Let’s sit near the front,” my host whispered to me as she ushered me into the morning Eucharist. “How un-Anglican!” I thought immediately. We walked past row upon row of mostly middle-class Americans, all standing and singing with their iPads held erect. For a moment I found myself trying to picture this in a charismatic setting, and smiled quietly to myself – I realised this was all going to be quite an experience. One of the things I often find myself reflecting on is the sheer scale and size of the USA. Personally, I fear that few Brits have any real sense of just how big America actually is. I remember when Hurricane Katrina hit, much UK news coverage was given to what we perceived to be the apparent slowness of the relief effort. It took several journalists pointing out that the State of Louisiana is actually bigger than England before I began to realise the relief effort was on a scale of which we could only dream! Geography has a lot to answer for in terms of the way that the Episcopal Church itself is governed. Due to the distances involved, it makes economic sense to only gather the elected representatives once every three years (an interesting thought for General Synod!).
This means that the agenda of each Convention is extremely packed, and further complicated by the fact that much legislation plays “parliamentary ping-pong” between the two legislative chambers – the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. For the uninitiated, the latter is an elected group of clergy and lay persons from each of the 110 dioceses who sit and vote at their tables. This creates an interesting dynamic as it tends to limit the formation of “tribal breakout groups” and instead creates a strong sense of pride and loyalty in one’s diocese – who voted for the candidates to represent them, and not their church tradition. Episcopal Church polity is therefore quite different to our own, and is important to understand given its impact on the contributions to debates. Given most working Americans have quite limited holiday entitlement few can make all 10 days of the Convention.
This means that the critical days of business are those centred around the central weekend, where there is quite literally a full house. Interestingly, the average age and profile of the delegates appear much broader and more representative than the General Synod although neither body has found a way of attracting that many “young” people (under 30). That said, my first impressions were that the General Convention seemed far more “fit for purpose” than our Synod, and more representative of a church family. The next thing that struck me was the sheer number of visitors who commit themselves to coming for as much of the Convention as they can. Whereas in the UK we may have a handful of interested parties in the gallery, we no way mirror the thousands of self-financing Episcopalians who come to listen to the debates and participate in fringe events. It means that the total number gathered is about 5,000–6,000 people, and so limits – even in the USA – the number of venues that can cater for the needs of the Convention. Overall it is a very slick and professional operation, where efficiency is clearly the goal. For instance, distributing communion to the thousands only required a couple of communion songs to cover the whole process! Perhaps the greatest difference that has left a lasting impression on me was the actual atmosphere in the main hall, and indeed that in the debating chambers.
Whilst there are obvious differences of opinion, the vast majority of people seem committed to being as kind, generous and positive as they could be to each other. There was a genuine warmth and feeling of expectation in the air, and a tangible sense that the purpose in hand is to determine the will of God. This seemed in stark contrast to my memories of a more formal and at times oppressive regime of General Synod. I also couldn’t help wondering if visitors would get such a warm welcome from Synod members as the one I myself received whilst at the Convention.
Next week Jayne Ozanne reports from General Convention on the vote on gay marriage