Reimagining the Episcopal Church: Where’s the Good News?

This week, the Task Force on Re-imagining the Episcopal Church released an update on its work. It begins with a description of what it has learned so far:

What we have heard is a deep, abiding love for our Church and its unique way of creating Christ-centered community and mission.  The Book of Common Prayer and the beauty and mystery of our liturgy bind us together across ages, geographies and politics. We deeply love the intellectual as well as the spiritual life that is cultivated in our members (“you don’t need to leave your mind at the door”).

The document goes on to describe a vision of a new world, and presumably, a new church:

Imagine a world where our parishes consistently are good at inspiring their traditional members and also are energized and effective in reaching out to new generations and new populations.  Imagine a world where the shape of our Church frequently adapts, as new parish communities emerge in non-traditional places and non-traditional ways, and as existing parishes merge and reinvent as local conditions change.  Imagine a world where Episcopal clergy and lay leaders are renowned for being highly effective leaders, skilled at Christian formation and community building, at new church planting, at church transformation, and at organizing communities for mission.  Imagine that Episcopalians easily collaborate with each other across the Church:  forming communities of interest, working together to share learnings from local initiatives, and collaborating to pool resources and ideas.  Imagine that the Church wide structure of The Episcopal Church primarily serves to enable and magnify local mission through networked collaboration, as well as to lend its prophetic voice.  Imagine that each triennium we come together in a “General Mission Convocation” where participants from all over the Church immerse themselves in mission learning, sharing, decision making and celebration.

When they get down to the brass tacks of reform and restructuring, they highlight several areas where they will be making recommendations.

Criticism of the document has already emerged. Mark Harris offers commentary, some of it quite wise, including his observation that the document’s over-use of the word “parish” suggests that the task force hasn’t gotten very far in imagining other possible forms of congregational life, or other contexts for ministry and mission. Robert Hendrickson takes aim at the old “you don’t need to leave your mind at the door” canard.

What bothers me is the starting point (at least in this document). When it identifies what we share, it is describing a picture that could have been painted thirty, fifty, a hundred years ago–the BCP and the beauty and mystery of our liturgy. It starts with us. It doesn’t start with the gospel or with Jesus Christ. I understand that it is the product of a task force with a specific charge but it seems to me that now more than ever, our work at every level of the church needs to be rooted in the Gospel and in our relationship with Jesus Christ. It also needs to be surrounded and imbued with prayer. Nowhere in the document is scripture quoted. Any effort aimed at the transformation of human structures and institutions that lacks foundation in scripture, prayer, and a living experience of Jesus Christ is bound to fail.

A little over a week ago, I posted some comments on what we in the mainline might learn from Pope Francis. In Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope has this to say:

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).

That’s a vision of the future of the Church I find compelling. It’s also a vision of the gospel I find compelling. It’s compelling because it is the product of someone whose joyful experience of Jesus Christ is evident to all. His passion for sharing the love of Christ on display at every turn.

Now, the TREC cannot hope to be as charismatic or popular as Pope Francis but I think all of us in the Episcopal Church have an important lesson to learn from the Pope. We exist because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We exist to proclaim his death and resurrection to the world. Our efforts to reform ourselves as a church should also be the occasion for our proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If you want to learn more about this effort and share your own feedback to the task force, visit their website: http://reimaginetec.org/

Structure, Re-structure, Anti-structure, Missionary Society? Re-imagining the Episcopal Church

Quite simply, the Episcopal Church is floundering (I know the conservatives have been saying that for years). First we had the dust-up over the UTO. Then, earlier this week, we learned that the Episcopal Church will from now on be known as “The Missionary Society” (and the snark was unleashed in the twitter-verse). Most recently, the Task Force on Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church issued an interim report.

It’s pretty clear from all this that “The Leadership” hasn’t a clue what it’s doing. To mishandle the UTO situation so badly suggests a fundamental misreading of the Church (it’s recently aborted advertising campaign and new name are additional examples). The problem is structural, of course–the relationship among the various entities in the Church aren’t clear (Presiding Bishop, General Convention, Executive Council, churchwide staff). Tobias Haller has some helpful background on this. He also asks an important question:

one begins to wonder if all the turmoil at the (inter)national level is really worth it, and that a radical revisioning as a network isn’t the best idea.

