General Convention 2012 is over. Thank God.
For a few more days, pundits and convention goers will argue over whether the decisions made were well considered or wildly off-base. They will debate whether the church is dying. They will draw comparisons with other denominations and traditions. They will argue that we are alone in our decline or that there are a lot of others to share our misery. No one—left or right—will convince the other bloggers that they should greatly amend their views. And those on the sidelines will simply quote their favorite "authorities," belittle those who hold a different view, and think what they will.
The long list of resolutions dealing with domestic and international affairs will merge with the white noise that has been the history of such resolutions. Peace in the Middle East will not be achieved as a result. We will continue to genetically manipulate the vegetables we grow (and eat them). And three years from now no one will remember the resolutions passed this year. After all, apart from the people who wrote them, how many remember the resolutions passed in 2009 or 2006?
The comparatively small amounts of money spent on concrete, local initiatives will nurture isolated pockets of modest growth. The national church will spend countless hours and proportionately more money on studying its own structure (good luck with that). We will continue to press our case in court for the ownership of churches we can't fill and property that we can't maintain. And, with ever so delicate equivocation, we told the Anglican Communion to go to hell.
The good news, of course, is that the Hartford Institute for Religion Research notes that we enjoy greater spiritual vitality than do conservative, non-denominational churches. Though heaven knows only heaven knows how to measure spiritual vitality.
National meetings are, it seems, subject to a law of diminishing expectations. Unconsciously, we project onto those gatherings the ability to change everything forever, when—in fact—there is very little that can be changed by fiat and legislation. Transformation is a matter of individual hearts and minds and Protestant churches are what students of organizational culture call loosely linked bureaucracies. They are not hardwired from the top and the ability of national organizations to constrain the rest of the church is limited.
The people who fill our churches on Sunday mornings do so voluntarily. Clergy serve their congregations in relative independence. And the decisions made on a national level are celebrated or resisted almost at will. That example has been set for us on a global scale by our own bishops and lay leaders who—both left and right—cocked a snook at the Archbishop of Canterbury and kicked him in the seat of the cassock on his way to Cambridge. If they don't need to listen to "the first among equals," then why should we listen to them?
Perhaps this state of affairs was inevitable. The logic of the Reformation included the assumption that the authority of the Pope was not definitive. The church did not need to move lockstep in its deliberation over the shape of the truth. The priesthood was, after all, everyone's priesthood and, if others didn't see it that way, too bad for them. So, five hundred or so years later, now no one's authority is definitive, the truth is endlessly malleable, and no one needs to comply.
The issue at this year's convention was not denominational versus non-denominational church life. The issue was not the place of gays and lesbians in the economy of God's Kingdom. The issue was not the boomer obsession with a social agenda that younger generations no longer consider relevant.
The issue was and is ecclesiology: Does the church speak with one voice or many voices? Does the authority of the church shape the reality within which we live, or does it shape the reality within which we live if we choose to live there? And do those in authority respect the authority of anything else, or do they live out of the assumption that they, like all the rest of us, are entitled to pick and choose?
The answer is fairly obvious. In her closing remarks before General Convention, the Presiding Bishop reminded the folks gathered there: