Reforming the Curia (of the Episcopal Church)

I know we don’t really have one but I’ve been interested by the ways in which our own debate about restructuring has its parallels in the Roman Catholic Church. In my previous post, I linked to various commentators inside and outside of the church who are calling for reform of the papal bureaucracy. The Vatileaks scandal exposed the deep resistance to change on the part of much of the Vatican bureaucracy.

History makes clear that reform is difficult. In the Roman Catholic church, true reform has rarely occurred before the crises grew so profound that the future of the Church itself was in jeopardy (the great reform councils of Lateran IV, Constance, and Trent come to mind). In some respects, we may be at a similar place. Certainly American Christianity would seem to be facing an existential crisis. But it’s not clear to me that ecclesial bureacracies perceive us to be at such a point.

In the Episcopal Church, calls for restructuring have gotten louder. At General Convention 2013, a task force was empowered to look at restructuring. It had its first meeting a couple of weeks ago. Here’s the press release. George Clifford, who has written insightfully on the matter of restructuring in the past has a two-part examination of the issue as well (Part I, Part II). He lists ten principles that he thinks should guide the restructuring process:

 

1. Preserve the four historic orders of ministry
2. TEC’s structure should emphasize both community and mission
3. Preserve governance premised on discerning God’s leading through representative democratic processes
4. Practice subsidiarity
5. Adopt a minimalist approach, reserving all specifically unidentified powers and responsibilities to individuals, congregations, or dioceses
6. Aim for simplicity of structure
7. Form should follow function
8. Incorporate a structural system of checks and balances
9. TEC’s structure should exhibit transparency and accountability
10. Take advantage of the opportunities for new forms of community and structure that technology has made possible, while seeking to avoid or minimize any adverse consequences

General Convention also passed a resolution that the Episcopal Church move its headquarters from 815 2nd Avenue. During the meeting of the Executive Council last week, representatives of the staff who work there presented arguments against that move. More about that here. Again, George Clifford addresses the issue. And in his inimitable way, Crusty Old Dean has this to say:

It really doesn’t matter where our denominational headquarters is unless we are committed to a holistic rethinking of the kind of denominational structure we need.  Moving it for the sake of moving it, without concurrent discussion about the nature, scope, and purpose of a denominational structure, is pointless.  Likewise, keeping it in place without a holistic appraisal is likewise pointless. …  So who the hell cares where a denominational HQ is if we can’t rethink how we need to do mission in radically changed contexts and think through how this relates to dioceses, congregations, ecumenical partners, and other networks and organizations?

Once created, bureaucracies tend to fight for survival. I had to read Robert Michels Political Parties back in college. That’s the book in which he articulates “the iron law of oligarchy” which is this: “Who says organization, says oligarchy.” I was reminded of this as I noted the hubris of church staff refusing to submit to the will of General Convention. This points to one of the central problems facing any restructuring, on every level of the church–the intransigence of those involved.

We can say all we want about the need to restructure, the necessity of change, everything that I and others have written about over the last several years, including the statistics cited by Diana Butler Bass that I refer to in an earlier post. The reality is that there will be profound and absolute resistance to restructuring, that it will come from all sectors and corners of the church, including the top, and that the battles will be long, bloody, and destructive. Too many people have too much invested, at every level of the church, to expect that change will come easily. All we can hope is that whatever change comes doesn’t require total war to achieve it.

On the other hand, it may be that some new form of shared ministry across what is now the Episcopal Church can only emerge and thrive when the old structures have been completely eradicated. Who knows? We shall see–and it behooves us to pay close attention to the fate of restructuring in other denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church.

 

 

 

 

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