Edwin Barnes visited the General Convention of ECUSA in Philadelphia as a guest of the Episcopal Synod
If you hated General Synod, then you will just loathe General Convention. The only advantage the American system has over the English one is that it meets far less frequently. When it does though, once every three years, it does everything to excess.
This summer, the City of Philadelphia was home to the Convention. The City of Brotherly Love did not live up to its name – at least, not in the Convention halls. There was never going to be anything cosy about meetings held in the sort of spaces which might more usually house fleets of jumbo jets. The largest of these hangers was decked out for the daily worship sessions with an immense wreath of artificial flowers in scarlet and orange, suspended over a central podium. It was there that the retiring Presiding Bishop (retiring in the sense of soon to give up – certainly not retiring as in ‘shrinking violet’) greeted George, Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England when the latter came to address the faithful – of which, more later.
The House of Bishops did not sit on cheek-by -jowl concentric benches, as do the English bishops in the bull’s-eye of General Synod. For most of the time, they had a hanger to themselves, far too large for their modest numbers (a mere two hundred of them). Accordingly it was subdivided into four quarters by hospital screens of blue fabric. You entered by the corner of one empty quarter, crossed the acres of tarmac greeted by the occasional steward in fetching unisex outfits of dark blue pinafores and matching baseball caps. They checked your name-tag, and required you to have a good day. In the occupied quarter on the far side of the hall were set tables, numbered from one to thirty, each seating some six or eight bishops. The effect was of a nightclub at the seedier end of the Weimar Republic. Seating plans meant that from the podium across the end of the hall the chairperson on top table could identify by number the table where an intending speaker was standing. Her or his microphone could be activated, and a bare bulb above the table indicated when someone wanted to speak.
Speeches were for three minutes, not curtailed with a discreet bell but by shouted instructions to sit down. In this way, the bishops conducted their business; determining, for instance, that none of their members should any longer have the right to refuse to ordain women. A reciprocal arrangement (the sort of gentleman’s agreement that exists in England between neighbouring dioceses) was proposed by Fort Worth and Dallas, and the three other diocesans who have to date held out against ordaining women. This did not satisfy the rest of the bishops, and the threats against Bishops Ackerman, Iker, Schofield and Wantland were blood-curdling. Bishop Jane Dixon called for a voice vote, so that any who sided with the miscreants might be identified, and she and Jack Spong on neighbouring tables expressed mutual delight as the tally of “No” votes rang out. This was on a motion to make no change until the sitting bishops had retired. The sting was taken from the event when Jack Iker joined the “noes”, saying it was not a matter of protecting the Bishop’s conscience, but the conscience of a whole diocese.
Visitors from other parts of the Anglican Communion and elsewhere were labelled “ecumenical visitors”, which was comforting in the circumstances. We sat in one long row immediately outside the charmed circle. Four newly elected bishops were introduced to the meeting at one stage, and were invited from beyond the pale to sit at the bishops’ tables, greeted by the Chairman with “come and join the family”. The gentlemen’s club of our English House of Bishops was thus transmuted into Cosa Nostra, with the chairman in the role of the Godfather.
In case you wonder, the other two other opposite corners of the hanger contained on one diagonal the rest-rooms (again across a parade-ground) and a place for convocation robes to hang – for when the Archbishop came, the bishops were duly arrayed in the scarlet of Doctors of Divinity of the University of Oxford, just like their counterparts in England.
For the most part, the House of Deputies met separately. There the arrangements were similar to the Bishops’ house, but since each of the hundred-plus dioceses sends four clerical and four lay delegates, and also an alternate to each of these, the meeting is immense. A diocese, incidentally, may amount to no more than thirty parishes – think Rural Deanery, or maybe Sodor and Man, in English terms. When both houses meet together, as they did for the farewell address of Presiding Bishop Ed Browning, then there are about a thousand seated together in the centre of the hall, and almost as many again sitting outside the central area as alternates. Add to them ecumenical visitors, press and, in the far dark reaches of the hall mere visitors, and there will be perhaps three thousand people hanging on Ed’s words.
These words were all about inclusivity; how his mission had been to ensure that freedom and apple pie reigned supreme in ECUSA. The only bitterness he expressed was for the hatred which, he said, had been the hallmark of all who had opposed him. This seemed to include anyone who had any aspirations to being a traditionalist; and in ECUSA terms, the staff of Southwark Cathedral might be thought dangerously right-wing. The next day, some forty bishops supported the Bishop of North Dakota, Andrew Fairfield, who protested he was “hurt, offended and further marginalized” by the address of the retiring Presiding Bishop. Similar feelings were expressed by some of the Deputies. The presiding bishop thanked Bishop Fairfield for raising the matter.
Our Archbishop did not let us down. In the great Convention Eucharist, he told an amusing if well-worn story about a farmer from England meeting one from Texas (‘I can jump into my jeep and it takes me a whole day to cross my land; yes, I know what you mean, I had a car like that once’). He told us we must not worry ourselves about homosexuality or such matters; it simply was not an issue for most of the third world, so we could forget it. Instead, we must concentrate on third-world debt and an accommodation with Islam. Members of ESA (the Episcopal Synod of America – the traditionalists of ECUSA) and also the far larger and less hard-line AAC (the American Anglican Council) said privately that they felt very let-down by the Archbishop. After his forthright remarks at the Virginia Seminary earlier in the year, they expected something more direct and less bland. The Archbishop’s twice-repeated thanks for all the American church was doing in funding the Lambeth Conference might, they feared, have something to do with the low-key nature of the sermon. There were some bright spots in the whole event. The welcome which AAC and ESA gave to John Broadhurst (Bishop of Fulham) and me was overwhelmingly kind, and their hospitality incredibly generous. I was allowed to give a brief testimony in a committee of the Convention on the working of the Act of Synod in England, and this was well-received. Unfortunately, though, the committee felt sure that any such proposal in the Convention would be howled down, so it was better not to present it. Two motions by delegates to adopt a “flying bishop” system were, accordingly, still-born.
The daily eucharist held by traditionalists in a nearby Methodist church was, despite the architecture, sustaining and holy. On Sunday, St Clement’s Philadelphia put on an extravaganza of a liturgy (music by Rheinberger and César Frank), a High Mass “in the presence of a Greater Prelate”, and Bishop Parsons preached affectingly as did several of the other traditionalist bishops at the week-day eucharists.
Most impressive of all, though, were the eighty women priests who supported the traditionalists in trying to block the Canon (III 8.1) to make the ordination of women mandatory in every diocese. They wrote an open letter to Convention, asking for delegates to give the process of “reception” proper time, and not to indulge in “the sin of impatience”. These women suffered great obloquy from some of their hard-line “sisters”, and some of them joined us at the traditionalists’ daily eucharists. Of course, their efforts came to nothing and on the Friday the House of Deputies voted by two to one to force all dioceses in the Episcopal Church, even those that oppose women’s ordination, to accept women priests.
I am grateful to the parishes and individuals who accepted alterations to my itinerary in England to enable me to attend this Convention. It was not a consistently enjoyable experience, but it is essential that our church understands what is happening across the Atlantic.
Unless we are careful and prayerful, it could set the pattern for us before very long; and that, pace our Archbishop, would spell the end for our comprehensive church.
Edwin Barnes is Bishop of Richborough