Is the nasty party losing power in the Episcopal Church?

What is apparent is a swing of the pendulum away from ideology to pastoral care. The “nasty party” — those whom Dryden would have described as “false, foolish, old, ill-natured, and ill breed” — is no longer in charge.

The 78th General Convention has opened in a spirit of enui and exhaustion, George Conger writes from Salt Lake City, with enthusiasm and energy at the lowest level of any of the seven national church conventions he has covered since 1997.


I am not sure what is happening here at the 78th General Convention in Salt Lake City. Two days into the ten day gathering, the politicking, the passion and the energy that characterized the triennial gatherings off the church since the 1960s is absent. Past General Conventions were awash with loud, flashy people pushing pamphlets, festooned with badges in support of causes and candidates. Where did they go? I do not know.


In 1997 Mayor Ed Rendell welcomed Episcopalians to Philadelphia. The head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church welcomed Episcopalians to Minneapolis in 2003. As Jeff Walton of the IRD observed, the “home team is missing” in Salt Lake City — no representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) are among the ecumenical observers — and no politicians have so far graced the convention stage. Where are Donny and Marie?


What is apparent is a swing of the pendulum away from ideology to pastoral care. The “nasty party” — those whom Dryden would have described as “false, foolish, old, ill-natured, and ill breed” — is no longer in charge.

The response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down state laws banning same-sex marriage typifies the mood of the convention. While Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and President of the House of Deputies Gay Jennings applauded the ruling in a statements released on the national church’s website, the decision has not set the convention on fire.

In a 5-4 ruling released on 26 June 2015 the court held the Fourteenth amendment guaranteed the right of two people of the same-sex to marry. The majority opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy held: “The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.”

The “right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals, Justice Kennedy wrote as it “safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education​.”

This right was essential to the order of American society because: “this Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order.”


The court’s decision dovetails with the issues before the Convention as there are a raft of  resolutions before the 25 June to 3 July meeting seek to reform the Episcopal Church’s marriage liturgies, making them gender neutral. Open hearings hosted by the special commission on marriage have seen spirited testimony, almost exclusively from those in support of the reforms.

While colorful — one priest from Buffalo likened the current Prayer Book marriage liturgy to the Confederate battle flag — both being symbols of oppression, the testimony has had little impact. Minds have long been made up on this issue — there are no fence sitters left.

Conservatives are still present. But their voices carry little weight in the deliberations. What has changed is the importance of the ideologues in the debate. Past General Conventions saw partisans of the left excoriate conservatives, condemning them for all sorts of ills. The voices of the “persecuted minority” mattered to the larger convention and their actions were accommodated by the majority resulting in political victories for their cause in the last five conventions.

Sudden bursts of the partisan fervor could be scene after the Supreme Court ruling was announced — but they were brief and muted.

One Deputy said her committee halted its deliberations as the chairman announced the news. Some applauded, but the majority quickly returned to the matters before them.

Members of the official youth presence made a public show of support for the ruling. Their enthusiasm and advocacy displayed at the entrance to the worship hall prompted one deputy to skip the morning worship service. He told Anglican Ink he found their antics to be unseemly.

Others smiled at the youthful exuberance as they entered the worship hall, while partisans for change gathered in a group to celebrate to one side. But apart from a brief allusion to the ruling at the start of the service, no mention of the decision was made by President Gay Jennings of the House Deputies in her sermon to the convention, nor was the issue raised in the joint meeting of bishops and deputies held immediately afterwards.

President Jennings released a statement saying she was “elated” by the ruling. “Like many of my fellow Christians, I support marriage equality not in spite of my faith but because of it. In more than 35 years of ordained ministry, I have known many faithful, committed same-sex couples whose love gave me a deeper understanding of God’s love and whose joy in one another testified to the goodness of God’s creation. I have also learned through simple, everyday experience that same-sex couples make vital contributions to our common life, and I rejoice at the security today’s ruling affords them.”

Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori also released a statement, writing:

I rejoice that the Supreme Court has opened the way for the love of two people to be recognized by all the states of this Union, and that the Court has recognized that it is this enduring, humble love that extends beyond the grave that is to be treasured by society wherever it exists.  Our society will be enriched by the public recognition of such enduring faithful love in families headed by two men or two women as well as by a woman and a man.  The children of this land will be stronger when they grow up in families that cannot be unmade by prejudice or discrimination.  May love endure and flourish wherever it is to be found.

The Bishops of Atlanta, Michigan, Eastern Michigan amongst others, released press statements applauding the ruling, while a disappointed Bishop Paul Lambert of Dallas waved off questions saying he had to prepare a statement for his diocese.

The center of Convention, however, can likely found in the views of the Rt. Rev. Nick Knisely, Bishop of Rhode Island, who filmed a short clip for his diocese. Bishop Knisely endorsed the ruling, but spent more time saying that those who could not agree with the decision had a valued place within the Episcopal Church.

This appears to be the new center. But why are people so tired so soon? Various scenarios have been proposed by deputies — some say this is the calm before the storm when gay marriage comes up for debate. One bishop said cutting several days off the schedule, but not reducing the workload meant deputies have little time to give to extra-curricular activities. Another bishop likened the ambience to battle fatigue. A third suggested that the thinking portion of the convention understand the church is facing a crisis of mission — giving is down, attendance is falling, and the instruments of the church are not “fit for purpose”.

The coming few days will be rather interesting.

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