Same morning pattern as that to which we have become accustomed. The retreat meditation was delivered by John Howard, Bishop of Florida. (The Diocese of Florida is one of five dioceses with territory in that state, and is based in Jacksonville.) Bishop Howard, a former lawyer and prosecutor, spoke movingly of singing the Lord's song in the particular alien land known as the criminal justice system, encouraging us to pray and work for a system that is more humane and flexible, more able to temper justice with mercy. Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. has a disproportionately high percentage of its citizens living behind bars.
With careful attention to the use of available time, I was able to walk down the main road through Camp Allen all the way to the two-mile marker today, further than I've gone before. This means my walk was four miles, which is my old customary standard. I've been grateful for the amount of exercise I've been able to get while here.
The best and most valuable part of House of Bishops meetings is without any doubt the informal interaction that takes place at meals, evening "hospitality" time, and assorted other moments. We have no peer colleagues in the normal course of our work, so we all treasure the opportunity to be with one another, to build relationships that transcend the variations in theology, ideology, churchmanship, and regional peculiarity that otherwise distinguish and divide us.
The afternoon session began with a set piece called a Town Meeting. Anybody who wants to get on the agenda for a brief announcement (3-5 minutes) can do so. So we heard about the process for electing the next Presiding Bishop, a coming conference sponsored by Bishops Against Gun Violence, a work-in-progress by the Ecclesiology Committee, and sundry other items. None will probably soon forget the remarks of John Tarrant, Bishop of South Dakota, who continually and compellingly challenges the House over issues of economic disparity between dioceses, clergy, and bishops.
After a break, we reconvened in formal session, with the officers of the House on the dais and the Presiding Bishop in the chair, for a business meeting. There were no items of actual substance. We passed a resolution marking the 25th anniversary of the consecration of Barbara Harris, the first female member of the House. We passed resolutions authored by the Bishops of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic regarding issues in their respective countries that we explicated at our Fireside Chat last Friday evening. Then we adjourned and made our way upstairs to All Saints Chapel for our closing Eucharist, at which Jeff Fisher, one of the bishops suffragan of the Diocese of Texas (our host diocese, one of six with territory in the state), presided, and Canon Stephanie Spellers, one of our chaplains, preached. We celebrated the feast of the Annunciation. Personally, I could have used some more liturgical comfort food on such a significant occasion as this, but what would make me feel like I've been to "real church" is simply not the way of these gatherings.
Dinner was in the usual place, but with white table cloths, wine, and an upscale menu, banquet-style. I didn't get the memo about wearing a navy blue blazer, but I did anyway, and was therefore in good company. After dinner, most of us headed back into the chapel for a musical presentation (guitar and vocal) of original songs by John Smylie, Bishop of Wyoming. It was a nice conclusion to our time together.
So we're almost out of here. Those who have early flights out of Houston left tonight for a hotel near the airport. My ride is at 8am and my flight at 11:20. The usual poker games are in full swing a few feet away from me as I sit with my MacBook Pro in the entry area lounge furniture. On the positive side, I really needed the enforced down time from the usual tasks I deal with (although I certainly did continue to engage many of them via email), and, as I've said, have benefited from the extra exercise. The time with colleagues was invaluable, and all the retreat meditations were very much worth hearing. What we did during the plenary sessions was, I have to say, disappointing. Some have called it a waste of time, and while I am not inordinately annoyed by what we've experienced, I don't know that I could muster a case to challenge that assessment. The outside world thinks we talk deeply about important things, but the fact is, we don't talk deeply about anything. We hear reports and talk superficially and briefly about lots of things, but, even then, not about the most important things we should be talking about. Over my three years in the House, we have sometimes skirted the edges of engaging the wrenching divisions this church has suffered over the last decade, but always in a technical and juridical context, and always with much more "reporting" than free-flowing discussion. We talk around and past the really important things, and distract ourselves with a host of secondary and tertiary concerns. We desperately need to find a new model for difficult conversations. There is a reluctance (perhaps a vestige of very difficult experiences of twenty or so years ago) to spend a lot of time in plenary debate, but short and tightly-managed table discussions are not doing the job. There has got to be an intermediate modality that will enable us to safely say very challenging and honest things to one another. We haven't found it yet. I don't know whether enough of us even want to.