Monday, April 27, 2015

Diocesan Convention: Reports and Resolutions

So I am the lay representative this year for diocesan convention (Maryland), and having looked over the convention journal with the rector and talked strategy, I thought I'd give a few thoughts about it and diocesan business. Now, to me the most interesting stuff is in the supporting material, where there is a lot of informative stuff that the average parishioner is completely blank about. For instance, there is a complete list of parishes, and by "complete" I mean that it includes all the closed an merged parishes too, with dates of demise. There are quite illuminating reports of what the bishop and the standing committee did in the year, and a list of all clergy including ordinations, transfers in and out, licenses, and the like. There are reports from various ministries, some of which are illuminating in perhaps the wrong way: did you know that there is a national white privilege conference?

It's a terrible temptation to snark mercilessly at what is an earnest attempt to do right on the part of (one hopes) well-meaning people. And yet, the resolutions. It's always the resolutions. So, we have six resolutions, one of which is the inevitable and necessary compensation resolution which sets forth expected rates for clergy and employees as well as the standards for supply priest pay. Two more have to do with rearranging the system of regions we have (something like deaneries in some other dioceses) and adjusting their function a little. These are the real business and can be discussed on their merits.

After that, however, comes the other part. The fourth resolution asks us to "[support] all such measures prohibiting the Department of the Environment from issuing a permit to authorize the hydraulic fracturing of a well for the exploration or production of natural gas in the State until April 30, 2023 or until a specified panel is appointed, convenes, and reports to the Governor and General Assembly on the safety and environmental risks of such activities." Well. I personally am extremely wary of fracking; the fears of groundwater contamination seem to me to be well-grounded even if they haven't (yet) been demonstrated, and if contamination happens, it's likely to be widespread and extremely difficult if not impossible to undo. That said, environmental effects of industrial techniques are not even vaguely in our core competency. As my very liberal daughter observed (more pungently than I shall express it here), this is about making ourselves feel good about doing something absolutely ineffectual. really, nobody in the diocese who wasn't at convention will ever know that we passed this, and nobody can seriously believe that such a resolution will have any impact when general assembly meets— and the governor is a Republican, and appears to be a Catholic.

Next up is a resolution which asks us to "support the adoption of state legislation for “death with dignity” in the 2016 session" and "encourages on-going discussion of the issues surrounding this issue". OK, well, this is a little closer to stuff we actually know about, but "death with dignity" is after all a euphemism for physician-assisted suicide in the face of terminal illness. It's not something that we, as laypeople, are up on as to the moral and legal nuances. Half of us will want to oppose on the grounds of our inarticulate moral queasiness, and the other half will want to support on the basis of some relative's painful and undignified final days. Both sides will sigh in relief when the first clause is struck and we pass an ineffectual but self-affirming resolution to talk about the matter some more.

Finally, we get to a resolution which "encourages Episcopalians to build bridges that will foster positive relationships between residents and local law enforcement officers who are assigned to police neighborhoods where congregations are located" and which states that "community engagement such as this is in line with the concept of what it means to be a parish." This takes a bit of unpacking unless you have been following the news recently of the death of a man in Baltimore City police custody apparently due to their brutality. It's a serious social problem, made all the more dire given developments since the convention journal was produced; but again, we're outside our competence, and the impotent wording of the resolution shows this. OK, so this is turning out to be a big issue, but I fail to see how we in convention can contribute much, especially since few of us live in Baltimore City. And note the phrases used: what does "building bridges" mean? How about "foster positive relationships"? What's "the concept of what it means to be a parish"? These vacuities are progressive church buzzwords, rhetorical filler; they are about saying the "right things" without saying anything. So what it actually says is "the situation with the police in Baltimore City is atrocious but we don't have any idea of what do about it but mouth platitudes."

So we have three resolutions which amount to nothing but self-congratulation, and meanwhile there are three very big elephants standing in the room.

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