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From Columbus: 75th General Convention charts mission

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
6/23/2006
[Episcopal News Service] 

While the Episcopal Church made headlines in electing its 26th Presiding Bishop and debating its stance on issues of human sexuality and faith, the 75th General Convention made a number of other decisions that will affect its mission and ministry for the next three years and beyond.

Meeting in Columbus, Ohio from June 13-21, the Convention also took stands on social policy issues facing the United States and the world, including the war in Iraq, human rights, and the church's role in and benefit from slavery.

In what became a major mission and evangelism emphasis of this General Convention, bishops and deputies gave their official support of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) supporting and urged parishes, missions, congregations and dioceses across the church to work for their implementation

 The MDGs are an eight-pronged declaration that has at its core the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger by the year 2015.

Resolution (D022) on the MDGs sets these objectives:

  • Establishes achieving the MDGs as a stated mission priority of the Episcopal Church for the next three years;
  • Urges each diocese, congregation and parishioner to give 0.7 percent toward the MDGs by July 7, 2007; i.e. by 07/07/07;
  • Designates the Last Sunday after Pentecost as a special day of prayer, fasting and giving toward global reconciliation and the Millennium Development Goals;
  • Calls on every diocese to establish a global reconciliation commission to mobilize Episcopalians to work for achieving the goals of the MDGs;
  • Endorses the "ONE Episcopalian" campaign that calls on the U.S. government to spend an additional 1 percent of its budget to combat global poverty; and
  • Asks the budget committee to consider a line item equal to 0.7 percent (or roughly $900,000) in the coming three-year budget for work that supports the MDGs.

Reparations and slavery

The Convention's statements on slavery and racism grew in part out of a call for the church to live more fully into its mission of reconciling all people to God and to one another. As it acknowledged the past involvement of the church in slavery, expressing regret for supporting and justifying slavery, the Convention supported a study of monetary and non-monetary reparations to descendants of the victims of slavery (resolution A123).

The Convention also endorsed the principles of restorative justice, what the resolution (A127) calls "an important tool in implementing a neutral articulation of the self-examination and amendment of life that is required to fulfill our baptismal covenant." The resolution calls for a study and dialogue process to engage "in story telling about historical and present-day privilege and under-privilege" and suggests dioceses consider engaging in a truth and reconciliation process concerning legacies of racial oppression, in support of the study called for in resolution A123. Resolution A127 asks that "the Church hold before itself the vision of a Church without racism; a Church for all races."

In a related resolution (D046), the Convention reaffirmed the New Jamestown Covenant and the church's indigenous people, engagement designating the decade of 2007 to 2017 as the Second Decade of Remembrance, Recognition and Reconciliation. The first decade began on November 1, 1997, when, in Jamestown, Virginia, on the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America and the first Anglican Eucharist in the colony, the Episcopal Church apologized for centuries of abuse and signed the New Jamestown Covenant calling for reconciliation with Native Americans.

The 400th anniversary of the 1607 settlement and Eucharist will be commemorated next year in a series of Virginia events followed by October 21 rites in Washington National Cathedral.

War in Iraq

The Convention reiterated its opposition to the war in Iraq (D020) and called on Congress and the president to immediately develop a plan to stabilize Iraq that will allow U.S. troops to come home. The resolution "calls upon all Episcopalians as an act of penitence, to oppose and resist through advocacy, protest and electoral action the continuation of the war in Iraq."

The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) is asked to commission prayers and liturgies for use in the time of war. The church is called "to honor and support, through their prayers and actions, the armed service men and women who return home with injuries to body, mind, and spirit that they might be restored to wholeness of life and assisted in recovering from injury and trauma," as well as those who are killed.

The resolution also asks the church's ecumenical officer to set up a dialogue with Iraqi Muslims and Christians about nonviolent resolution of conflicts.

