Bishops develop covenant model at special meeting in Kanuga

By James Solheim
The Episcopal News Service – March 17, 1993

For the second year in a row, the bishops of the Episcopal Church gathered in the “sacred space” of the Kanuga Conference Center in the mountains of North Carolina to forge “a new style of leadership built on community and consensus.”

At the end of the March 9-12 meeting, bishops on the planning committee said in interviews that “the new covenant of how we can be together is a reality, it has taken root – and we can trust it because we have experienced it,” according to Bishop Edward Chalfant of Maine.

The bishops met at the same time last year in Kanuga in an extraordinary special session called by Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning after the collegiality of the House of Bishops was badly shaken at the 1991 General Convention in Phoenix. After some sharp exchanges among several bishops threatened the ability of the House of Bishops to accomplish its work, Browning called six closed-door sessions during the convention to defuse the situation.

A new metaphor for working together

Using the same format of prayer, worship, Bible study and small group discussions, the 143 bishops at this year’s meeting were challenged to consider a new metaphor for working together. Bishop Craig Anderson contrasted the contractual experience built by competitive, individualistic style, with a covenant experience which is “circular, requiring consent and negotiation in light of decisions that affect the life of the community and individuals.”

Anderson, bishop of South Dakota before his recent election as dean of General Theological Seminary in New York, said he was deeply influenced by the Lakota Sioux attitudes in forming his concepts of covenant relationships.

Contending that the House of Bishops in the past has been characterized by “a legislative process that only exacerbates the tendency for us to act without the necessary theological reflection and discernment,” Anderson described a method to break the pattern. Using the image of a circle, Anderson said that theological reflection yields a different kind of praxis or action, taking seriously the existing concerns, the experience and context of those involved in the process, and moving towards decisions based on commonly held truths. “This is the way we can retrieve our theological base as a covenant people,” Anderson said. “This is not merely a symbolic shift but one of methodology.”

Trying the model on the issue of racism

The bishops did more than consider the model, they applied it to one of the thorniest issues facing the church and society – racism. “We tried the model on an issue that is still very much with us,” said Bishop Christopher Epting of Iowa who made a presentation on racism and the church at a morning session. “We looked at our experience – especially the racism audit at the General Convention, and also looked at letters from clergy and bishops,” Epting said.

When the bishops moved into small groups, Epting said that they experienced “lots of self-disclosure and some profound sharing.” Spurred by the usefulness of Anderson’s model, the bishops also were able to move towards actions referred to them by the General Convention including the formulation of a pastoral letter on racism. They set 13 “priority goals” that include:

  • dialogue studies on the parish level “leading to definite goals and actions;”
  • using video for the pastoral letter on racism;
  • making the deployment of clergy more “equitable;”
  • developing an affirmative action plan for the church;
  • personal involvement with people of other races;
  • creation of a program to recruit minority persons for leadership in church, in society and also encourage minority investments
  • personal gifts to the Legacy Fund honoring Martin Luther King, jr. (the bishops collected $4500 at the closing Eucharist);
  • encouragement of minority candidates for the office of presiding bishop.

“We are looking for some continuity of issues from one meeting to the next,” Browning said. Racism was a major issue at Phoenix and at last fall’s regular meeting at the House of Bishops in Baltimore. The pastoral on racism should emerge from this fall’s regular meeting of the bishops in Panama. And because the model worked so well in dealing with the issue of racism, the bishops were convinced it would work on another thorny issue – sexuality.

A style that is transforming

Clearly optimistic that they have found a model that works, several bishops said that the house had moved convincingly into the covenant style of relationships that is “transforming” in some “unimagined and wonderful ways,” according to Epting. Bishop Mark Dyer of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said that the presentation of the model and its impact on the house “couldn’t be overestimated,” that is was “absolutely critical” to the future. He and other bishops emphasized that the model was effective because  “it came up out of the roots, within us and from us,” said Epting.

That ownership was due, at least in part, to a dependence on each other rather than on consultants. The use of consultants at the Baltimore meeting stirred up some strong reactions, but Bishop Sam Hulsey of Northwest Texas, chair of the Kanuga planning committee, said the consultants “served their purpose ad helped us get started.”

Influence on the dioceses

The new spirit forged at the first meeting in Kanuga and the new model emerging from the second Kanuga meeting will have profound influence on the diocesan and parish levels, the bishops agreed. “The Kanuga spirit is also being worked out in our dioceses, with considerable appreciation,” observed Dyer. “It is already having a profound pastoral effect on the mission of the church.”

Bishop David Bowman of Central New York said his personal commitment to the work of his diocesan racism commission is a direct result of his experience at Kanuga.

Bishop Roger Harris of Southwest Florida said that the racism goals set by the bishops, “deal with the development of dialogue on the local level, dealing seriously with pain and reconciliation,” as well as some very practical issues. “It is an example of the way we bishops can model servant community in Jesus Christ,” he said.

Harris sketched how the four hypotheses that undergirded the first Kanuga meeting had been addressed since then. The hypotheses asserted that the bishops had no clear understanding of the meaning of episcopacy, no clear consensus about strategy and direction, that the house operated in a competitive climate leading to polarization, and that the house was “not structured in ways that enable the intentional and corporate identification, analysis and productive discussion of fundamental theological, ethical and organizational issues facing the church.”

While the tension between individualism and the corporate nature of episcopacy was still evident at the Baltimore meeting, Harris contended that “we are beginning to define episcopacy more in terms of the whole church and to take more time to reflect biblically and theologically on who we are as a community of bishops.

‘We have come a long way since Phoenix’

“Perhaps we are beginning to share our stories, to know each other better and to trust each other more,” Harris said. While admitting that there are still some gaps in that trust, Harris and others point to the fuller participation by all the bishops as a significant sign of progress.

“We are wondering how this will carry over to General Convention where we must function as a legislative body,” Harris added, also wondering “whether our structure can now enable us to address some of the issues like racism and human sexuality.”

Hulsey aggress that the big test of the new model will come at the 1994 General Convention in Indianapolis. And yet he is optimistic. “Our approach to our episcopacy has been transformed. We are relating so much better- listening and trusting more, especially in the small groups,” Hulsey said. While real progress is still hard to measure, many of the barriers to community have fallen, he added. “We have come a long way since Phoenix.”

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