Musings on General Convention

You might think I’m a bit late for this post. Perhaps you are right. But I actually wanted to let the 77th General Convention soak in a bit before I posted some reflections. Plenty of others have been right there with pithy commentary. This brief post comes after 2.5 weeks of answering the question, “So, how was General Convention?”

My answer to the question has varied a bit based on who is asking. The short version is that I would count General Convention in the positive experience column, both for me personally and for the whole church. But before I say why, a thought: General Convention is what you make of it. If you are looking for things to like, there are lots. If you want to become enraged, there is fodder a-plenty. Some people mistake my snark for cynicism, but I am basically an optimistic and positive person, so I’ll count GC as a win.

So what is there to like?

Reconnecting with friends from across the church, and meeting new friends from across the church. This might sound trivial, but I think person-to-person real connections are especially important as our church enters a time that is likely to get more difficult before it gets easier. While I’m as internety as anyone, I still value face-to-face gatherings (not Skype, but the old fashioned kind). It’s hard to demonize people who just bought you a cup of coffee.

Our democratic machine is impressive. Contrary to what you might hear, democracy is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, among either US denominations or among Anglican churches in the world. But it’s impressive in its own right. I didn’t get to see the House of Bishops in action very much, but the President of the House of Deputies did an extraordinary job of keeping things fair and solemn. There wasn’t much opportunity for angry outbursts or boisterous celebration among the deputies, and this is good. Every debate results in a victory for some and defeat for others. Cheering or jeering is not respectful, and our leaders kept is in a place where we were likely to listen and to treat one another well. Minority voices on all sorts of issues could be heard, and were heard.

Younger people seemed to have more visibility. The younger generations of leaders are beginning to claim their place in a big way. This is good. By that, I do not mean to diminish my gratitude for older generations, but we will function best when any one generation (or ethnic group or sex or …) does not dominate our leadership. By their sheer numbers, boomers have tended to crowd out other voices, but that is changing now.

Prayer, especially the Acts 8 Moment. Call me biased, since I helped to organize the Acts 8 Movement (along with Susan Snook and Tom Ferguson), but I think my favorite moment at General Convention happened late at night on July 5. It’s captured in this inspiring Youtube video. Bookmark it, and watch it regularly. It’s as good a glimpse as any at what our church should and can be. Aside from the video moment, we simply studies the Bible together and prayed for our church. It was balm.

Conversations on structure. Listening to person after person at the big structure hearing, it’s clear that our church has now at least accepted the fact that we are not well adapted to the needs of the 21st century. Even more astounding, the vote on a resolution which enables our church to look carefully at itself from top to bottom and consider proposals for radical change passed unanimously in both houses. If not unprecedented, it’s blue-moon rare. Now the test will be whether we are ready to make the necessary changes (early indications are mixed, but I can say more about that in another post).

The ubiquity and power of social media (except for the bishops, who are keeping it medieval). In the House of Deputies and in committee hearings and everywhere else, social media ruled the day. People were sharing news of what was happening to the whole world — and plenty of people were listening. While reports of nationwide trending are greatly exaggerated, it is true that this General Convention was more transparent than any we’ve seen before. Deputies could work together, get information, and share insights. And we could survive by amusing ourselves with snark.

What’s not to like?

Our system rewards agenda-driven action by small groups of people. Various and sundry individuals and groups brought forth dozens or even hundreds of resolutions. The result is hours of committee work, followed in many cases by floor debate involving 1,000 people. Because it’s too easy to get resolutions submitted, the Society for the Appreciation of Sabon could, if it desired, get us to talk about a resolution commending the designers of our prayer book for their use of a particular typeface. I tried to make up a silly example, but it’s hard to find one that doesn’t seem like a resolution we considered. There is lots of petty politicking at GC for causes that only affect a few. (Yes, I know that sometimes the still, small voice speaks the word we need to hear, but surely there’s a way to find a good balance.)

