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/