Sunday, October 15, 2006

Eye on the Ball

Yesterday, we in the Diocese of Bethlehem completed our Convention. We hold it over two days, and in about 24 hours, we do the business a diocese needs to do, have a little bit of family reunion and a celebration, and, of course, we pray and share Eucharist together.

Bishop Paul shared with us a vision of a capital campaign in which we will keep for our selves, our bricks and mortar, none of the money we raise. With this campaign, we will, I hope, bring new hope to Southern Sudan, new hope to the poor in our diocese, and new hope to people in northeast PA who do not know the embrace of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Truly wonderful and stirring stuff...mission we can really embrace.

But we got distracted. It may come as a surprise, but the source of the distraction came from some very good people who want to do good, even important things. What distracted us were not trivialities but things that should concern every Christian of conscience. Strange how that works. I am sure that Screwtape wrote a letter to Wormwood about this.

We ended our convention with just a whiff of controversy and a hint of tension as we debated serious issues of great import on the floor of the convention. I am not against debate, a little healthy tension can be a good thing, and we Christians have an obligation to weigh the moral impact of things happening in the world today, but even still I felt that at the end of the convention we were tempted with distraction.

Last year, at convention, we reinstituted the Peace Commission. I know only a few people on it, and I don’t know how they got there, but they’ve been busy. They brought nearly half the resolutions that we would consider last weekend: six out of thirteen. After one of their resolutions was withdrawn in favor of a nearly identical resolution from the World Mission Committee and the General Convention deputation concerning the Millennium Development Goals, they brought five out of twelve to the floor.

The Peace Commission resolutions covered a wide gambit: non-violence training, the war in Iraq, torture, immigration policy, and the stewardship of relationships. Now it was hard for me to opposed to any of these, and of the four that came to a vote, I only voted against one, but I could not but help notice the change in tenor and tension on the floor.

Three of the resolutions echoed things we passed at the last General Convention almost verbatim: on the war in Iraq, against the use of torture and immigration policy. The immigration one was referred back to the Peace Commission on the motion of a person clearly opposed to the thing in principle. I disagreed with him, but motions like this are not debatable, so I never got my say. I voted against the referral but lost.

The torture resolution went through quite easily. Not even the staunchest supporter of the administrations policies could bring themselves to say that we ought to let the government torture whomever they please.

But the one on Iraq caused the most debate. There were the two usual points and counter-points made: the church, some said, should not delve into politics versus others who read from the Prophets that the church should hold political leaders responsible for the moral consequences of their policies. Still others stood up and reminded us that even people who disagree are still Christian.

Can you hear the tone leak through as I write this? The sense of right-side and wrong-side; the tone that says there is only one right-minded way to see this? One need not look far to see what sustained doses of opposing certainties can do to a system like a diocese, or a parish, or even a family.

I’ve seen worse. When I was in the Diocese of Connecticut in the 1980’s, convention after convention was filled with competing resolutions from differing, often opposing groups trying to win political points and theological arguments on the floor of convention. It could be entertaining, but we did not get a whole heck of a lot done. Part of the fun was being stirred up and angry. I know that we were not alone in this.

Being stirred up comes with a price, though. Opposing certainties cause people to choose up sides. Choosing sides creates tension. Tension creates anxiety. Anxiety creates a variety of responses from aggression to avoidance. Watching two sides duke it out on the convention floor is like watching a tennis match while being chained to the seat, you can’t help but watch and you can’t get away.

Even though, it could have been worse, I wish we had not gone there. I know, I know, I said I was in agreement with almost all six of the resolutions (heck, I even signed on the one—on the Millennium Development Goals—that the Peace Commission yielded to!). There are three reasons I wish we had chosen another way.

First, there were too many resolutions on too many topics. MDGs are clearly non-partisan, but others were just plain hot-button topics and they were meant to be. Putting the two together made them all hot-button. Our unanimity on MDGs non-violence training and torture was diluted over the debate and hard feelings for the others. In the end, they were all lumped together in our minds and memory.

Second, there is more than one way to educate, raise consciousness and engage debate besides the diocesan convention resolution. Just because General Convention passes a resolution on a topic and commends it to the several dioceses, does not mean that they have to be passed again at the local level. That is only one tool in what could be a very big toolbox. I notice that Integrity, Health Ministries, CFLAG, Children’s Ministries, Evangelism, New Bethany Ministries, ECW and even the feasibility study for the proposed capital campaign all made their presence and cases known without a single resolution from any of these groups. There was certainly discussion and debate all over the place, and not a single vote was cast.

Third, less is more. Some things need and deserve a vote. I think that the Non-Violence Training was important to pass as a resolution—even though it is voted for by people who may not even be aware of what it means or would even do it. This is one that we need to have on record as something that we will do in 2007 or 2008. The same with the MDGs. On the other things, more concrete work needs to be done and we don’t need to repeat ourselves: the Church is already on record as being opposed to torture and for a reasonably speedy withdrawal from Iraq. How about a teach-in or a display or a flyer that describes what the 75th General Convention said, and how we might practically respond to it? Aren’t there other ways we can teach about the racist and hateful undertones of our secular immigration debate?

By not highlighting on the one or two things that the Peace Commission wants us as a Diocese to do the most, everything is equally important, equally trivial and equally divisive. When we remember the hard feelings and not the mission, we have taken our eyes off the ball.

Which is too bad, because both the non-violence training and the MDGs fit nicely into our vision for what our diocese should be doing. Looking back, I wish these were front and center so that the other issues could be seen in perspective in a more appropriate forum. Instead, we tried to do it all at once and risked fogging everything up.

It has been said that Episcopalians would much rather do most anything that work at real mission. It is easy to confuse hot debate on a convention floor for work. Most of the political maneuverings on the national and international levels over sex, rites and rock’n’roll are the clearest examples of how easily and how costly our distractibility can be. So it should not surprise us that a commission interested in peace, non-violence and reconciliation could distract us as well. Since we are not surprised, we can anticipate and do better next time.

There is so much that needs to be done. The question is, can we keep our eye on the ball?

1 comment:

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Andrew,
I think I've come across Screwtape's letter on this subject...

Keep up the work and witness,