General Convention is a rare experience! It is demanding of its participants. It can often be tedious and arduous and at the same time deeply moving and inspirational. It sometimes feels like a “zoo” - given the cultural, regional, ecclesiological and theological diversity it embodies. It is the Church in all its glory and in all its fractiousness. I’ve attended 4 General Conventions now, and I am truly convinced that there is something holy about the gathering. Not holy as in “perfect.” But holy as in “blessed” - that kind of favor of love that God bestows on a community of people who, in all their finitude and fallibility, are willing to show up and struggle to be Christ’s body in the world. It isn’t always pretty. But God loves us for trying, even if we don’t always get it right, and that fact makes it holy.
As at all previous conventions, during the 79th General Convention held in July in Austin, Texas, hundreds of resolutions were taken up for debate and legislation. At the end of convention there were four particular resolutions adopted that stand out as having potential impact on our life together in Southern Virginia. Some clarification about these seems in order.
1. Prayer Book Revision
General Convention voted not to revise the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In fact, it passed a resolution to “memorialize” the Prayer Book – which, in essence, says that for the next several years the BCP ‘79 is our standard for liturgy in the Episcopal Church.
Having established the ‘79 book as the norm, General Convention also affirmed the need to create and authorize new supplemental liturgies for the Church to use between now and when we do eventually revise the Prayer Book. These liturgies may include texts with inclusive language and/or other expansive language changes, and new updated non-English translations. As has always been the case, these new supplemental liturgies will be for optional usage.
2. Marriage Rites
General Convention voted to authorize the new marriage rites for same-sex and opposite-sex couples as ‘trial use” liturgies. The transition from being “proposed rites” to being “trial use” will result in the liturgies becoming available for use by any clergy person who is presently authorized to perform the BCP ‘79 marriage rite. In other words, soon it will no longer be necessary for a priest to receive a bishop’s permission to use the new marriage rites in his/her church.
In light of the fact that a handful of bishops in the Church remain opposed to same-gender marriage and do not presently allow any of their priests to marry same-sex couples, General Convention established a special allowance. Rather than violate their consciences, bishops who are opposed will designate another non-opposed bishop to provide “pastoral support” to any couple desiring to be married with the trial rites. This allowance is based on the general understanding that any same-gender couple who qualifies for lawful marriage will have reasonable access to the marriage rites no matter where they happen to reside.
Although I whole-heartedly support same-gender marriage, I believe the alternate oversight option will serve the Episcopal well, and model the kind of tolerance and openness to differences in theology that is a hallmark of our great tradition.
To summarize: As of Advent I, all clergy in Southern Virginia may use the trial rites for marriage – including same-gender marriage - without permission from the office of the Bishop. The normal diocesan requirements for marriage after divorce will continue to apply as before. For obvious pastoral reasons, it is recommended that all clergy continue be diligent in their efforts to hold thoughtful theological conversations about same-gender marriage with parish leadership – especially if the use of such rites has not yet been introduced to the parish.
As has always been the case, parish clergy with primary authority (rector, priest in charge, etc.) are free to decide for themselves whether or not to perform any marriage – same-gender or otherwise. In other words, no clergy person in the Episcopal Church is obliged to perform any particular marriage.
3. Combating Sexual abuse/harassment
While there were several resolutions around this very complex and important matter, all were focused on making the Church environment safe for all people regardless of gender or orientation. Perhaps paramount was the passing of the House of Bishops’ “Working Covenant” for the practice of equity and justice for all in the Episcopal Church. An outgrowth of a session of a “Liturgy of Listening”, at which bishops told the personal stories of those who have suffered injustice in the church, the Covenant acknowledges that the Church is not immune to abuse, harassment and exploitation of people of varying gender, racial and cultural identities. The covenant states that bishops will engage their diocesan cultures and structures to ensure that all people are being treated fairly - in power sharing, in wage equity, and in clergy deployment.
In the days ahead it will be incumbent upon us to consider if we are actually being who we claim to be in Southern Virginia – if our practice is in line and congruent with our faith statements – especially in regard to our treatment of those whom we employ and who serve us.
4. Diocese of Cuba
One of the true highlights of General Convention was the unanimous vote - both in the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops – to restore the relationship of the Episcopal Church and La Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba. The resolution lamented the actions of the House of Bishops that ejected the Diocese of Cuba from the Episcopal Church in 1966 (Cuba was one of our missionary dioceses). For 50 plus years the Episcopal Church in Cuba struggled alone - with the exception of occasional support from the Anglican Church of Canada. And yet, for the past 50 years the Church of Cuba has considered itself part of the Episcopal Church, hoping that one day its mother church would welcome it home.
One of the most powerful moments occurred when the Bishop of Cuba was welcomed with applause into the House of Bishops to sit at a table with her colleagues. It was an honor and privilege to witness such an important moment of restoration. The joy in the face of the bishop was palpable – as was the joy in the faces of those people who had traveled with her from Cuba to witness and celebrate the return.
Perhaps the Diocese of Southern Virginia will find some avenue in the future in which to connect with and directly support the Episcopal Church in Cuba. I believe it could be a life-giving experience for both dioceses.
As a final thought, I find that I am particularly proud of Southern Virginia’s deputation - thinking especially of our deputies’ dogged faithfulness to what proved to be a highly demanding 11 day legislative process. We owe our deputies a debt of gratitude for their commitment of time and energy. Some of them even used their personal vacation time to attend and serve the Church on our behalf.
And I also find that I am again very proud of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the steadfast and energetic leadership that he offers the Church. His great humor and affection and down-to-earth manner infused the entire 11 day experience with a sense of thanksgiving and hopefulness, not to mention his spirit-filled preaching lighting up the room!
The Episcopal Church is a wonderful, special and unique part of the Jesus Movement. We truly have much to offer the world. For those who were in attendance, this summer’s 79th General Convention confirmed that fact once again.