As I prepare for Christmas and open myself to greet anew the mystery of the Incarnation, I’ve been reflecting on how I encountered Jesus at General Convention in dancing with the canons, in listening to testimony, in numerous quick cups of coffee and conversation, in myriad early morning meetings before early morning committee sessions, in working with a group striving to find just the right word.
I live out the gospel, at least in part, through governance. It is not just that I am a canon nerd. I will confess that a good day for me is one where I have to reach for the canons, whether diocesan or churchwide, in order to bring clarity to some issue, or arbitrate a dispute, or find a pathway for the way forward in a process.
The canons provide the structure for our purpose. They present a framework for justice and fairness which is what God wants for the world. We are an ordered church, and within that order we find ways to make the gospel real in the world. In particular, the canons are there to protect the weak and vulnerable. While it would be nice to believe that in the church we always treat one another with fairness and regard, it doesn’t work that way. In any governing structure, ideally laws are created to protect the disempowered from the arbitrary exercise of authority. The gospel calls for us the care for the lost, the lonely, the disenfranchised. The canons provide for justice and fairness; they make tangible the presence and love of God. In this way, they are incarnational.
At the 79th General Convention, I served on the legislative committee on ministry, chairing the sub-committee that worked on all of the resolutions involving revisions to the canons. Amending the canons is meticulous work, but we are willing to revise them in order to best respond to a changing church and a changing world. When we enter into canonical revision, we do so in order to better reflect the gospel. And we do this in community. We accept resolutions from across the church, and when we gather at General Convention, we debate these resolutions together, in public. As committees, we hold open hearings on each resolution, so that people can speak and be heard.
You might think that testimony regarding amendment of canons heard in such a committee would be tedious or dry. Or that we would spend our long legislative days wasting time arguing over picayune points of law. Or that we were navel gazing. But what occurred in that space was holy. Yes, it was often tedious, and frustrating and on some days seemed like futile effort. But as we sat in committee, people came to testify about how God is working powerfully in their lives, how they yearn to be heard, how they are asking our church to support them with powerful acts of love. For the most part, the speakers did not know us; nevertheless, they came and laid their hearts and lives before us on issues as diverse as the damage done by the Doctrine of Discovery, equity for transgender people in the church, and the need for suicide prevention training across the church.
All of the people who spoke to us were asking that we make the church a better place for them, and therefore for all of us. They came and spoke to us because we needed to hear them. They were one part of the body of Christ speaking to another part of the body. And we all know that no matter how frustrating it can be, we simply cannot say to another member, “I have no need of you.”
Each time I have been on a legislative committee, I have been moved and astounded and surprised by the people who come to be heard. We call these meetings hearings. I find I am compelled to practice a discipline of listening. I strive to hear and attend with my heart. And through myriad beautiful, vulnerable, bold, articulate, gentle, and daring stories, I am invited into relationship with astonishing people. A hearing. A holy listening. A heeding, a hearkening, a beloved encounter.
The canons cannot bear the weight of every burden of the church. Some things we cannot legislate. But for me, it is often in our deliberations about legislating our life together that the incarnation becomes fully known, as we encounter one another anew, as strangers become allies. There is no doubt we are about holy work.
As we rush headlong toward the birth of a baby and are filled anew with wonder at the coming of the Christ child, may we marvel once again at the audacity of God becoming weak and vulnerable in order to save creation. And then remember our call to strive for justice, protect and defend the disenfranchised, regard the least, and love one another.
Anne Kitch is a deputy from the Diocese of Bethlehem.