Vote Against King Holiday Stirs Debate on How General Convention Can Make the Best Witness

Episcopal News Service. November 29, 1990 [90304]

In the wake of Arizona's rejection of a paid holiday to honor slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., several dioceses have raised questions about holding the church's General Convention in that state.

The strongest protest came from the Diocese of Washington (D.C.) where the diocesan council voted on November 13 that the convention "be held in a state other than Arizona or be canceled." The council also recommended that the bishop and deputies of the diocese "not participate" if the convention is held in Arizona.

"We want to support the presiding bishop, but my hope is that we would not meet in Arizona, even if it costs money," Bishop Ronald Haines said after the vote. Admitting that the church is facing a dilemma, Haines said he wants his diocese "to stand in solidarity with the rest of the church and to be a part of the convention as important decisions are made there." But he added that the church also "needs to stand in solidarity as well with our minority communities and others who are gravely concerned about the vote in Arizona." Haines said the final decision about Washington's participation will be made at the diocesan convention in January.

The Diocese of Ohio voted at its convention to "encourage the presiding bishop and the Episcopal Church's Executive Council to locate the 1991 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in a state of these United States that has demonstrated its commitment to social justice and equality as personified by the life and teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."

Ohio's Suffragan Bishop Arthur Williams, Jr., said he feared some dioceses and delegates might not attend in protest, meaning that "important voices in the church might be lost."

Williams was one of a group of prominent black leaders who participated in a recent 90-minute conference call with the presiding bishop. While not backing away from his decision to hold the convention in Phoenix, Browning is listening to all points of view.

Williams said that the convention can include Native Americans in its witness for justice. "Native Americans are another group who have been victims of injustice, and that is to me the most compelling reason to remain there," Williams said in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Phoenix convention needed to express solidarity

Another black bishop in Ohio argued that it was important to go to Phoenix to make a witness. Bishop Herbert Thompson of Southern Ohio said it would be costly, irresponsible, and lacking in stewardship to abandon all convention contracts and plans at this late date. And it would give the impression that the church was abandoning the black community and Arizonans who have been working so hard on the King holiday. "The black community is stunned and hurt by this rejection by the voters. We need to stand with them at this time, to assure them that we shall overcome this injustice and prejudice," Thompson said.

The Diocese of Southern Ohio voted almost unanimously to encourage the church to go to Phoenix to "continue the witness against racism implicit in the recent vote."

The Diocese of Atlanta not only urged the church to find another site for the General Convention, but it also offered to host the convention, pointing out that King was born in Atlanta. If the convention is held in Phoenix, the diocesan council urged its delegates find a way to express the "extreme disappointment and displeasure" over the lack of a holiday to honor King.

The province of New England, composed of seven dioceses in the Northeast, addressed an open letter to Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning expressing its gratitude for his efforts on behalf of a King holiday. It seriously considered -- but backed away from -- a recommendation that the convention be canceled unless there were plans for a substantial witness. The letter suggested specific forms that witness could take, including "serious attention to how we spend our money, both institutional and personal, while at the convention." Presiding Bishop Browning has shown sympathy for those concerns, saying, "This will not be a business-as-usual convention."

Many are urging that convention be pared down

A number of those who have met with Browning have suggested that the convention be pared down and that the church make an "economic witness" in Phoenix by patronizing minority-owned businesses, for example.

Diane Porter, deputy for public ministries, reported a growing consensus that this should be a different kind of General Convention. "We have an opportunity at this convention to take a look at some of the lifestyle issues, especially how we spend our money." Porter said the full implications need further discussion but added that there was almost unanimous agreement that the church must make a strong witness for racial equality and human rights.

Although there was some grumbling that the church should find an African American to lead the opening rally at General Convention, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town said he was "very pleased to be coming to Phoenix." He expressed his hope that the Episcopal Church "can help the people of Arizona to realize their ideal of a holiday in honor of King."

Tutu said that "King's name is revered in many countries, especially where people are still struggling for democracy and basic human rights. He has been an inspiration for countless people around the world. Many people's perceptions of the United States are strongly influenced by his life and work."

Arizona Bishop Joseph Heistand expressed similar hopes that the General Convention will have a positive impact on Phoenix and the state of Arizona. He has been deeply immersed in strategy meetings with civic and religious leaders to plan the next steps in securing a King holiday.

Heistand said that people throughout the Episcopal Church need to understand that "while there is racism in Arizona, as there is in every state, a majority of the voters in Arizona are in favor of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday." He contended that confusion over two similar holiday propositions on the November 6 referendum split the vote and caused the holiday issue to be defeated by less than one percent.

Heistand noted that a new effort is under way to bring the holiday before the voters once again, under the banner of a new coalition of people from the business, religious, academic and minority communities, along with members of the Legislature and groups concerned with justice, peace, and civil rights.

"It is my hope," said Heistand, "that through the General Convention's presence in Phoenix, people will be able to look at us and see a community composed of all sorts and conditions of men and women from many different ethnic groups, working together in love, harmony, and peace. And I hope that this can be a model for people everywhere."