The 78th General Convention, held June 25 to July 3 in Salt Lake City, may seem a distant memory, but for the Very Rev. Michael Bamberger its effects are lasting. “The work has already begun,” he told The Episcopal News.
He and another first-time L.A. deputy, the Very Rev. Melissa McCarthy, didn’t waste any time observing at the nine-day meeting; they jumped right in to convention’s inner workings.
Bamberger was elected to serve a six-year term on the Governing Board of Examining Chaplains (GBEC) while McCarthy said she learned about the legislative process through tracking Resolution D035, urging increased awareness and support of Christians in Pakistan, which she sponsored.
“I have been asked to chair the sub-committee that will formulate and evaluate the theology question for this coming year’s General Ordination Examinations,” which are administered to persons seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church, Bamberger told the Episcopal News recently. “I’m excited about working with long-time colleagues and new folks as well.”
The Episcopal News asked L.A. deputies for their reflections about the every-three-years gathering of the 109 dioceses of the Episcopal Church. This year, convention approved a series of historic actions: electing North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry as the first African American presiding bishop; approving marriage equality for all Episcopalians; and adopting a budget that emphasizes racial reconciliation and evangelism, and changes to church governance, among other priorities.
‘Genius and Spirit’
Attending daily worship was, for Bamberger, “uplifting and at times moving.” He said the ministry of another L.A. deputy, the Rev. Lester Mackenzie, chaplain to the House of Deputies “was genius and Spirit.”
Yet observing committee work — integral to convention’s legislative process — was frustrating, he said, especially when dealing with redundant initiatives. But, he added, “I was also moved by the deliberate efforts to find compromise. As one of my colleagues put it, ‘progress, not perfection.’ It was an honor to represent Los Angeles in this important council of the Church.”
A downside, however, was that “General Convention, in passing the budget, did not directly fund the work of the GBEC,” Bamberger said. But he added that the board’s chair, Arkansas Bishop Larry Benfield, and Duncan Ely, executive director and administrator, will be working with Executive Council to finance the work.
‘A voice from the margins’
For the Rev. Canon Gary Commins, rector of St. Luke’s Church, Long Beach and a four-time deputy, one of the most moving moments of the entire convention came during legislative testimony before the committee on which he serves, Social Justice and International Policy, from a member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Young Adult Presence.
“Speaking to a resolution about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injury, she noted that the resolution said nothing about those who had experienced sexual violence which, she shared, was something she had experienced,” Commins said.
“The committee quickly and duly amended the resolution. For me, that was one of the most hopeful moments of Convention and an all-too rare one in which a voice from the margins was heard by those of us at the center of the institution.”
Otherwise, he characterized the gathering as an internally focused event, yet with “random acts indicating an interest in the world: racial reconciliation, gun violence, more funding for Latino/Hispanic ministry and the like. But by and large, the Episcopal Church reflects mainstream values rather than doing or saying anything ‘prophetic’ (a word bandied about in sermons but kept safely locked in the worship space most of the day),” he said.
“After all, the U.S. Supreme Court approved a broader understanding of marriage a few days before convention wrapped up (hopefully) 40 years of dialogue and debate on the same subject,” Commins told the Episcopal News.
“Also, while convention met, the Vatican recognized the state of Palestine while the House of Bishops was unable to offer a gesture of justice for Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories.”
Additionally, Commins noted, “People at convention confuse themselves with the whole Episcopal Church, which is unfortunate. There was an air of self-congratulation, which is odd. The anxieties of church shrinkage and present and future irrelevancy were mostly kept outside the air-conditioned convention center,” he said.
“We tended to confuse any action with bold action,” he added. “In a healthy reminder, we heard and saw the breadth of the Episcopal Church — Southern accents, deputies from Europe, Central America, Haiti, and more. That said, we did about as well as we could.”
There was much discussion about reimagining the church, he said, “when we were really reimagining the hierarchy and bureaucracy. The latter is fine, but it’s unfortunate that people conflate the two. That said, convention acted to downsize the bureaucracy (which is good) and bureaucratize grassroots creativity (which is probably the best we can imagine).”
Commins found the daily worship “uniformly thoughtful and creative, and was generally mindful of inclusion and diversity,” but noted the lack of Latinos among the preachers.
Hectic schedules and ‘keeping gratitude at the forefront’
For McCarthy, vicar of Church of the Epiphany, Oak Park, sponsoring a resolution urging increased awareness and support for Christians in Pakistan “was a great experience. I learned a lot.
“The resolution came out of our diocesan Program Group on Global Partnerships,” she explained. “I was not part of the crafting of the resolution at all. I was asked to sponsor it because, as a first time deputy, I was not serving on any of the legislative committees and had the bandwidth to be able to propose, track, and communicate back to the program group the status of the resolution.”
