Issue Seven: Dean of VTS on this Historic General Convention

Print edition: Issue Seven, for Tuesday, June 30, 2015

In this issue:

“General Convention 78: Turning Point to a Renewed Church”
By the Very. Rev. Dr. Ian Markham, Dean and President, Virginia Theological Seminary
“My Love-Hate Relationship with Church Politics”
By the Rev. John Ohmer, Rector, The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Va.
“I Never Felt Pressure to Drink Until I Joined the Episcopal Church”
By the Rev. Hilary Smith, Member of the Committee on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, Clergy Deputy, Virginia

General Convention 78: A Turning Point to a Renewed Church

Ian MarkhamThe Very. Rev. Ian Markham, Ph.D., Dean and President, Virginia Theological Seminary

This might be an historic convention.

It is always difficult to judge that which is historical about the present, while you are in the middle of the present. However, as The Episcopal Church proceeds through this 78th General Convention, there are real grounds for believing that a decisive shift is occurring in the fortunes of The Episcopal Church that will have historic ramifications.

Let me make the case. Let us start with the fact that the brand of The Episcopal Church has some traction in modern America. Too often we forget that the puzzle in the 1990s was why The Episcopal Church was both growing and outperforming our mainline brothers and sisters in terms of average Sunday attendance. Our combination of faithfulness and thoughtfulness was attractive; our deeply biblical liturgy and timeless language fed women and men as they coped with the ephemeral nature of our world. Then we struggled through the cultural wars and schism of the initial years of this century. So why is this General Convention the start of a renewed and growing Episcopal Church?

There are three reasons. First, everything that worked for us in the 1990s can work for us now. Although Roman Catholics and Baptists are going to continue to dominate the U.S. scene, we will play a vital role in providing a thoughtful, inclusive, gentle, biblical, liturgical and Christ-committed witness. Millennials will find the commitment to outreach attractive; they will appreciate the chance to tap into a musical tradition of extraordinary beauty. History will look back on the early years of this century as an aberration. The 1990s was the norm; and over the next few years, the rate of decline will decrease and in the early 2020s we will see growth.

Second, America is in the process of making some key decisions about the culture wars. In the early years of this century, we were running against the culture, which alienated some people; now The Episcopal Church is where the majority of Americans are (especially the younger demographic). Large evangelical megachurches are very aware of how they will alienate the young if they are too overtly hostile to the inclusion of gays and lesbians. Being pro-gay is good in modern America; and as we have seen with the Supreme Court decision last week, the affirmation of equality embedded in the American story from its founding finally reaches our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Naturally, we need to continue to value the witness of our conservative brothers and sisters; they are the ones who insist rightly that we must provide biblical justification for our positions. This is a vitally important contribution.

Third, there is a good and healthy energy that is open to change and reorganization in The Episcopal Church. The Committee to Re-Imagine the Episcopal Church (TREC) has happened. Bishop Michael Curry is open to a new church emerging. And perhaps equally significantly is the new book by Bishop Andy Doyle. Church: A Generous Community Amplified for the Future is an agenda-setting book. The tone is perfect for this moment: It is hopeful (there is nothing inevitable about our narrative of decline) and it is constructive (here are countless great ideas for transforming the predicaments facing our congregations).

So why is this General Convention going to be historic? It is because we offer a “product” that our age needs and wants; the immediate cultural war is coming to an end; and we now have leadership in the Church that is ready to be imaginative about our programming for the future. I am confident that in 50 years’ time, the General Convention of 2015 will be the moment that historians identify as the turning moment in the fortunes of The Episcopal Church.

My Love-Hate Relationship with Church Politics

Ohmer John headshotBy the Rev. John Ohmer, rector of The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Va.

I’ve always had mixed emotions about General Convention, but this one in particular, now under way in Salt Lake City, is stirring up even more mixed, “love-hate” feelings. Because I’m not there.

This will be the first convention I haven’t attended since 2000 (Denver) – I was in Minneapolis in 2003, Columbus in 2006, Anaheim in 2009 and Indianapolis in 2012.

On the one hand, I love the convention, because it’s a 10-day chance to catch up with a lot of fabulous people – lay people, priests and bishops from all over the country (and world) who love The Episcopal Church and all it stands for. Reading Facebook posts and seeing photos, I miss them; I miss catching up over dinners and drinks. I feel like there’s a large, fun party going on in the apartment next door, and I’m stuck at home trying to catch up on work.

I also love meandering around the Exhibit Hall at each General Convention, where hundreds of people from lots of different advocacy groups, church supply companies, Episcopal seminaries, booksellers and others set up shop to hawk their wares and ideas for the week.

I even love attending the quirky, self-conscious worship services held there – especially after my good friend, the Rev. Daniel Simons, gave me great advice for attending worship at convention: “Sit up front.” He said, “Right next to the musicians; changes everything.” And you get not only to hear, but see some fantastic preachers. In fact, of the 10 best sermons I’ve ever heard, two were preached at a General Convention. But unfortunately, those things (fellowship, idea-sharing and worship) are – or seem – tangential to the central purpose of the convention.

That’s because, unfortunately, the raison d’être for the convention is legislation – which means every time there’s a General Convention, The Episcopal Church’s loud-mouthed cousin called Church Politics shows up. Not only shows up, but takes over.

Now here’s the thing: I used to like “church” – the institution itself, the way we’re organized and run. And I used to like “politics” – hell, I worked on Capitol Hill for four years. I was briefly on a presidential campaign staff; my last job before seminary was as a press secretary in a statewide race.

