appealing logic to McConnell’s “three priorities, in six words, for the next ten years.” One can imagine translating these priorities into actions, something that was never the case for Bob Duncan’s inscrutable “One Church of Miraculous Expectation and Missionary Grace.” On the other hand, one might question whether the bishop’s priorities should determine the direction of the diocese. (Or his views on same-sex blessings, for that matter, but the General Convention did what it did.) Is the bishop the ruler of parishes or their servant? Should parishes be following the lead of the bishop, or should they expect support from their bishop for their mission as they see it? Alas, we have been trained to be followers.

Skipping over other details of the address, I have two other issues I want to raise. In his second paragraph, the bishop said, “I want to share with you something of my participation in the wider Church, both the Episcopal Church and aboard, and invite you into partnership with Pilgrim Africa.” I thought this was a promising opening. The subject was raised again only near the end of the address:
I also continue to be active in the wider church through my work with Pilgrim Africa, working principally in northeastern Uganda. Now I know that whenever the Church in Uganda is mentioned in this setting, I notice a few people who take a step back and look nervous. I want to assure you that Pilgrim Africa is a pan-Christian, non-denominational relief and development organization working for public health, sustainable agriculture, and education in the northeastern Teso region. We do have wonderful, strong, and cooperative relationships with the Diocese of Soroti and with many other local churches. It is an indigenous organization, alongside of which folks like me come and help with logistical, financial and administrative support. Anyone who is interested in going with Betsy and me this coming July, as we take a team over, is welcome to join us. If any of these priorities of working with war-affected kids, with malaria control, or with sustainable agriculture and food security strike your fancy, please let me know.
I am, I suppose, one of those “people who take a step back and look nervous” when the Church of the Province of Uganda is mentioned. I am willing to believe, however, that Pilgrim Africa is not in the business of endorsing that church’s hostility to our own church or its less than generous attitude toward homosexual persons. While inviting individuals to join him and his wife on his trips to Uganda, he has failed to come to grips with the fact that Pilgrim Africa has not been adopted as a Diocese of Pittsburgh mission project, nor is Pilgrim Africa an obvious choice for adoption by one of our missional communities. Given those circumstances, one has to ask if the diocese is expected to pay for the bishop’s and the bishop’s wife’s trip. Will the bishop take vacation time to go to Uganda? If, in fact, funds for a Uganda trip are buried in the budget, where are they? The bishop has not been forthcoming on this matter.

Finally, there is the question of the bishop’s eventual decision on same-sex blessings and ordination of partnered gays. This essay was delayed until I could read the bishop’s remarks on the subject, as I was reluctant to rely totally on my memory and written notes. The transcript posted on the diocesan Web site contains this:
Sometimes we actually do get to experience that reality [as the body of Christ]. Certainly I’ve heard that was the case among the people who participated in the conversations on human sexuality over the last year. In many instances, they entered the room full of anxiety and then, in the next few hours of dialogue, found a grace that surprised them. They began to see the other, not as an opponent, but as a human being and a child of God, with convictions rooted in their faith in a common Lord. And they reported to me and to my co-chair, Dana Phillips, and to the other members of the planning team the hope that, as we move toward and beyond a decision on the matters of blessing and ordination for persons in same-sex relationships, the grace they discovered in those rooms may abound for others. I share the same hope.
I have been in extensive consultation with many of you, and I believe I will be able to issue a pastoral letter on the subject in the middle of this month, on or about the 15th, though it may actually be several days later given the particular demands of my schedule and the fact that the 15th falls on a Friday, not a particularly good day to issue a pastoral letter. I appreciate your patience and ask for your continued indulgence for just a bit longer and for your prayers always. I do hope that together we will manage to incorporate the results of this decision into our common life in a way that will put the issue behind us and allow us to focus together on the crucial matter of how we are to join God’s mission in the world.
Excuse the rather long quotation; I wanted to include all of the bishop’s remarks on the long-promised, long-delayed decision that will determine whether our diocese will move forward with The Episcopal Church or return to its status as reactionary Southwestern Pennsylvania backwater.

Unfortunately, what is reproduced above is not all that the bishop said. According to the notes I took at the time—as the bishop knows, I am an inveterate note-taker—he also said, if not exactly, then approximately this: “I am under no illusions that anyone in this diocese will approve completely” of my decision. It is this line, redacted in the “official” transcript that took the better part of a week to appear, that increased my anxiety over what Bishop McConnell might do. It no doubt worried others as well.

It has been widely expected that the bishop would allow the blessing of same-sex unions in parishes that desired to do so, with safeguards to assure that the parishes are ready and willing to take such a step. It likewise was expected that the bishop would allow the ordination of homosexuals in committed relationships. After all, he has just allowed two openly gay men to take positions as rectors in Pittsburgh parishes. Progressives would have no problems with these decisions. Conservatives would be unhappy with both decisions but would likely see them as inevitable.

But then McConnell suggested that no one will approve completely of his decision. This implies that progressives are wrong in at least one of their assumptions, and the bishop sees it as necessary to throw a bone to the minority but vocal conservatives of the diocese. If this is the case, McConnell will be making a terrible mistake. There is an opportunity to position the Diocese of Pittsburgh in the Episcopal mainstream. Progressives who worked hard to save the diocese feel that they deserve progressive decisions, and conservatives who stayed in the church assumed that they would have to pay a price in the form of increased acceptance of homosexuality. To fail to authorize same-sex blessings or to prohibit ordination of partnered homosexuals will demoralize or enrage progressives and will embolden conservatives to return the diocese to the regressive days of the Duncan era.

Perhaps Bishop McConnell realized after he delivered his address that he had increased anxiety in the dioceses unnecessarily and that failure to move forward with majority opinion within The Episcopal Church would severely wound his fledgling episcopate. I pray that is the case.

Update, 11/9/2013. Part 4 of my observations on the diocesan convention can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. Does anyone actually think that the bishop hasn't already made up his mind? This whole issue should have been a non-starter, and the diocese, under Bishop McConnell's leadership, has managed to dredge it up and beat it to death (in, from what I can tell, a not very representative way). I'm also curious what "demands on his schedule" are. Certainly, I would expect personal concerns to take precedence, but issuing this particular letter is very much part of his responsibility as a bishop. The delays are getting ridiculous, and have long past the point of stalling for time...

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