Several of us attending Georgia's Diocesan Convention in Tifton this weekend were anxious as the delegates moved swiftly through resolutions on changing the date of their next annual church meeting to November, the budget, the suggested tithe to The Episcopal Church, parochial reports. Luckily, the morning began with the youth of the diocese giving testimony in song, story and video, about their camp experiences to keep the adults in the room grounded in what's important to their future. And I noted how many times the teenagers talked about their time at Honey Creek camp for what is called "Happening," as a period when they could be themselves and not have to pretend to be somebody they are not.
What a perfect prelude to a vote on Title IV Canon 1: Ethical Standards, also known as, "that" canon.
Back in the days when the election and consecration of Gene Robinson to the episcopate meant that all other dioceses went haywire and needed to protect themselves against maybe calling a gay person in New Hampshire to be a bishop, Georgia responded with adopting Title IV Canon 1 which read:
"Marriage between a man and a woman or abstinence from sexual activity are the only forms of acceptable sexual behavior for Deacons, Priests, or Bishops."
The intention of this canon was clear. It was a way to keep out the LGBT faithful and tell God who God was allowed to call to ordained ministry. Any gay person that God might call into "the process" would have to vow celibacy or lie and pretend to be somebody they are not. Not exactly a Happening experience, if you know what I mean.
On Friday, the delegates looked at the proposed change to the canon. There had been one more edit made in the language that was not in their prepared packets. If there's one thing Episcopalians can do, it's argue over the words and the meaning of words, so the addition definitely caught folks attention. The amended proposal read:
"Deacons, Priests, and Bishops in the Diocese of Georgia are called to be wholesome examples to the Church exhibited in the teachings and virtues of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In their personal lives, those called to chaste singleness must abstain from sexual intimacy; those not so called must manifest faithfulness, monogamy, life-long commitment, mutual caring, and healthy caring for themselves and their families. Their public lives must show financial honesty, confidentiality as required, respect of interpersonal and professional boundaries, and the avoidance of fraud, deceit, and deliberate misrepresentations."
Here endeth the proposal... Thanks be to God!
Debate swirled around what was the meaning of "monogamy." Some wanted to know why all the categorizations "financial honesty, healthy caring, etc. etc." At dinner, I was with a group of folks from Integrity Georgia. We were all wondering, "Why do they need all of this language anyway? There's a national canon on ethical behavior; why not go with that?"
Clearly, we were not the only ones having this lightbulb moment.
When the convention finally reached the point of discussing this proposed change it was 9:54AM. The rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Savannah, Rev. Sam Buice, made a motion chock full of "Whereas" clauses, all to get to the main idea:
We have a national canon. We have a Commission on Ministry. They aren't idiots. Let them follow the national canon and let's just strike this whole ethical standard and follow the one set by our Church's governing authority.
It was one of those moments where you could feel the whole room shift its collective thinking and realize that there was elegance in simplicity.
I say, "whole room," but there were detractors. Some really felt that they needed to hold onto the standard as it was currently written. There was even a motion made to delay any vote on the matter until the next convention, which would be in November 2014. That was easily defeated by a show of hands.
Back to the "strike-all and insert nothing."
A priest from Augusta went to the microphone, and called the question. Seconded. Bishop Benhase explained again what it meant to vote Yes or No. Rather than a voice vote, it was done by a show of hands. The No's had about a dozen. The Yes's were a veritable sea of phalanges. The motion to strike the whole thing, and accept the national canon was accepted. It was 10:08AM.
In fourteen minutes, the Diocese of Georgia opened its gates to those who have stood waiting on the other side. My body trembled in amazement at witnessing the event. And just as quickly as I absorbed what had just happened, I knew what I would have to do.
My spiritual director had sat between me and a priest named Gavin from Savannah. Rev. Gavin had voted No on the resolution. And I knew this development likely troubled him greatly.
"Excuse me," I said to him, "My name's Susan Gage. I know you voted No on that resolution. I just want to thank you for being here, and for voting your conscience, and" placing my hand lightly and briefly on the left lapel of his jacket, "following your heart."
"Thank you for your graciousness," he said.
"You're from Savannah?"
"Yes, St. John's in Savannah."
"I know you've gone through hell there..."
"Yes, it has been very painful."
"I'm from St. John's in Tallahassee, Florida. We've experienced that, too. So I know what you are talking about."
"God's peace be with you," I concluded.
"And also with you. Thank you."
And again, grace occurring, and this time in one minute or less between two strangers who were clearly on opposite sides of the issue. My prayer is that Gavin, and the other Gavins in the Diocese of Georgia, not walk away, but continue to stay with the diocese. They, like me, are members, together, in this greater thing called The Body of Christ. And it takes all parts of the body functioning in order to propel it forward in motion.
The fact that Gavin allowed me to talk to him, I hope, is a good sign and evidence that God is working God's purpose out as year succeeds to year at least in the Diocese of Georgia.