GC97: How to judge from within the maelstrom

Philadelphia: Saturday, 26 July 1997

Here at General Convention I have haunted the booths, the gathering spaces, the small receptions, and the diocesan hospitality suites. I've leaned against walls, listening to conversations flow through and around. I've visited every booth in the Exhibition Hall many times--and been part of wildly diverse conversations. I have never before attended a General Convention of my church, so it is all new and interesting to me. I have read all the broadsides and interpretative commentaries which are feverishly produced overnight by the various groups within the Church, and handed to us in the morning as political leaflets.

Although my natural affinities tend to be with AIDS ministries, peace and justice advocacy groups, Integrity , Oxfam, Jubilee Ministries, educational groups, colleges and seminaries, and publishers, and I my being a reporter here is sponsored by an organization (Society of Archbishp Justus) whose mission includes ecumenism, I have read with true interest and open heart the reports and writings from the Episcopal Synod of America, the American Anglican Council, the Prayer Book Society, Episcopalians United, and many other organizations and groups which I might not ordinarily have chosen. I must know what my church is saying and thinking. I have spent a week and a half saturated in the lobbying and lobbing. The news here at the Convention is constant. There are thousands of people here, and every one of them has a story. An ever-rolling stream.

My editor, who rewrites my stories into the articles that you read here, says that a person can read hundreds of factual stories about the convention, every word of which is true, and still have no idea what it is that actually happened here.

This has been mostly a healthy thing, but now that everything is over for this triennium, I cannot ignore the patterns I've noted that are not just my interpretation of things. These patterns have been corroborated by others here as well, people very different from me.

What I have felt is an absence of mutual respect. What I have seen and experienced is rage, undisguised. Bitterness upon faces, frowning, and a lack of hospitality to strangers.

Let me be more specific: the exhibit hall, which is located on the ground floor of the grand Philadelphia Convention Center, was more than a marketplace for religious goods and ideas. It was Tent of Meeting [Exodus 29:1-30] where weary delegates, deputies, visitors, and Bishops could wander freely sampling sounds and flavors. Many of the booths were beautiful. Some were very grand, state-of-the-art traveling display modules. The Episcopalians United booth was lovely. Strong clear Gothic arches, very tall and beautiful and made of wood, framed the space. A peaceful oasis of rest, with comfortable chairs, and literature. But it was not welcoming. I was not alone in thinking or feeling this. The persons who staffed the booth did not smile. They did not extend their hands in welcome. Many of the booths offered candy and water, buttons, music, balloons, or children's toys. One could stand or sit there freely, no welcome was forthcoming. And the ministries I visited which offer to heal or cure homosexuals were unpleasant, because they failed to make us understand why, if one is certain and secure, why one must shout so about it, and not allow anybody else a word in edgewise. Right or wrong, I do recognize fearful defensiveness when I see it or hear it. Again, the Joy of God was missing there. For me, at least.

I am not anonymous in this church. So perhaps this was a response to me. Science tells us that you cannot observe something without changing it; that is called the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty. But during the course of the long and event-filled days, I had many occasions to wander into many places, and watch how people were treated there, in these booths and halls. I always wave. My family is pathologically friendly. Even when people do not agree, there is always the comradeship of the trenches. Why were the persons at Episcopalians United, or Episcopal Synod of America, etc. not open-handed with their message, their engagement? This was a prime chance for conversion, or convincing. Surely nothing could be gained for one's point of view by being cold, or harsh, or insulting. I know these people are good Christian people. I know many of them personally. But why were they so cold and hostile?

I have worried and worried about this. I pray for our Church to find some way to stay together, and travel in one boat. Based on what I have seen here at the General Convention, the chance for this seems slim. Legislation can only establish intention: the path chosen by consensus, or by simple vote and majority. There is tremendous pain here amongst those who have argued long and hard, tirelessly, for the beliefs and hopes most dear to them in many areas of concern whose way has not prevailed. And, conversely, there are of course many who have now won after the same long and difficult time of work and argument. The sorrow and the rejoicing temper each other here. Sobs of defeat and bitterness would be every bit as rude and destructive as would be victory shouts and/or celebratory conga lines.

Debate and legislative process was better than amicable. It was perhaps even admirable! But the word in the halls here is that the ESA will probably vote to leave the [Protestant] Episcopal Church of America. They are meeting now, separately, here in Philadelphia as I write this. If they do leave, they will have not have been pushed out. This will be hyperbole. We all followed the Rules, as a communion governed by Convention: Constitution and Canons. No rules were broken. All that was done was done in full witness of all gathered. If for reasons of conscience, some leave, then conscience will decide. But no one wants the exodus of brothers and sisters. The via media has always been broad enough. The groups talking about leaving seem to want a narrower road.

I would much rather be defined by what I am for than by what I am against. When this Church did not ordain women, for example, I was not pleased. But I did not leave--nor would I leave now. This is my Church - I glory in it; it gives my life a mission and a focus that are much larger and better than myself. I require the fellowship and the guidance of my community to "keep me honest"--to temper my selfishnesses, my own desires and willfulness.

"See how we treat each other." Indeed. I do see--I have seen. The bitterness upon the faces of those whose wills have not been affirmed here is not a bitterness which is the result of love denied them. No: it hurts me to say this, truly--I see too many faces who have been denying love to others, turning love away.

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Copyright © 1997 Deborah Griffin Bly.
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