[Note: This would have become the script surrounding my Rules Committee report to the session of Annual Conference last Sunday -- but we were running late, so I just posted this -- a not-quite-finished draft -- and announced that anybody interested could read it here.]
Bishop, following Diana Butler Bass’s teaching Friday, on the shift from conceiving of what we do in the Religious category of Rules, to the Spiritual category of Practices, we may want to be looking at re-naming and re-tasking the Conference Rules Committee as the Conference Practices Group.
Words & Names matter. But as a friend reminded me the other day, sometimes we change the name of something, or craft a statement – or a rule – and think we’ve accomplished something. No, the best we do by renaming is to point toward an accomplishment that may come to be.
Yesterday the sixty-some clergywomen honored Bishop Mary Ann Swenson with the Ruth Award, and spoke of its history, an award given to women “standing before us, making us strong, lending their wisdom to help us along,” an award named after the first recipient, Ruth Steach. She stood before us as a Conference in so many ways, but I remember her best as the chairperson of the Rules Committee, delivering the committee’s work with clarity and grace, and trusting the body to do with it what it thought best.
So yesterday afternoon I gave Ruth a call. She lives right here, in Kennewick, and doesn’t get out much, but was interested to hear that Annual Conference was meeting here, and that we were thinking of her, holding her still as a model of faithful service and witness.
The Rules are a skeletal part of the body, which exist to give language & clarity to our expectations of our common life of this community over time. The rules should not be the limiting factor of our life, the lines outside which we must never color, so much as the frame on which the vitality can grow.
Sometimes our skeletons get too rigid: flexibility and motion are impeded instead of enhanced. It ought to be easier to fix stiff, worn-out or calcified rules than it is to treat stiff, worn-out or calcified joints.
So we have several items to work through, that describe practices we may decide to keep, together, over the unforeseeable future. This year, none of them are radical changes, some are tweaks, some are clarifications. It’s our intention that these enable the Conference to live and move and have lively being.
The changes we have worked on today are relatively minor; we are just off of GC, and were expecting that drastic changes at the denominationwide level might have made tweaks irrelevant, and undone any deep change we might have attempted.
Our rules are long. Our structure has become byzantine. We are not a Simple Church. One of these times, it might be good to do a complete Rules Audit, ask how each element serves the mission, and how each element distracts from the mission. I expect it won’t be this year; the work of the Committee this year is likely to be about continuing to clarify what’s unclear, to repair the worn-out, and … this year’s complication … to respond to whatever General Conference DID do, so that our rules are in conformity with the 2012 Discipline. But one of these times … I think we’ll be ready to make profound change, more than tweaks and patches and trendy names.