The encroachment of secular political dynamics and tactics into this council of the church. I love politics, and I freely acknowledge and give thanks for their role in our church at all levels. The Nicene Creed is, among other things, a political document, and I’m fine with that. I’m good with people trying to persuade other people to vote a particular way. What saddens me is to see the increasingly slick campaigns of people seeking churchwide office. If this continues, a person will need wealthy backers to win office, and possibly even professional campaign firms. Sad to say, but we might need campaign finance reform in our own church. Beyond that, I was dismayed by some of the one-dimensional negativity that we saw before Convention, though not too much at GC. Again, I’m good with criticism and tough questions, but surely we can treat one another with the assumption that we all love the church about which we are so passionate?

Our bishops continue to show an unhealthy love of secrecy. Do our bishops need to begin every day with a private, closed-door session? Since I don’t know what they do in there, I can’t say for sure, but it strikes me as antithetical to much of what we stand for as a church. Surely conversation — even frank, difficult words — can be had in public? And the bishops’ ban on Twitter (which, I am told, includes an unenforced provision against tweeting from the visitors’ gallery) seems pointless, since the public proceedings are live streamed. What’s the harm in someone posting news and comments on what the bishops are doing? The bishops can take a page out of the deputy playbook, where we learned that twitter did not harm our deliberations, and quite likely improved them.

The schedule is inhumane. Long-time deputies speak with bravado about the days which begin at 7:30 a.m. committee hearings and end with 10:00 p.m. deputation caucuses. This is a ludicrous way to treat a human body. We need to find another way to do things so that people can rest. Getting thousands of us in one place every three years is a precious opportunity to celebrate together, and we should have more social time. Oh, and more prayer time would be a good idea. First-time deputies, even though they have been warned, are often horrified by the grueling nature of the convention, which might explain why so many of them do not come back. We need to fix this.

Much of what we do is a waste of time. In one of my committee hearings one morning, we were in the midst of a lengthy discussion of how to rewrite a particular sentence. It occurred to me that this was entirely pointless, because few people would even read the resolution we were so carefully wordsmithing. What else might we have done with our time at Convention? What would happen if we set aside our legislative sessions one afternoon, and deputations spent time with another deputation from across our vast church? What would it be like if we prayed more? What if we did a service project together? With so many deputies and bishops, every minute is precious. We can’t afford business as usual next time. The opportunity cost will bankrupt us.

The opportunity cost of General Convention is massive. It’s a recap of my last graf, but I want to make the point again. We need to count the opportunity cost of how we are doing things. Structure committee, hello?

I’ll have a few more things to say, perhaps. Please leave your own comments about this post and with your desire for more 7WD rants and raves. Do you agree with my take? Disagree? Different experience?

Also, one more thing. At the next General Convention, we need to pray more. Amen.

14 Comments so far

  1. C. Wingate on July 30th, 2012

    Well, I for one could support the Society for the Appreciation of Sabon’s resolutions.

  2. Doreen on July 30th, 2012

    As a first time visitor, I learned so much about our church and truly enjoyed the experience. However, I can’t help but think that the length of the General Convention truly limits the number of people who can participate as Deputies. There are many individuals whose voices CAN’T be heard because they can’t attend for almost the two weeks required.

    Many people are excluded because they are not employed in positions that allow them that much time off and others simply can’t give up their only two vacation weeks in a year to attend because of other responsibilities.

    Furthermore, others’ finances prohibit their attendance. Even if a diocese will reimburse a deputy for expenses (and it is my understanding that not all do), the deputy needs to be able pay for two weeks worth of meals and other expenses “up front”. Given the state of our economy, I have to believe that leaves many people out.

    If the Episcopal Church is truly serious about being inclusive and having all groups of people and their ideas represented at its convention, it needs to streamline its structure and make sure it lasts no longer than one week.

