We will never see, this side of Jordan, the whole of the Church gathered to worship our Lord. But it is a stirring sight that brings to mind that great day to come, to see representatives from Liberia to Louisiana and from Connecticut to Colombia all confessing one Lord, one faith, one baptism, sharing one bread and one cup. Other things happened in Salt Lake City, and they are what filled the headlines, but nothing that we did was as important as what Christ did each time we gathered at the altar.
We elected a new presiding bishop, Michael Curry, the first African-American in that office, which was established under William White. Bishop Curry is a passionate preacher of the gospel, and a man who speaks of Jesus with ease and warmth. He will face great challenges, as the State of the Church 2015 report makes clear. Our median average Sunday attendance has dropped from 80 to 61 in the last 13 years, and 55 percent of us are over age 50; 45 percent of our churches already lack a full-time priest. But to the many challenges we will face together, Bishop Curry brings an unquenchable faith and a buoyant spirit. He may well be just the leader we need. We wish him well and he will be in our prayers.
Into the headwind of discouraging statistics, General Convention made bold moves in support of evangelism, racial reconciliation, and church-planting, with millions of new dollars dedicated. Much of this impetus came not from official committees but from dedicated groups of Episcopalians who rolled up their sleeves and made their case. This is heartening, and in keeping with the long history of renewal in Christian churches. Of course, real evangelism and reconciliation are not issues that can be solved by budgetary allocation. It is a matter of culture: Will we be a church truly unafraid to share the good news of Jesus, and truly willing to invite people who do not look like us to join our church families? Will we do the work of being with the poor and the outcast, and not just doing for them with our checkbooks?
One cultural change we committed to regards our culture of drinking. “Where there are four Episcopalians, there is always a fifth.” That all seems less funny now, after the tragic death of Thomas Palermo. In Resolution A159, we recognized our “complicity in a culture of alcohol, denial, and enabling,” and spoke aloud of our need to confront this reality and repent. It may have been among the most important things we did in Salt Lake City.
There was much to-do about structural change after the TREC proposals, but the changes made were modest. We have eliminated all but two standing commissions (Liturgy and Music, and Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons), and that was an important step. But we have not reduced the size of General Convention one iota, nor our provincial structures, nor Executive Council. The millions upon millions of dollars spent in our church on administrative and governance bloat are urgently needed in our dioceses and in our parishes — for evangelism and church-planting, for mission and outreach, for our struggling seminaries and heavily indebted seminarians. All reasonable people must admit that General Convention is far too big to function well as a legislative body. This was a missed opportunity.
The biggest headlines, of course, were to do with same-sex marriage. We stand with the Communion Partner bishops, who in their statement affirmed that the “promises and vows of marriage presuppose husband and wife as the partners who are made one flesh in marriage. This understanding is a reasonable one, as well as in accord with Holy Scripture and Christian tradition.” We also stand with their commitment to walk alongside Canterbury and the Anglican Communion in that to which the Book of Common Prayer commits us.
The Communion Partner bishops conducted themselves with malice toward none, and charity toward all. And their “equanimity, generosity, and graciousness” were recognized by the entire House of Bishops in the “Communion Across Difference” statement, which spoke of the “indispensible” witness of conservatives on this issue within the Episcopal Church, despite our serious disagreements.
There will be more disagreements in the coming years, as the church has now begun the planning process for prayer-book and hymnal revision. This seems like folly to us. Church Publishing surveys showed no appetite for hymnal revision, and we surely are not yet done receiving what the 1979 BCP has to teach us. After several decades of division on sexuality, must we now embark on another needless decade of liturgy wars?
Of course, there are many who do indeed want changes that the 1979 prayer book does not allow. The practice of “open table” was debated again, and the bishops narrowly defeated a proposal to study it further. Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, which drove the last prayer-book change, has posted a lecture on its website in which several questions are raised: Do creeds really have a place other than at the baptismal rite? Does there need to be a confession of sin each Sunday? Is our eucharistic prayer too focused on the passion of Christ and the Paschal mystery? To this, we might add that the favored nomenclature today is “God’s dream,” not “God’s kingdom”; along with “it is right to give God [not him] thanks and praise.” And then, of course, there is “man and woman” in the marriage service.
It is not clear to us that the Episcopal Church will be able to create a text that can truthfully be called a book of common prayer for all of its clergy and members gathered for worship, from Delaware to the Dominican Republic. We suggest that the Canadians and the English have something to teach us in this regard, particularly Canada’s 1962 Book of Common Prayer established alongside its 1985 Book of Alternative Services, which functions like the prayer book in most Canadian parishes today. If we do genuinely want to relieve the pressure of our squabbles about a one-size-fits-all book and be a comprehensive church, there are ready precedents at hand, including the English “flying bishops” if need be.
There will, at least, be time to think about it. The rites we passed in Salt Lake City are “trial use,” and are specified to require the permission of diocesan bishops. If they are tried for three years and found to be perfect (which seems rushed), they can be proposed on a first reading as part of a new BCP in 2018, and then adopted in 2021. But any prayer-book revision will take at least nine years, and it would be odd to adopt a piecemeal revision in 2021, and then a comprehensive revision in 2024. We will have the 1979 book for some time, and we would do well to consider keeping it alongside another book for those who so desire.
We all have much work to do in the coming years, most of which has nothing to do with resolutions and committees, praise God. Bishop Curry gave the gathered leaders a rousing send-off at Convention’s end, commissioning us to follow with boldness in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Go!” Let us travel on, together.
Image of Salt Palace Convention Center by jnshaumeyer, via Flickr