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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


Our Growing Impasse: A Political Science Perspective

Our Growing Impasse: A Political Science Perspective

By The Rev. Andrew T. Gerns

The story upstream of the encounter of an angry person with a delegate to a diocesan convention (aka council) on an elevator seems to speak to the question of adequate representation, but I think it actually points elsewhere. Some of the subsequent discussion about how we elect people to GC I think takes us down a blind alley. Even the question of posting limits take us down another blind alley. We are all frustrated and disturbed at our impasse that may boil over any day now into some kind of schism. I do not believe that the fundemental problem is how we elect our deputies to a particular convention--diocesan or General--or who talks how often, but rather the core problem before us is the unique response of an activist group who have found their interests lose in both the "ballot" box and the legislative arenas in our church and have found a new way to move the system their way.

I believe this is at the root of our current troubles and describes our impasse. If we do not understand how the power is distributed, then we cannot understand how to move through the impasse. As much as we want to deny or decry that politics plays a part in our common life as Christians, the fact is that when two or three gather together there shall be influence and power. Jesus promised to be in that mix and that is both a challenge and a comfort. Our relational, Trinitarian, understanding of God suggests that power and influence are incarnational realities for our common life. In the life of the church, things the Rule of St. Benedict have attempted to describe and bring order to that dynamic. It is in that tradition that I want to invite us to look through gem with a differnt light.

For a moment, I want to look at our current impasse from a political science perspective.

Any deliberative, elected body has to figure out how to allow the majority to decide while protecting the minority from the whims of the majority. The framers of the constiution were always trying to balance the will of the people against the fear of mob rule. The framers could roughly be divided between those who trusted the people to govern versus those who feared the power of the people to turn into an unruly, violent mob. Our nation's constitution, and I would suggest our own constitution and canons, reflect both views.

The second question is how in a deliberative process do issues get discussed and decided in such a way as the losers can both live with the result and live "to fight another day."

Bear with me here a minute...but I have been noticing some troubling parellels between our civic discourse and our discourse as a church. And it does get back to the angry person on the elevator. So I want to start with the second question first:

Throughout our nation's civic history, there have been attempts to circumvent both popular vote and constitutional processes when one can't win in the ballot box and/or the legislature. Looked at this way, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, Tammany Hall, the civil rights movement, and so on can all be seen as non-elective responses to popular or legislative will. Some of this we discover later to be either evolutionary or reactive. In our politics today, the proposal to eliminate the filibuster from the Senate is one obvious example, but more sublty--and sometimes more dangerously--the trend has shown up other ways. Liberals have tended to use the courts to drive around legislative processes to get things they believe in. Conservatives have attempted to re-write legislative rules so that activist minorities trump majority interests. (I am sure I have gotten a bunch of people on both sides of the civic-political-spectrum mad at me by now, but please refrain from throwing hymnals at me for a moment.)

So, if you can't win the ballot box or in the legislature, you can do at least two things: go to court or change the rules. But that is not all, there are other ways. One is, to paraphrase the hot dog commercial, is go to (or create) a higher authority.

I believe that this has been the strategy of Anglican Communion Network and American Anglican Council, and their related groups. Change the process to create a new level of authority to at least minimize if not outright cancel the existing constitutional processes.

The activists running the show in opposition to the election of Bishop Robinson knew from the beginning that they would probably lose in the legislative sessions on the issues important to them. Instead they set about changing the question so that they could win in another venue. The intellectual underpinnngs of this in fact began to form well before Robinson was even nominated. I suspect we'd be suffering the same difficulties after GC'03 even if Robinson were never even nominated. The wedge issue was still going to be gays--but blessings not bishops.

The idea was to transform we now call the Instruments of Unity into something they were never designed to be. The Anglican Communion Networks writings over the past few years, have been crafted to sublty, and carefully change concepts of "communion" and "orthodoxy" and "discipline" (and more) so that when the Convention would at the right time go a way that was contrary to their interests, they would have a basis for challenging the General Convention internationally.

The last writing posted by Fr. Sietz of West Virginia (on their behalf) is to me a fine example. This last post was essentially saying "we told you so, so now shape up or ship out." Amazingly, this is a group who, having the changed the subject, and gotten people to follow their line of argument, are now saying "I told you so" to a church for whom the categories did not even exist a few years ago! They are not doing anything they did not already tell us, so we can't accuse them of being sneaky. Just politically proficient.

Now for all the talk about the church leaving orthodoxy and being revisionist, the fact is that these groups have been losing at both the level of the ballot box and on the level of legislation for years. The angry person at the elevator saying "You don't represent me!" and the question of how to make General Convention more representative points to serious frustraton of the inability of these groups to influence large enough numbers of elected deputies to get their way.

Seriously, let's look at who elects whom. Who exactly elects diocesan convention delegates? Every parish I've ever been in for over two decades generally tap fairly active but ordinary Episcopalians to go to those local conventions. I've been in enough churches to know that just finding these folks can be a challenge and so often the same people take turns.

And who do these people select as General Convention deputies? People pretty much like them. Maybe higher profile sure, and certainly people who volunteer, but on the whole slightly more active versions of themselves.

Now since we don't have political parties, we spend some energy reading tea leaves as to aligns with whom, but the net effect is that average people going to average diocesan conventions and elect deputies and diocesan bishops and these people, for better or worse, represent us to make decisions that affect our common life.

