Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2017 Spring House of Bishops, Day 5

The Spirit blows where the Spirit blows. Some sort of spirit certainly blew here today. Whether it was the Holy Spirit of God or something else is unclear to me without first getting some distance. (Isn't that how the Holy Spirit tends to work? Discernible clearly only in hindsight?)

We began with another table discussion of generous length (about 30 minutes, as I recall). Each table was given a sheet amalgamating all the feedback that had been turned in on sticky notes yesterday concerning how we think we're meeting the personal and institutional challenges of dealing with the way we tend to systematically marginalize individuals and groups based on criteria over which they have no control ("Who I am" rather than "What I do").

This went well enough, and then the plenary floor was open to sharing from the table discussions. All was going according to plan. Then one bishop (whom I will not name, though he probably wouldn't mind) got up and said, in effect, "There's an elephant in the room, and we're ignoring it in favor of a bunch of navel gazing." That's when everything went off the rails. A handful of others got up and said, "Yeah. There's an elephant in the room, and we need to talk about it!" Except ... nobody actually named the elephant. And I was getting the feeling that those who were giving their Amens to the original comment were all talking about different elephants, but I didn't know for sure. Was I the only one who was clueless? So I went to the microphone myself and said, "We have a set of Core Values in this House, one of which is to speak directly. But here I am listening to a bunch of us saying that there's something we desperately need to talk about, and I have no idea what it is."

After a few more speakers, we took a break while the Presiding Bishop, the members of the Planning Committee, and the chaplains all hung heads together to figure what to do. During the break, several bishops greeted me enthusiastically and thanked me for saying what I did, because they were equally clueless. It felt good not be alone in my ignorance.

Then the bishop who had made the comment that got the whole ruckus started came up to me and clarified what he meant. It was all about the Bishop of Washington's sermon on Sunday, and her remark about the number of her own parishes that are slowly (or not so slowly) withering away, without even a spark of the sort of vitality that would be attractive to those seeking a deeper spiritual life ... and here we are spending four days talking about our feelings and our childhood memories. I was glad to hear this clarification, because I had been afraid that it had something to do with the  ongoing post-election anxiety level in the country and among many Episcopalians, and that's not a weed patch I would have been particularly happy about getting down into. (I suspect that some of the Amen-voicers were coming from such a place, however.)

In the round of plenary discussion that followed the break, I went to the mic and said something like this: "Only a handful of us in the room today, if that, were in the House 25 years ago on the occasion of that last 'blowup' in relationships. Bishops almost came to blows during General Convention, and the room had to be cleared of observers. Since then, the House has focused more on 'process' concerns, building collegiality, and less on 'content' issues. Perhaps what we've seen this morning is a sign of pent-up rebellion against dealing with topics of secondary and tertiary importance while not being given an opportunity to talk about the really urgent concerns that we have in this church. I, for one, believe there is still a great deal of truth that yet needs to be told about the events surrounding the massive departures from our church over the last 10-12 years. I know many are in quiet anguish over the issues of congregational vitality that Marianne Budde raised in her sermon. And I know as well that there are some among us who wish we could speak a word of hope into the political anxiety that has enveloped our society. So perhaps this moment is a test. Perhaps it is a test of whether 25 years of focusing on process concerns and relationship building has actually made us more mature in Christ, whether it has equipped us to once again engage difficult subjects with clarity and candor but still be faithful to our vows to 'respect the dignity of every human being.'"

We broke for lunch at noon, but were seriously off our agenda. When we got back together at 1:30, the head of the Planning Committee reported on the deliberations of the group. This did not include a detailed plan, but, rather, a strong assurance that everything that had been said would be taken into consideration as future meetings are structured. But ... wow, I'm not sure anybody saw this coming.

