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My Love-Hate Relationship with The General Convention

The General Convention of The Episcopal Church officially starts tomorrow in Salt Lake City, and runs through July 3rd. General Convention is the primary governing and legislative body of The Episcopal Church, and meets every three years.

I've always had mixed emotions about The General Convention, but this one in particular is stirring up even more mixed, "love-hate" feelings.

Because I'm not there.

This will be the first General Convention I haven't attended since 2000 (Denver) -- I was in Minneapolis in 2003, Columbus in 2006, Anaheim in 2009, and Indianapolis in 2012.

On the one hand, I LOVE The General Convention, because it's a ten-day chance to catch up with a lot of fabulous people -- lay people, priests and bishops from all over the country (and world) who love The Episcopal Church and all it stands for. Reading Facebook posts and seeing photos, I miss them; I miss catching up over dinners and drinks. I feel like there's a large, fun party going on in the apartment next door, and I'm stuck at home trying to catch up on work.  

I also love meandering around the Exhibit Hall at each General Convention, where hundreds of people from lots of different advocacy groups, church supply companies, Episcopal seminaries, booksellers and others set up shop to hawk their wares and ideas for the week.

I even love attending the quirky, self-conscious worship services held there. Especially after my good friend The Rev. Daniel Simons gave me great advice for attending worship at The General Convention: sit up front, he said, right next to the musicians; changes everything. And you get to not only hear, but see some fantastic preachers: in fact, of the ten best sermons I've ever heard, two were preached at a General Convention.

But unfortunately, those things (fellowship, idea-sharing, and worship) are -- or seem -- tangential to the central purpose of The General Convention.

That's because unfortunately, the raison d'ĂȘtre for The General Convention is legislation. Which means every time there's a General Convention, the Episcopal Church's loud-mouthed cousin called Church Politics shows up. Not only shows up, but takes over.

Now here's the thing:

I used to like "church" -- the institution itself, the way we're organized and run.

And I used to like "politics" -- hell, I worked on Capitol Hill for four years; I was briefly on a Presidential campaign staff; my last job before seminary was as a press secretary in a state-wide race.

So liking church, and liking politics, I used to love church politics. And The General Convention is the Super Bowl/World Cup/World Series of Episcopal church politics. And there I was, being paid to observe, and write about, church politics! Not quite heaven-on-earth, but a blast, a ten-day blast.

But then something odd happened. Not overnight, and not completely. But enough to change things in major ways.

And that's this: I fell in love with the Bible, and with the God-made-known-in-Jesus to whom the Bible points. (That's somehow embarrassing to admit, even though it shouldn't be. But that's another story.)

As a result, over time, I started to be impatient with, and eventually dislike "church."

When I say "I dislike "church," I do NOT mean the Church defined as the Body of Christ gathered for the apostle's teaching and fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers; I still love that dynamic, organic Church.

I mean the church institution -- its bureaucracies, its structures, its "meet-for-the-sake-of-meeting" tendencies, its soul-crushing amendment-to-an-amendment-to-the-fourth-resolved-clause-of-an-even-more-earnest-substitute-resolution about The Issue We All Must Really Care About.

Ick.

No.

Please, God, no.

The funny thing is, I believe that a majority of people out in Salt Lake City can empathize, or even feel the same way themselves. I've had dozens of conversations about this, with folks who are out there, even now. There's a general and growing sense that the System is Broken, and there's a general and growing sense that We Must Do Something About It.

And so -- ironically -- task forces are formed and resolutions are written and debated and amended to address the brokenness of the system.

It's what we do.

And it's what we'll always do -- as long as we see ourselves as a legislative body that happens to have fellowship and idea-sharing and worship. 

For real change to happen, we need think of ourselves as an idea-sharing, fellow-shipping, worshiping body that happens to legislate.

Oddly enough, that mindset -- thinking of ourselves as an idea-sharing, fellow-shipping, worshiping body that happens to legislate -- is already in place on the congregational level at annual meeting time. It's even in place in some Dioceses at Diocesan Convention time: some Dioceses see their Convention as a time to gather the wider Church together for fellowship, prayer, worship, and idea-sharing, and are de-emphasizing if not overtly discouraging all but the most necessary enabling (Constitution and Canons, plus Budget) legislation.  

My unscientific research concludes those are the healthiest, fastest growing congregations and dioceses.

If that's true, since I'm not there this year to ask in person, may I ask a favor?

And that is -- if I'm onto something here -- may their representatives please speak up?  



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