Straining Gnats, Swallowing Camels: Part I

Personal Commentary

I’m beginning to wonder if “GC” stands for “General Convention” of the Episcopal Church, or “Gnats and Camels.”

You know the reference: Jesus noticed religious leaders who were meticulous about the smallest points of the law – to the point of tithing even one sprig of mint – but who ignored things that really matter.

Using a bit of hyperbolic humor, he says, “Blind guides, you strain out the gnat and swallow the camel.”

Gnats, as insects, were considered unclean. So the religious leaders of Jesus’ day carefully strained their camelwine to keep from accidentally swallowing a gnat.

The picture he paints is that of religious leaders squinting at fine gauze to be sure they’ve captured pinhead-sized impurities, while camels – also unclean animals that were forbidden as food – have been swallowed whole.

It’s meant to be a comical portrayal.

But it’s a painfully accurate picture of the General Convention.
Every three years, General Convention spends days meticulously straining out gnats in countless resolutions while the camels of outdated and irrelevant Church Center departments and offices  and the more than 75 committees, commissions, agencies and boards work their way through our bloated budget belly.

Just to give one example from the General Convention of 2009, our bishops – fine, articulate, passionate, sane and devout people when you meet them individually – spent some of their precious time together as brothers and sisters in Christ debating an amendment to an amendment to the fourth resolved clause to a substitute resolution.

To do what?

To ask General Convention to request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance to spend $300,000 to implement the substitute resolution, which called for the appointment of 14 people to develop a 10-year plan, updated annually, that would identify and track “the missional, financial, societal, cultural and other challenges and opportunities facing The Episcopal Church” and define “measurable indicators of success of the selected direction.”

In other words, we Episcopalians passed a resolution authorizing ourselves to spend an amount of money probably three times the size of the average Episcopal congregation’s annual budget…to find out what our problem is.

And report back on it.

To ourselves.

The “challenges and opportunities” the Episcopal Church faces are not something 14 people need to spend three years and a third of a million dollars on: It’s something that any rector or senior warden of a growing and vibrant church can tell you in five minutes.  (And it’s something that’s applicable at all levels of church governance, from vestry meetings to diocesan councils to the General Convention to Lambeth.)

And that is the degree to which we still see ourselves when we gather, as legislative bodies that happen to worship and have fellowship together, rather than as a worshipping and fellowship body that happens to legislate.

The first model – the church gathered as legislative bodies that happen to break bread and pray – is a Christendom-era understanding that – if it ever worked – has been chasing its own tail in this country since the 1950s.

The second model – the church gathered in order to engage in (I read this somewhere) “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers,” with an absolute minimal amount of time spent on essential housekeeping matters – is an Acts/pre- and non-Christendom model that is emerging again.

How to change from one model to another?

That’s where it gets interesting.

Stay tuned for Part II of “Straining Gnats, Swallowing Camels” later this week.

–The Rev. John Ohmer, Center Aisle Staff Writer

Categories: GC2012

5 replies »

  1. And our seminaries hire all sorts of fine scholars, none of whom would be remotely capable of doing our institutional research using the resources they have access to?

  2. Gives new meaning to “devil is in the details”… As a vestry member and now Junior Warden, I empathize with frustration and concern related to going into the 10th degree of discussion and resolve on the “gnats”. I do offer one other perspective for consideration: tiny gnats, left unaddressed, have the potential of amassing in bulk that could equal the heft of a camel…

  3. Here’s a gnat: The heading says there are three responses, but I only see two (and fine responses they are; you can safely ignore mine!). But the overarching lesson is clear: what’s the bottom line (the camel). Focus on that, not on the gnats. (Hint: hire someone who knows the difference!).

  4. I hope someone distributes cookies in the shape of camels wrapped in fine netting to all who fall to the temptation of straining gnats during GC 2012.