We then plowed through a list of things that we were supposed to have been dealt with in the morning:

  • Greetings from the new CEO of of the DFMS (aka the "church center" in New York).
  • A report from the Commission on Impairment and Leadership (this group deals with issues of addiction, mental illness, and personality disorders among bishops).
  • A report on the Episcopal-Methodist dialogue. There will be a proposal for a "full communion" agreement in front of the next General Convention.
  • A report from the Diocese of Texas concerning some of the planning details of the 2018 General Convention, to be held in Austin.
  • A report from the Standing Committee on Structure and Governance. To be honest, I can't remember much of what was said, but it wasn't anything momentous. I think it had something to do with finding ways of measuring the vitality of dioceses.
We took another break, and the reconvened in an official business session (hence the photo above of the officers of the House looking more formal than they usually do), with proper parliamentary procedure. It was mostly pretty humdrum stuff on the order of approving a spate of upcoming retirements and resignations. But the skunk at the garden party was a report from the Task Force on Episcopacy, created by a 2015 General Convention resolution. Their broad mandate is to consider the ways that bishops are selected, formed, and deployed. To everoyne's relief, they have already concluded that bishops should continue to be elected rather than appointed, and that the various dioceses should still be responsible for the electing process. Whew! But they are also considering, among other things, the creaton of a pool of candidates who have already discerned a potential call to episcopal ministry, and are pre-screened, with background check results at the ready. Dioceses looking for a bishop would be encouraged to fish in such a pond. It would all be optional of course, but I can certainly foresee tremendous informal pressure put on dioceses to do just that, with failure to do so coming at the potential cost of difficulties in the consent process for whomever is elected. The driving concern, of course, is for greater diversity of gender and ethnicity among the members of the House of Bishops--a laudable goal, perhaps, but it should be allowed to develop organically. This development is scary, and it should be nipped ferociously in the bud. 

As per custom, our final dinner was a bit upscale, with many of the bishops dressing up. Bow ties were particularly in fashion tonight. Me ...  I just swapped out my hooded sweatshirt for a corduroy sport coat. I'm on the 0530 airport shuttle in the morning. This HOB is in the books now.

Monday, March 13, 2017

2017 Spring House of Bishops, Day 4

This is a forest of giant wild rhodedendrons through which the trail that allows circumambulation of Kanuga Lake passes. It's really quite striking. I walked it this morning during some free time.

Ah ... free time. The plenary schedule finally lightened up today. My own schedule, however, did get an early start, with a 0730 gathering of Communion Partner bishops. We were never actually all together--some aren't here, or aren't still here, and among those who are, there was a lot of coming and going due to conflicting obligations. We broke for breakfast around 0830 and then regathered until about 10.

At that point I kept an appointment with a reporter for Episcopal News Service who wanted to interview me about my experience of this meeting of the HOB. I didn't tell her anything I haven't already written in this venue. She was quite solicitous, but my frustration about such things is that, out of our twenty minute conversation, there may be two things I said that will get quoted in her article, and maybe or maybe not in an appropriate context. I understand that's how the system works, so I'm not getting worked up.

So we didn't convene in plenary session until after lunch. Apart from singing Happy Birthday to the Presiding Bishop and the Bishop of Western Kansas, there were two highlights of the afternoon:

  • Canon Mark Stevenson, head of Episcopal Migration Ministries, gave a superb presentation on the work of that ministry of the wider church. Given the current climate of suspicion toward refugees, both within governmental bodies and among the public, they do face their challenges. EMM is a long-established agency; they've been around since 1938, nearly eighty years. They do work right out of Matthew 25.
  • Bishop Mark Lattime of Alaska gave us an orientation on the September meeting of the House, which will be in Fairbanks. While our main meetings will be in a comfortable hotel, there will be opportunities for field trips by small aircraft to some of the native villages where the Episcopal Church has long been incarnate in that diocese. 
Between our adjournment and dinner, I took the opportunity for some more walking. Yesterday's snow is gone, but it is miserably cold and rainy. This is why I never have pleasant memories of Kanuga; we're always here in March!

After dinner, we observed one of the mainstays of HOB meetings, the Fireside Chat. With the number who are here, as you can see, it's not a cozy affair, despite its name. It's also not, strictly speaking, "chatty." It's pretty well scripted, though there is opportunity for passing the microphone around and engaging in a modest amount of give and take. The big topics tonight included lots of information about goings-on in the Diocese of Haiti, which is in the midst of some pretty nasty conflict, and an extended presentation from the chair of the House of Bishops Planning Committee about the shape and character of future meetings. For one thing, it looks like they'll eventually be shorter by one day. I can give an Amen to that.