Resolution D019 calls for the church to pray for members of the armed services stationed in Afghanistan, and their families, and to communicate their commitment to prayer to them. The resolution also honors those working for peace in the regions and other civilian aid workers.

Civil rights and equality

The Convention went on record opposing the criminalization of homosexuality (D005). Resolution A095 reiterates Episcopal Church support of gay and lesbian people as "children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church." The resolution opposes state or federal constitutional amendments that prohibit same-gender civil marriage or civil unions and calls on government at all levels to give same-gender couples the same rights as non-gay married couples.

The Convention called for equal representation of women and men on all decision-making bodies within the church at local, diocesan and national levels (D024). This recommendation originated with the 2005 meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council.

Ecumenical relations

The Convention agreed to begin interim Eucharist sharing with the United Methodist Church (UMC). The relationship includes recognition of the UMC as "a member of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church in which the Gospel is rightly preached and taught" and encourages the development of a common Christian life between the two bodies. The agreement permits common, joint celebrations of the Eucharist between the two churches.

The church's similar agreement with the Moravian Church in America, Northern and Southern Provinces, begun after the last Convention was encouraged to continue towards full communion (Resolution D080).

Theology and liturgy

Deputies and bishops became theologians at times. They acknowledged the authority of the triune God, exercised through Scripture (resolution D069), rejecting the original language of the resolution that said, in part, that "Scripture is the church's supreme authority, and as such ought to be seen as a focus and means of unity." During the debate, it was pointed out that many people consider God to be the church's supreme authority.

The Convention also asked to have a pastoral and theological understanding of the relationship between Holy Baptism and Eucharistic practice prepared for the next Convention in 2009 (resolution D084). The Theology Committee of the House of Bishops and the SCLM were asked to work together, and to consult other appropriate people to help the church discuss the issue of giving communion to those who are not baptized.

Liturgical changes

The Convention was a body of liturgists at times. It directed that the Revised Common Lectionary replace the Book of Common Prayer lectionary effective the First Sunday of Advent 2007 (resolution A077). It made provision for continued use of the previous lectionary "for purposes of orderly transition, with the permission of the Ecclesiastical Authority," until the First Sunday of Advent 2010.

The Convention approved a "Common for Space Exploration" (A062) and authorized experimental use of a series of new rites and prayers for various passages of life ranging from getting a driver's license to dating to joining the military and leaving home (A067) and an alternative burial rite (A076).

The Convention called for continued development of liturgical materials in the "Enriching Our Worship" series (A069), including for the issues surrounding adoption (A070), the burial office and the rite of reconciliation (A071), and ministry in daily life (A088). It also directed the SCLM "to gather a collection of music to broaden the cultural breadth of the music of the church and to make native-language materials available to non-English speaking worshiping communities" (A072).

And the Convention asked, in resolution C001, the SCLM "to address anti-Jewish prejudice expressed in and stirred by portions of Christian scriptures and liturgical texts, with suggestions for preaching, congregational education, and lectionary use."

Amid such liturgical change, the Convention also invited bishops and the wider church into dialogue about the relations between local liturgical initiatives and ordered authority; and that the SCLM develop frameworks for resolving the theological, pastoral, canonical and liturgical issues involved in the creation of new rites and report its findings with recommendations to the 76th General Convention (A078).

Additions to Church Year Calendar

The Convention agreed to continue the process of revising "Lesser Feasts and Fasts," the book containing the Calendar of the Church Year (resolutions A057, A058)

The Houses added Florence Li Tim-Oi, Janani Luwum, Philander Chase, William Temple and Clive Staples Lewis Calendar of the Church Year (resolutions A059). Their commemorations were authorized for trial use at the 2003 Convention. The Martyrs of the Sudan were also added (C003).