This may seem like Ecclesial Civics 101 but I say this because in response to the oft repeated mantra is that some "Elite" has taken over the church. This theory may be comforting if you are a person whose interests or beliefs have not won and if you're seeing results you disagree with. But the theory does not explain the facts. Either the average convention delegate has been brainwashed into voting for people they hate, or, the people that they elect do a pretty good job of representing the large proportion of people who elected them. I'm not saying it's perfect! I am saying that maybe our processes really do represent the mind of our church, addled though it may seem.

If we really believe that Jesus is present in that "two or three" and if we really believe that Councils are a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to speak, and that our catholicity is represented by our totality, then perhaps that the church is well represented. If we are well, if imprefectly, represented then maybe God is up to something. I believe God is much more than up to something--and what a ride it has been!

On the other hand, if you believe in your heart that the "mob" and/or the "elites" were taking the church down the primrose path to perdition, then the time had come to change the rules. From this stance, a way of "legally" challenging our constitutional processes that would have to be found. This is the basic tenet of groups like the IRD and their civic counterparts-- by seeking to return the three mainline Protestant Churches they've targetted to their notion of Biblical faith (read their websites) they, and their constituent and allied groups, want to save the mob from themselves for their own good by changing the rules.

Since winning at the ballot box has not worked, something different has to be tried.

To accomplish this, a layer of governance would have to be created that was out of reach of the average diocesan convention delegate electing the average General Convention Deputy and electing the average Bishop. Since this cannot be done in our own church without changing the constiution, a process that would surely fail, a process has begun that will turn the Anglican Consultative Council and the other "instruments of unity" into something they were never designed to: a deposit of faith with some magisterial authority over the previously autonomous members of the Communion.

The document produced by the Primates meeting seems to express some wariness over a central authority, but unless we can return to a workable notion of unity and communion as being something other than total agreement on every issue, the genie may already be out of the bottle.

We in the Episcopal Church are being told that we are being now beholden to and disciplined by an organization (The Anglican Consultative Council) of which we were a voluntary member and to which we are not in any way constitutionally accountable. The ACC did not ask for the role of disciplinarian but has had that job thrust on it by a meeting--not even a constituted body!--of people (the Primates) that arose out of the ACC in the first place!

So now the Episcopal Church is in an untenable position: If we say to the "Instruments of Unity", "you have no authority to discipline us" then we will seem impudent and rude, andit will be diplomatically difficult, and could prolong the agony. If we say "I accept your authority" then we have accomplished the goals of those who want to limit our own constitutional system by having us volunteer to become subservient to a "higher authority" with it's own kind of agony.

Now as for the angry person in the elevator: what was her real beef? Was it really that "no one represents me?" Or was it really that "I lost?" I will bet that she wanted both--being heard for many people is to get ones way. There is no legislative body on earth that can possibly represent and give proportional power to every minority view. The ones that try, say parliamentary systems, often work by building coalitions of pragmatists that drive around the idealogues. The fringe parties in these systems are great for helping one get power, they are just rotten for making real decisions. (Look at how Ariel Sharon manages his own party and the small ideological parties that got him elected now that he needs to do something they hate!)

The fact is that in our system, like many others, change is never as fast as the most progessive of us wish and always too quick for the most conservative of us. But change does happen in it's own glacial way--long period of slowness intersperced with jarring moments of movement.

I am aware that I have said very little about Jesus or gay bishops, or how to read the Bible in this post. (Don't say I didn't warn you!) I think the recent Primates meeting, the unashamed presence of certain interest groups, and the all the posturing has shown that this is not really about Gospel ministry. It is certainly not about relationships that show the tranforming power of Jesus.

Our impasse is about authority, it is about power and who excercises it, and it is about how deeply committed people excercise power to protect and promote their interests. We are people, and when people in group make decisions it's called politics.

The task ahead for the House of Bishops is a delicate one. The lego blocks for a creating a "higher authority" are out of the box and some are assembling them. Some people have bought into the idea that our independent, constiutionally-based, church needs to "take into account" (a vague and slippery term) the "perspective" of "other Anglican bodies"--of which some are more equal than others. Some will attempt to have it both ways, and certainly there is still lots of room for comprimise.

At the end of the day, we will have to decide if we really believe that God is at work in both our processes and even in the reactions our actions bring. If we as Deputies, Alternates or Bishops believe God reallyis at work in the system we have chosen to be obedient to, and we really believe that what we decided is faithful to the Gospel of Christ, then our choices are pretty clear.

If there are those who believe that the processes we've used speak of the "mob" or the "elites" and not of Christ, then their choices are clear.

We may need to let go of other people's choices as they may have to let go of ours. As ++Rowan has said, there is no pain-free solution. If our Communion really is a gift from God and rests in Christ, not our opinions and interest groups, then we will find a way through it. If others of us decide that Communion rests in agreement, and certain of us want to excercise power in a certain way, then another, more devisive way will be found.

Interesting as this all is, in God's time it will all be a footnote. There is a creation to be transformed. No one ever said that'd be easy.

Thank you.

Andrew
Clergy Alternate #2, '06
Bethlehem

The Rev. Andrew T. Gerns
Trinity Episcopal Church
Easton, PA

"Writers never have bad days. Everything is material." -- Garrison Keillor


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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