A Reflection by Molly James
One of my favorite moments at General Convention was when the President of the House of Deputies invited all the deputies who were born in the 1990’s to come forward. I stayed in my seat, being a child of the 80s, and smiled. I was at a church meeting, and I was not the youngest person in the room. Even though I have been ordained for ten years, my relative youth is often still a novelty in the Church. It was, therefore, quite exciting to see that beginning to change. That moment when there was a crowd of people under 30 on the stage was, for me, an emblematic moment of our 78th General Convention. It was a Convention that was forward looking and one that exuded a theology of abundance.
It could have been a Convention of looking back. It could have been a Convention full of lament on the decline of membership and the end of Christendom. It could have been a Convention full of gloom and doom. But it was not that. In fact, in so many ways it was a time of celebration and a time of hope. The 78th General Convention looked to the future with hope. Many of the resolutions we enacted were ones that focused on the promise of a new day and a new way of being Church. Perhaps most significantly for our tradition, we passed resolutions that authorized the beginning stages of revising our current Book of Common Prayer and our current Hymnal. Following on my reflections on youth above, it was interesting to note that those who sounded notes of caution about BCP and Hymnal revision were mostly people under the age of forty. Now, you could chalk this up to our own fear and anxiety, or those of us who are under forty have never known anything other than the 1979 BCP nor the 1982 Hymnal. We have never been through a process of Prayer Book revision and what is unknown can be anxiety-provoking. That may be part of it, but I do not think it is all of it. Many of the young people who spoke up sounded words of caution around being too cavalier or quick to jettison pieces of our tradition.
Those words of caution spoken by our younger people – in the House of Deputies and in the Twittersphere – are important. Given the collective anxiety in our system and the fear of the future, we should not be quick to jettison our tradition in the hopes that doing so will somehow make us more relevant or appealing to the masses. On occasion there has been a perception that having a rock band or hymnody that sounds like the Top 40 will somehow make Church more appealing to young people. That maybe true for some, but for me and many other “young” people that I know that is not at all the case. We would rather hear Bach or Rutter. We love ritual and tradition. We love saying prayers that have been said for centuries. Some of us even like Rite I. That is our word of caution about revision. Let us not lose the heart of our tradition of common prayer in our desire to be contemporary and relevant. Are we in need of updating our liturgical resources to be more inclusive of the diversity of who we are – racially, culturally, linguistically, etc – as The Episcopal Church? Absolutely. Are we in need of language that helps to undo centuries of patriarchy? Of course. It’s my hope and belief that the tremendously gifted and skilled individuals on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music can do that and can do so in a way that maintains the beautiful essence of our tradition. The wonders of digital technology mean that our next BCP need not be a literal “book” at all. It can be a library of liturgical resources from which we can draw the appropriate liturgies and music for the contexts in which we find ourselves – to provide familiarity and new ideas. How Anglican to allow the contexts we serve to shape our practice of common prayer.
The other resolutions that I found to be particularly forward looking were those that funded Latino Ministries, Church Planting and Evangelism efforts. The Episcopal Church has much to offer the world, and so it was tremendously exciting to see the support and enthusiasm for these resolutions. The fact that additional funding for Evangelism was added to the budget from an additional endowment draw was particularly notable. It is my understanding that it has been many decades (if ever) since an amendment to the budget actually passed. How wonderfully emblematic of what we can be going forward to be willing to risk a bit more of our treasure to share the gift of our tradition with future generations.
Then there were incarnational moments in which it felt as though we were not just looking forward or planning for the next triennium; we were actually living into our new vision of the future. This was evident on the Saturday afternoon that we elected and confirmed a “Chief Evangelism Officer” as our next Presiding Bishop. We elected a remarkable leader who is going to share the fire of the Holy Spirit, who will share his passion and bring others into this Jesus Movement. His passion is joyfully infectious, and he incarnates the joy and hope for the future that was palpable in the halls of Convention. Bishop Curry’s election was also, of course, a historic moment as he will be our first black Presiding Bishop – another barrier, another vestige of the great sin of racial discrimination has come down. We have a tangible, visible reminder that racial reconciliation is possible.
Finally, the other moment in which we lived out our hope for a new future was the march against gun violence on Sunday morning. Hundreds of people came out at 8am on a Sunday morning to worship, walk, witness and pray for an end to the epidemic of gun violence that is plaguing our country. That march showed us the pervasive and horrific effects of gun violence on the lives of so many millions of our brothers and sisters. That march also allowed us to live in hope, to live in the hope that together we can make a difference, that it might actually be possible to create a future where innocent lives are not tragically cut short by gun violence.
Theology of Abundance
One of the challenges I sometimes encounter in my ministry is that we can operate from a theology of scarcity. We can get caught up in the cultural message that we do not have enough, that we are only valuable if we buy more and do more. Yet our faith teaches the opposite. We have and we are enough. God is with us. God’s love is abundant and overflowing. There is more than enough to go around. We need not fight with each other. We need not fear each other. We can see the world through a lens of abundance, not scarcity.