In fact, that seems to be what the task force seems to be proposing:

They also begin to suggest the specific roles that the Episcopal churchwide organization might play in cultivating and supporting the life of the church of the 21st century. Its role might shift from a primarily corporate or regulatory structure as we have had in the past, to a network, fostering collaboration and shared identity across Episcopalians and across different entities in the church. Imagine a churchwide structure that “crowd sources” various mission initiatives among the membership rather than legislating and funding them through a centralized budget and bureaucracy.

But isn’t the UTO basically a late-nineteenth century version of crowd sourcing?

If this re-structuring is to succeed, it has to deal with the contradictions and confusion at the very heart of the beast. Identity is important, of course, but clarifying and streamlining the maze of structure described by Haller and Mark Harris is the central issue. Harris has done a good job of explaining the underlying issues in the UTO controversy,  the “branding” silliness, and and the leadership crisis at the top.

Meanwhile, the House of Bishops is meeting in Nashville and yesterday they, too, talked about re-structuring, with conversations around the questions raised by the TREC interim report, and a “draft primer” on Episcopal ecclesiology.  There’s an update here.

As I reflect on all this, I think the bishops are pointing a way forward out of this mess. We need to begin with the church–ecclesiology. Let’s get clear on what we understand the Church in our particular context as Episcopalians to be; then create bodies that reflect this understanding and can carry forward our mission. And if that means abandoning structures like the Presiding Bishop, a churchwide staff, even General Convention, that may have served us well in the past, so be it.

It’s not just that we’re beholden to past structures. We’re beholden to past conceptions of what the church is and how it should incarnate itself in the world. We’re also too dependent on governmental, corporate, and legal frameworks that try to shoehorn the church into structures they can understand, regulate, and co-opt.

The title of this blog post alludes to work by Victor Turner, the twentieth century anthropologist and theorist of ritual. As a historian of Christianity, one of my interests was the interplay between central or institutional authority and local and individual expression of faith. There has always been a tension between forces of institutionalization and centralization on the one hand, and the local and individual, between the letter and the spirit, or between office and charism.

Pope Francis alluded to this very tension in his interview this week when he recast the notion of “thinking with the church” away from the hierarchy toward the whole people of God. What he had to say addresses our particular context as well. Although Episcopalians don’t use that image at all, or accept the notion of the magisterium, we are struggling with something similar: the institutional church’s natural tendencies to centralize, bureaucratize, and dominate over against the diversity of local experience.

Who speaks for the church? Is it the structures, or is it the whole people of God? As we move forward, I hope all of us continue to ask this question

 

 

Something very fishy going on in the Episcopal Church

This one is primarily for Episcopal insiders, that very small, and declining number of people who care about what happens in the Episcopal Church.

This week, Mark Harris broke the news that four boardmembers of the UTO (United Thank Offering) had resigned in protest of what seemed to them to be an attempt by The Episcopal Church to take over their assets, their good name, and their mission. The UTO is a longstanding tradition in the Episcopal Church. Begun by women at a time when women were shut out of the organization, leadership, and structure of the church, it collects money from individuals and parishes and gives a crazy high percentage of that money away in grants. It has almost no administrative costs. What costs that do exist are largely assumed by the Episcopal Church.

But apparently, in an effort to increase transparency and accountability, a committee consisting of UTO board members and Church Center staff have created new bylaws for the organization that, in the judgment of the resigning board members:

The revised bylaws document eviscerates the United Thank Offering. It is monstrous and the worst set of revisions ever seen by one longtime bylaws expert.   Several Board members described initial reactions to the document as “Horror.”  The Board President said the word “eviscerate” occurred to her as well.

Mark, a former member of the Executive Council, and also a former member of the committee that was charged with studying the relationship of the UTO to TEC, is following this story very closely and has offered comment on the new bylaws. His questions and concerns are very helpful.

In the course of the day yesterday, the President of the House of Deputies, and “the Leadership” (whatever that may mean) also offered their takes on the matter. You can read their pieces here.

