Executive Council Affirms Phoenix Site; Shape of the General Convention Still in Question

Episcopal News Service. January 11, 1991 [91001]

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church overwhelmingly affirmed the decision of Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning to retain Phoenix as the site for the 1991 General Convention during a day-long meeting in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on Saturday, January 5.

The special meeting, called by Browning, laid to rest any lingering doubt that the church would go to Phoenix despite opposition from many Episcopalians after Arizona voters failed last November to approve a paid holiday in honor of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

At Saturday's meeting Browning told council members that he had heard from all segments of the church since the Arizona vote, and that the special meeting was "a serious, painful moment -- but also a moment of hope.

"God has given us Arizona as a gift -- as a place to go, to stand, to hope, to confess our own racism, and to witness to justice," Browning said. "In Arizona God is asking the church in all its pain, suffering, and confusion to come in the spirit of St. Paul to share the sufferings of one another."

Browning said that the church stood in "a precious moment... an opportunity... to reflect, [to] repent, to pray for God's transformation, and to honor the memory of one who believed in the equality of all human beings."

Browning insisted that staying in Phoenix is "the most difficult choice," but that "my gut, my heart, my reason, my experience...my whole being says 'go to Phoenix.'" He said that the church should go to Phoenix as an act of solidarity with the church and the people of Arizona who have worked for civil rights and "pledge our commitment in the struggle however long it may last."

The council received -- and later rejected -- a presentation by Browning to shorten the convention by two days, and it left unresolved a recommendation that the exhibit area be canceled. Browning also announced that Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu would not take part in the convention as previously planned.

Impassioned testimonies continued to raise questions about site

Several members of the council continued to challenge the decision to go to Phoenix and gave impassioned and sober personal testimonies of the struggle for civil rights.

"My hope is that black Americans will not again be asked to place their feelings on the back burner of American history and be patient a little longer," said the Rev. Austin Cooper of Cleveland. "Don't forget that if economic boycotts had not been used in Montgomery [Alabama], the situation there would never have changed," he said.

Nell Gibson of New York said that the church had a place in Phoenix, but not necessarily in the form of the General Convention. "Would Martin Luther King take the entire SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] and pour money into hotels in order to make his witness?" she asked.

"The greatest witness occurs when one makes a sacrifice so deep that it hurts," Gibson continued. "I have heard nothing to indicate that the church is willing to make that kind of sacrifice," she said.

Although the council listened to the protests concerning the Phoenix site, by midday the consensus was to go to Phoenix, but to seriously -- and creatively -- reshape the life of the convention to address racism within as well as outside of the church.

Several council members expressed concern that the church not charge into Arizona accusing its citizens of racism without first examining itself. "I don't want Arizonans to think that their sin is worse than my sin," said Bishop Rustin Kimsey of Eastern Oregon. "No place in the United States is free from racism," he said.

Bishop Steven Plummer of the Navajoland Area Mission encouraged the council to keep its convention in Arizona as a sign of Christians "walking together." Plummer said that "there is no Indian church. There is no Hispanic church. The one thing I know is we all belong to one church."

Brainstorming results in little consensus

A variety of proposals -- but little consensus -- to revamp the convention were offered during a "brainstorming session." Among the recommendations proposed were that there be a program of daily fasting and abstinence from alcohol; that minority-owned businesses in Phoenix be supported, as well as economic development; and that the convention consider a visit to the Navajoland Area Mission.

At the conclusion of the meeting the council adopted resolutions: (1) affirming the presiding bishop's decision to go to Phoenix; (2) rejecting attempts to shorten the convention by two days; (3) appointing a committee to draft creative and concrete plans to reshape the convention to address racism and civil rights. The committee will work with the General Convention Planning and Arrangements Committee and report to the Executive Council meeting at the end of January; and (4) endorsing the substance of a proposal for the church to raise funds for a "Martin Luther King legacy scholarship" to be awarded to minority students.

After the meeting Arizona Bishop Joseph Heistand said, "I am pleased with the decisions that have been made, once and for all, and that the length of the convention was not shortened."

However, in an later interview Nell Gibson expressed the opposite view. "The meeting was a disappointment. I was disappointed that the council voted in favor of a full convention and did not accept a scaled-down model."

Gibson said that the meeting reaffirmed her impatience with the institutional church. "We [African Americans] have been asked to put our agenda aside and have done so every time. When will the church put its agenda aside?" she asked. Yet Gibson expressed hoped that "something good could come out of this difficult period, since God is bigger than the church."

In a press conference following the meeting Browning said that he was "encouraged" by the meeting. "The meeting showed that the council has a willingness to tell stories of pain -- and to respond," he said.

In response to a question concerning the decision of the National Football League (NFL) to boycott Phoenix, Browning said, "The church is not the NFL. The church has a task always of reconciliation -- to go into the places that are difficult, that are having problems, and to try to make a better world."