Every three years, the Episcopal Church lays itself open to criticism and ridicule by gathering about a thousand people together for eight days and thinking out loud.
The people at our General Convention come from all over the church, which includes nearly two million people in 16 countries. The topics we discuss also come from across the church: it’s relatively simple for Episcopalians to submit resolutions for legislative consideration. The result at our recently concluded gathering in Indianapolis was that the world was able to watch us debating issues including the blessing of same-sex relationships, peace in the Middle East, and whether dogs have souls.
Our bicameral legislative structure was borne of the same revolution against England as was Congress, and we look alike. It’s easy to stand on the outside and view our democratic process with the same disdain and cynicism that voters feel toward what transpires on Capitol Hill, or to assume we’ve sold out our faith in favor of the secular world.
I believe these criticisms are misplaced. Episcopalians are remarkably sincere about church democracy. We believe that the Holy Spirit is working through our legislative committees and debates, even when we misinterpret her guidance. Part of the reason our General Convention takes so long is that we spend significant time in worship, reading scripture, and singing.
When things get rough or tempers flare, we usually take a break to pray together before resuming debate. If we need more time to discern where God is leading us, we take it. Our recent moves to include lesbian and gay Christians more fully in the church, for example, are the result of more than 30 years of theological study, prayer, and conversation. One can disagree with these initiatives, but they were not born of a desire to reject our Christian truth for secular wisdom. Many of us who hold quite traditional views on the nature of sin believed that our church needed to repent of the sin of homophobia.
My mother used to say that the church’s only problem is that it is riddled with human beings. Our big, public legislative process puts all of our human frailty on display for critics and cynics to gawk at. Like the previous two thousand years of Christians, we’ve got colorful characters and prophetic voices, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference. God is still speaking, as the United Church of Christ likes to say, and sometimes doing so in voices that make us uncomfortable. I don’t suspect anyone would have been happy to see Martin Luther or St. Francis of Assisi standing at a microphone at the end a long legislative day, ready to offer their detailed objections to the way in which the church was doing business. Yet, clearly, the church would have been poorer had it failed to hear them.
Enduring occasional mockery is a cheap price to pay for a church that elects its leaders and recognizes that lay people, clergy, and bishops must share decision-making authority in the church. Unfortunately, it tends to obscure what actually transpires at our General Convention.
The most significant legislative action we took in Indianapolis was a unanimous vote to begin reorganizing our church to meet the challenges of preaching and living out the Gospel in a rapidly changing society. Led by people like the Diocese of Washington’s bishop, the Right Rev. Mariann Budde, we are ready to spend the next three years flattening our hierarchy, streamlining our governance, and creating a budget that will keep more resources in local congregations and communities. A surge of enthusiastic Millennial and Generation X leaders is accelerating our shift toward flexible grassroots networks and away from a corporate model that no longer fits our focus on local mission.
It might disappoint sensationalist critics, but Sunday mornings in most Episcopal churches are short on political rhetoric and debates about sexuality and long on Jesus. Episcopalians are devoted primarily to praying together, serving people in need, and wrestling with hard questions that don’t have easy answers. We value Christian community over lockstep liberalism or any other ideological position, and even though it opens us to ridicule, we keep inviting everyone to join in.