Proposing the resolution of support for Christians in Pakistan was personally satisfying, she said. “It has been an issue very close to my heart for a number of years and so being able to raise awareness and do something positive for Pakistan was very meaningful. I feel grateful to have had the opportunity!”
A downside was convention’s hectic schedule: “I only got to the exhibit hall once” — and the overall lack of diversity, which weakens “our witness as the Body of Christ,” she said.
She said, however, that she “felt a genuine desire among the House of Deputies to work toward change. It was heartening to hear the stories people told and to witness the House of Deputies struggling with issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia with honesty and clarity. I didn’t always like what people said but I never doubted the sincerity of it. That was a gift. It felt very honest and authentic.”
McCarthy even appreciated the courtesy resolutions, at least 28 of which originated in the House of Deputies, including Resolution A190, expressing “appreciation for the joy-filled ministry of [Los Angeles deputy] the Rev. Lester V. Mackenzie, chaplain to the House of Deputies.”
By the end of nine days of convention discussion, debate, voting, and caucusing, McCarthy realized the courtesy resolutions help to keep “gratitude at the forefront of what we are doing,” she said.
“The way those resolutions were interspersed meant, no matter what heated discussions we had or what difficult resolutions we were dealing with, there was always something positive to redirect our energies.”
She felt a cohesiveness, positive atmosphere, energy and excitement for the church, she said, “and a spirit of readiness for whatever God is calling us to be and to do in the world. In all my years of work in the Church, from Roman Catholic to Presbyterian to Methodist to Baptist to Episcopalian, I have never experienced such enthusiasm for the church and such collegiality and mutual respect and understanding.
“For me, the best part was being part of such an incredible group of faithful people, committed to be the Body of Christ in the world,” she added,“and to be part of the election of Michael Curry as our next presiding bishop. He is charming, funny, down-to-earth, and his unapologetic love of Jesus makes me so happy. One thing I will never forget is when the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori read President Obama’s letter [of congratulations] to Bishop Curry.
“Everyone jumped to their feet and applauded and cheered. I heard Bishop Curry, whose microphone was on, ask Bishop Katharine, ‘What do I do now?’ It was a great moment of Bishop Curry being a real person … including feeling a little uncomfortable with all that applause and attention. It will be a great nine years with him as presiding bishop.”
Tweeting and a selfie with the PB-elect
For two-time deputy Kathryn Nishibayashi, parishioner at St. Mary’s Church (Mariposa), Los Angeles, “It was quite a convention!
“One of my lasting memories will be the hunger strike the House of Deputies went on when we heard there was an election of the next presiding bishop,” recalled Nishibayashi, a member of the Formation and Education for Ministry Committee.
“Gay Jennings [president of the House of Deputies] tried to send the house to lunch with the promise of finding out the [name of the] electee later,” said Nishibayashi. “But, as a house we all cried out that we wanted to wait! So we did.
“The evening of the election, I was privileged to be at a meeting of the deputies of color and Presiding Bishop-elect Curry appeared and spoke briefly. It was amazing. And I even took a selfie with him!”
Social media’s impact was also huge for Nishibayashi, who noted that Jennings dubbed the House of Deputies the “House of Twitter,” and created a Twitter account “so that those of us who tweet could tweet any questions we had during the course of the proceedings.
“As one of the two L.A. tweeters, I occasionally tweeted a question one of my fellow L.A. deputies had. Pleasantly surprising, they were very responsive to tweets,” she said.
“It was really fun to follow along with other Tweeters (especially when we would get stuck in the weeds of parliamentary procedure!) to hear what others were thinking. And I even got to meet many in person whom I had only ever interacted with on Twitter.”
She also served as the “unofficial campaign manager” for her father, Steve Nishibayashi, who was elected as a representative to Executive Council, which serves as the governing body of the Episcopal Church between meetings of General Convention.
“Also awesome was watching Lester Mackenzie serve as House of Deputies chaplain,” Kathryn Nishibayashi said. “He represented our diocese so well and it was a joy that the wider church could see what a gift he is. As I kept telling him, he has set the bar high for any future chaplains!”
A focus on action
For five-time deputy Dan Valdez, parishioner at All Saints’ Church, Highland Park (Los Angeles), the 78th General Convention was uncharacteristically nimble, as expressed in the “willingness on the deputies’ part to think differently — finally.
“With the whole restructuring of the church, it became clear to me early in our legislative committee work that people were intent on operating more efficiently — obviously paperless, but more effectively making use of the consent calendar to minimize debate and individual votes on the floor of convention. But beyond that actually writing resolutions that are clearly actionable,” said Valdez, who serves on the Social Justice and U.S. Policy committee.
