Eyes on the floor: An epochal boundary

By Richard Helmer

Popular ideas about evolution in communities and the natural world can be deceptive. Most of us, when we’re not thinking or observing closely, imagine evolution to be a slow progression of measured, tiny changes occurring over a long period of time. Whether we’re reading the history of our own communities or the history of life on this planet, we see laid out before our mind’s eye an evenly spaced series of snapshots, each one slightly different from its predecessor. A series of these snapshots document the steady march of evolution over time, the even ticking of change in the community or cosmic clock.

But all of us know that our lives do not generally move steadily from one moment to the next with only slight changes that accumulate over time. Nor do our communities. Nor does the fossil record, which shows profound breaks in the evolution of species. These breaks, referred to as epochal boundaries, delineate sudden and vast changes that appear in the life of the planet after a long period of relative stasis that has spanned eons. Likewise, all of us, if we reflect on our stories honesty, come to recognize that our journeys consist not of steady progression, but rather the punctuation in our lives’ calendar of watershed moments, turnings of the tide, breakthroughs, and even events of cataclysmic proportions that remake us completely, epochal boundaries that define our lives anew.

This is also, of course, the central story of the Christian faith. Watershed moments – even the metaphor tucked into the term “watershed” – smack of Noah and the parting of the Red Sea, epochal boundaries like the anointing of David, the call of Jeremiah, the conversion of Paul, or Peter’s recognition of the Gentiles. And then there is the cross: that epochal boundary at the very center of our common life as Christians – an epochal boundary between death and resurrection, the old and the new, the broken and the re-made. Resurrection is not a slowly progressive event. It rises abruptly, almost rudely from the grave, forever altering the human family, the trajectory of all Creation, and each of us along with it. Astonishing breaks and bewildering turns collectively mark the journey of salvation, the evolution of our souls in God’s gracious hands.

While not quite as cosmic, this Monday at General Convention was certainly a watershed moment, an epochal boundary of sorts. It began with a painful vote shortly after I began serving on the floor for the first time, stepping in for one of our deputies for the afternoon legislative session.

A Pained Decision

After a lengthy and at times strained debate – strained every which way by conflicting testimony on the floor, the cross-currents of commissions making investigations, the misunderstandings endemic to cross-cultural and inter-lingual encounters, parliamentary pauses, and even a complete breakdown of the voting equipment (God bless Winnie Varghese and her steady countenance as voting secretary!); the House of Deputies at last voted to consent to the election of Luis Fernando Ruiz Restrepo as bishop of the Diocese of Central Ecuador.

Please pray for Bishop-elect Restrepo . If consecrated, he will step in to being chief pastor of a diocese deeply and passionately divided over the process that led to his election, one which involved the rare act of an appeal to the House of Bishops to determine its outcome. My sincere hope is that The Episcopal Church will provide him and Central Ecuador, a diocese long in conflict, with pastoral support and mediation as they try to find a path towards reconciliation and then forward together in mission.

Like most diocesan conflicts, the situation in Ecuador Central is very “local,” with its unique characters and players on both sides, untold and over-told stories, passionate tensions and many wounds in deep need of healing. Again, please pray for the people of the diocese.

This was a painful vote for some of us in the House of Deputies. It was so clear to many of us that, despite apparent attention to canonical process and procedure for the election of a new bishop, the situation in Ecuador Central might best be described as a pastoral minefield, a mess of broken human hearts and relationships that will require fortitude, loving hands, and spiritual armor worthy of a letter from St. Paul – all at the same time.

But, as my Dad is fond of saying, God is in the business of redeeming messes.

The greater lesson for the Church in the controversy over the election of a new bishop for Ecuador Central was not so much this particular event, but in the way it surfaced for so many in the House of Deputies the increasing presence and voice of our Central American, Latino, and Hispanic brothers and sisters in the Church. With the passage yesterday of Resolution D038, which called on the Church’s adoption and funding of a carefully researched strategic plan for building Latino and Hispanic ministries over the next three years; with the Spanish language now more becoming a normative part of our deliberations and meetings, we have caught a glimpse of our future as an increasingly culturally diverse church. This may present its own watershed moment, its own epochal boundary in coming years. Watch, listen, and pray for it.

