Who Gets a Voice in the Room Where It Happens?

Sarah Kye Price, staff writer

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By Sarah Kye Price
Staff Writer

General Convention can be a sensory overload for a newcomer like me. My first few days, I’ve tried to immerse myself in listening at formal hearings and informal conversations around topics I feel are of importance. I’ve introduced myself to dozens, maybe hundreds, of my siblings in this Church (which makes me exceedingly grateful that we all wear nametags). One thing I tend to do when I have a moment to indulge my introversion is to reflect on what I’ve been hearing, looking for the common threads that are emerging from everything I’ve been taking in. In these opening days, I find myself reflecting a great deal on language and silence.

Language is what connects us and gives us voice. With it, we identify our commonalities and hear new expressions that bear witness to the diversity of our culture. At the powerful Liturgy of Listening, I was transformed by the language of those near me who were singing in American Sign Language, conveying something beyond the swirling emotions and words in my own mind – helping me understand the presence of God in the midst of pain. We sing and pray in our common worship using languages that are sometimes not familiar to us, reminding us that this Convention (and this Church) is not one voice, but many. When language is unfamiliar, it means we have to listen harder to hone in on unfamiliar dialects or to be sure we’re getting an accurate translation so we can respond clearly. The language of committees, resolutions and amendments is no exception: Those who speak must also work diligently to hear each other. It’s easy to speak our familiar language and sing our familiar song, but what are we missing if our own familiar voice is the only thing that we hear?

Empty Conference_wide

This leads me to silence. I’ve heard people ask, several times: What voices do we need to hear that aren’t in the room? (And no, they aren’t referring to people in line at Starbucks.) It’s a serious question about who attends General Convention and who participates in Church governance. It raises questions that might be disconcerting: Who are elected as deputies and how does that vary by diocese? Who can afford to be here? How might our structure privilege some groups and voices over others? I think often about those I know in our parishes, as well as those who are served by our outreach ministries. I was relieved to hear someone say yesterday, “We can’t hear the voices of the poor, because they are not here.” That silence can be deafening. Those living with poverty and oppression in this world have so much to share with us about where Jesus is made known in their midst. But, if we cannot hear those voices because our privilege is speaking too loudly, then it might be time to turn down the volume and listen. When we listen to the silence, we hear those whose voices are farther out on the margins – whether that is culturally, socially or ideologically – and we begin to take those voices into consideration. A big-tent Church needs to know where we’ve staked the perimeters and move them so that we might expand to include those who are welcome at the tables of our parishes, as well as in our governance.

These thoughts don’t have easy answers, and they also don’t mean that we aren’t doing good work. I am awed by the richness of language as well as the beautiful spaces of silence that we keep, ensuring that we can be still and know the movement of the Holy Spirit, ensuring that She isn’t drowned out by the details of daily business. I love seeing and engaging with the diversity of people who are here serving this Church that we love. But, I also urge us to listen: for the diversity of language, as well as for the silence. How can both help us learn more about the Church we are called to be?

Sarah Kye Price is a professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University and a seminarian at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. She was recently awarded a grant by the Episcopal Evangelism Society for her project, Faith from the Margins to the Web, a blog and Gospel commentary co-written by people living with homelessness, poverty or food insecurity. She’s a mild-mannered professor by day, and a multi-tasking superhero by, well, also by day.