I feel like a horse who can smell the barn and has an urge to turn a trot into a gallop. One more day, and then, homeward bound.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

2017 Spring House of Bishops, Day 3

We woke up this morning to about three inches of fresh snow. Here's the view from my room. It was lovely, not only for the way it looked, but because all but a trace in isolated shady patches was gone by midday. That's the best kind of snow, in my opinion.

The day's schedule was ... more of the same. More than a handful of bishops were considering stabbing themselves in the eye with a pencil, including YFNB, but we all resisted the temptation, I'm relieved to report. Yet, even in the midst of that procedural drudgery, there were some treasures to be mined. To be reminded of the distinction between feedback that is conditional, related to behavior, and feedback that is unconditional, related to a person's being, I found helpful. Both kinds can be either positive or negative. The goal, of course, is to avoid giving feedback that is both negative and unconditional.

My hackles were raised a bit by a presentation about subtle versions of discrimination that our facilitators suggested can cloak visceral antagonism with a more respectable fa├žade. A little autobiography might be appropriate here: My mother is a southerner by birth. Visiting her hometown when I was young, I am old enough to remember Jim Crow segregation in all of its ugliness. As a pre-teen and teen, I was s strong supporter of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The absurdity of prejudice based on skin color was patent to me. Our presenters labeled this "old-fashioned" racism. "Modern" racism looks for reasons that sound more respectable but have the same deleterious effect on the "excluded" group--like opposing a program that requires one's children to be bussed to a school an hour a way when there's one right in their neighborhood that they could walk to. While I agree that it possible to mask racism (or any other "ism") in such a way, I am not prepared to use as broad a brush as it seemed to be that our presenters were ready to use.

That said, when one of my tablemates invited me to process the question through the lens of being a "theological minority" victim of such subtle-discrimination behaviors (unhelpful "rescuing," blaming the victim, avoidance, denying differences, denying impact), I must acknowledge that it began to make some sense. Much to ponder.

We are now finished with the presentations from Visions, Inc. Tomorrow we move on to other things. So this is probably the place to say that I wish there had been a much richer theological context to what we did. Visions, Inc. is, I think, Christian-friendly, but not Christian-based. They have a lot of clients in the secular world. A group of Christian bishops should be engaging the issues of racism and racial reconciliation from a platform grounded deeply in our  scriptural and theological tradition. The closest we got to that was this morning's table-group bible study, from Ephesians 2, which is magisterial in its relevance to what we're doing. If we had just spent our whole time together mining that material, we would have been better served.

The afternoon concluded with a celebration of the Eucharist for the Second Sunday in Lent. Many of us wish the Eucharist had been in the morning. It didn't feel like Sunday today; it didn't feel special. Worship at House of Bishops is tricky for me. I don't find it a "safe" place spiritually. Yes, I get "triggered"! So I've been taking a walk instead. But, today being the Lord's Day and all, I went. And I was reminded of all the reasons I've gotten in the habit of staying away (texts from Enriching Our Worship, Spanish laced in throughout, metrical paraphrase of the creed, music 75% from the black gospel genre, etc.)

The sermon, by the Bishop of Washington, contained a comment that I found encouraging. The preacher mentioned that she has some churches in her diocese that she could not in good conscience recommend to somebody who is looking for a church--not because they differ from her theologically or in liturgical preference, but because of a lack of spiritual vitality. Many bishops nodded that the same is the case for them. I've thought about it, and I am not in that category. In the Diocese of Springfield, there are Eucharistic Communities that are more "my cup of tea" than others. But, if I were talking to somebody looking for a church in any of the cities or towns where we have one, I would not hesitate for a moment to recommend the one nearest them. For that, this evening, I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

2017 Spring House of Bishops, Day 2

Our diversity/anti-racism training regimen continued today. After breakfast, we began at our tables with the usual brief announcements from the appointed "MC" for the day, followed by Morning Prayer led by our chaplains. Then it was back to the team from Visions, Inc. for more of what we began yesterday.

