Pastoral Reflections on the 78th General Convention

Dear brothers and sisters,

God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to change the world, to change it from the nightmare it often can be into the dream that God intends. He came to change the world, and we have been baptized into the Triune God and summoned to be disciples and followers of this Jesus and to participate in God’s work, God’s mission of changing and transforming this world. . . . We are part of the Jesus Movement, and he has summoned us to make disciples and followers of all nations and transform this world by the power of the Good News, the gospel of Jesus.

- The Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop-elect

On June 27, the House of Bishops elected Bishop Curry as the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, a first-ballot election that captured the deep affection and respect that the bishops feel for this godly Christian leader.  Bishop Curry is profoundly Christ-centered, a spell-binding preacher, and a bridge-builder whose wide embrace embodies St. Paul’s reminder that we are to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-4). You can find a video link to Bishop Curry’s sermon on the final day of General Convention, quoted above, here.

While the election of our next Presiding Bishop added drama and excitement to the work of General Convention, many other issues also drew the attention of bishops and deputies.  We passed, quite literally, hundreds of resolutions, covering topics as diverse as church governance, marriage, liturgical matters, evangelism, and issues of peace and justice.  These reflections, necessarily, cannot detail all that Convention did during eleven days of work.  I will simply highlight a few items of particular importance.

For three years, in response to a call from the 77th General Convention in 2012, the Episcopal Church has been discussing “structure,” the governing bodies that include the Episcopal Church Center in New York City, various boards and agencies, and General Convention itself, both its size and scope.  The idea behind these conversations has been to create a leaner and more “nimble” structure, for the sake of mission.  The 78th General Convention took a fairly modest approach.  The relationship between Executive Council (the body that governs the church between Conventions) and the staff of the Episcopal Church was clarified, especially in matters of hiring and supervision; and the number of Standing Commissions (groups that study issues and propose resolutions to General Convention) was reduced to two (Constitution and Canons; Liturgy and Music).  There was little energy for reducing the size, scope, and frequency of General Convention.  Much work, I think, still needs to be done in order to fashion a more mission-driven church structure.  That will be left to a future General Convention.

General Convention passed resolutions to begin the process of revising both the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1982.  The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has been directed to devise a “plan” for revision, and to present that plan to the 79th General Convention in 2018.  The Constitution of the Episcopal church requires two successive meetings of General Conventions to revise the Prayer Book.  Since the plan for revision won’t be presented until 2018 – with a first “reading” of the new Prayer Book three years later, in 2021 - the new versions cannot be approved until 2024 at the soonest.  I voted against the proposals, for a couple of reasons.  First, we are still internalizing the changes that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer brought to the church, particularly regarding the centrality of baptism as the fount of the Christian life and the Eucharist as the primary act of Christian worship.  It takes generations for texts (and the practices connected with those texts) to find their way into our hearts and minds.  Second, I am concerned that current theological trends, and especially a tendency to eliminate male-oriented language for God, will lead us to a Prayer Book where words like “Father” and “Lord” will be rare.  It is better, I think, to allow these trends to marinate for a few decades and to see if they hold up to long-term theological and spiritual reflection.  My reservations, however, did not carry the day, and the process for Prayer Book and Hymnal revision is now set in motion.

Two important initiatives were added to the Episcopal Church’s budget for the 2015-18 triennium:  evangelism and church planting, and racial reconciliation.  Both are significant.  The best way to reach “unchurched” people is to plant a new church, and there was a good deal of excitement about bold and creative ways to form winsome and engaging new Christian communities.  Racial reconciliation, too, was much on the hearts of bishops and deputies, particularly in light of the tragedy in Charleston on June 17.  And so General Convention allocated significant funds to assist the church in addressing the sin of racism and seeking ways to foster deep and healing conversation.  These initiatives are, I think, positive steps for the church, addressing both the spiritual needs of men and women and the great gulf that continues to plague our nation.