I saw this theology of abundance manifest in a number of ways, particularly in some significant resolutions. While it is certainly true that many of the sweeping changes recommended by TREC did not happen, we did pass a number of resolutions that make more room for and begin the process for some substantive changes in how we govern ourselves. We provided a clearer articulation of the purposes of Provinces and established a Task Force to study them and to come back to the 79th General Convention with recommendations of alternative mechanisms for networking at pan-diocesan level. As those involved in Acts8 have noted, one of the great blessings of the 21st century is that we have many ways of connecting and collaborating with each other, and social media can help us to bridge vast geographical distances. So, our churchwide structures ought not to be limited by geography and ought to be flexible enough to allow a variety of ways of networking.
Secondly, General Convention passed a constitutional change that (if approved in 2018) would allow for joint deliberative sessions with the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies debating and voting together. The Legislative Committee on Governance and Structure heard a fascinating presentation from our friends in The Anglican Church of Canada on their fifty year process of moving from a bi-cameras to a uni-cameral system. It remains to be seen if we will go all that distance, but we have at least begun the work of creating structures with more flexibility and more room for collaboration as we do our legislative business.
A third structural change was the elimination of all but two of the Standing Commissions. Now, astute observers will note that many were replaced with Task Forces and that other new Task Forces were also created . . . So what has really changed? Well, for one thing, Task Forces are not permanently enshrined in our canons. They are short term bodies that exist only for a triennium, unless renewed. In theory at least, this allows for a more responsive governance structure and will save us from having groups that continue to meet long after their work has been accomplished because no one knows how to acknowledge that they are no longer needed.
It is interesting to note that one of the ways we lived out a theology of abundance was in what we decided not to do. We did not shrink the size of a diocesan deputation to General Convention. Now it may seem as though I am labeling that as an act of abundance because we simply maintained our status as giant parliamentary body of over a thousand people. No, abundance is not just about numbers. Maintaining our size also helps to ensure an essential breadth of voices at the table. The Legislative Commission on Governance and Structure heard powerful testimony from those representing racial and ethnic minorities. Statistically, a deputy of color is often the 3 or 4th deputy. If we shrunk the size of the deputation, it might very well mean that we would be undoing the excellent work of recent years that has helped the House of Deputies more accurately reflect the marvelous diversity of The Episcopal Church. Of course, the other house at General Convention also has much work to do in terms of accurately reflecting the marvelous breadth of humanity in The Episcopal Church, but that is a topic for another day.
One of the most challenging and most beautiful expressions of a theology of abundance was in the changes to the marriage canon. Challenging because the legislation that was passed does not reflect the view of everyone in The Episcopal Church. Beautiful because no one walked out of Convention. Those who disagreed had a place to make their views heard and they were listened to with love and respect. Provisions were made to honor the diversity of views. There was a palpable sense of abundance, not just in the fact that our rites of marriage were made accessible to couples who had been desirous of change for so long, but in the fact that we lived out the profound truth that we are all in this together and are better for our diversity. You could have heard a pin drop as the results of the vote were announced. Our collective respect for each other was such that we were able to honor our Christian commitment to one another more than our own feelings of joy or sorrow.
Finally, as noted above we added money to the budget for Evangelism and racial reconciliation. Let me say that again. We added money to the budget. In a time when fear and anxiety are often the dominant emotions in church meetings. When scarcity seems systemic and we who have had so much historical privilege are being challenged by our move to the margins in so many ways, it was a great act of collective faith to to chose to draw more from our endowment. It would have been easy to let that narrative of fear and scarcity win out. To think that we must save our resources because we do not know what the future holds. It would have been easy to stay inwardly focused. But we did not. We stepped out in faith. We made a bold statement that said we were more interested in investing in the future. For some it might seem that we were acting out of our own fears of our increasing irrelevancy, but I prefer to see it as a step toward living out the belief that we, The Episcopal Church, have unique and desperately needed gifts to offer the world. And I don’t just mean our money. We may be the most historically powerful and privileged mainline denomination, and we are blessed with tremendous financial assets. Yet what we have to offer the world is not just cash. It is a deep and abiding faith in Jesus. A faith that testifies to God’s presence, to God being with us, even in the incredible messiness and painful realities of the human experience. It is a faith that takes seriously the intellectual life and does not shy away from the challenges of our faith or our lives. It is a faith that is complex, nuanced and unwavering in its affirmation that God is with us. The future is bright because our God is a God of abundance.
Molly James is the Dean of Formation for the Episcopal Church in CT. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hartford Seminary and The University of St. Joseph. She serves as the co-chair of The Young Clergy Women Project. She is a board member for the Society of Scholar Priests. She is married to Reade, a mechanical engineer. They have two children, Katherine and Halsted. Molly enjoys cooking and eating good food, reading, writing and the splendor of God’s Creation.