Part of what seems to be at stake here is that the proposed bylaws remake the nature of the UTO board (it was previously elected from various Episcopal Church Women bodies) and put the power of final approval of UTO grants in the hands of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church.

Quite apart from another public relations disaster for the Episcopal Church, the Presiding Bishop, and its Chief Operating Officer, all of this seems to me to be quite contrary to the push for restructuring, and allowing grassroots organizations to thrive. To add another level to the grantmaking process is to make the process more cumbersome, more time-consuming, and more expensive. To take power away from the periphery and concentrate it on the center is to exacerbate problems.

The PR is awful; it’s embarrassing. To issue press releases under the aegis of “The Leadership” is laughable. They might as well call it the Politburo. It looks like all either the Presiding Bishop or the COO care about is money, property (a charge thrown out repeatedly by those involved in property litigation), and power. And because the UTO was largely independent, it had all of those things.

There is so little trust in the periphery for TEC; so little trust from ordinary members, from parishes and congregations. The UTO is one of those things that we could all agree on. We knew its origins; we knew that the money collected would go to amazing mission projects across the US and across the world.

Once again, instead of focusing on what we need to do, and what UTO has done in the past, we are focused on process, on power, on hurt. I’m really not sure we’ll have a UTO ingathering at Grace this fall. I certainly won’t be able to say with any certainty where the money will go.

How can you mess something up so completely?

But my prayer remains:

GRACIOUS GOD, source of all creation, all love, all true joy: accept, we pray, these outward signs of our profound and continuing thankfulness for all of life. Keep each of us ever thankful for all the blessings of joy and challenge that come our way. Bless those who will benefit from these gifts through the outreach of the United Thank Offering. This we ask through Him who is the greatest gift and blessing of all, Jesus Christ. Amen

 

What a Mess!

Mark Lawrence responds to yesterday’s developments. Money quote:

“Quite simply I have not renounced my orders as a deacon, priest or bishop any more than I have abandoned the Church of Jesus Christ — But as I am sure you are aware, the Diocese of South Carolina has canonically and legally disassociated from The Episcopal Church,” Lawrence said in a letter posted on the diocese’s website after the presiding bishop’s announcement. “We took this action long before today’s attempt at renunciation of orders, therein making it superfluous.”

Some circular reasoning here, I think, in that he claims his actions make the declaration of renunciation “superfluous.”

Other commentary on the spiraling crisis. From Mark Harris:

I have sometimes wondered what would have happened if one of the first dioceses to undergo the stress of division had come to the General Convention and petitioned to leave the General Convention, gave the grounds, showed that a large majority of the people and clergy were for it, and made suggestions as to how all could be responsible to the trust or common ownershop concerns. Could General Convention have said, go with our blessings, but know that we will continue in the area where you are to keep and Episcopal Church presence. I don’t know. But no diocese has to my knowledge ever petitioned General Convention on any level to a parting of the ways.  Instead leaders have gone with their followers, called themselves the Diocese and generally ended up in a spitting contest with The Episcopal Church leadership.

From Anthony Clavier:

When it comes to the essential morality of what has happened -I’m not using morality as in sex – few on either side have much to boast about. We’ve hurled insults as readily as we’ve sought to make theological justification for our positions. We look like our political parties. That’s no accident. We live in two worlds and as we spend more time in society and ‘culture’ as we do in the Kingdom: the world seems to triumph.

 

Is it too late?  It’s never too late. If those who manage the Episcopal Church don’t believe in conscience that they can make room for conscientious dissent, isn’t it their duty to make caring space for dissenters? If those of us who cannot square our consciences with the new canonical provisions, should we not do all we can to respond to any initiatives by the Episcopal Church to give us room.

“dreaming a new church into being” –and the Diocese of South Carolina

The official word is that the Title IV Disciplinary Board has certified that Bishop Mark Lawrence of the Diocese of South Carolina has “abandoned” the Episcopal Church. The news article is here. Crusty Old Dean provides background on the notion of abandonment. He also points out that we’ve all seen it coming but no one seemed able to prevent it.

