Committees hear testimony on extending Sacred Ground, strengthening welcome to people living with mental illness and more

By Pat McCaughan
Posted May 27, 2022

[Episcopal News Service] General Convention committees on Christian Formation and Discipleship received testimony about strengthening The Episcopal Church’s welcome to transgender and nonbinary persons, as well as to persons with mental illness and their loved ones; extending the Sacred Ground curriculum; incorporating social justice advocacy as catechesis; and, creating a digital hub for formational resources during a recent online hearing.

Resolution D030, would allocate $50,000 to develop resources to equip congregations to “to be sanctuaries for our trans youth to be where they are loved and affirmed and can safely be fully who they are,” the Rev. A.J. Buckley, associate rector of St. David of Wales Church in Portland, Oregon, told committee members.

By April 2022, at least 330 anti-trans bills—the majority directed at youth—were introduced in state legislatures across the country, Buckley said. “Studies show that over half of trans boys, 42% of non-binary youth and 30% of trans girls have attempted suicide. These bills aren’t simply inconveniences or disappointments, they are leading to the death of gender diverse youth.”

As a gender diverse youth, “it was excruciating to feel different, but not understand why I didn’t meet a trans person until I was in my thirties,” Buckley added. “At a time when I was intensely questioning my own gender identity, had the church been supportive and educating about transgender-diverse identities, and had been a safe place, I would have been able to come out sooner and save myself a lot of angst,” Buckley said.

In similarly emotional testimony, the Rev. Susan Phillips, a vocational deacon, and nurse in the Diocese of Delaware, said her 48-year-old son struggles with autism spectrum disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia and, “we didn’t feel The Episcopal Church welcome.

“We as a church don’t seem to be adept at walking with and raising up people with mental illness and their families. We need good information and basic training regarding mental health.”

Phillips testified in support of three resolutions: A107, which would “strengthen care, inclusion, support and advocacy.” A108 would allocate $35,000 to fund regional trainings in Mental Health First Aid by June 2023 and proposes to incorporate assistance from Union of Black Episcopalians trainers. The third resolution, A109, would allocate $15,000 to create and launch new curriculum and to require the Mental Health First Aid training of clergy, and those seeking ordination.

First postponed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a truncated 80th General Convention is now scheduled to take place in Baltimore, Maryland, July 8-11. The triennial convention is the church’s governing body, where final resolutions are considered and voted on by both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. Also as a result of the pandemic for the first time, two-dozen bishops’ and deputies’ committees held hearings together online in advance convention. The legislative process has since been further revised.

On May 20, the committees also received testimony on resolutions to extend Sacred Ground, and on developing social justice ministry as foundational to Christian identity.

Aileen Chang-Matus, a member of the Diocese of Iowa Standing Committee, testified on behalf of Resolutions C033 and D014, saying the 11-week documentary film and readings-based Sacred Ground dialogue series, “has a unique, necessary role to prepare and equip our churches and our members … and I don’t see anything else that can do likewise, right now.”

Sacred Ground, part of Becoming Beloved Community, the church’s long-term commitment to racial healing, includes documentary films and readings focused on the intersection of Indigenous, Black, Latino and Asian/Pacific American histories with European American histories.

“We need much more breadth of issues, topics, communities addressed,” Chang-Matus said. “The church needs to be and strives to be a place of love and mutual respect where faithful people of diverse opinions can be in dialogue. We really, really need this common dialogue, if we’re going to go forward at all.”

Dr. Reuben Varghese, of the Diocese of Washington and a member of the Task Force on the Theology of Social Justice Advocacy, testified in support of Resolution A078, which would allocate $55,000 to make social justice advocacy central to Christian formation.

Varghese, who serves as a county public health director, questioned “why we, as Episcopalians, seem to hide from our baptismal promises as a church, when many deny a theological foundation of social justice advocacy. It makes me wonder if The Episcopal Church truly means that the marginalized belong.”

Los Angeles alternate deputy, the Rev. Guy Leemhuis, first vice president of the Union of Black Episcopalians, called the resolution “a first step” to deepen the work of the task force. It proposes “institutional change to support social justice as Christian ministry in the areas of governance and structure, prayer and liturgy, catechesis and lifelong formation for discipleship, especially with laypeople and consistent with an equitable and inclusive polity.”

The resolution would shift the burden of responsibility for change from communities most affected by injustice, and bring it “to the attention of those who make policy in our church,” Leemhuis said.

Some members of the committees questioned the need for creating a digital hub for formation resources in Resolutions A104, proposed by the Task Force on Formation and Ministry of the Baptized, and A085, a joint resolution offered by the Task Force on Theological Education Networking.

“I love the idea of making resources accessible; I guess I’m not sure that they’re not accessible,” according to the Rev. Alex Lenzo, Rio Grande deputy, and deputies’ committee secretary. As rector of St. Francis Church in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, “One thing I love doing is getting people mentoring others. I give them resources,” he said. “Others find their own, just by Googling them. So, convince me more that this is needed when there are so many resources out there.”

He also questioned if the hub would focus solely on Episcopal resources, given the many other helpful aids available.

The resolutions would allocate $30,000 to establish, “something like Wikipedia meets Teacher to Teacher, something that could permit anyone to share the resources they have developed for free or for a fee,” according to Melissa Rau, director of institutional advancement for Seabury Bexley Seminary in Chicago, Illinois.

The Rev. Heather Erickson, associate priest at St. John’s Ross in the Diocese of California and a task force member, said a task force survey of 700 Episcopalians “confirmed what many of us have known intuitively and through our lived experience … there is a gap between what we believe as Episcopalians and how we form people to live as Christians.”

Many respondents, she said, equated ministry “to acts of service in or on behalf of the congregation, and yet our baptismal theology invites us into a lifelong practice of discipleship in all aspects of our daily life, not just within the boundaries of church or worship.”

It was through the research and educational experience that the task force prosed a digital hub, intending to “activate baptism” and reawaken Episcopalians in their identity and expand their Christian imagination to continue to build the church.

“We thought it would be the most effective and efficient way to share and collaborate information resources that will speak to the depth and breadth of our church and the diversity of contexts in which we live out our faith,” Erickson said. “There are many amazing resources already in existence. The digital hub would help to expand access to the 99% of Episcopalians who identify as laity.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for ENS, based in Los Angeles.