On General Convention and the proposed Missionary Convocation

With the exception of its proposal to limit the legislation that comes before General Convention by topic, perhaps the most significant proposal the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church makes in its recent paper is to introduce a Missionary Convocation as a second but equally important part of the church’s triennial meeting. I image that I could be talked into thinking that this was a good idea, but currently I think it is a questionable one.

I am not exactly opposed to a Missionary Convocation (especially if we call it something else), but the spirit in which the task force offers this proposal makes it seem a form or moral correction, a means of redeeming adult Christians who have committed the sin of involving themselves in shady business of legislative governance.

Consider the language. The taskforce says it is “lay[ing] the groundwork for a General Convention with two primary foci: (1) An opportunity to convene a vibrant, inspiring, mission-driven convocation that connects, builds up, and empowers leaders at all levels for spreading the Gospel in new and innovative ways (2) A triennial Church legislature enacting budgets, passing resolutions, electing members of interim governing bodies, and other related governance functions.

The italics are mine, but you’d probably get the point without them. Focus #1 makes people dance and Jesus smile. Focus #2 puts everyone to sleep.

I don’t believe that governing the church is a necessary evil. It is, rather, an opportunity to proclaim the gospel, call disciples and play a small role in ushering in the reign of God through legislative action. Not everyone is called to this work, or well suited to it. There are, as somebody wrote somewhere, many gifts, but one spirit. But those who are called to this ministry, and chosen by their peers to do it should not be made to feel as though they are engaged in a dubious enterprise and that they need to hurry up and get on with it so that the real Christians can take the stage.

As for the Missionary Convocation itself, we’d be launching what is at its core an ambitious one-site, in-person adult education enterprise at a time when educators around the church, long frustrated by low enrollments in their classes and poor turnouts for their events, are putting more and more of their content online. That doesn’t mean that the idea for convocation isn’t worth nurturing, or that it may be lifted by an energy that I don’t now detect. But, at the moment, I am skeptical that lay people who have children and don’t work in the church are going to take a week’s worth of vacation, fly across the country and stay in hotel rooms to attend several days worth of adult education opportunities.

There is often a wonderful spirit at General Convention, especially at social gatherings and Eucharists. I understand entirely the desire to recapture this spirit in a context not burdened by a legislative agenda. But I am not persuaded that grafting a Missionary Convocation onto a legislative convention is a wise move, and I do not want to put the effectiveness of the convention in jeopardy by accepting this proposal in its current form.

That said, I don’t think anyone who cares about church governance is unaware that a significant segment of the church feels alienated from the General Convention, the Executive Council and the churchwide staff. A Missionary Convocation might have the potential to bring different people with different talents and interests to the convention, and in so doing make the church’s triennial meeting a richer experience for everyone involved. And it might make more church members feel a connection to the triennial gathering, which I think would be a good thing. I am wondering, then, if there is a way to pilot this proposal, and possibly advance it in stages, rather than taking it in one gulp.

Phasing the convocation in would give the church the opportunity to evaluate whether it is working. It would give the convocation an opportunity to build an audience that I am not sure now exists. And it might even get some members of the task force past the false choice between good mission v bad government dynamic that is evident in their major recommendations regarding General Convention.

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