The Convention authorized trial use in the triennium 2007-2009 for commemorations of Harriet Bedell, Deaconess and Missionary; Anna Julia Heyward Cooper, Educator; James Theodore Holly, Bishop of Haiti and Dominican Republic; Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, and The Martyrs of El Salvador; Tikhon, Patriarch of Russia and Confessor; Vida Dutton Scudder, Educator and Witness for Peace; and Frances Joseph-Gaudet, Educator and Prison Reformer (A063 and A064).

It referred to the SCLM suggested additions to the calendar, including Queen Bertha and King Ethelbert, early Christian witnesses in England (C021); Joan of Arc (C034); the Dorchester chaplains, four Army chaplains who died in the sinking of the U.S.S. Dorchester in 1943 (B008); and the Confession of Martha (C035); as well as Genocide Remembrance Day (C043).

Budget sets priorities for mission

Spanning the spectrum from theology and liturgy to economy, the Convention passed a budget of just more than $152 million for the next three years. The document represents three years of preparation and hours of consideration by Church Center staff, the Administration and Finance Committee of Executive Council and the Joint Committee on Program, Budget & Finance (PB&F) which was charged with refining the document during the days of Convention.

The budget is dedicated to the five mission priorities adopted by the Convention as well as other program areas and canonical requirements to support the work of the church. The priorities are: justice and peace (with an emphasis on the Millennium Development Goals); young adults, youth and children; reconciliation and evangelism; congregational transformation; and partnerships within the Anglican Communion, and with ecumenical and interfaith entities

The budget is nearly $10 million, or 7 percent, higher than that of the current triennium.

A special missionary initiative directed at the Lake Pontchatrain Basin Area in Louisiana, and possibly the state of Mississippi, was the centerpiece of the Convention's response to the devastating 2005 hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. The resolution (B011) aims to build on the spirit of ecumenism and mission currently surrounding rebuilding efforts in the dioceses of Mississippi and Louisiana. Equally important is the opportunity to gather accurate and comprehensive data on the effectiveness of church efforts in evangelism, advocacy and economic redevelopment as New Orleans and the Mississippi coast recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. 

The initiative asked for $100,000 annually to support an office and a coordinator based in Louisiana. According to the resolution, the effort could possibly include "relief and development projects, leadership formation and training for personal and congregational evangelism and service with the diverse populations of the region." It is just one of the ways the Church has worked since late August to help rebuild churches and communities on the Gulf Coast.

Working with Episcopal Relief and Development and the Church Pension Group, the initiative would also support the church's 20/20 goals (the church's efforts to double participation in parish life by 2020) and may serve as a model for areas of natural disaster or impoverished areas.

Evangelism and church growth

The Convention charged the Standing Commission on Domestic Mission and Evangelism with initiating "a national consultation on methods and strategies identify best practices to reverse the decline in mainline denominations," and making recommendations to the 76th General Convention on ways to reverse that decline in all denominations.

The Convention heard testimony that campus ministry is an important base for church growth. Resolution A041 supports campus ministry in a number of ways, including allowing such ministries to become mission congregations of their dioceses.

Resolution A037 is specifically directed at the 20/20 goals and calls on each bishop to cast a vision for his or her diocese; calls on all orders of ministry to speak about what God is doing in their lives; invite others to worship, and seeks to identify and develop practical resources for personal and congregational evangelism through the Church Center staff. More importantly, it is to be published in all congregational and diocesan media.

A church planting initiative (A042) includes provisions for a major gifts campaign, which would be the first since "Venture in Mission" 25 years ago. Another resolution (A043) encourages dioceses to identify "priority opportunities and estimate costs" for new congregations to fulfill 2020 goals.  It includes a feasibility study for a capital funds drive to help build these new churches.

Canonical changes effecting ministry

After hearing significant concern about a proposed change to the Title IV ministerial disciplinary canons, particularly about subjecting laity to ecclesiastical discipline, a legislative committee attempted to rewrite the 30-page resolution to clarify issues. However, it quickly became apparent to committee members the revision could not be accomplished in time for this Convention to act.

