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Thursday, July 12, 2012

From General Convention 2012: A Meal that Tasted of Freedom

 This is the second of two posts about my experience at the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  At this triennial meeting, all the active bishops, plus elected lay and ordained representatives from each diocese vote on legislation (called resolutions) which affects the operation and direction of the church.  This convention addressed numerous resolutions around social justice, particularly for the LGBT community.

By Monday morning, we were very much in the General Convention groove. Members of the Legislative Team had assigned resolutions which they would follow from committee to house to vote, and one of our volunteers had created a "leaderboard" of sorts, so that the rest of us would know the status of a particular bill at any time. We also relayed this information to our booth in the Exhibits Hall, as people would frequently ask.

At the same time, the Communications Team would not only share the news on our website, blogs and social networks, but interview various people who were playing a part in General Convention: volunteers, speakers and those whose lives and relationships to the church based on the outcome of decisions made there. These were also used for the daily IntegriTV videos posted to YouTube, which gave daily highlights of the Convention from an LGBT perspective.

 Our videographer was a young woman who I learned secondhand was a combat veteran of the Iraq war. As a chaplain in Basra, her unit came under fire and several of her comrades were killed right in front of her. Upon returning home, she had attempted to begin the discernment process, only to be told by her diocese that she was unsuitable for pastoral duty, because she is transgender. This is sadly not surprising; unemployment among transgender folk hovers around 70%. And yet, no bitterness came across in her gracious and engaging manner. On the contrary, she put her interviewees at ease and dashed uncomplainingly from place to place for upwards of 14 hours each day, a good reporter getting her story.

 I had gotten up early to attend a committee hearing which would consider the resolution calling for trial adoption of a blessing rite for same-sex relationships. Not being a deputy to convention, I was not able to have "voice" (opinion) or vote in the session, but was graciously allowed to observe and -- as a "subject matter expert" -- my advice on how the LGBT community should be named was appreciated and adopted into the language of the resolution.

No-one spoke against the resolution in this session, unlike one on Saturday at which a priest stated that the LGBT community here should forgo recognition of our relationships because -- by doing so -- the church would be putting Christians in other countries at risk. As Marcia Ledford (who testified right before her in favor of the blessings) pointed out, there are already Christians being placed at risk by the church, including the LGBT ones. Perhaps seeing their Episcopal brothers and sisters embrace those in loving committed same-sex relationships will help counter the anti-gay rhetoric and misinformation spread by other religious leaders!

That done, I returned to the Integrity Nerve Center. We knew how much was at stake, but yet everyone remained calm and efficient, and the mood was pleasant, with people coming and going and sharing news. We had one ear on the live feed from the House of Bishops, because we knew they were planning to take up a resolution that was significant to us.

Then, just as the House was opened to observers, we got word that "something was going down." Several of us sprinted the length of the mammoth Indiana Convention Center like O.J. hoping to get the last rental car at the airport. As we got there, the Right Rev. Gene Robinson, outgoing Bishop of New Hampshire, had asked for the floor for a "point of personal privilege" a parliamentary procedure used either when someone's physical needs are not being met or they have been personally misrepresented by another party in the meeting. In this case, I suspect both were true. You can also read the full text if you need to, but I think if you can listen to Bishop Robinson's voice, you'll hear his frustration and sadness. Having followed his story with the church since his election in 2003 and arranged numerous screenings of For the Bible Tells Me So and Love Free or Die, I was well aware of the threats, harassment and disrespect that had been leveled at him, both from inside and outside the church. But it was still jarring to witness it first-hand. My heart went out to him, and I was pleased when one of the most outspoken opponents to our platform in the House of Bishops rose to call out the two "mystery bishops" on their behavior. At the behest of another bishop, Robinson received a standing ovation from many in the room for his call to actually try reconciliation rather than just talk about it.

There are more details about the shenanigans that led to Bishop Robinson's missive here,  I find the back-biting and vitriol pretty much negates any claim of biblical or pastoral authority, and thus will neither comment nor reiterate what I had the misfortune to learn about it, but if you are unfamiliar with the back-story it may be helpful in understanding how we got to where we are.

Later that day, the House of Bishops voted to approve the blessings bill, by a wide margin. The House of Deputies affirmed a resolution the bishops had already cleared, making it official that being transgender was no longer a valid reason to be denied access to the discernment process for ordination. Once both houses agree on a resolution, it becomes "law" or -- as we say -- an Act of Convention.

Buoyant from that news, but still thinking about Bishop Gene, I did my second round-trip of the day to my hotel, about a half mile from the Convention Center, to get ready for the Integrity Eucharist that night, which would be preceded by a reception honoring Dr. Louie Crew, who founded the organization back in 1974.

