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Twenty Minutes with Robert Hendrickson

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December 24, 2012 · 7:08 pm

Perspective in General Convention (1913)

WE shall shortly begin, both editorially and through the promised Symposium by many deputies to General Convention, the consideration of various subjects that may probably come before the ensuing General Convention. But before doing this in detail we desire to try to place before our readers a true perspective of General Convention and of the Church. Only be keeping certain fundamental principles in mind can one do justice even to the particular measures that arise for discussion.

General Convention did not create the Church. The charter of the Church is heaven-given. The faith of the Church is a revelation. The worship of the Church is divinely ordered.

The mission of the Church is a single one. It is to bring man into intimate relationship with Almighty God. This it accomplishes, first, by bringing men, one by one, to Him in holy Baptism; second, by the development of character, with sacramental aids, after Baptism; third, by seeking to make the world and its social condition adequate for the realization of the highest ideals of life.

All the legislation of the Church in her national Convention is subsidiary to this main purpose. Relative values among issues are to be determined by the extent to which they carry this fundamental purpose into effect. Nothing is worth while if it has no bearing on this fundamental purpose. Everything is worth while that will hasten the Kingdom of God in its dominating influence over men.

Our General Convention is the representative body for legislative purpose, of this American Church. It is not her only representative body. On the administrative side the Board of Missions, as at present organized, is every whit as representative of the national Church as is General Convention.

Our legislative body meets under several handicaps. Not all deputies are chosen because they are the best instructed Churchmen to be found in their respective dioceses. Not all can rise above local or partisan prejudices. Provincialism is rather widespread throughout the Church. The spirit of the Prayer Book is very imperfectly assimilated by too many Churchmen.

There are intellectual handicaps. The true perspective of the Church is one that sympathetically correlates her history during all the centuries back to Pentecost, and brings all the accumulated experience of those ages to bear on the problems of the present and the future; that sympathetically correlates all the present work of the Church and its needs in all parts of the world. Not all Churchmen are large-minded enough to obtain this perspective. Indeed we may almost grade Churchmen on a percentage basis, according to their sympathies, looking backward, stop at the eighteenth century, or the sixteenth, or the thirteenth, or the fourth; stop at the past without the future; stop at some geographical limitation, be it parochial, diocesan, national, or otherwise, in the Church’s work throughout the world. If the perspective of all Churchmen were to be measured at one hundred per cent. on the experience and ideals of the Church, there would be little difficulty in legislating toward large ideals.

And there are physical handicaps. The larger the House of Deputies grows, the more difficult is legislation. With six hundred members, most of them experienced speakers to a greater or less degree, it is wholly impossible that more than a handful can be heard on any subject. The sessions would be as long as those of Congress if real deliberation were attempted. Practically, not much can be expected of General Convention except the perfection of slightly faulty canons relating to details of administration, and except to the extent that the Church has been brought into very general agreement beforehand.

The result of this physical handicap is that each General Convention is almost certain to be a disappointment to men who have large ideals for the Church. There will always be those, too, who will be impatient over the time frittered away, as they will say, over trivialities. Some of this impatience is justifiable. Nothing is more deplorable than for a great Church convention to be plunged into a discussion of technicalities of parliamentary procedure. Very much depends upon the quick decisions of the presiding officer, and a long debate over parliamentary procedure means always a weak president in the chair. The choice of a presiding officer is of primary importance; and technical skill in presiding, quickness in deciding questions, with an entire willingness to submit his decisions to the house upon appeal, and perfect fairness both in recognizing members and also—what is much more difficult—in appointing committees, are qualities that alone can fit a man to act in that capacity. Upon its first act, the choice of a President for the House of Deputies, much of the success of the coming General Convention will depend.

THE ORGANIZATION of the American Church is far from ideal. We distinguish between two classes of Bishops as Diocesan and Missionary; but all Bishops are, or should be, missionaries. We accord an independence to the individual Bishop that is almost unprecedented in Church history; the need for guidance to Bishops, partly in their use of funds intrusted to them by the Church at large, partly in their dealings with individual clergy and parishes, is evident. The first need could be met by strengthening the central organization of the Church so that the national Church could act more efficiently as a unit. A larger and larger amount of Church work is administered each year from the Church Missions House, and larger and larger amounts of money are expended annually from the central treasury. This administration and this expenditure ought rather to increase, and to increase largely, than to diminish. But with that centralized work ought inevitably to go a greater centralized control. Missionary Bishops should be more directly subject to control in the administration of funds. Dioceses should be required to admit of some control by the central authority of such work within their limits as is supported by the national Church. This means that the central authority itself must fully represent the national Church. Nothing less than an elective Presiding Bishop, with a council of carefully chosen advisers, would seem sufficient for this central authority; and the presidency of the Board of Missions, if not, indeed, the whole Board, may well be merged into that elective office and its advisory council when the time comes. It would be necessary, moreover, that a diocese cede to the central body some measure of control over such if its missionary work as is supported by general funds, as a condition to obtaining such funds. The present priority of foreign as distinguished from domestic work in the administration of the Board of Missions would then cease; for the Board would then be equally responsible for all the work that was supported by its funds, where now its measure of responsibility for different classes of which for which it makes appropriations is distinctly variable; and with lessening of responsibility goes, inevitably, lessening of interest.

