The Reverend Sandy Webb is blogging from General Convention in Salt Lake City.
My body does not like altitude. It never has. There’s not nearly enough oxygen here at 4,300 feet, and the air is entirely too dry. My spirit may not miss Memphis’ humidity, but my skin and my nose surely do!
In spite of the altitude, I have forced myself to exercise for the last two mornings. On Tuesday, I ran the perimeter of the General Convention complex, and yesterday I ran through its core. With most legislative committees having their first meetings early that morning, I passed a number of bishops and deputies on their way to work. (The General Convention officially convenes Thursday, but most business gets underway on Wednesday. Since Thursday is officially classified as Day 1, the staff affectionately refer to Wednesday as “Day Zero”.) I greeted many old friends on my way, and even made a few new ones.
Somewhere in the middle of my second mile, I turned a corner and entered Pioneer Park. Here, there were no more General Convention name tags, no more clerical collars. Instead, at least two dozen homeless people sleeping on the grass. (Strikingly, they slept directly under city signs that discouraged visitors from giving money to panhandlers.) Some were still bedded down, some were beginning to rise and greet their friends. One man had started to wake up, but rolled over and pulled his blanket back up to his neck; he was no more interested in being awake at that hour than I was.
The morning was entirely normal for everyone I met this morning, but the juxtaposition was overwhelming. On West Temple Street, I ran past the well-clad leaders of the church I love. Not two blocks away, I ran past those who most need to hear the Church’s message of love. I am not one of those Episcopalians who believes that we should sell all of our buildings and give the money to the poor. But, I am one of those Episcopalians who believes that Church’s mission is to share Christ’s message of love and hope with those in greatest need. The ground level, the diocese and moreso the parish, is the only place that we can address our challenges on the ground, the only place we can truly engage in the relational forms of ministry that heal, strengthen, and renew communities and individuals. What Christ’s message for the people who sleep in Pioneer Park? How does the Episcopal Church best proclaim that message?
In an editorial this afternoon, my friends at the Episcopal Herald critique the General Convention for having poorly ordered its priorities. With regard to the lack of open conversations about race and racism, they write: “In the same way that a budget is a moral document reflecting our values, perhaps it is worth considering how the agenda for our time together reflects those same values…There will be a great deal of debate on the Biblical legitimacy of gay marriage… We will also spend exorbitant amounts of time debating our own structure, committee budgets, and nuances of legislative proceedings. This leaves too little room for those issues which we are still too fearful to directly address.”
The editors are half right: The Episcopal Church does need to have hard conversations about race, about economic inequality, about sexual orientation, and about the changing nature of American Christianity. However, the time that this General Convention will invest in reviewing our internal structures is neither exorbitant nor a waste. In fact, it may be the most significant missionary conversation that this body can have right now.
Long ago, the Episcopal Church believed in the principle of subsidiarity – the idea that ministry should be engaged at the most local level practicable. In other words, the Episcopal Church should only do at the denominational level those things that cannot be done effectively at the diocesan level, and dioceses should only do those things that cannot be done effectively at the parish level. Over the years, the General Convention and its staff have concerned themselves with a wide range of topics that should have been entrusted to more local levels of the Church. We have a rare opportunity to begin fixing that this year.
It is not the General Convention’s responsibility to care for the people in Pioneer Park, but it is the responsibility of the Diocese of Utah, of the parishes in this neighborhood, and of the baptized Christians who live here. In the same way, it is the responsibility of the Diocese of West Tennessee, the Church of the Holy Communion, and the baptized Christians of Memphis to care for the poor and impoverished people in Orange Mound, Hickory Hill, and along Summer Avenue. The General Convention’s task is to ensure that our people, parishes, and dioceses have the maximum number of resources – resources of every kind – with which to engage the work that God has given us to do.
It is easy to label the General Convention as being inefficient, unrepresentative, and disconnected. (In 1979, one seminarian used the image of a beached whale.) However, it is also important to give credit where credit is due. This General Convention’s conversations about structure are its first intentional efforts in more than half a century to identify and release ministry resources that have been unnecessarily gathered at the top of our structure. That’s more than inside baseball, and it is work that only the General Convention can do.
We have to be careful as our altitude increases, there’s less oxygen at these higher elevations. But, with God’s help, my prayer is that we will not forget the realities on the ground.