Convention newcomers and veterans serving with optimism

July 10, 2009

When nine-time Utah deputy Stephen Hutchinson arrived for General Convention 2009, he was on familiar turf. "I started in Anaheim, and I've come full circle," he said. He still remembers what it was like to be a first-timer, coming from a diocese then containing "probably less than 5,000 people." "It was so huge, and it was so new," he said. "I was really taken by it and overwhelmed in the best of ways. The intellect of the discourse was really interesting to me." The hot issues of the time included abortion, whether confirmation was a prerequisite for holding various church offices and whether noncelibate gays and lesbians could be ordained, he said, noting, "It was one of my first opportunities to be in open dialogue about gay and lesbian persons." "Convention for me has always been an opportunity to see the church at its best in a lot of ways," he said. Reflecting on what's different this time in Anaheim, he said, "Obviously our leadership with Katharine [Jefferts Schori] and with Bonnie [Anderson]. Not just that they're women, but their whole approach to those ministries, their leadership styles. They're touching people in ways I've never experienced before. There's an ability to be energetic and present in difficult conversations without fear or without acrimony that serves the church so well and allows people to expand their own thinking. I'm totally optimistic about the church." Rochester Bishop Prince Singh arrived at the registration desk in Anaheim for his first General Convention with similar optimism. "I'm really excited about the future of the Episcopal Church," said Singh, who is serving on the National and International Concerns Committee. "I'm really excited about living into the ancient tradition of Anglicanism in a new context." Like Singh, Alabama Suffragan Bishop John McKee Sloan is attending his first convention as a bishop, although he visited a previous convention while in college. He looks forward to meeting old friends – he's already encountered someone he hadn't seen in 28 years – as well as "hearing different points of view from all over the country," he said. "I think it's very healthy for the whole family of our church to have a place where people can be heard and respected, and I hope we will proceed along those lines." Marge Christie, who's serving her 12th term with the Newark deputation, remembers when not everyone had a voice at convention. She was serving as a delegate in 1970 to the Episcopal Church Women's triennial meeting when women were seated as deputies for the first time at General Convention. "That was a highlight for me," she said. "We recessed and went in the gallery and watched the original 24 women who were seated" after the convention approved allowing women to serve. She became a deputy in 1976, the year convention approved the ordination of women. She recounted how House of Deputies President John Coburn chose not to step down in order to be consecrated bishop of Massachusetts until after convention because "this issue was too important in his eyes to abandon." "I love the democratic process, and I like to be able to really use it in a way that's going to make a difference in the lives of people and the church," she said. Through the years, Christie has advocated for women's and justice issues. She recalled collaborating with Byron Rushing (Massachusetts) on forming Coalition E, a political action group around justice issues; helping found Jubilee Ministries; launching what became the Women's Caucus breakfast each convention; and, this convention, writing a resolution advocating establishing a standing commission on women. Having watched the progress of women in the church and American society, she has expanded her gaze outward. She sees "our responsibility as a very developed country" now to raise the issues of women and girls around the world, she said. New York Suffragan Bishop Catherine Roskam, serving at her fifth convention, said she has seen a "sea change" in the House of Bishops concerning the tone of dialogue and women's participation. Since the Philadelphia convention in 1997, she said. "I think, in terms of women, that even though there still aren't all that many of us in the house, all of the bishops now have had women as colleagues ... It's very refreshing to be old hat." There are 15 female bishops in the Episcopal Church. There are about 125 bishops attending General Convention. Things also are less politicized in the house, she said. "We still hold a wide range of opinions, but I just think the level of discourse is very profound and very respectful." First-timer Georgeanne Dorney (New Jersey) said she tried to arrive without expectations. "I just kind of figured that I would take it all as it came. … It's a little overwhelming." "I have noticed that some people here, when meeting me, it's kind of like a novelty," said Dorney, one of convention's younger deputies at age 23. Among the issues she is following are same-gender blessings, which she supports, and young adult ministries, she said. An alternate, she's reporting to her deputation about issues before the Social and Urban Committee and said she was excited about a promised opportunity to be on the floor of the House of Deputies.