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“Constant Change is a Part of Our Tradition”: A Diocesan Convention Wrap-Up

If participants in the Diocese of Vermont’s 2021 convention did not know the diocese was entering a period of turbulent change before the online sessions last Thursday and Saturday, they certainly knew it afterwards.

The convention—conducted over Zoom—was the first since Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown announced that a recent financial analysis indicated that the diocese would run out of money at some point in 2023. Presentations by the bishop, Bishop Sean Rowe of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York, the Rev. Scott Neal of the recently-established task force to help chart the diocese’s future and Dr. Catherine Meeks of the Absalom Jones Center of Racial Healing in Atlanta, focused primarily on how the diocese might move into a new future while deepening its commitment to racial healing.

“The church as an institution is bound by tradition and we have lived for generations thinking that part of our mission is to protect the church from change,” Bishop Shannon said, in a sermon during a service of morning prayer on Saturday, November 6. “However, we must no longer deny that constant change is part of our tradition.”

Later, in her bishop’s address, she said the diocese’s future might include closer relationships, although not a merger, with the dioceses of New Hampshire and Maine. “We are looking for ways to collaborate across dioceses so that our ministries will be strengthened, and to achieve greater efficiency and increased stewardship of our financial resources,” she said.

She meets regularly with Bishop Thomas Brown of Maine and Rob Hirschfeld of New Hampshire, she said, and the three bishops plan to include others in their conversations soon. “The three of us are clear that our collaboration is about more than money, rather it is about strengthening our capacity to be followers of Jesus Christ, in the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, in Northern New England,” she said.

Rowe also stressed the importance, and also the difficulty, of collaborating at a time when no one has the answers to the church’s besetting problems, including declining membership and institutional capacity.

He said some of the problems the church faces require adaptive change, and that such change begins with recognizing that an organization doesn’t have the answers for the challenges it faces.

“I am telling you that if we had the answer to this, your bishop and I would write a book, we’d fix the church, and we’d retire to some exotic place somewhere,” he said. “But we don’t, because the fact of the matter is these adaptive issues are issues that are going to require us to experiment and to learn.

“There is no gifted leader, no brilliant idea that is going to do it. And I assure you there is no easy fix. It requires experimentation, evaluation, failure, failure, try again, failure and reiteration. And that’s where the adaptive change happens.”

Neal briefed the convention on the progress of THRIVE (Taskforce for hope, Revitalization, Innovation, Vision and Efficiency) which he co-chairs with Ellen McCulloch-Lovell of Christ Church, Montpelier. The task force has formed sub-groups focusing on financial sustainability, missional vitality, and governance and collaboration, and its timeline is “ambitious” he said, noting it hopes to make recommendations by Pentecost Sunday, June 5.

Although the diocese is entering a period of great transition, it is holding fast to certain commitments. In a lively question and answer session following her remarks, Meeks said it is impossible to examine and question white privilege “without causing an uproar” and that “if there is tension around the conversation, that is an indication you need the conversation.”

The diocese will be working with Meeks and her center in the coming months, in a gradual process rooted in the Eucharist and the Baptismal Covenant. “[W]e want to make sure that people understand that dismantling racism and racial healing is directly related to spiritual formation, that it is directly related to being a follower of Jesus Christ, that it is not some social justice issue. It’s not a political issue … It is a part of the spiritual journey.”

The Saturday morning session followed a Thursday evening session at which clergy and delegates passed a budget and numerous resolutions. 

The budget, presented by outgoing treasurer Dr. Gerry Davis, was the first in recent memory that accounted for the full total of diocesan income and expenditures in a single document, making it easier to understand the diocese’s fiscal health at a glance. Davis said the diocese had a positive balance for 2021 thanks largely to a loan, since forgiven, from the federal CARES Act.

Other resolutions established minimum clergy compensation requirements; created a strategic task force on financing and governing structures; endorsed entering Bishop Barbara Harris, first female bishop in the Anglican Communion, into the church calendar; affirmed transgender and non-binary gender identities, and called upon the Church Pension Group and the Episcopal Church Medical Trust to work toward ending the use of forms that required a choice of either male or female “as  a condition of obtaining healthcare and retirement  benefits.”

Three resolutions arising from the state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, provoked the only extended debate during the business session. The first two resolutions, both of which passed with more than 90 percent of the vote, forwarded resolutions that the diocese had passed at previous conventions to the upcoming 80th General Convention for its consideration in drafting legislating regarding the Holy Land.

The third resolution, Recognition of Apartheid in Israel/Palestine, “call[ed]on the U.S. government to withhold military funding from the State of Israel until Israel eliminates apartheid laws, respects Palestinian human rights, and stops violating international law.”

“Apartheid is a legal definition,” the Rev. Craig Smith said, in proposing the resolution. “It’s not a slander. It’s just a description of behavior.” He read the testimony of Wafic Faour of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, who said Israel’s 2018 Nation State law has left 22 percent of the country without the same legal and human rights as Jewish citizens. 

Much of the debate involved the use of the word “apartheid.”

“Having lived in the West Bank under Israel’s occupation, I know this is an apartheid situation,” said Ana Kennedy, a lay delegate from St. Andrew’s in St. Johnsbury. “Israel has recently tried to label organizations that have done very serious legal work documenting what has happened to Palestinians… as terrorist organizations. It is really important that we as Christians stand up for the rights of the Palestinians.”

Lisa Newton of Trinity, Shelburne, disagreed. “There’s a pattern here,” she said of the three resolutions. “What’s the filthiest name we can think of? Apartheid will do a very nice job with that. And we are going to be calling names. What on earth is this accomplishing for Palestinians or for the Episcopal Church? The topics brought up are enormously complex. People have been working on them since 1948 at least. And I think that we are presented just with one side. In order to get some kind of condemnation which will make people feel good. I don’t think it is our business. I don’t think it is advisable to be reinforcing this.”

Joseph Fortner of St. Mary’s in the Mountains, Wilmington said that if the resolution on apartheid were followed to the letter it “would end the Jewish state of Israel.” The condemnation of Israel, he said, was “improperly selective.”

The Rev. Susan McGarry, former rector of St. Stephen’s, Middlebury, who said that she spent two years as a scholar in East Jerusalem, agreed with Kennedy. “My experience is that it is apartheid,” she said, and noted that the resolution, which calls on the U. S. to withhold military funding had “teeth.”

The resolution passed 89-25-16 and will be submitted to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

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