Eyes on the Floor: Less is More

By Richard Helmer

I wrote a couple of reflections back about epochal boundaries. At General Convention 2009, they seem to be multiplying as we approach our last lap of shared discernment before adjourning for the next three years.

Wednesday was filled with prophetic signs of looming change. At our Eucharist, celebrated with no paper in hand and a beautiful, simple liturgy, The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, Assistant Bishop of California, warned of the impending global catastrophe unless the human family learned to live not only at peace with one another, but with the earth, this “fragile island home.” He held no punches, laying out before us the apocalyptic vision of a baking planet: baking in the throes of environmental melt-down and warfare over essential resources such as water and arable land.

While so much fear and controversy has revolved in The Episcopal Church around human sexuality and the power of bishops, we have turned a blind eye to the real crisis unfolding before us and around us. Bishops Charleston said that the clock has stopped ticking, and now the alarm is going off. Will we heed its warning?

In the afternoon, the Houses came together in joint session to hear Program, Budget, and Finance (PB&F) present the proposed budget for The Episcopal Church in the next triennium. The Presiding Bishop warned us that it would be painful, as it calls for the substantial reduction for program and mission funding, cuts in staff across the board, and a massive restructuring of how The Episcopal Church goes about its ministry in the Gospel of Christ Jesus.

One might say that change is looming. But I suggest we’d better call this a moment when we are being re-woven on the loom of change. Everything around us and internally to The Episcopal Church is now unraveling, and the Spirit of God is drawing the strands back together, weaving us into a new tapestry. Our basic organizational structures, economy, and even our core world-view — forged in the post-war boom of the 1950’s — no longer serves us, our sisters and brothers and neighbors, the planet, or our God.

But the sense of impending death is the way of the cross, as Bishop Katharine reminded us. And, as a people of faith, resurrection always follows death.

Remembering our Priorities

PB&F, in their budget proposal, remember that our mission to those most profoundly in need must come first. The 1% commitment to funding MDG’s was restored. In addition, 0.7% is allocated in the portion of the budget to focus on the relief of domestic poverty.

Diocesan asking is reduced to grant relief to the local Church, by one percentage point a year beginning in 2011. The exemption level is also increased. This will be welcome news in many parts of the Church, but there remains some unsettled concerns that a number of dioceses have not been paying their full assessments to The Episcopal Church for quite some time. PB&F presented a spreadsheet documenting diocesan giving as a percentage of their budgets, and while the precise facts remain in some dispute, it is clear that not everyone is contributing equitably to the budget of the greater Church.

Also in the proposed budget is a recognition of subsidiarity, the organizing principle that decisions for funding, structure, and mission are best left in the hands of the smallest unit of the church possible. Mission and evangelism are to be returned largely to the dioceses for development and discernment. Where I find hope in this is that our local contexts for ministry are more diverse than they ever have been. So my guess is that the tapestry of The Episcopal Church, woven together by God’s grace in the coming years, will be much richer in color and patterns.

General Convention 2012

. . .will be strikingly different from this year’s. It will be shortened to eight days, the Blue Book will be available online only, and we will leverage technology with the intention of virtually eliminating the enormous amount of paper that has been inherent in the legislative process up to this point. CCAB’s, the interim bodies that prepare reports and legislation for the next General Convention, will be meeting much more over video and tele-conferencing to substantially cut travel costs. While little hay was made of this yesterday, we are also looking at a significantly reduced carbon footprint as well. In this way, we are going to be following Jesus’ command to travel light a bit more closely.

Less is More

As the strands of a re-structured and leaner Church begin to come together, we are all learning that less is more. Less is more was the name of the game on Wednesday as the House of Deputies returned to business under late-in-the-Convention rules that reduced the time for each speaker during debate to one minute. With this rule, the House moved legislation more rapidly in an hour-and-a-half than it had for much of the week.

One key piece that passed the House Wednesday included a repudiation of the “Doctrine of Discovery” (D035) a centuries-old legal argument still standing in American jurisprudence. The doctrine perpetuates the lethal notion that European “discovery” of lands already inhabited by indigenous people is sufficient justification for settlers and colonizers to claim full rights to resources. It’s a hideous legacy of our past, and the House of Deputies, with only a little opposition, passed this piece to repudiate the doctrine as fundamentally immoral. Another resolution passed addressing the scourge of human trafficking, which is only growing in the pressures of economic crisis.

Word came through late in the day that the House of Bishops had crossed another epochal boundary by overwhelmingly passing a revised version of C056, which grants considerable latitude and open process for dioceses to consider liturgical materials and pastoral responses for same-sex couples entering committed relationships. It was another stunning moment for me. Yes, this is our House of Bishops – the House we feared that might be, as a whole, reactionary at this General Convention. Pray for the House of Deputies as this resolution is taken up today, though I have little doubt of it passing.

And pray most of all for both Houses today as the matter of the new budget is taken up Thursday. While the truth has already been told, there will be painful moments. Budget cuts, as we all know by now, have profound impact on the personal and vocational lives of many people. And the transition to a “less is more” Church will be challenging both to our faith and our identity.

The good news for me is that the less that Christ embraces in the cross means more for the deep needs of the world. The less that leads to death is the gateway to the more of resurrection. The sadness of this day is the raw material that will give rise to the hopes and joys of tomorrow.

Off to session. . .

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