Sunday, June 21, 2015

With God's Help: New England Annual Conference 2015, Part 1

Listen to the word that God has spoken.
Listen to the One who is close at hand.
Listen to the voice that began creation.
Listen even if you don't understand.

This past week I attended my first Annual Conference. I'd been to an ordination service before and several years ago helped with childcare, but this was the first time I participated in the conferencing. I came in knowing that discernment, particularly discernment in the midst of politicking, can be hard, though I wasn't always prepared for exactly how hard and what form the problems took. At the same time, I wasn't fully prepared for the moments of great joy. This is the first of a few posts about how Conference went and what I took away from it.

For me, Annual Conference opened at the laity session, which was in many ways an intro to the rest of conference, particularly the focus on witness and service and the Act of Repentance worship experience. Rev. Dr. Thom White Wolf Fassett offered both the laity session Bible study and sermon at the Act of Repentance, and for me his message carried through both sessions.

"Repentance is now... no one can take it on for you."
"We are inheritors of a history."
"We are living stones building sacred temples."
"If we're rethinking church, why are we not rethinking family, community, and above all unity?"
-Rev. Dr. Fassett

The Act of Repentance is complicated. There is no doubt that the church has done harm to indigenous populations around the world, particularly to Native Americans in the US. Acknowledgment and repentance of this is necessary, especially given how much we as the church still benefit from that harm, particularly in terms of land. To some extent, though, the liturgy of the service implied that all present had European ancestry. Where is the line between all taking on this repentance because we are members of a church that needs to repent and respecting that among us are people who have been harmed by the very acts (or similar ones) of which we were repenting?

Following the Act of Repentance, we recognized the retiring clergy, and Bishop Devadhar asked our two ordinands the historical questions. The historical questions aren't usually all that interesting, given that the answers and questions don't really change, but a couple of things made a lot of us laugh this year. First of all, Janet Deranian enthusiastically added "with God's help" after every "yes" answer, and Jeffrey Hooker, the other ordinand, soon joined in as well. Second, Bishop Devadhar offered a few suggestions for modern modifications to the questions, including, "Will you spend more time in prayer than in front of Facebook?"

A few of the retiring clergy gave advice to the ordinands:
"The sermon is not your message, it's God's, through you or even in spite of you."
- Rev. Heidi Chamberland
"For John [the Baptist] turning around is radically different from turning back."
- Rev. Gwen Purushotham
"Mind the gap, the white space, the negative space... the invisible and silent spaces."
- Rev. Purushotham

The rest of the evening/night included the budget presentation (though no vote; that was later), the first votes for delegates to General Conference, and the Episcopal Address.

Before we voted for delegates, though, we had to learn how to vote with the voting machines (which we, following the Bishop's lead, came to refer to as "gadgets"), which brought up the question of how many people we had to vote for each time. Could we vote for up to the number of people to fill the spots available or exactly the right number of people? There were conflicting rules on this. The conference rules that we had adopted at the very beginning of conferencing said that we could vote for up to the full number of people. The rules distributed before the conference and in the booklet of delegate bios said that we had to vote for exactly the right number of people. There was a lot of discussion of which rules take precedence and discouragement of bullet voting. Eventually, we voted to suspend the rules (which required approval of 2/3 of the body) and then voted that each ballot needed to contain votes for the same number of nominees as there were vacancies to be filled.

(Note: at this point we were already way deeper into Robert's Rules than I had expected to be, and this was just the beginning.)

The Episcopal Address focused on how we as congregations are known in our communities, how to think about the opportunities God is giving us, and what kind of activities to encourage. I thought it was particularly interesting how much the Bishop encouraged pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Taize. After mentioning how important he thought this was, he talked about what pilgrims do in terms of asking questions, reflecting, and considering their own contexts that is different from what tourists do.

"We may live in a “de-churched area,” but the Lord is offering us plenty of opportunities to invite others to partake in the extension work of the Reign of God. When we do that, God will indeed bless us.”
-- Bishop Devadhar

The Bishop stressed that the church is part of the Kingdom of God but is not itself the Kingdom, that the new thing to which God is calling us is not about the institutional church but about that extension of the Reign of God.

"People are smart, and that includes our youth and young adults. They don't want to spend their dollars on bricks and mortar. They want to make a difference in others' lives so that everyone can have life in abundance."
-- Bishop Devadhar

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