So liking Church, and liking politics, I used to love Church politics. And General Convention is the Super Bowl/World Cup/World Series of Episcopal Church politics. And there I was, being paid to observe, and write about – Church politics! Not quite heaven-on-earth, but a blast, a 10-day blast.

But then something odd happened. Not overnight, and not completely. But enough to change things in major ways. And that’s this: I fell in love with the Bible, and with the God-made-known-in-Jesus to whom the Bible points. (That’s somehow embarrassing to admit, even though it shouldn’t be. But that’s another story.)

As a result, over time, I started to be impatient with, and eventually dislike “church.”PB_Election-4_cropped When I say I dislike “Church,” I do not mean the Church defined as the Body of Christ gathered for the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers. I still love that dynamic, organic Church.

I mean the Church institution – its bureaucracies, its structures, its “meet-for-the-sake-of-meeting” tendencies, its soul-crushing amendment-to-an-amendment-to-the-fourth-resolved-clause-of-an-even-more-earnest substitute resolution about “the issue we all must really care about.”

Ick. No. Please, God, no.

The funny thing is, I believe that a majority of people out in Salt Lake City can empathize, or even feel the same way themselves. I’ve had dozens of conversations about this, with folks who are out there, even now. There’s a general and growing sense that the “system is broken,” and there’s a general and growing sense that “we must do something about it.

And so – ironically – task forces are formed and resolutions are written and debated and amended to address the brokenness of the system. It’s what we do. And it’s what we’ll always do – as long as we see ourselves as a legislative body that happens to have fellowship and idea-sharing and worship.

For real change to happen, we need to think of ourselves as an idea-sharing, worshipping community that happens to legislate.

Oddly enough, that mindset – thinking of ourselves as an idea-sharing, fellow-shipping, worshipping body that happens to legislate – is already in place on the congregational level at annual meeting time. It’s even in place in some dioceses at diocesan convention time. Some dioceses see their conventions as a time to gather the wider Church together for fellowship, prayer, worship and idea-sharing, and are de-emphasizing, if not overtly discouraging, all but the most necessary enabling (Constitution and Canons, plus budget) legislation.

My unscientific research concludes those are the healthiest, fastest growing congregations and dioceses.

If that’s true, since I’m not there this year to ask in person, may I ask a favor?

And that is – if I’m onto something here – may their representatives please speak up? For more from John Ohmer,’visit his blog, Unapologetic Theology.

I Never Felt Pressure to Drink Until I Joined the Episcopal Church

Hillary SmithBy the Rev. Hilary Smith, Member of the Committee on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, Chair of the Diocese of Virginia’s Deputation, and Priest-in-Charge of Holy Comforter Church, Richmond, Va.

The tragic death of bicyclist Tom Palermo beside a Maryland highway grips me. So sad, and there is no going back. The consequences for his wife and children, family and friends will be felt and lived every day of their lives.

I’m also gripped by complex and, at times, conflicting feelings about former Bishop Heather Cook. The consequences for her also will be felt for the rest of her life. If convicted of the charges filed against her, she may spend years in jail, and will live with the reality that she killed someone while drunk.

From news stories and comments, I’m hearing about the need for accountability and, indeed, there is such a need. In fact, some are posting audios of a sermon given by Heather Cook, in which she speaks of the need for people to be held accountable in a society that often wants to give people “a pass.” Perhaps that is true if one is white, college-educated and well-spoken. But what about accountability for The Episcopal Church?

Sure, we in The Episcopal Church have official policies that pertain to having alcohol at Church gatherings. We say that “equally attractive non-alcoholic beverages” should be available at church events when alcohol is present. That’s the official position. But what is the culture in our Church and in our churches?

I never felt peer pressure to drink until I joined The Episcopal Church. Many times at Church events, when I am offered a glass of wine or a beer, and I decline, the person immediately follows up with, “It’s OK; you can have a drink.” I usually have to refuse the drink two or three times before the person will let it go. During an interview process for a position in a church, I was offered a drink by a vestry member during the social time before dinner. When I said I was “good” with the water I was drinking, this vestry member stated, “We like to drink with our priest.” I didn’t get that job.Priest drinking in a pub during a revival of the Church of England

There is a culture in The Episcopal Church of drinking and being proud of it. I’m not saying that drinking is inherently wrong or that no one should drink. But we need to be aware of the messages we are sending by how we act around alcohol and what we say about it. It is easy to drink too much in the Church; the overall culture encourages it. Many times at diocesan conferences and conventions, I have seen people – leaders of the Church – hung over the next morning.

When I heard that the Committee on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (Committee 22) had been created for this General Convention, I asked President Jennings if I could serve.

Committee 22 has produced three resolutions that have come to or will come to the houses for action. The spirit of all three is to provide support for those who choose not to drink, or have struggled with alcohol use or addiction, or have come from families of addiction. The resolutions seek to update the 1985 policy of The Episcopal Church on alcohol and other drugs, given our increased knowledge of and sensitivity to the issues. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be part of the work to bring these matters to light.

The Episcopal Church’s culture of drinking did not do Heather Cook any favors. I hope and pray that, if you are struggling with alcohol, you will consider getting help. I also pray that The Episcopal Church will develop a culture that takes seriously the need to support those who choose not to drink, for whatever reason.

For more from Hilary Smith, visit her blog, Angels in the Alley.

Categories: GC78

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