Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 Spring House of Bishops, Day 5

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.

Monday, March 24, 2014

2014 Spring House of Bishops, Day 4

Usual morning "retreat" routine. Following Morning Prayer, today's meditation was delivered by my good friend Bill Love, Bishop of Albany. His account of missionary activity in the diocese was invigorating--singing the Lord's song in the alien land of urban Albany/Troy.

Between the meditation and lunch, I got in another hard walk--about three miles this time, I would say. One of the blessings of this time away has been that I've been able to get significant exercise every day. Good for my health.

The afternoon session was devoted to ecumenical and religious engagement. The national church officer for such things, the Rev. Margaret Rose, called on a succession of bishops in turn to report on the bilateral ecumenical dialogues that they superintend: Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Moravians, Swedish Lutherans, Old Catholics, Roman Catholics, and probably one or two that I'm forgetting. (Though I don't think I'm forgetting the Orthodox; I think they weren't mentioned.) This was all report; no discussion. We then turned our attention to "inter-religious" activities. A seminary middler from General Theological Seminary in New York offered a reflection on the critical importance of inter-religious discourse. I have to say, I was not persuaded. But maybe that's just me. This time we did have about 20 minutes for table discussions, wherein we were to share what's going in our own dioceses with respect to this topic. I didn't have much to report, save that I had recently met three self-proclaimed Druids at a New Years Eve party, but since it was a party, didn't press them very hard to share with me what drew them (all raised Irish-American Catholics) to Druidism. While I am passionate about ecumenism, interfaith engagement is, in my mind, one of those "nice" things that will always lose any triage assessment of where to put energy and resources. And speaking of energy and resources, there were certainly more pertinent things we could have done with our plenary time this afternoon. This was a disappointment.

The session ended at 3:30, so I went back to my room to read, but first needed to grab a nap. By the time I emerged from my grogginess, I was just missing the beginning of the Eucharist, so I finally did get around to doing some reading.

After dinner, the item on the plenary agenda was a briefing on the next meeting of the House, which will take place this September ... in Taiwan. Why Taiwan, you ask? Because the Episcopal Church, in fact, has a diocese there, whose bishop faithfully attends every meeting of the House. However, I had already made the decision that I will let them have this meeting without me. I'm certain the Diocese of Springfield would come up with the funds to send me, pretty much without blinking. But I just don't think it's good stewardship of the not-unlimited money we are blessed with. Moreover, I do not wish to be complicit in furthering the narrative that "the Episcopal Church is an international church; we're in 16 countries on four continents." While technically true, that is an incidental and circumstantial reality, not the virtuous fruit of a grand missionary strategy. If anything, it is a vestige of colonialism, and we ought to find it an embarrassment and be taking more aggressive steps to spin off our overseas dioceses into self-sustaining Anglican provinces. As it happens, though, it is politically useful for TEC to have recourse to the "international church" meme. In any case, I don't need to be an accomplice. So ... I didn't go to the meeting, and spent the time in the conference center lobby (alas, no usable wifi in my room) cleaning out about a page and a half of emails. A huge weight is lifted.

I'm ready to go home, but there's one more day.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

2014 Spring House of Bishops, Day 3

Not a lot to report today. We observed the principle of sabbath rest, so the only plenary gathering scheduled was the 10am Eucharist. I got a hard walk in between breakfast and then. The weather is noticeably cooler today, but for most of us, it's still warmer than home. After the liturgy, we sat for a retreat meditation from the Bishop of Nebraska, Scott Barker. The theme for all the meditations is from Psalm 137, "singing the Lord's song in an alien land." I could identify with much of what Bishop Barker had to say, as Nebraska, like central and southern Illinois, suffers from a slowly-unfolding demographic crisis, with the demise of the family farm and the depopulation of small towns. But in order to "make room," I suppose, for the retreat meditation, there was no homily at the Eucharist. I felt a little deprived by this. The gospel readings for Lent in Year A are of such uncommon power and compelling clarity. It was by means of these narratives that the ancient church took the hands of catechumens and walked them through the mysteries of baptism and eucharist. My heart wanted to hear the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well be broken open once again.

I took part in two voluntary but substantial meetings during the afternoon. One was among those bishops present who are also trustees of Nashotah House. While the campus community seems healthy and well-behaved, there have lately been some atmospherics among some off-campus stakeholders, so it was good for those of us who are here to take counsel together. The other was with the Communion Partner bishops who are present. We discussed possibilities for a meeting with our Canadian counterparts, and the potential for sponsoring a major conference on mission in a post-Christian environment.

