Sunday, June 21, 2015

General Thoughts on a Convention

I've been wrestling and thinking about what I want to say in advance of the upcoming 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Others have written quite a bit. There are the commentaries from the people on "the left" and the people on "the right." And, as one might imagine, the biggest topics of discussion (or at least the ones that are the most contentious) deal with the proposed changes in the church structure and the whole reimagining our mission (which fall under the acronym "TREC") and the even bigger subject of what makes a marriage a "Christian marriage" and will the Episcopal Church allow LGBT couples to be part of that definition? My blog has its beginnings in the exploration of my faith journey as a "queer Christian"; hence I'm going to stick just to giving attention to the marriage issue. I am interested in the potential restructuring of the Church, but I also have had enough life experience to be a bit leery of this idea that we're going to do a wholesale reinvention of the Episcopal Church in a 10-day convention. Such ambitious plans often generate a whole lot of heat without much actual fire because these ideas are always dependant on those with power being willing to share some of their authority with others. On the whole, human tendancy is to hoard perceived power and always find such excellent reasons why it can't be distributed more widely. So, I am not going to hold my breath on any big changes occuring soon.

That's what I have to say about TREC. I have a lot more to say about marriage. And I offer my thoughts based on my credentials as a newly-married lesbian and an active life-long Episcopalian who strives to walk closely with God.

A few weeks ago, in the Diocese of Florida, the bishop called a meeting of all the clergy in the diocese. It was not a mandatory meeting, but there was an implied message of "be there or be square!" The topic was not about the current Convention's proposals, or at least, not exactly. The subject up for discussion was the blessing of same-sex relationships. One might remember that General Convention 77 in Indianapolis three years ago already dealt with the adoption of a provisional marriage blessing rite for same-sex couples. But there had been no discussion or dialogue allowed on the issue of blessings nor any attempt to address it for the past three years. Some rectors of churches in the diocese had attempted to broach the subject and asked if they could be test parishes for using the blessing language. Each time, they were told "No." Even at this latest meeting, the ground rules for the discussion apparently began with an assurance that there would be no change in the diocesan rules in re: blesssing same-sex couples. However, a dialogue has started, even if it's years behind where the rest of the church has gone at this point.  

I also attended a meeting designed to let the laity and clergy of the diocese meet with the bishop and deputies heading to General Convention for the Diocese of Georgia. Unfortunately, only the bishop attended this particular session held in Albany, something that distressed a few of the people in the room. From my perspective, I was happy to have a 90-minute free-flowing question and answer period where we got to hear the thinking of the bishop. This kind of transparency is a welcomed change. And while I didn't always like or agree with the things I was hearing from the bishop, I took him at his word that he was remaining open on the question of the proposed marriage resolutions because he said there were many ideas getting floated and he was still wading through them all. He said he hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court settles the issue of marriage equality in favor of allowing LGBT couples to marry. I would imagine if the civil laws change, this will make a difference for those who want to follow the strict rubrics outlined in the Book of Common Prayer. From what I have observed and heard coming from a large number of people and clergy in the Diocese of Georgia, they're ready for the state to give them the go-ahead. The diocese already allows a portion of the blessing rite for same-sex couples to be used. Whether the whole diocese is ready to plunge into declaring that gays and lesbians can enter into this realm of "a Christian marriage" brings back 'round to whatever gets adopted at General Convention and whether it is something the bishop will allow to happen.

This is probably the most confusing and upsetting part for the vast majority of LGBT people who potentially could see themselves entering into a church. According to the latest Pew Research Survey on Religion, almost half of the the LGBT population identifies as having a religious affiliation with Christian being the most prominent choice. Finding a home in a faith community, however, is tricky business for LGBT people. Lots of us have turned or, in my case, returned to the Episcopal Church in no small part because of the posititve publicity generated by the consecration of bishops such as Gene Robinson and Mary Glasspool. We see the headlines about the Episcopal Church passing resolutions at General Convention that are marvelously progressive. We see the famous "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" signs on the property. If we''re lucky, we enter a church where the people are genuinely friendly and the clergy greet us and soon we find ourselves getting involved and becoming active. 

