Monday, June 19, 2006

General Convention III - Lessons on Activism and Change

Exactly thirty years ago, at the 1976 Episcopal General Convention, women were, for the first time, allowed to be delegates from their local regions. Not completely surprisingly, the 1976 Convention also authorized allowing women to become ordained as deacons, priests, and bishops. Women now make up just over 20% of the clergy of the Episcopal Church (source: Louie Crew).

Yesterday afternoon, my friends and I waited through hours of mind-numbing procedural debate in the House of Deupties to hear the results of the closed election at the House of Bishops. The bishops had been bused about eight blocks to an Episcopal church in the middle of Downtown Columbus and were sequestered there until a candidate for Presiding Bishop (the highest-ranking clergy position in the American church) achieved a majority of votes (yes, Karl, we use a version of run-off voting).

Finally, we were informed that representatives of the House of Bishops had arrived to deliver a special envelope to the Deputies' Committee on Consecration of Bishops - the envelope contained the election results. The air electrified, and the enormous convention hall started to bulge at the sides as the people continued to pack in for the news. Grain by grain, the moments dripped by as the crowd inched closer to the edge of their seats. My mind was on nothing else - I hung on every word, waiting for two of them to be, "And now..."

"And now..." began the President of the House. We all suddenly realized that the time had come. A profound gravity took hold of the room as 3,000 anxious Episcopalians interrupted their breathing. The President introduced the Chair of the Committee on Bishops, who was responsible for verifying the results. The Chair walked slowly to the podium and greeted us, his transfixed captives. My jaw was already open.

"The committee has received the results of the election by the House of Bishops..."

History raised its eyebrow.

"...and moves consent for the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church..."

History turned its head.

"...the Right Reverend..."

History waited.


Quite literally, a windy gasp rippled throughout the assembly. I looked at my friends sitting around me, both women, eyes bigger than their faces.

"...Jefferts Schori."

The deed was done. The entire chamber erupted into wild shouts of joy and roaring applause. History smiled.

The House of Deputies still had to vote its consent to the choice of the bishops. But before it did, one by one, women crowded the eight microphones and gave their testimonies. Sixty, seventy, eighty year-old women recalled how hard they had fought to even be allowed a vote at the Convention. Twenty, thirty, forty year-old women spoke of how excited they were to tell their daughters that their bishop was a sister. A few men (no women, I should note) stood up against Jefferts Schori, saying her election would cut us off even further from the rest of the world church. But more men spoke of how they were excited to now celebrate with their wives.

Next to me and in front of me, as I listened to the testimony, elderly women were smiling so broadly - I realized that I had no conception of how vindicated they must feel. Thirty years ago, these women were radical pioneers of progress - now one of their own would be representing all women everywhere in conversations that previously have never fallen on female ears. Many had water in their eyes, trickling down their cheeks and into the happy corners of their beaming lips.

My friend Karl gives advice on successful activism - it's important to re-iterate that he is NOT calling for compromise.

Where they met opposition, they didn’t belittle those challenging them, they
engaged those individuals in dialogue, eventually persuading the vast majority.

This was exactly how Episcopal women achieved their right to vote (in fucking 1973!) and then consequently their access to ordination. They put forth very clearly that they were equally valued and spiritually sensitive as men were - no qualifiers or exceptions. They did not convince people by villifying those who disagreed with them - they did so by showing their love for their church and for the people in it. As a related aside, it was the opponents of the women who did the vilifying, declaring those who supported the ordination of women as "betrayers of Scripture" and "revisionist."

But they were not shaken: the women engaged their opponents with their honest interests fully visible - they wanted full inclusion, and that is exactly what they demanded. They didn't curl up into balls of self-comforting isolation whenever they encountered dissent: rather, they steered themselves deliberately into those shaky waters in order to listen, learn, discuss, and reconcile.

I think the ridiculous events put on by the UW College Republicans are seen by members of that group as attempts to "engage opponents" and "steer into dissent" - but the intention of these events is clearly NOT reconciliation.

Wherever activism's real goal is to reconcile differences for the sake of mutual progress - rather than to convince (another way to say "conquer") or to silence - activism becomes change. I witnessed the fruits of this yesterday night. People are very excited. I just got handed an awesome pink button pin that reads "It's a girl!" with the new bishop's name on it.

So, as a footnote to Karl's excellent article, I would urge progressives to ask themselves, in whatever they're doing or strategizing about, "Why are we here?"

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