What Anglicans Should Call Their Gatherings

One thing I have discovered in being both a follower and a participant of the church world is that there are many meetings.  This isn’t to say that the church world has a corner on meetings (yes, I’m aware of Hebrews 10:25) but I’m specifically thinking on those gatherings beyond the parish setting.  I’m coming to realise that a) there are many ways to name such meetings and b) most of them really don’t work for the Anglican/Episcopal world.  So let’s get started.

In this country the Episcopal Church has its General Convention. We have our nifty system of numbering this too, thus the last one in 2012 was “GC 77” (the seventy-seventh time this event has taken place). The last one sorely tested the ability of the orthodox to observe Our Lord’s injunction to Peter:

Then Peter came up, and said to Jesus: “Master, how often am I to forgive my Brother when he wrongs me? As many as seven times?” But Jesus answered: “Not seven times, but ‘seventy times seven.’  (Matthew 18:21-22)

A more fundamental problem with the term “convention” is that it comes from the Latin “to come together”.  The blunt truth is that Anglicans haven’t come together on much of anything in a long time; attempting to paper this over with the designation “convention” hasn’t helped.

One serious question is whether the Episcopalians need to even hold such a gathering, what with the Presiding Bishop’s autocratic method.  Why bother to call for a vote when you have the show in your back pocket, especially since you’ve inhibited, deposed and excommunicated your opposition?  (My late father-in-law, badly wounded at Normandy, referred to the last as “dismembered”, and that’s pretty much what she’s done).

Thinking about the Presiding Bishop and the egg she recently laid in the West Indies about the evils of Paul casting out demons leads to an alternative: the pandemonium.  We normally don’t consider this a meeting, but the word means “all the demons” or the general assembly of Satan’s minions.  (Fans of Gounoud’s Faust will recognise this).  The original pandemonium took place on or around 1 May, but the trade union she recently broke at 815 might have a different opinion of the date.  (That leads to another question: are demons organised?  When things go well, could it be because they’re taking an industrial action?)

Across the pond we have the Synod, that venerable body of the Church of England now under attack by another gathering, namely Parliament.  (I tried to warn you…)  For some reason, “synod” has always struck me as an odd term for gatherings of anyone outside of the Orthodox.  (Yes, I’m aware of the Synod of Dort/Dork, but…)  More seriously, however, the word “synod” has the same root as the word Sanhedrin (yes, that venerable Jewish word has Greek origins) so I’m not sure whether we want our gatherings to be seen in that light or not.

Bringing the Brits into the discussion brings back memories of the time when Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury, and of his introduction of the “indaba” at Lambeth 2008.  Probably no attempt at designating Anglican gatherings has fallen flatter.  It represents Williams’ attempt to bring in an African concept to a Western spirituality, but had one major snag: most of the Africans in the Anglican Communion didn’t send representation because of decidedly “Western” concepts of doctrinal and moral orthodoxy, which the Africans had a better grasp of than Williams.

On a more personal note, the idea of the Africans preferring meetings as “indaba” strikes me as odd.  As I’ve said before, most of the Civil Engineering faculty where I teach is African, and our Kenyan department head isn’t much about having meetings of any kind.  Yes, Africans hold a very high value on being a team player, but our leader is aware of the fact that the state isn’t paying us to meet but to teach and do research.

It was in that backdrop that we were called to a rare faculty meeting last year.  It was during a time when our institution was being harassed by a rash of bomb threats, which continued until the Feds were called in and the threat of punishment had teeth.  We had just started our meeting when the fire alarm went off.  We began to rouse ourselves when we saw real smoke in the hallway, which added a lilt to our steps.  (It turned out to be a toilet paper fire set in the stairwell).

But our department head, having thought it important enough to have the meeting, wasn’t going to have such an interruption end it.  So we, with our administrative assistant taking minutes, reconvened in the parking lot, where we completed our business around the trunk of our superior’s car.

That commitment to action would transform much of what we do in the church world, and not just with meetings.  The current occupant of the See of Canterbury would do well to emulate that and to do so in an effective Christian way, otherwise a car park will be more than enough for the next Lambeth gathering.

The proliferation of Anglican bodies has produced a similar proliferation of meeting designations.  PEAR had a “sacred assembly” which strikes an Old Testament note of repentance (and we all know that someone needs to repent in this fiasco).  We’ve also had the usual conferences, summits, and the like.  But none of these has a distinctively Anglican flavour.

However, there is one term, IMHO, that captures the Anglican way (at least as it’s been practised up until now): the symposium.

The word “symposium” means to drink together. I wasn’t aware of this until I attended, of all things, a seminar on hydraulic systems (like you see in cranes, excavators and the brake system in your car).  The presenter, a leading expert in the field, explained the meaning of the word and illustrated it by imitating Archimedes, three sheets to the wind and staggering, raising his cup and proclaiming, “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth!”  (Hydraulic systems often use a fulcrum principle to do their work, the topic wasn’t incidental).

Especially in North America, Episcopal churches have long been known for their penchant for the hard stuff.  Particularly in the South, one of the Episcopal Church’s appeals was that it was not only the Church Where You Could Drink, but the Church Where You Should Drink, as opposed to the Churches Where You Couldn’t Drink.  (My analysis of this situation, albeit controversial, is here).  I have no doubt that this helped people to convert, but has anyone given any thought to the quality of the converts on this basis?

Once in, no one was under any illusions about the situation.  My second year Latin teacher, a fine Episcopal minister named Raymond O’Brien, was the first to tell me what I already know: that when four Wiskeypalians get together, you always have a fifth.  Not even the Knights of Columbus can rival the spiritual sons and daughters of Albion in this regard.

So Episcopalians and Anglicans can call their gatherings symposiums and be confident that there’s at least one thing they can agree on.  But be careful: as my old Russian representative told me a long time ago, in Russia there is a saying: “Without vodka, there is no agreement”.  He paused for a second and then added, “And that’s why there are some really stupid agreements”.

Which may, in fact, explain why some of the stuff in the Anglican Communion is enough to drive anyone to drink.

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