Asiamerica missioner reports on the highlights of the 79th general convention

Asiamerica missioner reports on the highlights of the 79th general convention

Austin, Texas July 3-13, 2018
July 19, 2018
By: 
Winfred B. Vergara

Let me begin by sharing something about Austin which some of you may probably know. Austin is the capital of Texas, the imposing state capitol features the Goddess Liberty holding a star. The population of metro-Austin is around 2 million people. There are some 60,000 new people who come annually and relocate to Austin making it one of the fastest-growing urban centers in the country.

The city motto is “Keep Austin Weird.” There is a “Museum of the Weird” and there is a weird colony of around 30,000 bats who dwell under the beautiful Austin Bridge in Congress Avenue (no pun intended). The flight formation of these bats on sunsets has become a tourist attraction. These bats migrate to Mexico on winter and return to Austin on summer uncontrolled by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and skillfully outsmarting the southern border patrols.

TEC General Convention: 
The GC is held every three years and Austin was chosen as the site of the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church from July 3-13, 2018. The 78th Convention was held in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2015 and the 80th Convention will be held in Baltimore, Maryland in 2021.

Austin also home to one of our Episcopal seminaries, the Seminary of the Southwest. The Episcopal Archives is also located in Austin. The GC was held at the huge Austin Convention Center.

What are the highlights of this 79th General Convention? I would like to list them in the following headings: Worship, Revival, Legislation and Public Witness

WORSHIP

I always find worship in the General Convention as the “show window” of the Episcopal Church. Jesus said “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” So when there are 2,000 or 3,000 gathered together for worship, there is tremendous divine presence. Some say that the General Convention attract between 8,000-10,000 people from delegates to guests, observers, exhibitors and local church goers. It is reputedly next to either the Democratic or Republican Convention in terms of size and significance. I spoke with Uber drivers, restaurant owners and hotel staff and they rejoice that Episcopalians bring money and help the local economy.

Worship services were diverse and had variety or styles and flavor. We began with a rousing Opening Eucharist with revival type sermon from the Presiding Bishop and ended with a Eucharist with a commissioning sermon from the most recent-ordained female bishop, the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville of Indianapolis. Some ethnic deputies commented on the lack of ethnic participation in the liturgical settings, music team and the kind of language hymns selected

Worship services were organized into themes relating to the  three components of the “Jesus Movement” enunciated by the Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry. These three components are Evangelism, Reconciliation and Care of Creation. It has now become customary to address our church as “the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.”

LEGISLATIONS

There are three levels of governance in the Episcopal Church: parish, diocese and the general convention. GC is the highest governing body and it comprises of two houses: the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. The two houses meets and acts separately and both must concur to adopt legislations.

The Presiding Bishop presides over the HOB and the joint sessions; and the President of the House of Deputies presides over the HOD. The current PB is the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry and the president of HOD is the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings. Deputies are clergy and lay deputies in equal numbers elected by their respective dioceses.

There were many resolutions presented, debated and approved but let me just mention what to me were the most significant:

First, is the Prayer Book Revision; second is the re-admission of the Diocese of Cuba; and third are the resolutions concerning immigration.

The BCP was last revised in 1928 and then in 1976. This new resolution on Prayerbook Revision will designate a working committee that will study and make recommendations on what to add or amend to the current Prayer Book. The full approval and publication of the new BCP will be in 2030, which by that time, some of the proponents won’t be here anymore. I think it is significant because there have been rapid changes in cultures and thinking over the past millennium. The “millennials” would be debating about this revision and I certainly hope I would live to see the day when it will be acted on.

One of the liturgy resolutions concerns “same sex” marriage. It is still a hot button issue but the extreme oppositions are no longer with us. There are still some biblicists especially in the HOB who take firm stand against it but they seem compliant to the position of “loyal opposition” while maintaining “unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”

Second significant resolution was the re-admission of Cuba as a Diocese of the Episcopal Church. Cuba was expelled in 1966 as a reaction when country became a communist. Under Fidel Castro regime, the Episcopal schools were closed and taken over by the government, clergy were imprisoned and worship services were banned. Yet at the cover of night, the church continued to worship and “refused to die.” The Holy Spirit continued to nourish the faith of God’s people even in suffering.

Following the visit of Pope Francis in 2015, the Cuban government restored relative religious tolerance. So it was a momentous act for General Convention to overwhelmingly approve the restoration of Cuba as a diocese of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Griselda Delgado, bishop of Cuba said: “I feel the breath of the Holy Spirit. Thank you, everyone, for your support right now, but really for your support all these years.”

There were also many resolutions concerning immigration in support of “dreamers.” migrants and refugees; the designation of churches as “sanctuaries” and “places of welcome, refuge and healing.”

In reference to the Baptismal Vow of “respecting the dignity of every human being, “ Resolution C013 (Dignity of Immigrants), calls for comprehensive immigration reform that will provide path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and the continuation of TPS (Temporary Protected Status) for those already residing in the United States.

