I WILL REMEMBER several moments of the Episcopal Church’s 76th General Convention even in my dotage, but perhaps none from the media room so vividly as Bastille Day, 14 July, when at the morning briefing we sang “Happy birthday” to the arch-conservative blogger David Virtue, and shared his celebratory cake.
I hadn’t met David before that day, and when he remarked that his liberal “enemies” are sometimes nicer to him than his fellow conservatives, I extended my hand: “Hello, David, I’m the enemy, too.”
Perhaps it was sheer exhaustion from years of acrimony, or maybe we were collectively overcome by fumes from the orange vinyl couches that lined the hallways. But the spirit of, well, communion that infused the House of Deputies and House of Bishops also permeated the press corps.
The lack of dramatic tension was largely attributable to the fact that the march of Anaheim towards full inclusion was draped in theology and fuelled by institutional process and artful compromise. The successful legislation about gay and lesbian people’s access to the discernment process, and the development of liturgical rites for same-gender unions, hinged on nuance and nicety. It’s hard to have a pitched battle about “mystery”.
ADVOCATES and reporters in Anaheim were kept busy sorting out what was happening (the Episcopal Church telling the truth about itself) and what was not (the death throes of the Anglican Communion).
To help them, the press team produced, on tight deadlines, theologians and institutional leaders who had crafted the compromises that garnered such overwhelming margins in the votes.
Getting these learned souls to talk in simple declarative sentences is a steep climb even in the most relaxed circumstances, and we were working with an eight-hour time difference between Anaheim and London, and a chasm of understanding about how the Episcopal Church does business.
To explain the Church to the press, leaders slogged heroically through pre-dawn, pre-caffeine transatlantic interviews, approved press statements via text messages, and explained repeatedly a simple premise understood by married people and parents across the globe: it is possible to disagree with one another and yet remain in communion.
SOMETIMES, however, it is better to show than tell. After General Convention 2006, the Episcopal Church figured out that its way of discerning God’s will was a mystery to the rest of the Communion. To rectify this, 15 Anglican Primates and more than 50 international visitors came to Anaheim as guests. They sat in legislative sessions and hearings, gave interviews, spoke at receptions and luncheons, and asked questions. Only occasionally (just when we needed them for media interviews) did they go to Disneyland near by.
Midway through the Convention, in a moment widely reported by the church press but not grasped by the secular media, the international-visitor strategy resulted in a watershed. Dr Jenny Plane-Te Paa of New Zealand, a member of the Lambeth Commission, spoke of her “deep regret” that the US polity had not been fully grasped (Comment, page 14). All at once, we were redeemed. We were not bad Anglicans, just misunderstood ones.
To underscore that our bishops do not rule by fiat, the media team worked hard to make deputies available to the media, coaching deputies of all stripes to be effective press-briefers and interviewees.
That exercise itself exerted an influence on the tone of coverage. In his first post-Convention post on Episcopal Café, where he is editor-in-chief, Canon Jim Naughton of the diocese of Washington wrote: “I worked with a number of committed theological conservatives in Anaheim, and came to value their friendship. These folks are bearing with our Church in the wake of choices that they wish it had not made. I want to find a way to bear with them when it is necessary.”
There are other early indications that the spirit of Anaheim may travel the way with us. On the first post-Convention morning, Bishop Ed Little, a conservative, and clergy Deputy Lowell Grisham, a progressive, taped an interview for BBC Radio 4. I’m told that after the interview concluded, the two men talked privately and thanked each other for speaking in reconciling, moderate tones.
It’s not exactly birthday cake with David Virtue, but it’s a start.
Rebecca Wilson is Communications consultant for the Chicago Consultation and a member of the General Convention media team.