To their credit, the team realizes that, regardless of the quality of the material they present, the real work gets done as it is processed by those who are on the receiving end. So they are giving us lots of time for table discussion--more, in fact, than has ever been my experience at a meeting of the House, whatever the topic. This allows for trust to gradually develop between the bishops at a particular table, which facilitates greater candor and self-disclosure. I have been frustrated over the years at how sensitive and important subjects get very superficial treatment on these occasions. So, while I find some of the material we are being asked to engage questionable on multiple levels, and might even question whether the topic itself is the highest and best use of our time together, I am grateful that we are being given the opportunity to "go deep" with it.

Today we were invited to consider the various ways in which life is made either easier or more difficult for us by virtue of factors over which we have no control. Being white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, English-speaking, formally educated, able-bodied, and ordained, I definitely have a few advantages. The only boxes I could check on the other side of the ledger were immigrant (yes, technically I am an immigrant), and elderly (which makes me, I guess, potentially subject to age discrimination, though, so far, it's been the good kind of discrimination!).

One category not on the handouts, however, but which I summoned the requisite courage to mention at my table, is "theological conservative," which, in the context of the House of Bishops, is not merely a minority but veritably an endangered species. I brought this up with some trepidation, and mention it here with even more, because there are many who will cite all the advantages I enumerated in the preceding paragraph and scoff at the notion that I am even potentially a victim of discrimination or oppression on this score. If that happens, I simply receive and take note of the scoffing. I don't have a clever riposte.

But I was gratified by the openness of my table-mates to hear what I was saying about my experience of the last six years, and to honor the feelings about it that I shared. That in itself doesn't solve very much, but it's not nothing.

The day concluded with dinner out by "classes"--in my case, the other bishops who were elected in 2010. We enjoyed a quite pleasant German restaurant.

Friday, March 10, 2017

2017 Spring House of Bishops, Day 1

It's an odd-numbered year, and I'm at the spring HOB meeting, so I must be at Kanuga, a conference center about a 30 minute drive from the Asheville, NC airport. (On the even-numbered years, we're at Camp Allen, about 60 miles WNW of Houston.)

It's now six years since I chronicled my first HOB meeting on this very site. It was a mercilessly jam-packed schedule, and I did not have a good time. Over the years, the pace slackened quite a bit, with copious free time, particularly leading up to and into Sunday. There was an intentional retreat-like atmosphere built into the experience, with relatively modest amounts of "program."

Well, for various reasons, things have apparently come full-circle, as this meeting is crammed full, with Sunday being no exception. One of Presiding Bishop Curry's passions, and therefore one of his major leadership initiatives, is racial reconciliation. That's the theme of this meeting. We are in the hands of a team of consultants who are leading us through what is essentially a course of anti-racism training.

Full disclosure: I instinctively bristle at anything labeled "training," unless it's a particular physical or psycho-motor skill. Otherwise it smacks of "re-education" of a Bolshevik variety. I am, however, endeavoring to keep an open mind and engage the process in good faith. The work consists of listening to a presentation and then doing small group work at our tables around questions related to what we have just heard.

I can't say that I've yet heard anything that I wasn't already aware of. Much of the morning was spent trying to make the melting pot/salad bowl distinction, which has been around a very long time. During the afternoon, we were invited to consider questions of identity--including ethnic and cultural.  I was aware, and shared with my table group, that I don't feel like I have an ethnic or cultural identity. There are several factors than can help describe me--I was born in Brazil, my mother is a southerner by birth, I was raised in the midwest, I'm an oldest child, I'm left-handed, etc.--but none of these define me. They are not who I am. They are not my identity.

I am copiously on record about my commitment to reconciliation--racial and otherwise--not being merely a part of the gospel, or an effect of the gospel, but the very gospel itself. This is what makes me such a passionate ecumenist, among other things. But gospel reconciliation is not a matter of learning to be more conscious of our biases and unearned privileges, real and important as those things may be. It is not about becoming more open to and accepting of other people's cultural identities, as important as it is to do that. It is about forming community with those who, in Christ, have taken on an identity beside which all others pale in significance. In Christ there is neither Bantu nor Yoruba, Swede nor German, Karen nor Hmong. Gospel reconciliation is predicated on receiving the grace to lay aside secondary identities to embrace the one that truly matters: Christian.

I look forward to seeing whether our "training" here will lead in such a direction.