The 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church convenes in Austin Texas, July 5th - 13th, 2018

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Privilege of the Floor

I am Martha K. Baker, Trinity/Central West End, and I attended General Convention for the first time this year. Beth Felice invited me to comment on my week there (July 2 - July 8). I had no official duties -- I am neither delegate nor deputy nor clergy -- and, thus, could exercise what a priest friend in New York state calls "the privilege of the floor," that is, I could come and go as I pleased.
The weather for the week was unflaggingly hot, as hot as [insert vulgar simile here], and my trips to and from the convention hall were on asphalt and concrete, not desert sand, but not so hot as to keep me from appreciating Indiana's capitol and Indianapolis' massive State Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, which gloomed over Christ Church Cathedral. Indianapolis boasts many Marriotts of varying grades of hospitality (one of my friends on the Commission had booked a room in the lo-klas Marriott, where, when he went to the desk to ask for toothpaste, he received a paper cup into which the clerk had squeezed a soup├žon of dentifrice).

I went to the convention because I had spent 18 months on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, filling out another commissioner's aborted term. In that time, I working on the same-gender blessings (rites and resources), on the Calendar Committee responsible for Holy Women and Holy Men, on Daily Offices for All Seasons, and on adoption liturgies. I wanted to follow what happened to these materials and the resolutions about them at General Convention.

I had never been to a GC before, and I decided at the last minute to attend because 1) it was in Indianapolis, near home; 2) I could carpool with fellow-Trinitarian Jeff Wunrow, who offered his gorgeous hand-sewn stoles for sale in the exhibition hall; and 3) I could stay for free in a friend's apartment 20 minutes from the Convention Center. I volunteered for two days, thereby ensuring that attendance cost me zilch, but I had to don the obligatory volunteers' vest in a blue not known to nature (I figured its hideosity was purposeful so that no one would steal it, but we were assured that we could take it home. Thank you?). So the trip cost me next to nothing in terms of American dollars, but what I learned about the big tent of The Episcopal Church is priceless.

Because I went early, I was able to troll the Exhibition Hall (a k a Mall of Episcopalia) the minute it opened and without the crush of cruisers the next day. I learned a lot about what's going on in the church by chatting with exhibitors from seminaries, political causes, publishing houses and t-shirt purveyors. I was forced, out of courtesy, to enjoy the candy offered at each booth. Sweet Jesus, indeed!

I also toured the Ecclesiastical Art Exhibition, which included the gold and white mosaic stole Jeff  designed and sewed for the Rev. Harry Leip, deacon at Trinity-CWE. On display were vestments, including the chasuble and mitre from Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's installation as Presiding Bishop, and paraments, furniture and hangings -- each a testament to hand-work.

On July 4, I attended the joint meeting of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. The Rev. Canon Dr. Gregory Straub officiated in a jacket of giant black and white squares (comparable to the boards for larger-than-life games of chess), complemented (or not) by a black and white polka dot tie. He could be seen without benefit of the JumboTron. Spiritually and clerically, Greg is all business; sartorially, Greg is a gas -- and natty, too. The Most Rev. (Dr.) Katharine Jefferts Schori addressed the assembly in her warm and welcoming voice, advising everyone to cool his or her partisan jets, or words to that effect; Canon Bonnie Anderson, 32nd President of the House of Deputies, addressed the faithful with her maternal and professorial voice, also asking for ears that listen to be more open than mouths. Both women, filled with the Holy Spirit, exude and articulate intelligence and joy.

The next day, the Convention began officially at Holy Eucharist with Bishop Katharine honoring proposed "saints" Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and muckraker Jacob Riis in her sermon. She moved smoothly between Spanish and English as she celebrated. Translators were there, and throughout the Convention, for Spanish speakers and American Sign Language followers.

One of the hardest aspects of the Convention was finding out what was happening when and where, but the interactive monitor at the J.W. Marriott helped. Communications ranged between cookie crumbs drizzled along the forest paths and hi-tech shout-outs e-mailed in the cloud. It's easier to follow General Convention from home, via blogs and news reports, than it is from the middle of it. I found out from the grapevine of gossip, for example, that GC had voted to sell the NYC hq at 815 Second Avenue.

Throughout the next few days, I sat in on hearings by committees (for "open table" and for "baptism v. confirmation as the gatekeeper rite") and on legislative sessions of the Houses of Bishops and Deputies. Witnesses were called to speak, pro then con. Attention was paid, serious attention, for the vote of the committees matters in the legislative sessions of the Houses. The meetings are run by Robert's Rules of Order, which means great fairness abounds; it also meant yawning chasms when the presiders called on the parliamentarian to rule on details, such as whether discussion of an amendment to an amendment could be held before or after a vote. Democracy ain't putty, but it sure beats the alternatives of rule of thumb or papal bull.

On Thursday evening, I joined members of the Missouri delegation, including representatives of Episcopal Church Women, whose convention coincides with GC. We met in the parlor of the Rev. Dan Smith's hotel suite for what I thought was going to be a brief gathering for snacks and chats, but we stayed three hours. Old-timers shared tidbits with newbies about protocol and perseverance. After refueling with beer and soda, fruits and nuts -- and Reese's peanut-butter cups (as per request of the Rev. Doris Westfall) -- the Rev. Tamsen Whistler, chair, asked the group to debrief on the day's committee hearings and, if needed, to seek advise and counsel on the next day's. We talked passionately about the "open table" resolution on the next day's docket before the committee on evangelism, which was Michael Clark's assignment. For fairness, a pretzel became a talking stick -- until lay leader Lisa Fox broke it (oops).

At my first meeting with the Commission in October 2010, I thankfully had sat next to the Rev. Gregory Howe, custodian of the Book of Common Prayer. It was to him that I whispered questions about the differences among A resolutions and B and C and D; to him, I turned for answers regarding committees and hearings at convention. When I saw this grand old curmudgeon at Convention, I admit I had to ask him some of the same questions again.

And then, for an hour, standing in the lobby of the downtown Marriott, he regaled me with "war stories" from GCs he's attended since the early Seventies (nomination for sainthood, pending). For example, in the late Seventies, a bishop's wife (or was she a deputy's?) drove up to the convention site in a van completely outfitted in back with a cocktail bar. Greg said the deputies poured onto the street after 12 hours of daunting deliberations, grateful for libations. A young gendarme stopped the parade with the reminder that public drinking was against the law. Greg mentally registered a headline: "Clergy and lay arrested for Drinking in Street." A deputy explained the situation to the copper and allowed that the assembled Episcopalians could not/would not return to the convention hall without a drink, and he invited the police officer to join the faithful. He did.

Surely, the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church will warrant a few war stories of its own, what with historic votes for restructuring the church and for approving the trial use of same-gender blessings. I was glad to be there, glad to be one of the faithful, glad to be an Episcopalian.


  1. Make that "Democracy ain't purty," not "putty." Dang you, AutoCorrect: don't you know down-home talk when you hear it?

  2. Thanks for your work on the SCLM!

  3. Wonderful tales! Thanks for sharing.


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