And now the war of words escalates.  Mark Harris asks Bishop Lawrence to admit he lied during the process that led to his consecration as bishop. The Episcopal Lead assembles the evidence pro and contra. The Diocese of South Carolina cries foul and criticizes the “assault” on their bishop.

I find it interesting that these events are taking place this week against a backdrop of the first meeting of TEC’s Executive Council after General Convention 2012. There were also stories about the work that took place this week: conversations about budget, mission, and restructuring. All of that talk about “putting everything on the table,” the end of Christendom, imagining a new way way of being church for the twenty-first century.

Ah, that word–restructuring. It seems to me that here is a prime opportunity to think creatively about structure, the way we do business, and imagining what a twenty-first century Episcopal Church might look like.

Here’s my question. Why not let the Diocese of South Carolina go? It’s been clear for at least a decade that they don’t want to be part of the Episcopal Church. Their recent actions suggest the plan is to incorporate as a separate denomination (The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of South Carolina).

What’s coming next is years of litigation, increased acrimony, conflict played out in the press. The lawyers will make money; bloggers will get lots of website hits; there will be anger, pain, and bad publicity all around.

So why not stop it all now? Why not imagine what a church would be like that could allow those who want out to go, leaving behind all of those who want to remain in the Episcopal Church? Let them have their property and go their separate way. And after they go, let’s imagine what an Episcopal mission might look like in the low country of South Carolina–an Episcopal mission freed from the oppressive traditions of slavery, racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.

Why not put our limited resources toward that vision of a future church rather than paying lawyers and fighting to hold on to a vision of an eighteenth or nineteenth century Church?

The Anglican Covenant and General Convention

The Anglican Covenant will be debated today at General Convention. Passions are running high on this and it will be interesting to follow the developments. While our own General Convention is meeting the General Synod of the Anglican Church in Aoteora, New Zealand, and Polynesia declined to adopt it. Instead, it affirmed the first three sections and added this resolution:

that this church affirms the commitment of the Church of Aoteora, New Zealand, and Polynesia to the life of the Anglican Communion, including the roles and responsibilities of the four Instruments of Communion as they currently operate.

Mark Harris on the background to the revised resolutions coming before General Convention and his own change of heart:

What we realized in the small group, and later in the whole of the Legislative Committee on World Mission, is that we are under no compulsion, save our own, to give an answer to the question of adopting the Covenant. Why, in particular, must we provide an answer now?  Now, when we are in the midst of massive efforts to re-structure and re-vision the life of this Church?  Why now when we do not need more division?  What we may want is definitive answers, what we may need is time to be together at the table.
Center Aisle’s reporting is here.
Malcolm French of The No Anglican Covenant coalition is not amused:
hird, this whole dynamic seems consistent with one of the major flaws of the Anglican Covenant.  It is a very “purple” document – concerned principally (and almost exclusively) with bishops.  It seems almost to envision a church which is both episcopally led and episcopally governed, where the concerns of bishops are the principle engine of decision-making and where the role of the laity is, as the old saw has it, “to pray, to pay and to obey.”  In the workings of the legislative subcommittee, we see a process that is driven, not by the heartfelt views of deputies, but by the combined anxieties and machinations of bishops.

If I might risk to make an outsider’s observation about process, it appears to me that the committee structure which exists in the Episcopal Church, while providing the appearance of collegial transparency in the development of legislation and resolutions may actually do just the opposite.  The subcommittee proceedings seem less a healthy exchange of views than a self-reinforcing echo chamber.  The Primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland referred the other day to the “smoke-filled rooms” of the General Convention.  This allusion to the bad old days of political powerbrokers and machine politics should, perhaps, be a clarion call to reconsider the whole approach to “managing” the debates of the Church.

Dare I say, the Episcopal Church’s response to the Anglican Covenant should be determined by those who have been authorized to make decisions on behalf of the Church – the Deputies and the Bishops – and not by a cabal of apparatchiks, however well-intentioned.

