This week, I had the unique and fantastic opportunity to attend the annual Convention for the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast as a delegate from my own parish. These Conventions are emblematic of what I find so enchanting about the Episcopal Church: clergy and laity convene to discuss policies and matters important to the Church. Representatives from every parish–priests, deacons, and regular folk (like me)–debate budgets and missions, what we are doing and where our money goes. In the Episcopal Church, someone like me–someone whose faith structure fluctuates regularly, who usually finds more questions than answers at the end of a given spiritual study, who isn’t even sure what to call her faith (see the name of this blog)–can approach a microphone and tell a Bishop and a room filled with other Episcopalians (of many other shades of faith) what she thinks about whatever decision is on the table and about to be finalized.
Someone like me, whose kids’ clothes don’t fit half the time, who routinely misplaces permission slips and forgets to pay that $2 owed to the school cafeteria until the angry “FINAL NOTICE!” comes home in the kindergartner’s backpack–someone who has never managed to stop smoking for good, who drinks too much Diet Coke, even during Lent, who always seems to be running 5 minutes late without having put on makeup, whose sleeves are often covered in someone else’s crumbs and stickiness–someone like me can actually make a difference in actual, real things.
I did not take to any microphones this time (that’s not me; I didn’t see any crumbs on that woman). I did vote, though, on Standing Committee members, three resolutions, two budget amendments, and the annual budget. I sat at a table with two clergy and six (I think?) lay delegates from my parish, and we didn’t always vote the same way. The two priests didn’t even vote the same way each time! And it wasn’t in secret. And it wasn’t a big deal. Everyone was still friends when it was over, and no one got excommunicated.
This way of conducting business feels very revolutionary to me, coming back to the Episcopal Church as a convert to Catholicism. To be honest, I have no idea how Catholic parishes and dioceses do business. But I know that when it comes to matters of Church structure and mission, let alone liturgy or morals, nobody has ever asked for my opinion.
That may be why I felt a lot of trepidation and skepticism toward one of the resolutions up for discussion and vote. It’s also why I shouldn’t have.
The resolution (Resolution 1) had to do with “structural reform.” It resolved that the Convention commit “to a season of reform, restructure and reawakening.” To this end, the writers of the resolution suggested a committee be formed to “listen for the Spirit, study scripture, pray for the church, […] prayerfully and with considered Biblical, theological, ecclesiological, and historical study; consider what it means to be a diocese in Christ’s one holy, catholic and apostolic church,” and after doing such, to “develop specific and measurable recommendations” to the Diocese.
I read this in my car, in my driveway, when I got my Convention packet in the mail a few weeks ago. Upon first reading, I felt very suspicious. I know, right? “Listen for the Spirit”? “Pray for the church”? What is there to be suspicious about?
The thing is, several years ago, I was able to attend the Convention of the Diocese of Louisiana as a guest (not a voting delegate). This was just after Gene Robinson was elected bishop, the first openly gay bishop anywhere, OMGWTFBBQ. There were a million resolutions at that year’s convention, many of them aimed at Robinson’s gay little miter. But most of them didn’t say, “No gays! Get the gays out!” That would be gauche. Instead, they “resolved” that the Diocese should “listen for the Spirit,” “study scripture,” “pray for the church,” and “consider what it means” to be a part of “Christ’s one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Because to the drafters of these resolutions, the church could not have been praying, listening for the Spirit, and studying scripture before. It would not have allowed that gay bishop if it had.
So that scenario is what immediately jumped to my head when I read Resolution 1. I wondered if Resolution 1 were just a thinly veiled attempt to root out the gays, and while they were at it, maybe women and Democrats and people who believe in climate change, too.
My rector assured me that he did not think these were the aims of the writers of Resolution 1. He advised that he knows (some of?) the writers, and one in particular, Rev. Steve Pankey, and Pankey is young. He is involved with a group called “Acts 8,” and a lot of the people of that group are young, under 40. Young people don’t want to root out the gays!
I argued with him that in my experience, young churchy people are often the most conservative. In Catholicism, at least, that’s the case. I know that when I was a teenager, young people were known to be the liberalizers in church. Now that I’m in my 30s, my contemporaries are the ones starting new media apostolates and preaching a conservative brand of Christianity, the face of the pendulum swinging back from the last few generations’ work.
But the Convention to which I was headed this week was not a Catholic event; it was Episcopal. I decided to try to keep an open mind and hear what the Resolution 1/Acts 8 people had to say.
Saturday afternoon of the Convention, Steve Pankey and the Acts 8 people gave a presentation to kind of explain what Acts 8 was all about. The session started with a prayer, and then a short video:
Then Pankey explained that Acts 8 is a Thing, that the movement for restructuring in the Episcopal Church came out of a resolution that passed at the last General Convention (the national level convention of the Church that meets, if I’m not mistaken, every 3 years). Acts 8 is a thing, a big thing that I am only just beginning to learn about and which I could not possibly hope to explain, but it started after General Convention last year with posts by three Episcopal bloggers, Susan Snook, Scott Gunn, and Tom Ferguson (please, Lord, tell me I’m linking the right posts).
