The Reverend Sandy Webb left yesterday for General Convention and will be blogging from Salt Lake City over the next two weeks. Here’s his first missive, from the air...
"We’re on the plaaaaaane!" the girl across the aisle whispered all-too-audibly to her mother. Her voice was filled with that childlike brand of enthusiasm that we grown-ups often hide behind a veil of so-called maturity. This was certainly her first flight, and she was determined to have the full experience, absorbing all the sights and sounds of a commercial airliner – the security briefing, the snacks, the headphones, the little cup of Diet Coke. Following her mother’s lead, the girl on the plane tried to snooze a bit at cruising altitude, her leopard print Snuggie wrapped up to her neck, but to no avail. A level of excitement unknown since Christmas morning kept her wide awake and beaming brightly.
Across the aisle, the world was different. Veteran travelers, sorted by grades of precious metal, enacting airplane rituals that were perfected by long experience. My special card has a silver hue, the minimum grade of "elite" flyers, but even I have my routine – two days’ of supplies in my carry-on, a blessing for the plane as I board, earplugs after we push back. For me – and for the elusive "million miler" rumored to be on board – this flight is entirely routine. The very same things that enthralled my neighbor simply blend into the background for me, disappearing from conscious view.
The occasion for my presence on this Canadair Regional Jet is the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting this week and next in Salt Lake City. With varying levels of responsibility, I have been involved with the General Convention since I was 19 years old. I remember my first Convention well, and I also remember well my second-ever trip to New York City, interviewing for the internship that would ultimately launch my career.
It was a snowy day in January 2003 when I arrived from Syracuse (the nearest airport to my lovely – albeit isolated – alma mater, Hamilton College). After a hair-raising taxi ride from LaGuardia, I was delivered for the first time at 815 Second Avenue, our church-wide headquarters. Like the girl on the plane, I was awestruck. I prayed in the chapel, bought trinkets in the bookstore, and loved every minute of the tour I was offered by Cheryl Dawkins, a staffer in the General Convention Office who would, on my ordination day in 2010, become the recipient of my very first priestly blessing. When I arrived at the Convention in Minneapolis in July 2003, the experience repeated itself: I was amazed by the sheer magnitude of the Convention, by our leaders all gathered in one place, by the pride I felt in being an Episcopalian.
Twelve years, five Conventions, and roughly 200,000 air miles later, I am writing this reflection from a hotel room in Salt Lake City. Officially titled "liturgical consultant," I have the great privilege of coordinating worship services designed to center and ground the thousands of people who have gathered here to take their unique places in the councils of the Church. By long experience, the Worship Team and I have perfected systems that will make large worship services run smoothly; however, such efficiency can easily create the background into which many awe-worthy experiences blend.
When the General Convention gavels into session this Thursday morning, well over a thousand voting members – bishops, priests, deacons, and laypersons – will begin the hard work of discerning God’s will for the Episcopal Church in the years to come. Consider the awe-worthiness of that: With an equality that few other hierarchical churches can appreciate, our bishops are going to sit down with their clergy and with the laity to ask God what we can do together for the welfare of the world and for the advancement of the Kingdom. Our worship services will welcome between 2,500 and 5,500 Episcopalians daily, drawing on the Church’s vast and diverse resources to give glory to God and to give an anchor point to those charged with discerning God’s will. Awe and wonder!
Once you leave the airport, there is only one group of "elite flyers" at the General Convention. In the House of Deputies, members are given a yellow ribbon and designated as "Senior Deputies" after they serve for seven or more Conventions. (My friend and colleague, the Reverend Colenzo Hubbard of West Tennessee, one of the most selfless and inspiring priests with whom I have ever been affiliated, will be recognized as a "Senior Deputy" this year.) In the administrative structure, we have no comparable ribbons, no senior standing for length of service. However, as someone who has been around here for a while, I am grateful to have encountered the girl on the plane who reminded me to approach these next two weeks with the spirit of awe that they deserve.