A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond
By The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg email@example.com
August 10, 2003
One commentator writes that this morning's passages from Ephesians and John's Gospel show that "Christianity is not a tea party, and the Eucharist is not a platter of tea sandwiches." My sisters and brothers, I returned late Friday night from the latest incarnation of that comment, that event otherwise known as the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I want to speak the truth to you my neighbors about what I experienced. Foremost in my mind is the difficulty of speaking truth. Truth, I saw in Minneapolis, is a many-splendored thing, with an emphasis on many. As Pilate asked Jesus in a quite moment, "What is truth?" Many of participants thought they knew the truth, yet many others disagreed with them. Perhaps it is better to begin with facts and come back to the truth.
The fact is both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies allowed the Diocese of New Hampshire to have the bishop it elected on the second ballot. The fact is that's how we do things in the Episcopal Church: bishops are elected by dioceses who know them well or who have searched them out from other dioceses and come to know them. Then the dioceses ask the larger church to certify the election results. They are not appointed or imposed.
The fact is that Gene Robinson has been a priest for more than 25 years, most of those in New Hampshire. It's a career that began at Christ Church in Ridgewood, NJ. The fact is that for the last 13 years Robinson has lived in a committed relationship with another man, a man he met after Robinson and his wife divorced. The fact is that Gene Robinson was quickly cleared of misconduct charges that arose at the eleventh hour after his election was okayed by the House of Deputies but before the vote in the House of Bishops.
The fact is both houses prayed aloud and silently before during and after their votes, invoking the Holy Spirit to come among them and guide them. The fact is the Bishops stood after giving Robinson their consent and somberly sang, Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas, Deus ibi est. Where charity and love abide, God is there. The fact is that Gene Robinson has received enough threats to need bodyguards, even in the halls of General Convention.
The fact is General Convention passed a resolution affirming, and I quote, "that local faith communities are operating with in the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions." The fact is the resolution requires that we talk more about this before deciding whether we will develop a national rite for those blessings.
The fact is some people think we went too far with that statement. The fact is some people think we did not go far enough.
The fact is some of our bishops have asked the Anglican Communion for permission to form a new province that would operate within the United States. The fact is this province would be more ideological than geographical. The fact is this would be unprecedented in church history since the time of the fourth century Council of Nicea when it was decided that bishops with competing jurisdictions could not operate within the same geographic territory. The fact is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Communion, that loose confederation of 38 provinces that descended from Henry the VIII's church, will call the provincial leaders together in October to discuss the consequences of General Convention.
The fact is that because of the action General Convention took on Gene Robinson and on same-gender blessings, this Episcopal Church of ours is teetering on the brink of a new thing. We are just not sure what that new thing will be. Will it be schism? Will it be a church significantly rearranged in heart and mind, but the same in institutional structure?
The fact is we.ve been to very nearly this same place before. The Episcopal Church divided during the Civil War. The adoption of the 1979 Prayer Book, which centered our Sunday worship in the Eucharist, caused outcry and threats. The arguing over the re-marriage of divorced people nearly reached this pitch, as did the ordination of women. When Barbara Harris was elected as the first women bishop in the history of Christianity by the Episcopal diocese of Massachusetts in 1989, threats of schism and charges of heresy ran from one end of the Communion to the other. And, still, the Episcopal Church is here.
And that brings us back to truth. "Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another." I am talking here about truth, not opinion masquerading as truth.
The truth is people all over this Episcopal Church of ours are in different places about these issues, just as we have been and no doubt still are here at Christ Church. In the hours after the votes on Robinson, the truth seemed to have a three-fold feel to it.
Some people declared it to be Good Friday. The Bible and the teachings and tradition of the Church had been sullied and trampled. The Episcopal Church had become an apostate church. For them this was the truth they told their neighbors. They wept. They walked out of the House of Deputies. Some went home. Some went to pray. Some returned with what they called the ashes of repentance smeared in the sign of the cross on their forehead. They said they were not leaving but that the church had left them and moved to a place where they could not go.
Other people declared that they had lived through Good Friday and that it now felt like Easter. They had come out of the tomb of exclusion and entered the light. The Church had interpreted the Bible in a way that further illuminates the word of God for this people in this place in this time, just as it had when the issue was slavery, or divorce or the role of women in the church. For them this was the truth they told their neighbors. The Church, they said, was helping God do what God has always promised to do: make all things new and transform God's followers in the process.
For still others, it was and still is Holy Saturday. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold told me a story on Thursday afternoon of a bishop who came to him after the House Bishops had consented to Robinson's election. He told Griswold that he was in the tomb. It felt like something had died. He said he knew that resurrection comes. He told Griswold that he believed in the truth of the resurrection and so he was not without hope. .But,. he said to Bishop Griswold. "Please don't try to push me out of the tomb too fast."
The truth is some of us believe we got to this place too fast, or that we never should have gotten to this place. Others would say, "Not fast enough."
This was not, as I said earlier, a tea party.
This morning's passage from the letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we are all one in Christ Jesus. This morning's Gospel points us to what we as Christians say is the ultimate truth: Jesus is the bread of life and all who eat this bread will live forever. The verbs in this passage get translated for us as bland .eat,. one commentator says. The Greek describes an action more similar to eating to live as a animal does, ravenous for survival, gnawing. We.re not talking finger food here.
With that in mind, let me tell you one more story about the truth as seen at General Convention. Perhaps it speaks to our future together. Gene Robinson told this story during a news conference after the House of Bishops consented to his election. A few days early he.d served as one of six bread-bearing eucharistic ministers at the morning Eucharist. Now, morning Eucharist at Convention is big church, this is 32 pounds of bread and 165 liters of wine for some 3,5000 communicants. You are directed to a specific communion station but you could take a detour, if you wanted.
As the people came towards him, Robinson saw one of his staunchest opponents get in line. The bishop presented himself to Robinson, held up his hands and took the Body of Christ from him. Then he offered Robinson the peace of the Lord.
Robinson told the hordes of reporters that that moment gave him hope for the future. He said, "If we can just hold on to one another while we fight this out and keep coming to the communion table to partake of the body and blood of Christ in the communion service and then we can fight about lots of things.
"That is the great tradition of the Episcopal Church," he said. "We have a church where a broad range of opinions exist on all of these issues but we all keep coming to the altar rail."
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