My twitter and facebook feeds are full of posts from real and social media friends who are traveling to Austin, TX for the Episcopal Church General Convention. I’m not among those who will be attending. In fact, I’ve never attended General Convention. As this one approaches, by my calculations the ninth since I joined the Episcopal Church, I am fascinated by how my engagement with this triennial event has changed over time.
Early on, I’m not sure I even knew what it was or cared very much about it. It wasn’t until I entered the ordination process and began getting involved on the diocesan level that I began attention. Coincidentally, that was right around 2003, when the decade-long conflict that began with the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, broke out. As that conflict continued and as the debate over same-sex marriage also exploded, I paid close attention to events at General Convention and the discussions and jockeying that occurred in the months leading up to the meetings.
This year feels quite different. It’s not that there are no controversial issues on the table: prayer book revision, several resolutions about marriage rites, and addressing sexual harassment in the Church are all important and likely to gain attention outside the confines of The Episcopal Church.
I know there are many who are passionate about General Convention. It is an important aspect of our Church’s governance and for many it is an opportunity to connect with old friends and make new ones. I’m grateful for both aspects of this gathering, for the work that takes place and for the relationships it nurtures.
At the same time, I find myself less interested in what will take place there. I think there are a couple of reasons for this lack of interest. First, I have been in my current position for nine years. The longer I stay here, the more focused my ministry becomes on my local context. Madison is confronting a number of serious issues: homelessness, of course, which because of the presence of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter here at Grace is always at the top of the church’s and my list of priorities. In addition, Madison, Dane County, and the State of Wisconsin have among the most significant racial inequities of any state in the nation and closely related to that is mass incarceration which affects us through the presence nearby of the Dane County Jail.
In addition, since 2011, we have been at the epicenter of political conflict in our state and by extension the nation. Since the protests that erupted around Governor Walker’s plans to transform the State of Wisconsin into a laboratory for conservative policies, hardly a month goes by without rallies on the streets and sidewalks outside our doors. Just last week, as we were celebrating and blessing a marriage, outside our doors thousands were rallying as part of the nationwide Keep Families Together effort. I have participated in more such rallies in my nine years of ministry here than I did in the previous five decades of my life.
Finally, as I continue to work in Madison, my relationships with clergy of other denominations and my ecumenical engagement have become as important, if not more so, than my relationships with Episcopal clergy and the larger church. I have participated on commissions of the Wisconsin Council of Churches for most of the time I have been here and have been nurtured by relationships formed with clergy colleagues there and in Madison. As denominational structures continue to transform in the wake of the demographic and cultural decline of mainline Christianity, such relationships and ecumenical partnerships may become more important.
I suppose what I’m saying is that context matters. As my tenure at Grace lengthens, the relationships I have built with parishioners and the wider community come to matter much more. The problems and challenges of our city take center stage, and my capacity to engage creatively and effectively with those challenges and opportunities grows. It’s not that the denomination as a whole, nor indeed the worldwide Anglican Communion, no longer matter to me, but rather, I experience those larger entities through a perspective increasingly shaped by my local context.
I am looking at General Convention from the corner of N. Carroll St. and W. Washington Ave., in Madison. So even as the work of General Convention goes on, I will also be doing the work of ministry, administration, and advocacy in this place, grateful for that work and calling, and grateful for all of those others called to do the work of the larger church. My prayers are with and for them.