And on the side of a Bishop’s relations to his clergy and his parishes a proper limitation of episcopal independence requires Provinces and Archbishops. So long as the Provincial System is view purely as more “meetings” that Churchmen must attend (at their own expense) with little or nothing to be accomplished by them, we shall hope the System may not be enacted. The present tendency is to get the System without the Archbishop. But it is the Archbishop that is particularly worth while. It is inevitable that with more than a hundred Bishops, some few will always be less wise than some others. Now a Bishop, by his mistakes, may easily ruin one of his clergy or one of his parishes, and, unhappily, this has been not unknown in our history. On the other hand, the very knowledge that his official acts cannot be reviewed tempts the conscientious Bishop to be weak in dealing with unworthy priests and recalcitrant parishes. The chief value of the Provincial System is in order to give an Archbishop some visitatorial authority in emergencies in the dioceses within his Province. Many a scandal in American history would have been prevented if there could have been some intervention with authority and with tact. It is greatly to the credit of our Bishops that for years they have very generally favored such a system though it would involve some limitation upon their individual authority; and the opposition of the laity would certainly be removed could they know of the evils (such as are commonly suppressed from public discussion) that attend our present system, and were proposed canons establishing the Provincial System more adequate for the purpose.

But all this should not be viewed from the standpoint of creating more machinery. Does it make for the efficiency of the Kingdom? That is the test of its wisdom. Neither Presiding Bishoprics nor Councils nor Provinces nor Archbishops nor Synods nor even General Conventions are worth having as ends in themselves. Too often these are discussed as though they were. Are the ends which we desire to accomplish through these means desirable? Are these means adequate or useful in accomplishing those ends? These are the lines upon which the discussion, if it be a worthy one, should proceed.

AND THE SAME thought may well be carried into each discussion, whatever be the detail involved. The end to be reached is the supremacy and the extension of the Kingdom of God. Anything is worthy that helps to that end; nothing is worthy that creates machinery for its own sake.

But visionary legislation is not very useful. We desire Christian Unity; but Christian Unity cannot be accomplished by legislation. We desire amelioration of social conditions, if not, indeed, a wholly new social system; but this cannot be created by General Convention.

What we must seek in our legislative body is primarily to increase the efficiency of our own organization. This may easily be made to seem trivial and even puerile. To deal with machinery and titles and “systems” and disciplinary codes and subordinate organizations and precise language of prayers and tables of lessons and to enact canons and amend constitutions, is trivial or it is important only as one sees each detail in itself alone or in its relation to the whole work of the Kingdom of God. They are not wise men who brush all these aside as trivial; nor are they deep who seem to see in any of these an end rather than a means to help in accomplishing an end.

The real work of the Church is that for which General Convention only makes preparation. It is what a priest does when he stands before the altar and offers the great sacrifice or when he takes the little child and administers holy Baptism, or when he kneels at the bedside of the sick, when he seeks those who are lost in sin, when he listens to penitents or pronounces absolution, when he brings the glad tidings into the life of one soul that was empty or filled with worldliness before. It is what the Bishop does when he travels about his diocese administering Confirmation, backing up his clergy, hearing their troubles, strengthening them among their people, seeing that parish affairs are well administered. It is what the social worker does when he labors to bring higher ideals of living among those who are sunk in some degree of degradation. It is what the citizen does when he seeks to eradicate vice, to protect women and children, to lift up those who are fallen. It is what the physician and the nurse do when, in the fear of God, they seek to heal the sick. It is what the merchant does when, because he has received grace from the altar, he puts his business on a high plane of righteous dealing among men. It is what the lawyer does when he brings his knowledge and his training to the protection of one who is defrauded or oppressed. It is what the policeman on his beat, the sailor on the seas, the laborer in the factory, the capitalist in administering his affairs, the mother in the home, the teacher in dealing with children, the alderman in the council chamber, the legislator at the capital—what each and all of these do, when they permit their religion to dominate their personal and official actions. By all these, clergy and laity, in church, in home, in factory, in office, the Church is doing her real work and the Kingdom of God is being promoted and extended in the world.

To guide and aid these workers; to show the Church to the world as truly the Body of Christ and the home of each child of God; to lift up their hearts, to aid them in their spiritual life, to promote their efficiency, to build up, extend, strengthen, and deepen the Church and to impel clergy and laity alike to do their full duty—this is the function of General Convention, even where its legislation touches only some very minor factor in the great work which the Church is called to do in the world.

From The Living Church, July 12, 1913, pp. 383-384.

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