 But first, my new friend Vivian invited me to accompany her to an event I hadn't heard about.  A program within the church known as the New Community was sponsoring a festival on the grounds of the city's cathedral, which is conspicuously located on Monument Circle, right in the middle of town.  Timed to be available for commuters returning home, the festival was representative  of four ethnic/cultural communities that are focuses for mission and ministry of the church: Asian, black, Latino and Native American.  Vivian promised me good food, and she wasn't lying.  Empanadas shared a plate with colorful salads and spicy curries, washed down with a wonderful hibiscus juice or tea, as Rosebud Sioux drummers took turns at the mike with a mariachi band. People danced and sang and whooped, and curious strangers were lured into the warm and inviting atmosphere.  Vivian and I ended up sharing a small table with a young local couple, who were Episcopalians but didn't know about the event and only stumbled on it by luck.  We learned about their parish and shared news about the exciting developments we were seeing at Convention.

We got back to the Convention Center just in time to hear Louie Crew be honored by Kim Byham, and the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, both stalwarts in the movement from the Diocese of Newark. Then, it was into the Eucharist.

After a few days in a convention center, the enormity of spaces starts to escape you, but the Sagamore Ballroom (and we weren't even using all of it) is simply colossal.  There would have been no way to decorate all of it tastefully, so our team concentrated on the elevated platform that held the altar, and a small "chapel" of sorts at the entrance, from which the processions would depart.

The Integrity Eucharist, which used to be a prayer of a people literally in exile when we were not a recognized part of General Convention, is now a highlight for many attendees, LGBT or otherwise. I can't tell you how many people who are not involved in this work voiced their anticipation, and now -- having been to this one -- I can understand why. 

I wrote already about details of the Eucharist and posted pictures here for those whoare interested. I will, however, include videos of Bishop Gene Robinson's sermon. He had recovered markedly from the morning's episode and was truly on his game.


Having worked with and learned from Louie and various current and former members of Integrity and our diocesan ministry The OASIS for the better part of ten years, knowing some of them have been fighting this fight for four times that long, and looking around at the new friends I'd made and the little snippets of their stories I had gained. It was truly a gift to be among them as they celebrated this moment in our history.  I am not ashamed to say I had many a laughter-through-tears moment, watching their faces as they embraced and tried to comprehend that we'd moved forward as far as we had.

I saw the young transgender vet, who might now actually be allowed to answer her call to further ministry; the priest in her 70s, who waited decades for her church to recognize her love of her partner and was finally married by Bp. Robinson in 2010; the college student whose personal witness even managed to move those who disagreed with them.  And in that moment I truly loved my church in a way that I don't think those who never leave their own congregations and attend one of these crazy events can ever appreciate.  Breaking bread with 1,500 other people, all of whom are there on their own journey but celebrating this moment with you, is the closest I reckon I'll ever come to a "megachurch" experience, and -- even if it's once every three years -- I hope not to miss one.  As the words of the consecration (from Prayers for an Inclusive Church by Steven Shakespeare) stated, it truly was "a meal that tasted of freedom."

From General Convention 2012: Come to the Water

 This is the first of two posts discussing my participation in the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which took place in Indianapolis over the past two weeks.  
On Saturday morning, a number of us were blessed to participate in an event we weren't planning for in the hubbub of activity of General Convention. A woman who has been a part of the church for long time had decided she was ready to solemnize her relationship with us. She wanted to be baptized. At her request, we're not sharing her name, but she did give us permission to tell her story. She and I recognized each other, but we weren't sure from where. At events like this, "small world syndrome" runs deep.

 The Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton blogged about the request, so a number of us had heard about it by the time came. And so, accompanied by members of her family, four priests, two nuns and a handful of us who were swept up in the enthusiasm of the moment, she stepped out into the bright 105-degree sunshine outside the Convention Center complex and headed across the street into a quiet plaza with a fountain at its center, which was technically part of an office tower. Being from New York, I was watching over my shoulder the whole time waiting for the property management to come chase us away.

The Rev. Jon Richardson read from Matthew's gospel, and Elizabeth a sermon which touched on the life of Conrad Weiser, whose feast was yesterday. In it, she compared baptism to the transformation of Pinocchio, at which point the strings that bound him were cut, leaving him free and "real."

 "It was the most meaningful baptism, other than my own and my son's, that I have ever been witness to," said Susan Pederson, a member of Integrity's convention team. Elizabeth led us all to the edge of the fountain. After renewing our own vows and confirming our intention to help our sister live into hers, we watched as Elizabeth baptized and anointed her with the oil we were able to have blessed by one of the readily-available bishops. The hotel provided the elements for Eucharist, and we proceeded into a merciful patch of shade and shared Communion, celebrated by The Rev. Michael Sniffen.

Afterward, Michael invited us into a time of silence. Our new sister's kids played quietly in the shade, tired of the grown-ups' talk. With the refreshing backdrop of the cooling water, and under the curious eyes of a busload of tourists, the Holy Spirit's power in that moment was more powerful than the sun.