What struck me immediately during the Acts 8 presentation is that Acts 8 does not have the narrow-minded goal of purging the Church of the gays. Its purpose is much nobler, much broader, and much more Christ-like than anything like that. The point of the Acts 8 movement goes back to the 8th chapter of the book of Acts. In the 7th chapter, things aren’t going very well for the fledgling Christian church. At the end, Stephen is stoned to death. Then in the beginning of the 8th chapter, Saul (later to become Paul) unleashes a wave of persecution upon the Christians, dragging them from their homes to kill them, and the Christians have to scatter and flee to escape the onslaught. But they don’t run away to hide; driven by the Holy Spirit, they travel throughout the land and continue to preach the Good News. By the end of the 8th chapter, they have baptized a new convert and are on their way to becoming the church we know today.
The Acts 8 people say that during this “Acts 8 moment,” the Christian church was at a critical crossroads. They were in danger of becoming extinct, and had they continued to do what they were doing, they would have. Instead, they followed the Holy Spirit, and they flourished.
Similarly, the church today is in a “Acts 8 moment.” We are in danger of becoming irrelevant and extinct. The church as it exists today cannot survive. Change is needed. Excess baggage must be dropped.
This much was clear in the budget presentation I attended earlier that day at the Convention. The amount of income the Diocese has received has declined dramatically since 2003. Some of that is the economy, sure, but everyone knows church attendance is down as well. This year’s budget had some significant cuts (as did prior years’ budgets). There just isn’t the money to do all the things the Diocese used to do, including fully fund the outreaches they would like to. And to paraphrase the priest who gave the budget talk, if we aren’t putting money toward outreach, toward others’ needs, then what are we doing here?
But the Acts 8 movement isn’t only about budgets. It’s about the Holy Spirit, and following the Holy Spirit to a new church structure that will be sustainable in a way that the present-day church is not in our culture.
Now. It’s been a long time since my charismatic days. I’ve always found the Holy Spirit to be the most troublesome Person of the Trinity. Very difficult to define; difficult to grasp. My prayers usually address God the Father; Jesus is second most common. I’ve occasionally invoked the Holy Spirit when I was looking for the right thing to say. I believe I “received the Holy Spirit” in my confirmation, though I’m not really sure what that means. People who talk about the Holy Spirit are usually more evangelical-minded. They sing church camp songs and sway with their eyes closed and their hands raised. I prefer a boss choir and a badass organ leading me in traditional hymns written by long-dead poets. I’m not sure what “spreading the Good News” looks like today. I prefer to take St. Francis’s tactic: “preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.”
In some ways, I find this big movement to shake the Church up much more horrifying than the idea that a couple of people want to get rid of the gays. I mean, if Resolution 1 were just about the gays, even if it passed there would always be next year’s Convention to talk about it again. But if Resolution 1 is indicative of a wave of change that is upon the Episcopal Church, then what I know to be the Church may well be on its way out. And I like the Episcopal Church! I just got (back) here. I like my boss choir. I like my understated witness.
But it does seem to be true that something needs to change. Whatever it is that I find comforting in the Church, which has kept me coming back for all these years, is not externally apparent to others. I’m always amazed at what people think Christianity and church mean. The loudest and most visible representatives of Christianity are often the most vile. I do not believe that vileness comes from the Holy Spirit. And Jesus told us to preach the Good News. Somehow we aren’t doing that; those who are preaching successfully are spreading some very, very bad news.
In the end, I found the Acts 8 presentation deeply evocative in ways I did not expect and cannot fully explain, even to myself. In my own faith journey, I have found the Episcopal Church to be a place of peace and refuge. That is what has lead me back over the last couple of years: a sense of peace in church when church had previously made me angry, sad, and bitter. And on my faith journey, perhaps the time is near to build upon and go beyond that. My faith should not only be a refuge for me; it should be something I use to make a difference in the world. Maybe I am at an Acts 8 moment myself. The 8th chapter of the book of Acts ends with a lot of joy, and joy seems active, while peace seems passive. Maybe I need to drop off some of that leftover bitterness and find joy.
So, the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast is overwhelmingly in favor of this bid to restructure. Resolution 1 was passed without a single vote of “nay.” I’ll be very interested to see what happens next.
And in other news of the rank-and-file being agents for change in the Episcopal Church, I was so interested in a shocking development in the last minutes of the budget discussion. At the very end of the last business session, Rev. Thack Dyson proposed an amendment to the budget, and he plead the case that $50,000 should be budgeted for a youth minister. That line item had been budgeted $0 in the draft up for vote. Dyson suggested taking $25,000 each from two programs funded by the Diocese, one of which is Beckwith, a retreat center and summer camp. The day before, we’d heard impassioned speeches by the staff of Beckwith about the work that facility does. Everybody loves Beckwith. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would be in favor of this amendment. And yet, person after person got up to the microphone to speak in favor of this idea. (A couple were opposed, too, and they didn’t get stoned.) One in favor was this kid:
This kid has got to be, what, 5 years old? Okay, just kidding, but he’s really young, and he’s a delegate for his parish. Some kid can be a delegate in the Episcopal Church and stand at a microphone and speak his mind to hundreds of bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people, when $50,000 is at stake. Someone may get a job as a youth minister this year, and this kid had a say in it.
Anyway, those who spoke in favor of the budget amendment won the day. The budget was passed with thousands slashed from two line items and a third inflated well beyond what it even asked for in 2012. It’s crazy and wild and kind of amazing.
I love this church.