  3. Mary MacGregor on July 30th, 2012

    Scott,
    I am one of those boomers who started attending GC in 1988 and attended each one through 2003, three as deputy. Each GC was unique but all were physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. During those years I participated in the passing or rejecting of well over a thousand resolutions of virtually no substance. I was told by a fellow deputy of an incident I barely recall, that I had a meltdown on the floor of the House of Deputies, complaining that I couldn’t take another worthless resolution! 2003 was particularly painful because of the pervasive win-lose atmosphere. I was saddened by the way people treated each other and the overwhelming way that politics pervaded the convention. It was bitter, and I hope, never to be repeated. Indianapolis was a breath of fresh air in comparison.
    I made the decision that I wanted to enjoy GC so for the past two I have attended for a few days, done abit of work, and truly enjoyed the opportunity to be a part of the church gathered.

    Every one of your observations are spot on. I am certain as younger leaders begin to take the reigns they will focus on the life giving activities of worship, mixing with new and old friends, and completing the important work of the church in fewer days. For this I am very thankful. It is long over due.

  4. Laura on July 31st, 2012

    I have been to two General Conventions now, from the perspective of someone on the exhibit hall floor, so grain of salt time. But so many things you said struck a chord with me as well.

    One thing I love about going to GC is the “This is your life in the Episcopal Church!” nature of it. It is so great to encounter so many people who have been formative in my life in the church, especially when I meet them unexpectedly. What joy.

    I completely agree that the schedule asked of deputies and bishops is inhumane, and what’s more sacrilegious. Where is the Sabbath time? Where is the rest? How can we as a church do good work when those asked to represent us walk around like zombies?

    One thing that struck me this year was how Eucharistically-centered it was–and I don’t mean that in a positive way. I mean, why did there have to be a Eucharist every morning? Why not have morning prayer–led by a lay person, even? I love that we have a Eucharistic theology, but I would wish for a chance to use our prayer services at this gathering full of people who can engage with it at a deep level.

    But the overwhelming memory I have from both GCs I’ve attended is joy at seeing old friends and making new ones, encountering people I’ve only met online before or catching up with people I haven’t seen in years. There’s a little bit of heaven in that.

  5. Scott Gunn on July 31st, 2012

    Laura, for what it’s worth, the Rules of Order of the House of Bishops say this: “At every session of the House of Bishops there shall be a daily celebration of the Holy Eucharist at such time and place as the Presiding Bishop or Vice-Chair of the House shall appoint.” (ECUSA canons, 2009 edition, page 171)

  6. Mary Ann Hill on July 31st, 2012

    The resolutions issue has frustrated me for a long time. Couldn’t we find a way to acknowledge the issues special interest groups want us to know about without clogging up the whole system? Maybe a special category like courtesy resolutions? If we dealt with that it would alleviate some of the other problems.

  7. Jon Sy on July 31st, 2012

    Hello Scott,
    I have been following your rantings with much admiration.
    With regards to praying, why not have volunteers: “Pray-er” people round the clock just to pray for those who are deliberating and why not include fasting as well. Prayer and fasting draw the power of the Holy Spirit in abundance.

  8. C Eric Funston on July 31st, 2012

    Thanks, Scott – good and enlightening summary of GC. The issue of the excessive number of resolutions is something that really needs to be resolved. It was that way at my first GC (1973 as a youth participant) and my last (1985 as a lay deputy), and observing GCs since – it still is. (Your struggle to come up with a “silly” example – when there are plenty real-world examples of silliness – illustrates the pointless nature of so many of the resolutions.) The consent calendar is a good mechanism for disposing of many of them, but that that simply points out in spades how much wasting motion there really is. — Unfortunately, I have no answers and I’m not even sure there is one. But fewer inconsequential pieces of business would leave more time for important work and, more importantly, for that social and spiritual connection which is the most important aspect of the GC.

  9. David@Montreal on July 31st, 2012

    Scott, reading your observations it strikes me that perhaps the excessive number or resolutions is but another expression of the technical sophistication our Church needs to grow into- on so many fronts. In this instance, I’d suggest that if resolutions could electronically presented to delegates four or five months before GC, they could be asked to vote on which ones could be resolved and passed electronically and which would be carried to GC. Of course this would require an online voting capacity- but my sense is it is well worth the time and effort. Items which made it to the floor at GC would therefore be either ‘developmental’ or defining’final-version-for-passage.’ Some version of this would, i sense really transform the GC experience in countless ways, and could change the experience from a grinding legislative assembly to yet another exciting moment of being Church.