But when God's love for us results in the decision to baptize a child or get married or even feel a call to enter the ordained priesthood, too often in too many pockets of the church, the welcome and the warmth suddenly turns cold and unfriendly. We are welcomed to take part in the life of a church community as long as we don't let ourselves get too carried away with following the Spirit of God. We can play the organ, be in the choir, serve as an usher, but some of the sacraments of the church apparently come with fine print and restrictions. And this happens even after the General Convention has spoken in an affirming way about opening the doors of sacramental life to LGBT people. What the New York Times and Chicago Tribune don't explain is that, often times, the language of these resolutions makes sure to include  a "conscience clause" that allows individual bishops to opt out of conforming with what the General Convention has done. Progressive supporters of the LGBT community have said this is necessary in order to get these resolutions passed. But what they haven't considered is what happens when they give bishops such latitude in determining what would constitutes "generous pastoral care" in their "context" and how that just compounds injury to the LGBT faithful who find themselves in a church that nationally boldy proclaims a Gospel of Unconditional Love but locally it is Love predicated on whether we will agree to be "not so gay" or "in your face" (whatever that's supposed to mean!)

I see the same scenario brewing with this Convention and the adoption of a resolution changing the definition of "Christian marriage" to be "marriage between two persons" as opposed to the current "male and female" language. I see the church adopting this change to Canon law, big headlines, and then a refusal to implement in many dioceses that are South of the Mason-Dixon line. There is much fear about what will happen if the church opens this door: will gay people overrun the churches with marriage requests? Will a bishop get sued for failing to comply with this canonical change?

Let me answer the latter with simply referring people to a more knowledgable blogger on this point, Tobias Haller, who is a clergy deputy and served on the task force that has been examining the marriage issue: 
In A Godward Direction. I've linked part two of the three part discussion. Well worth the read if you want the academic and theological arguments.

On the former point, I go back to the statistics that show only 49-percent of LGBT people identify as being a member of a faith tradition. That's a larger number than I would have thought, and yet it also reflects a sad and disturbing truth about the churches: they have been so successful at making LGBTQ+ people feel as though they have no place at God's banquet table that the queer community has desserted the churches. Why, then, would they demand a church marriage ceremony when a civil marriage meets all the important legal needs? Our marriage was a civil ceremony, and yet it was, for me, a sacred moment in which the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and manifested in Jesus Christ was present and a witness to our relationship. At times, I sometimes think that some in the church believe themselves to be more relevant to the LGBTQ+ community than they really are. Meanwhile, these same folks would be willing to withhold sacramental marriage from people who they know and see and live alongside in the pews. It all comes back to being afraid.  

Fear is a crippling emotion. And the more we stare at what we fear, the larger that fear seems to grow until it is a big looming monster that we can't possibly deal with and we freeze like a deer caught in the headlights. But just as love drives out the darkness, love will help us conquer our fears if we allow it to be the more dominant emotion. Love that is perfected through God casts out fear. These are not just platitudes and words culled from the letters in Scripture. This is the truism every time a person gives over the fear and allows him or herself to step out in faith. 

There are those who think we need to slow down and give more time to this discussion. One person actually told me that I need to acknowledge that there are people on the other side, and that anything worth doing takes a generation to get it done. Well, the issue of marriage equality actually kicked off in the country in 1975. The Episcopal Church has been pledging full inclusion of LGBT people since 1976. And if my math is correct, that's 40 and 39 years respectively. A generation is roughly 28 years, so we're already into our second generation. It's time for us to get serious about fulfilling the promise to our community that we have the same access to the sacraments as all other people.


1 comment:

Phoebe McFarllin said...

Well said!!! Or do I need to say written?