2003 General Convention leaves legacy of crisis and opportunity

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August 10, 2003

In the space of 10 days, the Episcopal Church plotted a course for the next quarter century, rejuvenated its mission philosophy, and got a lot of free publicity.

At its 74th General Convention, July 28-August 8 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the church approved a $146.4 million budget for the next three years, with priorities including young adults and youth, reconciliation and evangelism, congregational transformation, justice and peace, and partnerships with other churches inside and beyond the Anglican Communion.

The church also broke new ground, confirming the Anglican Communion's first noncelibate gay bishop and approving a resolution accepting that blessings of same-sex relationships are taking place "within the bounds of our common life."

It didn't come easily.

There were predictions of schism, walkouts, and tears. World reaction has been strong enough to prompt the Archbishop of Canterbury to call a special primates' meeting this October to consider the ramifications of this convention.

But through it all, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold has seen "an incredible strength and joy despite the difficulties of some of the decisions we have had to make and the painfulness some of these decisions have caused within the community."

And, perhaps more importantly, church leaders see opportunity. On the last day of convention, Dean George Werner, president of the House of Deputies, urged clergy and congregations to make the most of the evangelistic potential that lies ahead.

"Looking at the vast collection of [media] coverage this church has been getting," he said, "this Sunday may be one of the greatest if not the best missionary Sundays in the history of the church."

Media circus

More than 370 media credentials were issued at the convention, and they were all interested in one person - the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson.

Robinson, elected in June as the bishop coadjutor of New Hampshire, was one of 10 bishops whose elections were to be confirmed at the convention.

He's also a divorced father of two who's been in a committed gay relationship for more than a decade. That made him the target of conservatives who say the Episcopal Church has strayed from biblical teachings and traditional church practice.

The House of Deputies approved Robinson in a vote by orders by a 3-2 margin. But the day before the House of Bishops was set to vote, an e-mail accusing Robinson of misconduct surfaced, and a conservative group, the American Anglican Council, also made allegations that a ministry for young gays and lesbians Robinson helped establish now had a Web site with links leading to adult-content sites.

The bishops' vote was postponed while Presiding Bishop Griswold ordered an investigation. In less than 24 hours, Bishop Gordon Scruton of Western Massachusetts announced he had found "no necessity to pursue further investigation" and no cause for preventing bishops with jurisdiction from going forward with a vote on consent.

Bishops then approved Robinson's election by a vote of 62 to 43.

To bless or not to bless

Near the end of the legislative calendar, convention hammered out a compromise resolution acknowledging that liturgies blessing same-sex unions are celebrated in parts of the Episcopal Church, but backed away from authorizing the creation of common liturgies for such services.

In a vote by orders, with 58 lay deputations and 62 clergy deputations of 108 voting "yes," the deputies concurred with bishops in adopting a substitute resolution recognizing "that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions."

The resolution also commits the church to "continued prayer, study and discernment on the pastoral care for gay and lesbian persons." As part of the process, a commission appointed by the presiding bishop will compile and develop resources "to facilitate as wide a conversation of discernment as possible."

The resolution allowed the church to speak clearly in describing "a fact that is longstanding and within the bounds of the church," said the Rev. Francis Wade of Washington, co-chair of the Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music Committee. "As an individual, I feel very good about the way it passed," he said.

20/20 vision

The ambitious plan to double the size of the church by the year 2020 was reflected in many resolutions.

"We're fostering that culture in every level - national church, diocese, and congregations - and it's being received joyfully," said Sarah Lawton, chair of the 20/20 Strategy Group and vice chair of the Standing Commission on Domestic Mission and Evangelism.

Resolutions spread into nine areas: leadership, spirituality, prayer and worship, research, new congregational development, vital congregations, the Next generation, communications, funding, and reporting.

Episcopalians should see efforts to plant churches spurred with partnership money for dioceses and congregations - especially those reaching out to underserved areas, diverse populations, and urban areas; publications in multiple languages, especially Spanish, will emerge; and most importantly, identifying youth and young adults as the number one priority of the church.

One of the most important steps was approval of leadership programs for 18- to 25-year-olds, internships for young people and money to fund it, Lawton noted. The church's new three-year budget of $146.4 million includes $5.3 million for youth and young adult ministries.

The budget

Saying that more can be done for mission if less is spent on administration, deputies and bishops unanimously approved a budget of $146,395,000 for the coming triennium.

Without changing the total amount of the budget or increasing revenues, the Joint Standing Committee for Program, Budget and Finance (PB&F) was able to free $1,454,000 for specific mission initiatives highlighted during convention by moving funds from other mission areas and cutting administrative costs.

The committee reduced canonical and corporate accounts - including General Convention and Church Center staff and operations - by more than $1 million, rendering that section of the budget "essentially flat," said Thomas Hershkowitz, controller and General Convention treasurer, forcing every department to scrutinize its spending. The good news, he said, is that the savings has been moved into the church's program.

With investment income reduced by a sluggish stock market and only modest growth predicted in diocesan apportionments in the coming triennium, PB&F had a difficult job adding funding for new mission opportunities. One solution was to increase the draw on the church's trust funds from the standard 5 percent to 5.5 percent, said Herskowitz, with the understanding that the draw would revert to the lower rate as soon as practicable.

Canonical changes

By unanimous vote, the bishops adopted the omnibus resolution (A111) from the Standing Commission on Ministry Development (SCMD) that overhauls the canons governing lay and ordained ministry. Presented with a resolution heavily amended by the legislative committee on ministry, the bishops proposed 16 amendments to seven of the nine canons in the title, adopting 12 of them dealing with access to ministry (Canon 1), Eucharistic ministers (Canon 4), criteria for nomination for ordination as deacon (Canon 6), letters of agreement and assignment of deacons (Canon 7), postulancy requirements and standing committee's role (Canon 8), notification of the election of rectors and letters of agreement, rector's control of church facilities, and limitations on ministry for retired priests (Canon 9).

The SCMD revisions are designed to streamline discernment, candidacy, and ordination, promote the importance of formation of all baptized members, clarify the types and functions of licensed ministries, and create a single canon for priesthood. Although the most controversial measure - direct ordination to the priesthood - was rejected by the bishops earlier in convention, the SCMD resolution will have major implications for the chief forces guiding ministry development: diocesan commissions on ministry, standing committees, and bishops.