C. REVIVAL MEETING

What seems to be a first in my experience of General Conventions was the reclaiming of revival and evangelistic rallies. Our current presiding bishop is fondly called the “CEO” or “Chief Evangelism Officer” because of his gifts of evangelistic preaching. So we had a rousing Opening Eucharist where Bishop Curry pounded the pulpit, walked forward and backward, stepped to the left and stepped to the right with the message “Love is the Way.” Most of you would remember that our PB became instantly became world famous as a “frockstar preacher” following his unprecedented star-making sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

This type of revival preaching was brought to greater audience in Palmer Center where thousands of people from Austin joined the General Convention delegates. There was a comedic scene when the translator in Spanish, Dinorah Pardo tried to follow the "moon walk" and “electric slide” movements of Michael Jackson, I mean Michael Curry.

The revival worship featured many upbeat hymns and spiritual songs which are not the normal Episcopal hymns. Sandra Montes, a Latina contemporary singer from the neighboring city of Houston also rendered some upbeat songs.

Following the Revival Meeting, the Diocese of Texas sponsored a backyard Barbecue which is typical of Texas. By the way, the Barbecue Restaurants are in abundance in Texas and throughout the eleven days that Angela and I were in Austin, we’ve been to Cooper’s Barbecue House for at least five times.

D. PUBLIC WITNESS

Another first in my experience of General Conventions is the public witness that the church engaged in.

There was a rally in the city led by “Bishops United Against Gun Violence.” In the U.S. alone, there is an average of 96 people killed every day from gun violence. The mission of this organization, which has now 80 active members is to help reduce, if not eliminate gun violence. They do it through advocacy, mass action and public witness to promote safe schools and safe places and reduce gun violence.

The second public witness of GC79 is the Worship Service held outside Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas where the women seeking asylum are being detained. These mothers are separated from their children at the border, victims of the “zero tolerance” policy of the current Trump government.

In his message, Bishop Curry said: “The teachings of Jesus to love God and to love our neighbor is at the heart and core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ…“We come in love, that is the core of our faith, that is the heart of it, and we come because we are Christians, and the way of love calls for us to be humanitarian. It calls for us to care for those who have no one to care for them.”

The women inside their detention cells scribbled on paper and pressed them against the windows to indicate they heard the church and are thankful for our moral support and solidarity.

CONCLUSION

I came to the General Convention as Missioner for Asiamerica Ministries of the Episcopal Church and staff of the Presiding Bishop. Personally, I do not like politics, even church politics, and I treat it as necessary evil. I do not particularly relish when budgets are debated and when ministry groups acting like pressure groups “strategize” to convince the Convention that theirs should be the pet projects for the next triennium. There should be another way but I do not know what. So sometimes I may join the “popularity contest” but I really do not enjoy it.

But this Convention has given me lightness of being in the way that there are more listening in legislation hearings and in conversations. As Asiamerica missioner, I am happy to see that after 78 conventions, we had our first Asian to preach at Eucharist and not just one but two: Bishop Prince Singh of the Diocese of Rochester and the Rev. Winnie Varghese of the Diocese of New York.

We’ve done very good with our social media and the “Asiamerica Inter-View,” thanks to our consultant on Digital Evangelism, Ms. Yunjeong Seol. Asiamerica Office had many volunteers performed various services: Angela Vergara, Blandina Salvador, Marina Laroya, Fr. Indon Paul Joo, Fr. Aidan Koh and Fr. Titus Kim. Some EAM Council officers: the Rev. Bayani Rico, the Rev. Irene Tanabe and the Rev. Merry Chan Ong---along with their Latino, Black and Indigenous counterparts---truly made the New Community Festival diverse and exciting. For the first time, we sponsored a seminarian, Peggy Lo, to undertake immersion in the General Convention. I echo the sentiments of the Rev. Canon Anthony Guillen, the Rev. Bradley Hauff and the Rev. Ronald Byrd in thanking our fantastic Support Staff, Angeline Cabanban for undergirding most of our common activities.

We have also Asian leaders elected to positions: Bishop Scott Hayashi to the Executive Council; the Rev. Irene Tanabe and the Rev. Alistair So to the Disciplinary Board for Bishops; Ryan Kusumoto to the Church Pension Board; and the Rev. James Kodera as trustee to the General Theological Seminary. Jim ran for this position many times in past conventions and finally he won, even if he was absent.

I also happened to see my long-time friend (the Rev. Canon Dr. Patrick Augustine), rector of Christ Church in LaCrosse, Wisconsin who came to receive a Peace Award from the Episcopal Peace Foundation, one of the many interest groups in the Convention. Patrick and I first met in 1975 when we were both Youth Delegates (he from the Church of Pakistan and me from Philippine Independent Church) to the 5th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya and the Youth Assembly in Arusha, Tanzania. We met again in the US after over 50 years---and to discover we’re both serving the Episcopal Church!

But the most fun for me was when we were asked to sing Asian songs in very short notice. It happened because the invited singer who was supposed to sing an Indonesian hymn mixed up his flight. We organized an “instant Asiamerica Choir” and chose two Communion hymns: “Ososo” (Korean: Come Now Prince of Peace) and “Kay Laking Hiwaga” (Tagalog: What Great Mystery).

God works in mysterious ways and as a non-singer it was quite an example of “nothing impossible to those who believe.”

At General Conventions, we reunite with old friends and meet new ones, even cozy up with our diocesan bishop. As Ethnic missioner, I find the Asian Caucus and the Deputies of Color as kindred spirits but really, the Episcopalians of all colors, shapes, sizes, status, gender and in all our many-splendored ways, are just one, large, intimate global family. And for that, I give GC79 an A+. May God bless the General Convention. May God bless the Episcopal Church! Alleluia!

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