The resolution that referred the Title IV rewrite to a new task force, which was asked to report to the 2009 General Convention, note of the change in philosophy sought by the current task force, which is to move away from an adversarial model to one that encourages pastoral intervention as early as possible in the process. The 2003 Convention had asked for the revisions.

That was the same Convention that had approved a revision of Title III, known as the ministry canons. The new version of Title III returned to this Convention for additional changes and refinements. The revisions include creating standard but flexible timeframes for those seeking ordination to the diaconate or priesthood, amending how the Episcopal Church receives clergy from other churches, and requiring mentoring and continuing education for bishops.

Structure of church governance

The Convention agreed to make changes in the way the church organizes itself to carry out its policies and mission concerns.  It adopted a proposal to standardize the size of standing commissions to 12 people, three bishops, three priests or deacons and six lay persons (A104). In making the proposal in its Blue Book report (beginning page 285), the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church said it was looking to streamline the system of Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards (CCABs)

"Guiding our work is the belief that the structure of the church should promote and serve the mission of the church," the SCSC wrote. "We also believe the Church must be structured in a way that facilitates the flow of ideas and energy, and that promotes accountability, flexibility, and good stewardship."

The Convention adding the Standing Commission on Lifelong Christian Education and Formation to develop and recommend policies for children, youth, adults, and seniors for lifelong Christian formation (A105).

In Resolution A112, "Directions for the Future," the Convention calls on all committees and commissions "to reevaluate their mandate and placement within the church structure" and report to the structure commission one year before the next Convention in 2009.

The standing commission will then review and possibly change the CCAB's definitions and structures.

A112 will also have the structure commission study and recommend any resolutions proposed to the next Convention about changing church's name, as found in the preamble to its constitution. There is some feeling that the title "Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America" may not be representative of the church's overseas dioceses and congregations.

Any resolutions that propose changes to the process of nominating and electing the Presiding Bishop would be reviewed by the structure commission as well by way of this resolution. Some members of the Convention have said that the House of Deputies ought have a bigger role in that process beyond deputy membership on the nominating committee and House of Deputies consent to the election conducted by the House of Bishops.

Among many other actions, the Convention also:

  • directed General Convention planners to provide child-care facilities at the 2009 convention. It also encourages dioceses and provinces to provide similar services at conventions and synod meetings (D059).
  • approved a pilot project to provide summer camps for children whose parents are in prison. A line item in the budget already approved by General Convention included $65,000 for the new program (D012).
  • defeated a resolution to shorten the length of General Convention to eight days, or nine days if a Presiding Bishop was to be elected (A155).
  • approved active support for the right of workers to form a union and increase the support nationwide for passage of "living wage" legislation. It also commits the church to contract solely with union hotels in its meetings, or hotels that offer "living wages" to employees (D047).
  • directed the Standing Commission on Ministry Development to design strategies for raising awareness and responding to the crisis of educational debt for seminarians (B006).
  •  urged the church to work to ensure that governments provide programs that combat social and economic conditions that place children at risk or diminish children's ability to achieve their full potential in the world (A018).
  • defeated a proposal that would allow an assistant, suffragan or coadjutor to help a diocesan bishop fulfill the canonical requirement to visit each congregation in a diocese (B007).

You can read the complete text of resolutions from the 75th General Convention at http://gc2006.org/legislation/

Information about resolutions passed by Conventions since 1976 at http://www.episcopalarchives.org/e-archives/acts/

The 76th General Convention is set to convene in Anaheim, California, July 8-17, 2009.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is ENS national correspondent. Contributors to this story include Carol Barnwell, director of communications for the Diocese of Texas; Matthew Davies, ENS international correspondent; Jim DeLa, director of communications for the Diocese of Southwest Florida; Daphne Mack, ENS staff writer; the Rev. Pat McCaughan, ENS senior correspondent, Nicole Seiferth, editor of The Episcopal New Yorker; and Melodie Woerman, director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.