Bishop Dietsche's Reflection
on the 2012 General Convention of the Episcopal Church
For deputies' reflections on GC, click here.
There and Back Again
I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed my first General Convention in the House of Bishops. We sit at assigned tables, and I am with a lively and diverse group of bishops. Neil Alexander of Atlanta, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, Andy Doyle of Texas, Wayne Smith of Missouri, Sean Rowe of Northwestern Pennsylvania, retired bishops Jeffrey Rowthorn and James Ottley, and me. I am the newcomer to the table, but they have provided me with a warm and generous welcome, both at House of Bishops in March and again this month in Indianapolis.
New York was well represented! Bishops Sisk and Smith and I were joined by Bishop Roskam in the House of Bishops, and we had a superb group of priests and laypersons in the House of Deputies. Some of them are veterans of many General Conventions, and some were attending for the first time, but all were excited and inspired by the work and the time spent together among so many Episcopalians from everywhere. There were lots of other New Yorkers there as well, from our representatives to the ECW Trennial, to others who came for meetings of national Episcopal groups, to others who served the convention as volunteers (I got to see Canon Taylor every day as he stood guard outside the door to the House of Bishops), to bishop spouses, and to some who just came to see how the Episcopal Church "makes the sausage." Bishops and Deputies came together twice. First for a New York lunch after the Sunday eucharist, and again for sandwiches in Bishop Sisk's hotel room for a group "check-in" toward the end of convention.
Margaret and I decided to drive to Indianapolis. We figured it would be a cost savings, but the fact is that I have always been a sucker for a road trip. It was good to spend the time together, and helpful to have someone to remind me to slow down when we hit blinding rain in Ohio. From the moment we arrived we began seeing old friends again, from other dioceses we have served and some we had not seen since seminary days. Wonderful. It was hotter than blazes most of the time, and humid, which kept us from exploring downtown Indianapolis as we might otherwise have done, but on cooler evenings we did get out to explore the wonderful downtown of that attractive and livable city. On the night of July fourth we watched from our 19th floor window the fireworks at the nearby baseball stadium. I had never seen fireworks from above before, which was a very different perspective!
There were many convention highlights. The daily eucharists were consistently excellent, and provided the spiritual grounding for long days and evenings of committee meetings and legislation. We were all reminded of the essential elegance of the Book of Common Prayer and other authorized liturgies, and of their flexibility and adaptability. Every day we had different and always wonderful music. I will not soon forget the young Lakota man playing the haunting Indian flute, nor the amazingly evocative Spanish-singing guitarist, nor the steel pans from Brooklyn playing "Jesu, Joy of our Desiring," nor the plainsong chant. On Thursday there was a stunning anthem, "Seek Him Who Made the Seven Stars," which at least one person (Mrs. Dietsche) hopes we will hear again on Groundhog's Day.
We prayed in English, Spanish, French, Creole, Hmong, Lakota and Navaho. We heard brilliant preaching, especially our Presiding Bishop three times, and wonderfully Bishop Michael Curry, who celebrated the witness of Harriet Beecher Stowe and lifted that convention center right off the ground. I commend to everyone the sermon of Dr. Mary Crist (Eagle Woman), a Blackfeet Indian from South Dakota whose testimony to the heroism and possibilities of small church ministry may have been some of the most important words spoken all week. One of the blessings of a national convention is that we get to see every facet of the Episcopal Church and the million different faces and voices of God in our church.
Probably the action that has received the most attention was the authorization of a liturgy for the blessing of same sex relationships. There was sustained debate on this resolution, but almost everyone who spoke in the House of Bishops began by giving thanks for the generosity of spirit, the graciousness of people on all sides of the issue, and of the mutual respect and civility of discussion. The resolution passed by a dramatic majority in both houses, supported by all New York bishops, but also with the conviction and evidence that people who disagree on matters of importance can continue to live together in peace and affection. The votes by those at my table fell on both sides of the issue, but had no tempering effect on the deep friendships which have been formed among these bishops. I very much supported the resolution and voted for it, and am pleased that same sex couples in our diocese seeking the blessing of the church will now have this liturgy available to them. It felt good to be a small part of extending this grace to so many faithful couples who ask only for the blessing of the church they love. I am only made sorry by the single exception to the otherwise respectful tone of unity which I felt characterized the debate and vote: that the bishop and most of the deputation of the Diocese of South Carolina chose to leave the convention after this historic vote.
Though we did not see it in the House of Bishops, it may be that the most dramatic moment came in the vote by the House of Deputies on the resolution to study a restructuring of the church. All week we knew that the need to look anew at the structures and budget of the church for ministry and mission was urgently felt. And over the week a resolution to begin that study and inquiry worked its way to the floor of the House of Deputies. But I am told that when the nay votes were called for and met by sheer silence the sudden realization of pure unanimity across the many hundreds present was among the most inspiring and moving moments of the week. There was applause! A hymn was sung! We bishops followed suit with our own perhaps less dramatic unanimity, and now a process will begin which will report to the next convention.
On so many things, but especially on the call for restructure, the participation by young people was more than notable. I sat on the Legislative Committee on Communications, and at 7:30am last Monday morning we held a hearing on a resolution regarding the use of social media in the church. We were astonished to find the gallery at that early hour filled with people, almost all under 35 years old, who spoke with much energy and conviction of the new ways that young people are finding to live out their life in the church and to proclaim the gospel. Such passion for and love for the church, as these deeply committed young people asked us for a church better positioned to serve God's mission in new ways! Their witness and energy was one of the most hopeful signs I have seen in some time of the dynamic health and positive future of the Episcopal church!
So it was disconcerting to come home to a nasty diatribe against the Episcopal Church in Friday's Wall Street Journal. In my opinion it was so ill-informed, so inaccurate, and so lacking in journalistic integrity that it says much more about what happens to a formerly-reputable newspaper when it is bought up by Rupert Murdoch than it does about the life and health of the Episcopal Church. But two days later an op-ed column by Ross Douthat addressed the general liberalism of our church in a somewhat more responsible way (though I confess that as I read it I kept hearing the voice of Dana Carvey's "Church Lady"). The questions that Douthat raises about the relationship between gospel proclamation and social witness are reasonable, and indeed were always on the minds of bishops and deputies at convention. But I wish he could have seen the love of Jesus, the grounding in Bible and tradition, the affection for one another, the loyalty to our church, the commitment to justice, and the brimming hope for our future that marked everything we did.
The decline in the church is real and alarming and demands our whole attention, but that is a bigger matter than liberalism or conservatism on social issues. There is so much health in the church, and the conversations and debates about structure and mission, including the issues of social justice which we addressed, and all the praying we did, are actually the demonstration of our church's faithful engagement with the changing times in which we minister, and not a symptom of the collapse he prefers to see. What I saw were liberal and conservative Episcopalians committed to living together across our differences in the love of Christ and with respect for one another, and ready to go forward together into a common future. It's so easy to pass judgment from a thousand miles away. I wish he would have tried praying with us instead.
You may be proud of your church. The bishops and deputies from New York arrived in Indianapolis for a convention which we knew was going to wrestle with substantial issues for our common life and our future. And we saw the whole church keep the faith, protect the bonds of affection, say our prayers, and do the work you and good folk all across the church sent us to do. Margaret and I drove back to Poughkeepsie on the 12th and 13th, watered the plants and picked up Spotty our dog. We had a great time and worked hard, but it's good to be home.