  10. Greg Brewer on July 31st, 2012

    Thanks, Scott. I was so grateful for Acts 8. It was as if I had entered an alternative universe where prayer and humane conversation were more important than political outcomes. I am not OK with a politically driven convention because it is an extremely ineffective tool for discernment- which in these days is precisely what we need. A victory vote hardly constitutes “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

    I’m not entirely sure why HOB wanted to restrict public access to their conversations; but my guess is that bishops so fear backlash from their “public” that they want to be able to speak openly without their comments being parsed by that same “public” for meanings they may, or may not, intend. it also protects HOB from bishops grandstanding for the public about a particular cause (not a hypothetical concern!). I will say that those private sessions were very fruitful in terms of candid conversations, and if the price of that sort of transparency is keeping things “medieval” then, so be it. I’m all for anything that allows HOB to be more humane with each other and less issue driven. I agree it’s not the best solution, but how else can we allay their fears?

    Keep pressing us for more prayer!

  11. Clare Fischer -Davies on July 31st, 2012

    Scott, this summary was worth the wait; thanks for cogitating on this for awhile. My experience as a four time deputy tracks closely to yours. I suppose it’s not newsworthy to mention that complaints about and recommendations for change regarding the pace, length of convention and plethora of resolutions have been discussed at least since my first convention in 1988. Many people are suggesting that this year some kind of tipping point has been reached, and it will be interesting to see whether substantive change results.

  12. Diana R. on July 31st, 2012

    Scott,

    I’m a fan of yours, so please take this as my $0.02 worth of observation.

    There is a difference between “secrecy” and “privacy.” Not all communication demands transparency and there’s nothing inherently suspect in wanting some privacy. If the bishops want to start the day in their own peculiar way, more power to them.

    Frankly after reading about the savage tweeting that’s going on at the Olympics I don’t blame the bishops one bit for banning the tweet in their house and gallery. And I wouldn’t characterize them as “medieval” because of it. Cutting down on distractions and opportunities for anyone who thinks their instantaneous, unreflective reaction to something weighty is worthy of publication to the world at large is a blessing for all, including the tweeters (gives their thumbs a much needed rest!).

    Just so you don’t think I’m a Luddite: as a third clergy alternate I was unable to be at GC but organized a Face Book prayer group instead where 290 folks prayed every day for all of you who were there–a non-intrusive via media use of social media.

    Keep up the good work. I enjoy your thoughtful posts even when I don’t agree with your conclusions. The debate is most of the fun!

  13. Scott Gunn on July 31st, 2012

    Bishop Brewer, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I think our church would be immeasurably blessed if we could find a way to engage in more scripture study and earnest prayer together, especially when committees meet and the machinery of governance gears up. While I am sure the private conversations were fruitful, I do wonder about other ways of having public conversation that is also fruitful. What would it be like to engage in fear-less leadership in which one leads without too much regard for potentially adverse reactions? I wonder.

    Diane, please know that like much of what I write here on 7WD, my use of terms such as “medieval” is intended to convey a light-hearted let-us-engage-in-conversation-without-taking-ourselves-too-seriously tone. In an ideal world, I would agree that privacy can be — and is — a good thing. However, church leaders have a long history of engaging in unhealthy, secret practices. I also think that it’s OK if the public witnesses a conversation that is a bit messy at times. There is something profound about gracious disagreement.

    Clare, I too will be interested to see if we’ve reached a real tipping point. My guess is that things will have to get worse before they get better. I’d love to be wrong about that, but early signs are that we’re clinging to business as usual. At least we have near unanimity on the need for change. Not sure if that’s new or not.

  14. Chris Weichman on July 31st, 2012

    As a presbyterian pastor who attending the PCUSA General Assembly this summer I found your summary interesting. If I could substitute episcopal terminology with the presbyterian equivalent –I think we went to the same meeting!