Title IV Passes

The vast Title IV revisions, while never garnering a huge amount of publicity or fanfare, may well prove to be one of the sleeper resolutions of this General Convention. The new Title IV takes our disciplinary canons and procedures as a church light-years forward; we cross an epochal boundary in our discipline into greater accountability, transparency, and an explicit foundation in the redemptive message of the Gospel. I was pleasantly surprised by how easily Title IV passed the House without the need for a special order of business. The only amendments offered up were quibbles over wording. These were brought swiftly to a halt by a number of deputies who reminded the House that this work, now nine years in the making, had been pored over in fine detail by two dedicated taskforces and the Constitution and Canons Commission. It was, honestly, an incredible experience to watch the final stages of this process over the past several days, led by numerous incredibly dedicated, keenly sensitive, and highly faithful leaders of our Church.

A New Lesson

Then came a series of resolutions which were considered in rapid succession. The feeling was that the parliamentary pace was quickening. With the ordered habits of review in the House now established a streamlined, a rhythm was developing. Then we reached C061 in the calendar – a re-wording of our non-discriminatory canons that allow all of our baptized members eligibility for the discernment process for ministry. The changes offered to this Convention included a phrase honoring the place of our transgendered sisters and brothers in our midst.

It might have been a divisive moment. Instead, something truly remarkable happened as deputies, including one transgendered member of the House, rose to share their personal stories. The words of the opposition were almost entirely lacking in rancor; rather, they called for clarification about what “gender expression” meant. Behind that question we heard some concern about implications of sexuality in the word “expression”. Given that so much, it seems, has hinged on sex in recent years, this question appeared at first blush as uninspired. But I also heard behind the question a genuine desire for better understanding: betters understanding a minority in our church and the greater world that has been largely ignored, oft-abused, and systemically marginalized. I was given pause to remember the transgendered Christians I have walked with over the past several years, the pain of their stories, the joys they have discovered in a God who loves and redeems them as they find their true selves in the heart of Christ, and the grace they have brought to their communities as a response.

The responses given to the question of the definition of “gender expression” formed a teaching moment for the whole church about the malleability of gender as a social construct, and how much gender and its expression reflect our individual identity. With the House’s subsequent passage of the resolution and a hoped-for concurrence from the House of Bishops, all of our sisters and brothers now have the potential opportunity to approach discernment in this church as themselves – offered to the Body of Christ in God’s grace.

The Thread of D025

If you’re starting to notice a thread here, so am I. We have reached a epochal boundary at the General Convention of The Episcopal Church where, at last, who we are is being articulated and revealed to not only ourselves, but to the greater world. D025’s passage in the House of Deputies on Sunday afternoon was a turning point. C061 on Monday continued the fuller recognition of our identity expressed in our diversity of many individuals coming together as the Body of Christ through one baptism.

But the centrality of this thread today was revealed to me by a piece of paper that made its way to our deputation table shortly before we recessed for the evening. On it was the message that the House of Bishops, by over a 2-to-1 margin, had concurred on resolution D025 with minimal amendment. Many of us were, quite honestly, astonished. We had expected some consternation from the HoB, at least an effort to make major amendments to D025, or perhaps a straight no vote on the resolution to show the Anglican Communion how many of our bishops were willing to hold the line, even over and against their larger, senior House.

Much to our surprise, we had arrived at one of those rare moments that both Houses had agreed on one of the most controversial questions before them, and B033 was now left soundly behind, a fading anomaly in the march towards the fullness of God’s grace for all the baptized; a temporary lapse in the greater arc of just truth about ourselves and God’s call to us.

The House of Bishops appears to have grown tired (as have we all) of attempting to appease others in the Communion, of trying to prevent schism when those departing have already insured it’s a foregone conclusion, of trying to purchase tickets to Lambeth and the other Instruments of Unity with talk of compliance, if not conformity. The elephant of the Windsor Report occupying the living rooms of both Houses now seems largely deflated, the false rumors and half-truths now gone, the hot air that made the elephant so big now replaced with the transformative and truthful breath of the Spirit.

Doubtless this decision will provoke a hue and cry from some quarters. The Archbishop of Canterbury was certainly bemused by D025 and its implications, judging by some of his public remarks late Sunday even before the House of Bishops had weighed in. We will feel some heat in coming days. But it is summer in Anaheim. And better feel it here on the solid ground of truth about who we are and where we hear God calling us.

So it was not simply another day at General Convention. It was an extraordinary day, a watershed day, a epochal boundary in our evolving life as The Episcopal Church. . .a day of resurrection for many of our brothers and sisters and all of us together called by Christ to new life.

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