Invariably, during any given General Convention year, there is a flood of resolutions, appeals on the part of special interest groups and calls for support from various agencies and commissions within the Church. This morning’s mail is illustrative; resolutions from two different dioceses, a pamphlet from a special interest group and a request for support from a national commission of the Church. The onslaught of preconvention mailings began during Lent and will build steadily as we approach Phoenix in July.
While such appeals and lobbying efforts tend to characterize the months prior to any General Convention, this year’s, or perhaps more accurately, this triennium’s offerings disclose a deeper appeal than the sum of the many and varied appeals. It is to this deeper appeal that I share some thoughts and ruminations in preparation for General Convention.
The announced, intended and hoped for theme in Arizona will be the Church’s call to end racism. Several resolutions from various organizations within the Church, coupled with the controversy surrounding the location for this year’s General Convention and plans for demonstrations, as well as the opportunity to celebrate the formation of the new Episcopal Council for Indian Ministries provide the necessary ingredients to support this intended theme.
Other prognosticators of General Convention suggest that the primary issue will be human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. Others contend that the primary agenda before General Convention should be the environment and the need for a strong response on the part of the Church to issues relating to not only peace and justice but the integrity of creation itself. Still others point to the structure, nature and the teachings of the Church as central to that which should be debated, both in terms of our ecumenical dialogue as well as conversations with other world religions. The list could go on indefinitely.
The tone of this year’s resolutions and appeals, however, is somewhat different. Reading between the lines one senses a call for clarity, a demand for certainty and a hope for renewed authority and resolve within the Church. Moving to this deeper level, one also senses anger, frustration and a feeling of betrayal, as motivating factors in many of the resolutions and appeals.
While the feelings and commitments that inform much of the preconvention posturing leading to Arizona is neither new nor surprising, one senses a longing for “simple” or “straight forward” definition on the part of the Church. As evidence for this deeper sense of longing, it is interesting to note how many of the appeals and resolutions call for an affirmation of that which already is, be it in the form of reaffirming articles in the Constitution and Canons of the Church, the Outline of the Faith, the rubrics of the Prayer Book or the rehearsing of a particular historic document of the Church. It is also interesting to note that in the attempt, on the part of many, to be explicit, the very issue that is being addressed often goes unnamed.
Not long ago I experienced a parallel to this unfocused longing undergirded by feelings of anger and frustration from two priests in the Diocese who called upon me and the “National Church” to make a strong and definitive statement regarding the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. In responding, I pointed out that the Church was clear as to its teaching. I suggested that both priests share in such teaching and theological reflection. However, I realized that their frustration and appeal was at this deeper level. The request was for a simple and unambiguous answer to a very complex phenomenon; what it means to be a human.
It strikes me that beneath the varied appeals and resolutions coming to General Convention there is an abiding concern for what constitutes authority in the Church; the authority of doctrine and authority for ministry. This concern is disclosed when an individual, as in the case of Bishop Spong, or a group, as in the Episcopal Synod of America, speak and/or are interpreted as speaking on behalf of the Church. It is curious that great power is given to those who opine or register a minority dissenting point of view. It is unfortunate that such opinion and dissent are accorded the status of “what the Church believes or teaches” by far too many, both inside and outside the Church. Similarly, what prompts such anger towards such individuals or groups?
Much of the present notoriety attached to certain individuals or groups within the Church betrays a crisis of confidence in the authority of the Church itself. Theologians talk about this crisis of confidence as our living in a “post-authority,” “post-Christian” age. The relativity of truth associated with the demise of an overarching ideology and theology, experienced as pluralism, secularism and relativism, seems to undercut any and all claims for ultimate authority and truth, The crisis in theology itself is the crisis of the truth question which is marked by a captivity and concern with theological method. The crisis in ministry is felt as a crisis of identity given an eroded authority, role confusion and uncertainty as to what constitutes “teaching the faith.” In such teaching, appeals to scripture, tradition and reason, no matter how well founded, as warrants in arguing for a particular moral stance, seem at times unconvincing. Why is this the case? Why is it we continue to resolve what we resolved three years ago, six years ago, nine years ago? Why is it that we seem to think that if we say it more loudly and with more emphasis that somehow the words and warrants from scripture and tradition will be heard or accepted?
The issues before this General Convention of the Church are certainly racism, sexism, human sexuality, the environment, Church structure and the nature of ministry itself. But beneath these many legitimate concerns and causes a deeper issue persists, by what and whose authority do we convene in Phoenix? What is the role of a Church that bears the name Christian in a “post Christian” age and secular society where all authority is suspect?
Perhaps in a scaled-down General Convention and new format for small group Bible study and reflection there might be an opportunity to rediscover, through sharing and prayer, the foundation of the faith and authority for ministry. When the early Church faced crises of truth or confidence, councils were called to discern the mind of Christ and to seek the will of God. It is my prayer that as we lean toward Phoenix we will recover a sense of what a General Convention is intended to be, a council of the Church open to God’s presence and leading.
Pray for the Church as it convenes in Phoenix.