Eyes on the floor: Process and story

By Richard Helmer

Contrast: Process and Story

It’s the third day of General Convention, and I’m beginning to see the fatigue in people’s eyes as the legislation process starts to become all-consuming. I am certainly feeling it, along with everyone who rolled out of bed early enough this morning to be in legislative committees by 7:00. If you read my hastily written, voluminous post on Title IV, you’ll probably guess correctly that I was up and at ‘em first thing, listening in with a handful of other guests on the deliberations of the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons.

John Godfrey Saxe, in a famous quote often misattributed to Otto Von Bismarck, wrote in 1869 that “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” If legislative committee deliberations on canons and the vagaries of parliamentary procedure sound like sausage-making in earnest, you might be correct.

Seriously, people willing to engage in the careful crafting of canons are pretty rare in the Church as a whole (and that’s probably a good thing!) Further, if you think this attracts lawyerly types, you’re also right, but the great irony was the secretary’s screensaver projected on the big screen in the committee’s meeting room this morning, which read: “99% of lawyers make the rest of us look bad.”

One member of the committee, which includes a large number of lawyers, asked the screensaver be turned off, and it was. .only to pop up again a few minutes later. It was a somewhat amusing incident in the middle of an otherwise very serious and detailed deliberation that went on for over two hours.

From the formal chewing over of the broad principles and then the minutia of Title IV revisions, I returned to the great hall to sit again with the greater Convention at round tables, where we talked story as part of the public narrative process we’re all learning. We were each challenged to share, in under two minutes, a vignette of our lives that centered on our making a critical choice. From that story, others could hear and recognize our values and find resonance with their own life journeys.

It was powerful. We listened. We learned. We laughed. Some of us cried.

This morning seemed an odd contrast at first: formal process around canonical changes vs. the vulnerability of sharing — with virtual strangers — the significant moments of our personal lives. But despite the general fatigue, I found moving through this contrast in such a short time life-giving.

This contrast was even reflected in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s meditation at the midday Eucharist. There will surely be many other posts, blogs, and reports about what he said or didn’t say; I came to General Convention worried that Rowan Williams might be here to twist arms over the Windsor Report, the demands of Primates, dioceses jumping ship, human sexuality, same-sex blessings and marriage, or other points of contention in the greater Anglican Communion. I am pleasantly surprised that he hasn’t done much of that at all. The closest I heard him come to this was as he prefaced his meditation before the whole Convention by reflecting on the importance of The Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion (Why else would there be controversy around our church’s decisions?). . . and how he hoped, personally, that we would be cognizant of our significance to the Communion in our deliberations. A veiled bit of arm-twisting? Maybe. But he ended his preface by saying something like this: “Now, down to business. . .”

And the “business” he launched into was a beautiful theological reflection on the scripture readings of the liturgy – the foundational story of our faith.

This told me something profound about why we are here at General Convention, and what the real “business” of Convention is, and it’s not sausage-making. It’s sharing story, engaging in the deep work of the Spirit in the wider Church, strengthening the friendships and connections that invite God’s grace, transform lives and communities, and allow the Body of Christ to flourish. The resolutions and canonical changes we pass through parliamentary process, while important, are only as good as they reflect the important work of relationship in the Body. Maybe this is why our unusual insistence on due democratic process and involving all the orders of the church in decision-making together retains its life-giving quality for so many from around The Episcopal Church. It may feel like exhausting sausage-making at times, but it demands we come together and do the hard work of fostering relationship.

For me, that’s well worth staying up late for and then rolling out of bed so early to learn all over again.

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