Tuesday 25 June 2024

Of American church's two Houses, Spanish worship, displaced Indigenous peoples, and Palestine

In notes on the opening days of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church (TEC) of the United States, Archbishop Thabo writes of how they differ from us in governance, of their use of Spanish as well as English in worship, of a pro-Palestinian protest against decisions of their House of Bishops, and of their willingness to acknowledge the displacement of Indigenous Americans by settlers and the evil of chattel slavery through their country's history.

Our Archbishop is at the convention to mark the retirement of TEC's Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, a descendant of enslaved Americans. The church has its origins in a breakaway from the Church of England at the time of American independence, when Anglican clergy who remained loyal to the British Crown often left for Canada and other jurisdictions, while those supporting the Revolution turned to the Scottish Episcopal Church to consecrate their first bishop.

The convention now represents 108 dioceses, with 167 bishops, more than 800 lay and clergy deputies and 239 alternate deputies registered. But it is also an opportunity for up to 10,000 people to attend events and visit exhibitions organised around it. Archbishop Thabo writes:

Those of us attending the General Convention (GC) as invited, ecumenical and interfaith guests gathered on Saturday for the first of our orientation sessions, which will be helpful as we join the big and complex “houses” of the convention.

In the House of Deputies, which represents the laity and clergy, we listened to a welcoming message by President Julia Ayala Harris, and from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (the PB) from the House of Bishops. I also met the Dean of Theology at the University of the South, to arrange for our sabbatical at Sewanee, Tennessee after I retire in 2026. At 7pm, we attended a revival and healing service, where the PB was at his best, and we sang “This little lamp of mine” by the light of our cellphone torches.

On Sunday, after the ecumenical guests recorded our greetings to the GC for playing later to each House, we attended orientation and breakfast at 7 am. Then it was the Opening Eucharist, which is being held this year with the overall theme of “Together in Love”. Eucharist was in English and Spanish, with the singing a combination of Hymns Ancient & Modern, American spirituals and choruses. It was vibrant and the President of the House of Deputies preached, stressing our call to bring healing to a hurting world, assuring us that Jesus is with us in the storms we face and that in the midst of everything, what is key is transforming lives rather than focussing on increasing our numbers.

In the House of Deputies, I was moved at the reading of an acknowledgement of the racial and brutal expropriation of the land and cultures of the indigenous peoples and First Nations of he United States. One of our own, the Revd Lester Mackenzie, now of Los Angeles, is the chaplain to the House and brought to the proceedings much love and light and laughter. (He is a grandson of Bishop Ed Mackenzie, Suffragan of Cape Town in Archbishop Emeritus Desmond's time.)

The President of the House opened the legislative session by reading the standing rules of the Convention; the preliminaries dealt with, about 813 members from 102 dioceses were seated.

Of note, and different to our Province, in which the Houses of Laity, Clergy and Bishops meet together at Provincial Synod, here the houses meet separately and each represents a team to receive greetings from the other House. The Diocese of Liberia has a seat and voice in TEC, since they belong jointly to the Province of West Africa and to TEC, one of the benefits being that they receive pensions from TEC.

After lunch and a siesta, we joined the House of Bishops’ legislative session. This house is much smaller and the bishops are seated at round tables as opposed to rows in the House of Deputies. One motion before the House was work from a task force on the definition of doctrine and how the theologically-held views of minorities on the issue of human sexuality can be protected.

Resolutions on social justice and the international policy work of committees were presented. The TEC is different from where we in ACSA are on these matters. Resolutions on human trafficking, migration with dignity, and affirming the integrity of a independent Palestinian state, were carried in an atmosphere of Anglican moderation and pragmatism.

After a take-away dinner, we went the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts to watch A Case for Love, an inpiring and moving film based on the writings and teaching of PB Curry. At 8.45 pm we walked back home to our hotel in a much longed-for breeze. The temperatures so far have been around 34 degrees C, dry and hot.

On Monday, a briefing and breakfast was followed by Morning Prayer, in which the worship was inspiring. We attended a joint session of the houses to look at the church's budget, then had lunch and listened to a session on the work and ministry of the Anglican Church in Palestine, led by Archbishop Hosam Naoum, President Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East.

There was also a small group that picketed for Palestinians, then we were officially welcomed to the House of Bishops and our recorded video messages were played. The House then reconsidered an amended motion criticising the theology of Christian Zionism.

A motion on full communion with the United Methodist community in the US was carried with applause, and the convention was also reminded of the formal communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria.

Monday night was “Kentucky night” with various activities, but I took a break at 4pm to recharge for Tuesday, when – very late in the day, SA time, I am one of those paying tribute to the retiring PB.


††Thabo Cape Town

Watch the trailer for A Case for Love:

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