Browning Announces Intention to Reshape Plans for General Convention in Phoenix

Episcopal News Service. December 12, 1990 [90318]

Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning called a special meeting of the church's Executive Council for January 5 to discuss ways to alter the shape of next summer's General Convention in Phoenix. The action comes in the wake of continuing debate over how the church should make a witness for racial equality in Arizona after the defeat of a referendum to establish a holiday to honor slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

"In recent weeks I have been consulting with a great number of persons about this issue, face to face and by telephone," Browning wrote in a letter to Executive Council members. "I have particularly sought out those with the strongest opinions.

"After much prayer and these consultations, I am more than ever convinced that we must be faithful to our original intention to go to Phoenix and witness to our understanding of the Gospel. I believe that this rougher road is the one the church is meant to walk. I also believe we must attend closely to how God calls us into this witnessing opportunity and respond to this call in a way that is not 'business as usual.'"

Although Browning did not release details of his proposal, he suggested that it might include "shortening and restructuring of the life of the General Convention so we may spend our time in Phoenix as a community gathered to do the legislative business of the church and to witness to racial equality." Browning said that the witness of the church would be informed by "our life as a worshiping community of faith."

According to Episcopal Church canon law, the presiding bishop alone -- "with the advice and consent of the Executive Council" -- can alter the date or site of a General Convention.

Dean David Collins, president of the House of Deputies, said that the decision three years ago to go to Phoenix "was not lightly made," but received "full and frank discussion at all decision-making levels of the church." Collins said the church knew it was possible the state would not have a holiday honoring King, but decided it was important to support those in Arizona who were working for such a holiday.

"The simplest, easiest thing would be not to go to Phoenix," said Bishop Furman Stough, speaking for the presiding bishop who was on a visit to the Nordic churches. "We will be present with the people of Phoenix based on our understanding of what the Gospel means. This is our opportunity to demonstrate what the Gospel has to say about relationships -- especially racial equality," Stough said.

Stough, senior executive for mission planning, added that paring down the convention "would obviously bring some pain," but said this was an "extraordinary situation" and the Episcopal Church was seeking a way to make "as strong a witness as possible under the circumstances."

Reaction to referendum continues

The presiding bishop's office continues to receive reaction to the defeat of the King holiday referendum. The national board of the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) voted unanimously in its early December meeting to "support the presiding bishop in his decision to hold the General Convention and Triennial meeting in Phoenix, as a witness against racism."

The ECW said that it would hold a panel discussion of racism at its triennial meeting to "help us better understand our own racism." The panel would be open to all convention participants.

However, the Episcopal Society for Ministry in Higher Education (ESMHE), a national organization of people associated with higher education, announced that it would break a 20-year tradition by refusing to meet during the General Convention.

In a letter to Browning, the president of ESMHE, the Rev. Giles Asbury, wrote that the defeat of a King holiday and the presence of a General Convention in Phoenix would be unacceptable because it would "disparage Dr. King's memory and belittle the hopes and aspirations of generations of our citizens of color."

A resolution adopted by the council of the Diocese of New York on November 17 said that, although it supports the presiding bishop's desire to witness to the people in Arizona, "we believe that the physical presence of the General Convention and the economic benefits associated with it are an inappropriate witness."

The annual convention of the Diocese of Los Angles adopted a resolution opposing Phoenix as the site for the General Convention and called on the presiding bishop "to change the site to some city outside the state of Arizona."

'We can't stick out our lip and walk away'

However, the Rev. Steve Charleston, bishop-elect of Alaska, released a statement calling on the church to retain plans to meet in Phoenix. "As a Native American and a Christian concerned with our commitment to social justice, I hope that we can use this General Convention as an opportunity to witness to the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King in a community which seems ambivalent to those ideals."

Charleston said that a move from Phoenix "would abrogate our role of leadership in social justice. Other organizations such as the National Football League could feel justified in moving away from communities of Christian intolerance, but, as Christians, we have a mandate to move toward those communities.

"Jesus never abandoned people to racism...; [he] would go to Phoenix and talk about Martin Luther King and justice, even at the risk of being misunderstood," Charleston said. "The Gospel shows us that Jesus moved as Dr. King moved into those communities. We can't stick out our lip and walk away."

Ecumenical council approves holiday

The largest and most influential interreligious group, the Arizona Ecumenical Council, unanimously adopted a resolution on December 5, calling on more than I million churchgoers to observe the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King, Jr./ Civil Rights Day. The resolution urged congregants to devote time to prayer services and civil rights observances on that day. The council represents 11 denominations and Church Women United.