By Mark Michael & Christopher Wells
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention is a synod. That is to say, it is a gathering of Christians who, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, are moving together, talking about what they have heard and seen and touched. Jesus draws alongside us, opens the Scriptures, and — at least sometimes — makes his presence known in unmistakable ways. Then we also can say, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road?” (Luke 24:32), proclaiming with them the power of his resurrection.
Synods can take many forms, but General Convention has always been a parliament, heir to the great Anglo-American tradition of making clear decisions through persuasion and vote, with precise rules of order. The parliamentary process has many advantages, but its thorough reliance on contestation to come to the truth can only foster wise decision-making among Christians when there is an underlying commitment to “building up the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
It’s been some time since General Convention has seemed like a synodical gathering of friends, though the House of Bishops has had the “feel” of collegiality more and more, since perhaps 2015. The crucial compromise about same-sex marriage rites in the 2018 convention’s Resolution B012 grew out of a commitment by our leaders, both bishops and deputies, to listen and pray together, and lay claim to what we now call “communion across difference.”
There was much to celebrate in the work of General Convention 2022. In Julia Ayala Harris, the House of Deputies has elected a capable and conscientious leader committed to structural reform, evangelism, and building up the body in love. Important steps were taken toward understanding and redressing our past cruelty to Indigenous people, and creating a voluntary society devoted to fostering racial reconciliation for generations to come.
In the House of Bishops, there were moments that felt genuinely synodical. There were many signs of mutual respect, patient listening, and moderated speech in search of consensus, overseen and fostered by a primate who is deeply loved, speaks from the heart, and embodies a gracious gravitas rarely seen in public figures of any kind these days.
Bishop Mary Glasspool spoke for many when she said, “I’m amazed that we’re in this four-day convention and, somehow, squeezing into that intensity has driven us deep.” That depth was revealed most clearly in times when the bishops paused from being a parliament and discussed matters openly and honestly as friends. But it also carried over into the decisions they made by resolution, and the public debate that accompanied them.
A ham-handed resolution condemning crisis pregnancy centers was firmly rejected, after important statements by progressive and centrist bishops about the need for more depth and nuance in political statements.
Many marked the folly of consent calendars packed with substantive matters. A next step will be to commit to taking up fewer resolutions, so as to be able to focus together on what is truly essential. Our structures still need reform, and the General Convention itself needs a serious slimming down. Most reasonable Episcopalians know this to be true.
The presiding bishop spoke powerfully about the need for our church to address “the sensible center” of the American people in a time of deep partisan division. Conversations about public witness led to declarations of the world’s need for an “unambiguous gospel” and our need for greater humility and introspection.
Bishop Tom Ely exhorted his colleagues to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the report from the Task Force on Communion Across Difference, which several of the Living Church’s leaders worked hard to draft. There seems to be a growing sense that God is calling the Episcopal Church, alongside other churches and Christians, to model peace and mutual respect to a divided society badly in need of love and healing. This message will only be credible if we have lived it ourselves first.
The convention also passed an important revision to Article X of the constitution, modifying the definition of the Book of Common Prayer and setting in motion a process to clarify the authority of our jumbled assortment of additional liturgies. The action will likely lead to a settlement in the next few years over the terms by which same-sex marriage liturgies will be granted the highest level of authority in the Episcopal Church. If and as this change is made, the degree to which conservative Episcopalians and most global Anglicans will still be welcome to walk in persistent, if impaired, communion with the Episcopal Church, and vice versa, will also need to be negotiated. Here at home, the question will be whether accommodation can be made not only for individual conscience but for traditionally committed parishes and dioceses.
Resolution A059 is not as clear as it could be because it was a compromise, drawn up after the narrow defeat of a less subtle, more problematic resolution. A team of bishops with different commitments worked together to write the revised resolution that passed, and then the House of Bishops spent two hours in conversation before approving it by wide margins.
The Communion Partner bishops spoke candidly on the floor of the house about the need for the church to reflect carefully about how changes to the status of the same-sex marriage rites will impact the “doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church,” to which all ordained persons pledge themselves. A traditional account of that doctrine, discipline, and worship will need to be rearticulated and preserved as one option within the “big tent” to which most in the House of Bishops, at least, aspire. For conservative dioceses and parishes to continue to find a place in the church, they will need canonical and structural provisions that enable them to maintain the “traditional” doctrine and discipline of marriage that remains the majority teaching of the Anglican Communion, and indeed of the Christian world.
We have reason to hope that this may be possible! The consensus achieved by the 80th General Convention about Article X was born of an episcopal commitment to finding shared terms by which important decisions can be made. Whatever the text of the new Article X means (and we will need to talk much more about that), its meaning will be worked out primarily by the bishops to whom the grace of synodical life seems to have been given in new and compelling ways.
Together, we can commit to finding and making “plenty good room” for all Episcopalians, as Bishop Curry is fond of saying. Those committed both to the faith once delivered and to the Episcopal Church, set within the wider Anglican Communion, will need to be clear about what they need, including a place at the table when decisions are made. “Wide latitude” of prayer and practice in the Episcopal Church should be our collective watchword.
Both at home and abroad, the task is to rearticulate what unity-in-diversity should look like. This will require careful Faith and Order reflection, of a sort that Episcopalians and Anglicans once excelled at, but lately have deferred, dodged, and otherwise felt incapable of. We need to reclaim the high point of Anglican ecclesiology that was the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and its summons, by the American House of Bishops, to a shared Faith and Order for the healing of division. This clarion call, on the heels of our Civil War, paved the way for the 1920 Lambeth Appeal and what has become the settled Anglican grammar of communion, as a call to fellowship.
Why was General Convention so different this time? This convention was noticeably younger, perhaps in part because it was shorter, enabling busy leaders to attend. A new generation of bishops and deputies is moving to center stage.
Thus convention was also humbler and simpler, without banquets or swag. The Book of Common Prayer was preferred for daily worship in the House of Bishops, in lieu of the avant-garde spectacles of former years.
COVID and the crisis of decline were mentioned only in passing, but perhaps our shared experience of suffering is bringing us closer. Maybe there has been a sifting of priorities that helps us focus more clearly on what we really can and must do together to be faithful to our Lord.
Alongside the wonderful news of deeper involvement by the Communion in the selection of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, the synodical spirit embodied by the bishops of the Episcopal Church bodes well for the coming Lambeth Conference. Archbishop Welby repeatedly reminded us in June that Lambeth is not a synod, in that it does not make binding decisions. True synodality, however, as a shared life of taking counsel and rendering wise decisions in mutual love and accountability, both locally and trans-locally, with the whole Body of Christ in view: surely this is what the Anglican Communion needs most.
Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland. Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director of the Living Church Foundation.