Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Trees within a Forest

Every day, Christians are being killed simply because they are Christians. In places like Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Egypt, and Pakistan, men and women and children are being slaughtered by religious extremists. Their homes and businesses are being destroyed. Their churches are being burned. Those who survive are being forced to flee their homes. Thousands—if not millions—live imprisoned by fear. As members of the Body of Christ, we are supposed to share their pain, but I must confess that their circumstance is so far removed from my comfortable life in the Bible Belt that I cannot internalize even an ounce of their agony. But I want to. I need to.

Last week, at Province IV Synod, which is a gathering of General Convention deputies and bishops from this part of the Episcopal Church, the deputation from Alabama proposed a simple resolution calling upon the church to condemn these heinous acts of violence and to remember these martyrs in a day of prayer. As a group, we sat together for twenty minutes and roughly pieced together the language of this resolution. After that, a smaller group of us spent a few hours polishing it up and preparing to distribute it to the rest of the Synod. On Friday morning, one of our deputies moved its adoption and spoke in its favor, passionately reminding us of the ongoing suffering and urging us to do something about it. And then the legislative process took over.

Someone stood up and moved an amendment that would add language in support of people who are persecuted for other reasons like race, gender, and sexual orientation. Then, people took turns arguing over that proposal—whether it was important to expand the resolution or whether doing so would water down its power. Finally, a vote was taken, and the amendment was defeated. Then, another person stood up and proposed a different amendment—one to clarify the language that specified those whom we were supporting. It was an attempt to strengthen our connection with the Christian community by not merely condemning violence against all people of faith. As before, a debate ensued, and, again, a vote was taken, and this amendment passed. Then, a third person proposed an amendment to change the date for the day of prayer that we had suggested for these martyrs from November 2, which is the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, to Good Friday. The Synod went back and forth on whether the new date was better than the original one, and, when the vote was taken, the original remained intact.

Others still remained unhappy with the original date, however, so a fourth amendment was proposed—one that would remove the particular designation for the day of prayer and leave it undefined, presumably to be chosen by a different group at a different point in the legislative process. Again, we went around and around, completely immersed in a legislative quagmire, until finally someone stood at the microphone and told us that he would be embarrassed if someone from Iraq were here to see the way we were debating this resolution. He was right. What were we thinking? How could we be so callous? Can anyone within the church really debate the merits of a proposal that condemns violence against Christians and proposes a day to remember the victims in prayer?

If you hoped the answer would be no, you would be sadly mistaken because, as soon as he was done speaking, we went right back to it. The debate continued. That prophetic deputy’s words were not far from our minds, though, and we wrapped things up fairly quickly. The resolution, as amended twice, passed with only one “no” vote, and I’m not sure whether that person was paying attention when he said “no.” After thirty minutes of frustrated haggling, we did the right thing.

As long as the church has been in existence, we have used some form of a legislative process to make decisions. For ancient evidence of that, read Acts 15 and the story of the Jerusalem Council, where, after much debate, the first leaders of the church outlined expectations for Gentile converts to Christianity. That we need a political process to determine God’s will reminds me of a deep truth about the church: even when it considers heavenly ideas, the church remains a human institution. Sometimes we make bad decisions. Sometimes we make good decisions. Often, we make decent decisions in a terribly unchristian way. We argue with each other. Our ego taints our judgment. We focus on winners and losers and lose sight of our interconnectedness as Christ’s body. Still, this is how we work.

Individual parishes use vestries to conduct the business of the church. Parishes are grouped together as dioceses, where larger decisions are made. Dioceses comprise synods and also the whole Episcopal Church, which uses a triennial gathering to conducts its business. Is it important work? Most of the time. Do we mistake procedure for purpose? Often. Could we carry out this work in another way? Certainly. Would that way be free of the lugubrious legislative realities we now experience? Not for long.

I look forward to General Convention. I look forward to seeing that the resolution we passed at Province IV Synod will be considered by the whole General Convention. In a strange way, I look forward to the legislative process—even though we often lose sight of the forest for sake of the trees. This is how our church works. This is one mechanism through which God works. Please pray for me and for others taking part. Pray that we are led by God’s Spirit to seek what is true and right and godly. Pray that we don’t get too bogged down in the process. Pray that we remember that all of our efforts are in the service of God and his kingdom.

The work of the 78th General Convention, which will be held in Salt Lake City, begins on June 23 and lasts through July 3.

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