The full text of the revised resolutions are here:
005, substitute:

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 77th General Convention express its gratitude to those who so faithfully worked at producing and responding to the proposed Anglican Covenant
(www.anglicancommunion.org/commission/covenant/final/text.cfm); and be it further
Resolved, That the 77th General Convention acknowledge that following extensive study and prayerful consideration of the Anglican Covenant there remain a wide variety of opinions and ecclesiological positions in The Episcopal Church; and be it further
Resolved, that as a pastoral response to The Episcopal Church, the General Convention decline to take a position on the Anglican Covenant at this convention; and be it further
Resolved, that the General Convention ask the Presiding Officers to appoint a task force of Executive Council (Blue Book, 637) to continue to monitor the ongoing developments with respect to the Anglican Covenant and how this church might continue its participation; and be it further
Resolved, that the Executive Council task force on the Anglican Covenant report its findings and recommendations to the 78th General Convention.
D008 Substitute:
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring that The 77th General Convention express its profound gratitude to those who so faithfully work at encouraging dialogue within the diversity of the Anglican Communion, and be it further
Resolved, That we celebrate the great blessing of the Anglican Communion in its diversity within community as autonomous churches in relationship bound together in our differences in service to God’s mission, and be it further
Resolved, That we hold fast and reaffirm our historic commitment to and constituent membership in the Anglican Communion as expressed in the Preamble of the Constitution of The Episcopal Church, and be it further
Resolved, That The Episcopal Church maintain and reinforce strong links across the world-wide Anglican Communion committing itself to continued participation in the wider councils of the Anglican Communion, and be it further
Resolved, That The Episcopal Church deepen its involvement with Communion ministries and networks using where applicable the Continuing Indaba process: conversations across differences to strengthen relationships in God’s mission (http://www.anglicancommunion.org/ministry/continuingindaba and http://www.continuingindaba.com); and be it further
Resolved, That The 77th General Convention encourage dioceses, congregations and individual members of The Episcopal Church to educate themselves about the Communion as well as promote and support the Anglican Communion and its work.
Whatever happens in the House of Bishops, my sense is that there will be a lively debate in the House of Deputies, and that there will be little interest in passing a resolution even as weak as the proposed B005. There’s much talk already that it simply “kicks the can down the road.” Much of what’s being written and tweeted reflects the perspective French and is another example of a widespread distrust of the episcopacy.

So why not allow some experimentation with restructuring?

There’s been considerable debate in the Episcopal Church over the past few months about restructuring the church. The problems are clear. We can’t financially sustain the current structure of national church offices, provinces, dioceses, and parishes as they are currently conceived, and it’s not clear that the current structure, even if it were well-grounded financially, serves the current mission needs of the church.

So what to do? Bishop Sauls has offered his proposal, about which I’ve already made comment. Others have also weighed in. Currently, my friend Crusty Old Dean is putting forth a very thoughtful and provocative set of proposals: part I, part II, part III, part IV (I knew him before he ascended the heights of academe). I urge everyone interested in the future direction of the church to read carefully what he is proposing.

At the same time, in the Diocese of South Carolina, a certain restructuring is already taking place. Bishop Mark Lawrence recently issued quit-claim deeds to the parishes in the diocese, essentially granting them property rights to parish property (which canonically is owned by or held in trust by, the diocese). This move has aroused considerable anxiety and outrage among “institutional” (most of whom are progressive) Episcopalians. Mark Harris comments on developments here and here.

I find this response quite interesting. Given that the diocese as an institution is a relic of an earlier age, that the ownership of property is one of the most contentious (and expensive) issues in the conflicts within the church, I wonder what the harm is with making this change? It may go against the constitution and canons, but perhaps they ought to be changed, and indeed, Bishop Lawrence may be right that the current understanding is something of an innovation. Why use the heavy cudgel of authority and constitution to force compliance or membership, when we might all be better served going our separate ways.

One of the chief arguments in favor of restructuring is to allow more horizontal relationships across diocesan and provincial boundaries. Might there be a way that people who share theological perspectives might found solace, strength, and comfort, by creating bonds with like-minded people across the church, at the same time remaining under the umbrella of the Episcopal Church? In a sense, that’s what earlier efforts at providing alternative episcopal oversight to parishes that struggled with their bishop’s perspective were meant to do. No, it’s not a perfect solution. But the question may finally come down to whether the only things that unite us as a denomination are property and the Church Pension Fund.