President Jennings gave these opening remarks to an online training of legislative officers on September 28:
Good afternoon—or good morning, or good evening, depending on your time zone. Thank you all for devoting this time to preparing for General Convention.
We’ll get down to details in just a few minutes, but before then, I want to say a few things about how we approach our participation in church governance.
Last year, I appointed Professor Scott MacDougall of Church Divinity School of the Pacific as theologian of the House of Deputies because I wanted us to spend more time reflecting on how our participation in church governance is an expression of our Christian vocation. This idea of governance as Christian vocation is particularly important in the House of Deputies, since everyone in our house has specifically chosen the ministry of governance—deputies have taken the time to discern their call to governance, run for deputy in their dioceses, and in many cases, use their vacation and days off to make time for meetings, hearings, and service at General Convention.
Like all ministries, participating in church governance can have its frustrating moments, its moments of tedium, and its moments when you have to admit that while you and the people with whom you serve are all part of Christ’s body, you’d like to be located on a different limb. And if you’re even more honest, you’ll acknowledge that they feel the same way about you.
It’s in those moments, Professor Mac Dougall tells us, that we need to remember what we are really about when we are doing governance work. Here’s what he wrote to us last month in the House of Deputies newsletter:
“…You have placed yourself at the service of the Holy Spirit in agreeing to guide the Episcopal Church by participating in its governance.
“If the church is the Body of Christ, you are directly tending to Christ’s body when you attend that meeting, read that document, proof those revisions. The care you take in carrying out those tasks is the care you are lavishing on Christ. This is a sacramental reality, the sacramental reality in which we participate every time we celebrate the Eucharist together. That doesn’t mean it will never feel like a slog! Far from it. But that’s what the mystery of the incarnation is all about. The incarnation means that God, in Jesus of Nazareth, was fully present in the simplest, humblest, and messiest of created realities: the beautiful complication of life carried out in these imperfect, chaotic, limited conditions under which we all labor. God is present in the muck and mire of our material reality—including committee meetings!”
I served as a deputy for ten conventions, and this will be my last General Convention as president of the House of Deputies. I have learned a few things about the mystery of the incarnation at General Convention along the way, and I want to share a few of them with you as we begin preparing for this convention, and especially for the big experiment of convening meetings and holding hearings online.
I’ve learned that role clarity is essential. Bishops and deputies both have roles to play in legislative committees. There is a lot of opportunity for collaboration, cooperation, clarification and mutual discernment. And yet, our committees are not joint committees—they are parallel committees. House of Deputies and House of Bishops committees may choose to meet together, and that has been the standard practice since 1991. Meeting together gives us the opportunity to listen to each other’s perspectives, uncover areas of agreement and disagreement, and sometimes to find consensus before legislation moves to the floors of our respective houses. But our committees may also choose to meet separately, and whether you meet together or separately, each committee may only take action for its own house.
I’ve also learned that we all love this church. You might have a wildly different vision for the Episcopal Church than someone on your legislative committee, or someone on your parallel committee in the other house, but that does not mean that you love this church any more or any better than that person does.
I’ve learned that the different cultures and rules of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops can strengthen our ability to listen to the Holy Spirit as she moves in General Convention. The House of Bishops is known for valuing collegiality and consensus in its legislative proceedings, which can be a great benefit at difficult times. The House of Deputies is known for valuing the ability of our governance structures to give lay people and clergy a voice in decision-making. We’re also known for running a tight parliamentary ship. There are nearly 900 of us, after all, and a whole lot of deputies have been elected based on their passionate views about the issues of the day. We rely on our rules of order to keep chaos at bay! When bishops and deputies respect each other’s strengths and understand that we are different parts of the same body with different roles to play, we do better at turning down the static of interpersonal conflict and listening to the Spirit.
I’ve learned that we need to pace ourselves. We are all, in one way or another, stretched thin by the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re about to embark on an adaptive experiment to see how we can use technology to make some of our governance work more cost-effective and more accessible to the wider church. And we are all unsure about what the post-pandemic church will look like and how best to strengthen our institution to serve God’s people in all of our congregations and communities. This liminal time makes us all susceptible to posting that intemperate rant on social media, to making those uncharitable comments in a meeting, to assuming ill intent and to expecting the worst from one another.
You don’t need me to tell you that these practices can be spiritually corrosive, but I want to say that they can also do damage to our ministry of governance. There are no private social media groups or chats—someone always takes a screen shot—and someone always repeats the negative chatter or angry remarks made in a meeting or online discussion. And then, instead of spending time bringing our church closer to Beloved Community, we spend emotional energy cleaning up the mess.
So when you need a break, take a break. Take a breath. As they say online, touch grass. And most of all, pray. Pray for each other, for wisdom, for guidance, and for charity. Pray for the Presiding Bishop and for me—I can assure you we need it. And pray especially for our beloved church, that it may be filled in all truth with all peace.
Thank you for your commitment to this ministry. I am honored to serve our church with you.