Monday, July 19, 2010

Former Integrity President Bruce Garner Reflects On GC 1991

Behind the Scenes in Phoenix at GC 1991
Bruce Garner
Member, Executive Council & Former President, Integrity USA

Two Deputies "coming out" on the floor of the House of Deputies in 1991 was an historic and momentous event. At Patrick Waddell noted in his testimony, LGBT folks could finally speak for themselves. They didn't have to depend on straight friends and allies to speak on their behalf. It also meant that the General Convention was no longer able to just talk about LGBT folks...we were among them and they began to understand the importance of talking to and with us.

There were activities going on "behind the scenes" that would have an impact beyond that General Convention and would affect the church even to this day.

GC 1991 was when what we called "table church" was used for the daily Convention Eucharist's. Deputies, bishops, alternates and visitors were divided up into groups for the daily service. Each table had a chalice and paten, bread and wine, as well as the other necessities for the Eucharist.

The manual acts of the Eucharist taking place at the large central altar were duplicated at each table. It was quite an experience. A different priest or bishop presided at each table each day. The time usually reserved for a homily was instead devoted to Bible study.

I was attending my first General Convention. I was there in my capacity as the National President of Integrity. Integrity was participating as fully as possible in the work of the GC, including staffing an information booth in the exhibit hall, sponsoring a special Eucharist, tracking legislation and participating in hearings on legislative issues.

The opening Eucharist for the Convention included a ceremony conducted by Native Americans where the space for the Convention was blessed and sanctified using Native rituals and Episcopal liturgy. Some complained about that. I thought it very gracious of those from whom the land had been taken decades earlier to bless the very land that had been taken. The complaint about inclusivity of such activities should have been a warning to me.

Our table church assignments had been done at random. There were folks from all across the spectrum of thought at my table. One of the several bishops at my table was extremely conservative. He essentially referred to me as trash. He later would fly the Episcopal Church flag upside down from the diocesan house of his diocese. There is no point in naming him now.

I can usually convey a "poker face" but after a few days of table church and the negative discussions about human sexuality, my facial expressions apparently gave away the toll the painful situation was having on me. One of the bishops at the table went to my own diocesan bishop to express concern for my well being.

My bishop sought me out to ask what was wrong. I was honest with him and shared the frustration and pain that I (and many others) were having over the general tone of the convention.

Time has made it a bit fuzzy as to whether I asked to meet with the Presiding Bishop (Ed Browning) or whether he asked me to meet with him..either way, a meeting was scheduled for us to meet.

My Integrity colleagues and I put our heads together to seek out ways to use this meeting to the benefit of all involved. We came up with several requests, none of which were of "earth shaking" consequences, but which would help all of us further the discussions about human sexuality.

When I arrived at the meeting, it included Presiding Bishop Browning, the Vice President of the House of Bishops, the Secretary of the House of Bishops and my own diocesan bishop. I shared with them our concerns: The tone and tenor of the discussions at this convention were far from civil, much less being a model of Christ-like behaviour. The convention was not living up to the Presiding Bishop's promise that there would be no outcasts in this church. All of us were baptized members of the Body of Christ, and it seemed appropriate that we should convey the respect called for by the vows of our Baptismal Covenant. We were weary of being discussed as if we were not present. We were present, some openly and others still closeted (for obvious reasons at the time). We also sought to have the Rev'd Troy Perry, founder of The Metropolitan Community Church, introduced to the convention. They were having their convention in Phoenix across town from us.

The reaction of the bishops after I finished speaking was "that's it?" They seemed surprised that we were not seeking anything radical or earth shaking from them. I recall being slightly amused at how they had misjudged what they thought I would request.

I also remember my amusement at their reaction to having Troy Perry introduced. I was asked: "You mean you don't want him to address the convention?" I said, "Good Lord, no.we don't want to listen to him. We just want him introduced..the same courtesy afforded the heads of the adjudicatories of other denominations."

The tone of General Convention began to change, although ever so slightly. Some will remember that the House of Bishops began going into executive sessions as a result of the rancor of some of the debate among the bishops.

Still, some progress was made. The resolutions passed by the convention could have been much worse. I was one of those in the circle outside the hall, as Ann Fontaine noted, who was "singing for our lives." Yes, the tears did indeed flow.

Two important events in my personal spiritual journey ultimately came out of General Convention 1991. I became the first OPENLY gay or lesbian person to be appointed to a commission, committee, agency or board of The Episcopal Church. (Obviously, I was not the first gay or lesbian person to be appointed, just the first one open about his/her sexual orientation.) The appointment was to the (now defunct) Standing Commission on Human Affairs.
I also became the first National President of Integrity to meet with a Presiding Bishop. For those who have not had the privilege of getting to know The Most Reverend Ed Browning, he remains one of the most loving and pastoral persons I have ever met. Our conversation was warm and cordial..much like a discussion between family members, between a son andhis father.

As the convention drew to its close, I arranged to purchase one of the chalice and paten sets that had been used during convention. I wanted it to take back to the Integrity Atlanta Chapter of Integrity for use at our regular meetings. When I made the purchase, I realized that the chalice and paten would either be a symbol of the further oppression of LGBT people bythe church or it would be a symbol of at least the beginnings of our
liberation from that oppression. Thankfully, it would be a symbol of the latter.

Progress toward the inclusion of all of God's children in our church has indeed been made. We are inching closer and closer to being able to truthfully proclaim that we respect the dignity of every person and that we are seeking and serving Christ in all. Yet much work remains to be done.

We continue to struggle with the collect in the Book of Common Prayer that exhorts us to make no peace with oppression. We still grapple with racism, sexism, misogyny, heterosexism and all of the "isms" that represent our continued failure to seek and serve Christ in each other and to respect each other's dignity as children of the Living God. For me personally, General Convention 1991 will always be remembered as the convention where we began to take baby steps toward those goals.

1 comment:

Thom said...

Thanks, Bruce, for your words restoring our collective memories of that age--it is heartening to reflect on how far the church has come in these nearly twenty years since Phoenix. I was at that time an assistant on Ed Browning's staff and helping the editors of the legislative texts. By 1993 I became the first openly gay person appointed as a staff officer by Bishop Browning to coordinate young adult and higher education ministries, which become fundraising fodder for Episcopalians United for Revelation, Renewal and Reformation. It seems an age ago! An honor to serve God's mission of reconciliation and justice with you and others from Integrity.