Women and General Convention

Every General Convention has issues that come to the foreground and often cast a shadow over most of the rest of the work done in our time together. Prayer Book revision, along with conversations around immigration and refugees rightly has attracted, much attention but so much more is being discussed and addressed. A fair amount of legislation has been proposed about historically women's issues as the Episcopal Church continues to work diligently on gender equality within the church. This year's GC is highlighting the needs and successes of Episcopal women every day in one way or another.

The need for these conversations came to our immediate attention during our first day of legislative sessions. The chair issued an apology to a deputy who was denied entry onto the floor because she was a nursing mother and needed to take her infant with her to her seat. Current house rules do not provide for infants or children being allowed onto the floor, so the nursing mother was forced to forfeit her participation in the legislative session in favor of feeding her child. The chair pointed out how this unfortunate event showed the house how the rules need to be altered. Resolution D087 proposes a change to the rules of the House of Deputies to allow nursing and bottle-feeding children to be admitted to the floor while they are being fed. It is notable that there is a nursing pod in the back of the House of Deputies provided for nursing mothers so they can enjoy some privacy while still listening to the session. It also means mothers don't have to sit in a bathroom stall to feed their infants.

Most of the proposed legislation addressing women's issues targets the history and effects of sexual abuse and misconduct in the church. Perhaps the most notable and universal resolution on this is D016, which calls for the establishment of a Task Force for Women, Truth, and Reconciliation for the purpose of helping the church confront the abuse of power to silence women victims of sexual abuse in the history of the church. Among other things, the resolution calls for the task force to "create truth and reconciliation process to guide churches, diocese, provinces, and the general Church as they develop their own paths for reconciliation and restoration."

You may wonder about the need for such a task force. Personally and over the course of this General Convention, I have listened to too many stories from lay and clergy women in our church who were told it was their responsibility not to talk about the sexual abuse and harassment they experienced at the hand of others in the church. I know lay and clergy women who were directed and forced to sign gag orders, requiring that they would never speak about their victimization. There are far too many stories that have never been shared and which need to be heard. This task force would help expose this history and open a path for healing.

Resolution D035 proposes to extend the statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse and harassment. This expands the rights for victims of abuse by giving them more time to come forward. Because of the shame and embarrassment felt by many victims, it can take years for them to feel empowered enough to come forward, if they ever do.

Several resolutions specifically address the problems faced by female clergy. Fear of retaliation is a real barrier to women clergy to reporting abuse and harassment. Women attending General Convention have shared their stories of being threatened by their bishops when they came forward to report abuse. Generally, these threats come in the form of, "I'll make sure you never work in this church again if you do this."

Other resolutions address the problem of sexism in hiring and pay inequality. On average nationally, female clergy are paid a fraction of that of their male counterparts for the same work and positions. Women also are not considered for rectorship positions at large parishes or for bishop elections at a rate in proportion to their representation among clergy generally. Monday, July 9, was Purple Stole Day, when deputies and bishops were encouraged to wear purple stoles to show their support for electing more women to the episcopacy. Often this problem of access to career paths for women is referred to as, "The Stained Glass Ceiling." Resolution D060 seeks to address this problem by calling for a task force to research sexism in the church and "the role it plays in pay equity, status, and gender-based harassment."

Of course, I cannot talk about women at GC without applauding the presence of the Episcopal Church Women (ECW).  They hold their triennium meeting concurrent with General Convention. In Austin, the ECW meeting is on the other side of the convention center from the House of Deputies. Wonderfully, this means deputies and ECW members are bumping into each other in the hallways to share their experiences, thoughts, and concerns.

The triennial United Thank Offering (UTO) ingathering was part of the offertory during Friday's GC Eucharist. Representatives from every diocese presented cards representing the amount they had collected over the past three years. We all celebrated the announcement that over $3.7 million was gathered during the last triennium. These monies are distributed through grants all over the world, funding necessary and exciting ministries.