At the first almost-paperless convention, “it was remarkable how well things worked,” he added. “It wasn’t perfect. We did grumble a little about navigating the virtual binder but we have taken leaps and bounds into the future in the way this convention was run,” he said. “Surely it’s only going to get better for future conventions.”
Timely legislation that demonstrated “definite calls to action” and responded to the larger community were fast-tracked, he said — such as Resolution A302, a timely letter of condolence and support to Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the wake of the racially motivated murders of nine African Americans.
Valdez also was heartened by the church restructuring actions. Substitute Resolution A006 reduced the number of church standing commissions from 14 to two; Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons, and the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.
“I was happy to see all that go and I was surprised at the majority vote, where people were willing to say we can’t operate the old way anymore; have to do something new,” Valdez said.
A big fat Episcopal reunion
For Canon Jim White, parishioner at All Saints Church, Pasadena, one of the best parts of General Convention is the “‘My Big Fat Episcopal Family Reunion.’
It’s always great to see friends from around the country that you only see in the flesh once every three years,” said White, a five-time deputy and member of the Committee on Governance and Structure.
“And there are lots of shared meals and stories of ministry going on in lots of different places, and worshiping together in the daily convention Eucharist with amazing music and preachers.”
A highlight was seeing presiding bishops “past, present and future” — Frank Griswold, Katharine Jefferts Schori and Michael Curry — presented to the House of Deputies, where L.A. deputies had a front-row seat.
Personally thrilled with Curry’s “landslide election on an historic first ballot” White predicts “the church is in for a wild ride with our new CEO — our ‘Chief Evangelism Officer,’ as we’re calling him.”
Approval of marriage equality and church government restructuring were also affirming, he said.
But he noted that legislation amending the marriage canon, like Resolution A036, allowed that “it shall be within the discretion of any member of the clergy of this church to decline to solemnize or bless any marriage.”
Says White: “It is very interesting to see how some bishops are choosing not to allow [marriage equality] in their dioceses. I guess we knew that was going to be one of the outcomes, but it is sad that the same-sex couples in those places must still exist as second-class citizens within the church. The resolution requires that bishops make the liturgies available to everyone, but if that means having to travel to another diocese to get married, how pastoral is that? Clearly, we still have work to do before there is justice for all.”
White’s committee “dealt with all of the resolutions that came out of the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC) — a misnomer, he believes. “It should have been the Task Force to Reimagine the Governing Structures of the Episcopal Church, since that’s really what it dealt with,” he said.
With about 50 members, the committee met daily at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., he said, and ultimately recommended legislation implementing very few of TREC’s original suggestions.
“I think we all looked at these changes as the beginning of an ongoing process that’s going to take quite a long time to put into effect,” he said. “One example is the recommendation to create a unicameral legislature … doing away with the House of Deputies and House of Bishops and all meeting together in one house with all three orders.
“It turns out that the Constitution prohibits the two current houses ‘deliberating and voting’ together,” he explained. “So we passed a resolution that allows that, but it will take a second reading and affirmative vote at the next convention to implement, so the first time the two houses could vote together would be at General Convention in 2021. No one is saying we should do that as a matter of course — only if each of the two houses agree that a joint session is in order.”
In all, he said, “It’s clear that, crazy, frustrating and exhausting as it may be at times, some of us have been bit by the [General Convention] bug and love it and can’t stay away from it.”
Diligent work and spontaneous song
Like many others, two-time deputy Canon Janet Wylie, member of St. Andrew’s Church, Fullerton, and secretary of convention for the diocese, recalls the moment Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry entered the House of Deputies “and the House spontaneously broke out in song.”
And, speaking of song, she added, “the Rev. Lester Mackenzie was … the best chaplain (to the House of Deputies) I have seen in the past four General Conventions I have had the privilege to attend. He had the house rocking in song and dance, as well as prayer!”
Also exciting was “the vote on the liturgies for marriage and the canonical changes to the Celebration and Blessing of Marriage, she said. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of these changes. I wonder what the outcome might have been if the U.S. Supreme Court had voted differently with regard to the marriage of our gay and lesbian friends.”
About committee work, she said, “We worked hard and diligently to present the best and most clear resolutions we could possibly put forth. I sat in the testimonies for the Legislative Committee on Governance and Structure … that committee was assigned to look at the way the provinces work, the make-up of Executive Council, whether or not the Convention should continue with a bi-cameral house, and so much more. I was impressed by the amount of work done behind the scenes,” she said.
The Rev. Lester V. Mackenzie, associate rector at St. Matthew’s, Pacific Palisades, who was lauded for his gifts and contributions as chaplain to the House of Deputies, was unavailable for comment.