Moving beyond Us v. Them

By Marshall Scott

I’ve been home for about a week now, and I’ve been trying to think how I might express to folks, and especially here at the Café, my feelings about the General Convention just past. It was a long, complex event; and it will certainly take a while to process.

This was my first Convention as a Deputy, but hardly my first Convention. I’ve been an Alternate twice, and either a Visitor or an Exhibitor more than once. However, I felt a different sense of participation and of responsibility as a Deputy. I can’t say how often someone made a reference to “what we do here” – that corporate “we” that is invoked to unite our attention and our efforts – and each time it certainly did catch my attention and my efforts. If participation in the Church provides a general sense of participation in “something bigger,” serving as a Deputy in General Convention provides a very specific sense of that participation.

This was enhanced, I think, by a comment I heard again and again: “The atmosphere is so different than in 2006: so much less tension, so much less confrontation.” Everyone knew that it was in no small part because of those who weren’t there. Still, everyone was quietly grateful.

At the same time, serving as a Deputy I sensed several different polarities, several different categories of “us and them.” Some of these were predictable. In an odd but meaningful way, those who had departed were still having an effect. While there was only one explosive outburst on the floor of the House of Deputies about those who had departed the Episcopal Church, there were enough small side comments, enough small inferences to create that sense of “us and them.”

There was also a certain sense of “us and them” about those in the Anglican Communion who have sought to isolate the Episcopal Church. This was expressed in a certain ambivalence to the presence of Archbishop Williams. There was a great sense of appreciation that he had come, that he seemed willing to listen. At the same time, there was some anxiety, some anticipation that he would not hear, would not budge from his conviction that a Communion unified and centralized was worth the loss of a few Episcopalians.

Finally, there was a certain internal polarity of “us and them.” That was between the Senior House and the Junior House – the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops, respectively. I heard about a certain amount of tension even before business got up and running. However, it came up early and often. Would the bishops insist that “Right Reverend Father knows best?” Or, would they recognize the Spirit moving in the work of the assembled lay and clergy Deputies?

I would expect that different participants, both bishops and deputies, would prioritize these differences differently. There were certainly those from the rebuilding dioceses for whom the first polarity was painfully current. Those who argued for a more traditionalist stance to sustain relations in the Anglican Communion were acutely aware of the second.

My own thought is to worry most about the third, tensions between deputies and bishops. We have defended our unique and uniquely American polity for its incorporation of all orders of ministry. Ours is not the only church in the Anglican Communion that includes bishops, other clergy, and laity, nor the only one whose decisions require consensus of all three. However, our bicameral structure also provides a distinctive opportunity to divide. Our Church cannot make decisions if we become separated.

There have been those both around us and among us who have wanted to divide us, to isolate us from one another. Whether intended or not, those bishops from other parts of the world who did not understand our polity, who asked our bishops, “But, if you were really being a bishop, how would you act?” – those bishops were suggesting that division. And let’s face it: they struck a chord with a few of our own bishops. There were indeed a few who seemed at least intrigued by a “Right Reverend Father knows best” sensibility.

There were certainly also those in among the deputies who were preparing for such a tension. There was clear resistance to the idea that resolutions that started in Deputies somehow needed tweaking, sometimes by as little as a word. Each change, no matter how small, was time lost, time that might not be recoverable. And as Convention went on, each small change raised the question of, “Are they trying to kill this, to stall until it is lost for lack of time?”

This tension between orders of ministry is hardly new. I haven’t worked in a diocese yet whose living memory didn’t include a time when trust was low between bishop and clergy, between clergy and laity, or among all three. We can perceive differences in vocation as differences in power. Sometimes those perceptions are all too accurate. When we aren’t conscientious about working together, about transcending especially differences in power, we risk falling into divisions that undermine our relationships and, very quickly, our mission.

And yet it was on this very point that I brought home from this convention a sense of hope. In fact we got a lot of work done in both Houses. Indeed, for the first time in anyone’s memory both Houses completed their work before the scheduled time. We could not have done so much if we weren’t largely in harmony.

This was even more clear when I looked at the results in the hot-button resolutions of D025 and C056. In both cases the percentages by which these resolutions passed in both Houses were remarkably consistent. The percentages were roughly 67%/33% for each resolution in each House. In one sense that might be predicted, assuming that in each diocese the deputies and the bishop or bishops were in concert. However, I don’t think we can assume that. I think instead that this speaks of broad similarity between the two Houses. If that is supported broadly by agreement in each diocese, all the better. Disagreement in General Convention is important but relatively infrequent. Disagreement in the life of a diocese is, as has been noted, an more immediate and arguably more inhibiting problem.

And so, as I process my own experience of another General Convention, I am hopeful for this Episcopal Church. We certainly have differences within the Church. They are, though, the kind of differences of opinion and interpretation of the faith that we say repeatedly we want to include and even embrace. The metaphor of an airplane came up again and again in our debates, to illustrate the fact in the Church, and the need in the Church, of both our “left” and “right wings;” but those differences were bearable, because each “wing” expressed its own determination to stay the course and its desire to stay with the other.

On the other hand, the differences that would truly debilitate us, differences of distrust and struggle for power, did not turn out as great or as immediate as they might have seemed in the moment. For all the anxiety, the differences that would reflect distrust, that would destroy relationships, were overcome. We did not all agree, and yet between and among the Houses of Bishops and Deputies there was demonstrable consistency and coherence. For me, this is a relief, and even a promise. For if, after all our difficulties over the last nine years, we are so consistent across both Houses – and for that matter across all Orders – we have what we need to come together again. We make our decisions in two Houses; but after this Convention I think we have some real hope that we can be once again one Church.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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