I have attended General Convention since 1991, either as a deputy or a bishop, and every Convention has been dominated by difficult and sometimes painful discussions regarding human sexuality.  The underlying question has been:  How do we welcome gay and lesbian people into the church, and what is the best way to minister to them?  Three years ago, in 2012, General Convention authorized a liturgy for blessing same-sex unions, a liturgy that required the permission of a diocesan bishop in order to be used in that bishop’s jurisdiction.  This year, the discussion had moved to marriage itself.  A marriage task force, commissioned by the 77th General Convention, recommended a change to the church’s canons (the laws that govern the church) re-defining marriage to include same-sex couples.  In addition, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music submitted a number of liturgies for the solemnization of the marriage of two persons of the same sex.  And so the 78th General Convention debated both canon law and liturgical practice.  In the background, by accident of timing, on the fourth day of General Convention the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage must be made available in all 50 states. 

Debate on both proposals – the change in canons (Resolution A036) and the provision of liturgical forms for same-sex marriage (Resolution A054) – was heartfelt and gracious.  The resolution which authorizes liturgical forms includes the following:  “Bishops exercising authority or, where appropriate, ecclesiastical supervision will make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to have access to these liturgies.  Trial use [of these liturgies] is only to be available under the direction and with the permission of the Diocesan Bishop. . . . [T]his convention honor[s] the theological diversity of this Church in regard to matters of human sexuality; and . . . no bishop, priest, deacon, or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities, as a result of his or her objection to or support for the 78th General Convention’s action on this resolution.”  Both A036 and A054 passed, with substantial majorities in the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies.  While I voted no on these resolutions, I am grateful that General Convention recognized the diversity in the church and made explicit place for those who find themselves in a theological minority. 

During the debate on liturgical forms I said, “As a matter of Christian conviction, I must vote no.  I do not believe that we have the authority to alter the sacrament of holy matrimony.  That sacrament is rooted in creation and redemption, and is a sign of God’s good provision for humankind.”  But I am well aware that many in the Diocese of Northern Indiana will be distressed that I could support neither the canonical re-definition of marriage nor the liturgies for same-sex marriage.  I am committed to them – and, in particular, to the gay and lesbian members of our diocesan family.  Jesus has called us together, and it is important that we find ways of caring for one another.  People on all sides of these difficult and complex matters are committed to Jesus and to the church, and are seeking to follow our Lord faithfully.  Mutual affirmation in the midst of painful disagreement is at the heart of our call to Christian community.

As noted above, the resolution authorizing liturgies for same-sex marriage requires that bishops make provision for couples who wish access to these liturgies.  At the same time, the resolution states that in each diocese the use of the liturgies requires the bishop’s direction and permission.  To honor both mandates, I am continuing the arrangement that began in 2012, after General Convention authorized a liturgy for blessing same-sex unions.  In Northern Indiana, that means:  1) that I cannot, because of conviction and conscience, authorize the use of these liturgies in the diocese; and 2) that if a couple wishes to married under these liturgical provisions (Resolution A054), they and their priest may cross into a neighboring diocese and, under the license of the bishop of that diocese, celebrate the rite.  I have spoken with the bishops of Chicago, Western Michigan, Michigan, Ohio, and Indianapolis, and all of them have most graciously agreed to this arrangement.  It is not an ideal solution.  No compromise is.  But, at a minimum, it provides a “container” in which both conscience and pastoral care can be provided for all.

Following the passage of A036 and A054, I joined with a group of bishops in issuing the “Communion Partners Salt Lake City Statement.”  We attempted to be at once clear and irenic, affirming both our convictions and our commitment to brothers and sisters with whom we disagree and to whom we are bound indissolubly in baptism.  The House of Bishops graciously received this statement, and unanimously passed its own “Mind of the House” resolution, entitled “Communion Across Difference,” for which I am profoundly grateful.  This statement serves as a reminder that in a season when the church is not of one mind on a difficult issue, we are one in Jesus.  “He is our peace” (Eph. 2:14).  Thus our “opponents” are not opponents at all, but fellow disciples – brothers and sisters who love Jesus as we do, and who wish the best for his church.

Several times, over the course of these reflections, I have used the word “gracious.”  Even when General Convention was at its most heated, when disagreement was most pronounced, I experienced enormous generosity of spirit.  Deputies and bishops stretched out their hands and their hearts to each other across theological divisions.  For that generosity I praise God.

Let us now pray for our church; for Katharine, our Presiding Bishop, and for Michael, our Presiding Bishop-elect; for those who will bring the decisions of General Convention back to their dioceses, and for wisdom in communicating this information; and for the whole church, that together we may join in “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2) and find in him both the source of our unity and the inspiration to bring Good News to the world.

Yours in Christ,