After dinner, I floated between two other impromptu (more or less) meetings: one to further discuss the work of the Task Force on Marriage, and the other comprised of bishops who are seminary trustees. Tomorrow we're back to a rather fuller schedule.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

2014 Spring House of Bishops, Day 2

Three years ago, at my first meeting of the House of Bishops, the schedule was relentless, most of the activity consisting of lectures and seminars under the rubric of continuing education. The one following, in Quito, was nearly as grueling. But the powers-that-be must have heard a chorus of complaints, because, beginning with the spring meeting two years ago, with the necessary exception of General Convention the following summer, the pace has been much more humane. Today we gathered for Morning Prayer as we did yesterday, with the retreat meditation this time being delivered by Mary Glasspool, one of the suffragans of Los Angeles. I got a good hard hike in between the conclusion of her talk and regathering at 11:30 for Eucharist (of a sort--the Liturgy of the Word somehow went missing; we began with a hymn and continued with the gospel and Prayers of the People). I had lunch with my Province V compatriots, but we had nothing particularly substantive to discuss. The afternoon was free. I visited for a while with a free-lance journalist who lives in the area and whom I have known heretofore only cybernetically. Then I was able to grab a nap, catch up on some email, and enjoy a nice impromptu conversation with a recently retired colleague before getting changed and heading out to dinner with my Class of 2011 friends. We drove to College Station and had a tasty and economical meal at Chuy's, a regional Tex-Mex chain. On the whole, the day was recreative, which I rather desperately needed.

Friday, March 21, 2014

2014 Spring House of Bishops, Day 1

  • Breakfast at 8:00.
  • Morning Prayer at 9:00, with a retreat meditation delivered by Bishop Lloyd Allen (Honduras).
  • Free time in silence (with a designation talking area for extroverts). I took the opportunity to take a long walk through the piney woods and sandy soil beauty of Camp Allen.
  • Lunch at 11:30.
  • 1:00--"check in" at our assigned tables. (We have the same table mates for three years, re-shuffling after each General Convention).
  • Presentation from the Task Force for the Study of Marriage, a group mandated by General Convention 2012 and populated by the presiding officers of each house. I cannot see how anyone can deny that it is heavily stacked. It includes prominent LGBT activists, and not one member who approaches marriage from a traditionalist perspective. Not one. Despite discussions and feedback such as we participated in today, I don't think there's any doubt that the eventual outcome will be proposed legislation that will redefine marriage in the Episcopal Church to remove the "one man / one woman" norm. How precisely they will get to that objective remains to be seen. There was some mention from the task force of changing language in the Prayer Book. In my table group, I tried to make the point that this is a slippery slope on many levels. Since the Episcopal Church was founded in 1789, we have had four versions of the Book of Common Prayer, including the present 1979 edition. Each one has been a thorough revision, markedly different from its predecessor. We have never simply tweaked and tinkered with the Prayer Book in a piecemeal fashion. This tradition was slightly altered a dozen years ago when we (temporarily, supposedly) suspended language in the Ordinal in order to proceed with our full communion agreement with the Lutherans. Then, over the last two General Conventions, we actually did follow the process of Prayer Book revision in order to bring the lectionary for Holy Week in line with the Revised Common Lectionary. Yet, I've heard no one begin to speak of the new "2012 Prayer Book." But the camel's nose is under the tent, and I suspect (fear?) that, if we amend the language of the marriage rite to accommodate same-sex weddings, we will continue down that same path for other purposes, and the de facto liturgical anarchy we currently enjoy across the church will only be compounded. Of course, this is to say nothing of the inherent enormity of changing the marriage liturgy for the intended purpose, which would be a theological, sacramental, ecumenical, and pastoral train wreck.
  • After a break, we heard from TREC, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church. This, too, is a creation of the last General Convention. They are only 24 people, the scope of their task is impossible to comprehend, and their work is seriously underfunded. Yet, they are striving valiantly. The two most salient items on the discussion agenda today were, What does the national church have to do that cannot be done at a more local level? and How should the office of Presiding Bishop relate to the governance structure of the church? Re the latter, my personal opinion, for a number of reasons, is that the Presiding Bishop should retain his or her diocese upon election to the primacy, with responsibility for day to day operations at any centralized church office falling to a General Secretary. My sense is that opinion on this was very divided, with some table groups favoring it in the plenary reports, and others opposing it. As the to larger question about subsidiarity, I have some hope for a future that would be less juridical and more informal, less centralized and more networked. But there a lot of oxen lined up to be gored in such a move, and the inertia of the status quo should not be underestimated. The trick will be how to reduce the ability of various stakeholders to propose resolutions to General Convention. My own idea is that standing committees, commissions, agencies, and boards should be forbidden from creating their own work--that is, proposing resolutions that ask General Convention to ask them to do something. We'll see how that one flies.
  • At 4:30 we gathered upstairs in All Saints Chapel for Eucharist, commemorating the lesser feast of Thomas Cranmer. (This is according to the trial use Holy Women, Holy Men calendar; in the still official calendar of the church, today commemorates Thomas Ken). The Presiding Bishop celebrated and preached.
  • After dinner we gathered back in our plenary meeting room for the customary event styled "Fireside Chat." We heard from the Bishop of Venezuela about the recently tense and dangerous political and social situation in his country, from the Bishop of the Dominican Republic on the emerging issue of multi-generation Dominicans of Haitian descent being deprived of their citizenship, from the Bishop of Indianapolis on the disintegration of the social fabric in South Sudan, and handful of other items.